Well, this is strange and disturbing… lockdown for everyone.
I’ve been in lockdown, on and off, for about ten years. Of course, not exactly, but similar – and it’s been a strange experience to have the rest of the world share it.
Ours was due to illness. For ten years, I’ve been raising a young family a long way from extended family, with an OH who has severe health problems. You can’t leave young kids with an OH who can’t look after them so it’s been impossible to “just nip” to the shop, meet friends, or travel to work. When you’re the sole family carer, paid work becomes an isolated online activity from a home office, fraught with instability, and housework happens at night when you’re too tired to do anything else. You can’t get sick yourself, let alone have a social life. (Fancy the pub? Try finding a babysitter to look after three kids and a sick adult.) The months pass in a blur of work, head down before ill health becomes emergency – and always, always, the endless hospital trips, each demanding logistical acrobatics and taking an emotional toll, stripping away all the little daily denials that we’re “fine”, baring the bones of reality. You think of hiring help but your ill partner can’t bear the intrusion; dignity has become precious – tl:dr: it’s not worth it. You constantly wonder if you’ll all be OK and try not to grieve over what “should have been” – like your children’s carefree childhoods.
The isolation hurt. Social media was worse than useless; Facebook with its boasting and posturing is NOT friendship – friendship’s sitting in someone’s kitchen, slurping tea, being honest and real, and having a laugh with someone who really knows you. For over ten years I volunteered in school – gorgeous kids! lovely adults! and (hopefully) doing some good – but the more I loved it, the more it compounded my awareness of not belonging. I was the outsider looking in, a trespasser haunting the corridors.
I cherished those years – the closeness of my children, the warmth of our home, and the gorgeousness of the happy times. My kids were and are at all times my favourite people to be with. Still, for ten years, I was never able to “just” pop out to run, shop, see friends, work how I wanted, rest, relax, travel, or belong anywhere other than home.
Then 2019 arrived, and freedom: my elder children could babysit! I ran a half marathon, saw films with friends, went to work in an office, and still enjoyed my lovely family. Balance! Then 2020, COVID-19, and a lockdown that felt all too familiar to me, but shocked the living crap out of my friends and acquaintances.
This new lockdown is not the same; heartbreakingly, so many people are dying. It’s hard to process how fragile we are, even though we already knew.
Still, on a daily basis, for me everything remains much the same (except that now my kids are also isolated from their friends – hello Zoom and board games). For anyone new to this world, it can feel baffling, frustrating, possibly terrifying. Well, OK, yes – it is, I want to say. And I’m sorry about that. I hear you. I feel for you. (We, too, are afraid of COVID-19, but in our house it’s joined a queue.) I want to tell people it will all be OK but that won’t be true for some people and we all know this. Let’s keep it real.
Do I have any advice for people who are struggling with the isolation?
No. (Because when times are tough, unwanted, irrelevant advice is the offering of fiends and ghouls.)
OK, if you want to know what I’d suggest, then three things have helped me more than anything over the last decade.
1. Look outwards. Reach out, enjoy other people. The outside world is endlessly fascinating.
2. Be practical. Eat, sleep, don’t smoke, clean your house, wash your hands. Drink wine. You’re not aiming for perfection, you’re aiming to keep bashing on.
3. Step back. COVID-19 might be shit, but it won’t get worse if you take an hour out from worrying and do a jigsaw instead. Watch a film. Have a laugh. Or if, like me, you have no time for all that, at least have a cup of tea and some marmalade on toast. I’m not joking.
When we were most worried about our health issues, I’d always come back to my parents eating marmalade on toast.
Marmalade on toast
As a small child, I ate breakfast with my mother. She’d make brown toast that she didn’t really like but which she felt was good for her. She’d sip her strong, near-black tea and eat a bowl of cereal while her toast sat, butter melting, on the radiator behind her. My cat would jump up on the radiator and lick the butter from her toast, then when she was ready, my mother would reach around for it, spread Silver Shred marmalade on it, and eat it. I’d smile, thinking it cute that they shared their breakfast. (Sorry Mum, I wouldn’t let this happen now.) Eating with my mother was one of the highlights of my happy childhood, and remembering it now, 45 years later, still makes me warm.
My father, meanwhile, liked buttery toast, but thought margarine to be healthier, so he’d have two slices of toast in the morning: a buttery one, and a margarine-y one. He’d eat both covered in thick-cut orange marmalade, at the table, with nice crockery, a bone-handled knife, with a large cup of tea made with good quality loose tea leaves, a splash of full-fat milk and a deal of decorum. His manners were impeccable and ours were expected to be the same. What I remember most is my father’s enjoyment of his marmalade on toast. He and my mother would sit on their favourite chairs (in his case, a fine wooden rocking chair), lay their napkins on their laps, and eat quietly with enormous enjoyment. He would thank my mother. A second cup of tea was something to consider, relish, and enjoy.
Whatever there was to worry about in the world – hard career moments, elderly relatives, sick pets, wars, recessions, leaky rooves – my father sat and enjoyed his marmalade on toast and his cups of tea.
I say to my kids, when the world grinds you down, you’ll be no good to anyone if you don’t eat properly, so chew with your mouth closed, don’t dip your knife in the marmalade (that’s what spoons are for), and for goodness sake, enjoy it. The world, whatever it’s doing, can wait.
This does not solve COVID-19; for that we have science. Meanwhile, like everyone, I’m worrying – that my lovely parents are far from me and I’m not allowed to visit, and I don’t know what will happen in the future. I want to see them, drink beer with friends, and to work in a lovely team of people all together again – and of course there’s no guarantee that we’ll get these things. Maybe I never will.
Although, I’ve realised, belonging at home is enough 😊, and I’m still grateful to have marmalade.
Image – car park by Harut Movsisyan
Image – breakfast tray by Marcos Garzo
Image – coffee by Jill Wellington