We’ve heard those words many times in our strange new world, albeit initially more from private or educational or community enterprises than from some tardy governments. As cultural and sporting events were cancelled, as many businesses proactively arranged for their staff to work from home where possible (I did this with my PR business over a month ago), as schools and hospitality venues close, we are all beginning to experience life in a very different way. Perhaps we can even begin to appreciate a little of what life is like in countries riven by war, economic collapse or environmental emergencies?
For those of us who normally lead comfortable, Western lives this has no doubt come as something of a shock to the system. And there are no upsides if you or a loved one are at high risk, or if this will impact your life severely in economic or other terms. The fragilities and fissures in our society and financial systems have been brutally exposed, many people have panicked and not behaved either well or responsibly…and yet. Could there be one or two ‘bigger picture’ silver linings emerging?
Whether that be dramatically reduced pollution or witnessing the best among us bring out their often undersung best in such inspiring ways. Governments who once were ‘tired’ of inconvenient experts are being forced to listen to them again, to be ‘led by the science’. And perhaps this is making us all have a long, hard good look at how much we really need to consume (or waste) and how much we really need to travel?
I have always been something of a mild-case ‘prepper’ – I think it’s in my nature to have that aforementioned abundance of caution. If I’m faced with a potentially difficult situation then being fully informed, fully prepared and having all kinds of contingencies in place helps to relieve the anxiety around a difficult situation.
For those of you who have read Bone Lines, I think I may be part Eloise and part Sarah – and at different times those differing qualities need to come into play. My ruminative, cautious side and ‘need to know’ is absolutely Eloise but my familiarity with managing isolation and willingness to dig down and trust in my deep abilities to cope are definitely more Sarah. (Although, yes, all their faults are mine too!)
Having grown up in Asia with destructive typhoons and then the Caribbean with its howling hurricanes, having been snowed-in, having lived through droughts, power cuts and riots on the doorstep, I think I have always had a ‘just in case’ mentality, whether that’s having everything from a sewing kit, a multitool and superglue to a first-aid kit in my handbag or always making sure I have at least two to four weeks worth of the basic essentials (including medications) at home.
Because of my passionate interest in science – and the fact that, for quite some time, my plans for book two had included a viral pandemic (although, ‘had’ may now be the operative word?) – I’ve been following the novel coronavirus from the first article I saw in the New Scientist in mid January. At risk of coming across as a Cassandra, I have to say that I saw much of this coming and I am, frankly, astonished that Western governments have not been better prepared.
While I didn’t want to run around like Chicken Little under a falling sky, I did try to tell family and friends that they should also be prepared. Without in any way indulging in panic buying (in fact, precisely to avoid it) I have, gradually, over the last two months and each shopping trip slightly increased my stock of nonperishable but high-nutritional value foods and the other things that are important to my comfort, hygiene or well-being. I’ve kept my car topped up with petrol and my spirit topped up with regular meditation and walks in nature.
But none of that is giving me any sense of satisfaction. The anxiety – and now outright grief – has been leaking through, even so. I have a history of autoimmune disease and in the last few years have been suffering from fibromyalgia and an occasionally irregular heartbeat, so my health is not quite what I would want it to be. While I’m nowhere near the ‘high risk’ category, I do feel that little bit more vulnerable, but more pertinently, there are a couple of high risk people in my life that I cannot bear to contemplate losing.
Such constant low-level worry can have a powerful effect not only on your immune system, but also on your creative mojo. I have really struggled with progress on book two, not least because the pandemic storyline has long since been overtaken by reality, but also I have wondered whether it might seem insensitive and exploitative to continue with it? (Although of little comfort now, at least I know my research was fairly accurate.)
However, I’m not giving up on it completely. In fact, all the reading I have been doing (which, I must admit, has been occasionally obsessive) not just about this virus, but viruses in general and the science around them, has given me a potential new direction to take that storyline, without necessarily indulging in what could look old news, cliches or tropes. And I have no wish to dishonour the dead in the name of entertainment.
I also wonder whether people were already over such storylines, even before the advent of this current crisis? I certainly don’t want to make this book a depressing one, I think what we’ll all need is to be inspired and uplifted in some way, although we must also face some hard truths.
Some of those truths reflect on our relationship with the planet but also with each other and in the way we care not only for our ‘great mother’ (as ‘Sarah’ might call her) or even for those close to us, but for our communities as a whole and for the vulnerable in particular.
As anyone who has read Bone Lines will know, I have a great interest in the work of Darwin and while the concept of ‘survival of the fittest’ is fundamental to the mechanisms of evolution, I think we have come to a place as human beings where the notion of evolving is as much about our ‘nature’ as the fitness of our bodies and brains. I certainly value compassion and gratitude as among our highest and most successful adaptations.
I firmly believe we will come out strongly on the other side of this. Damaged, yes, but perhaps also with some very different perspectives and hopefully with a resurgence of the values that matter most to us. There have been many uplifting and heartening moments through the crisis so far, not least the sight and sound of thousands of Italians singing on their balconies, of the Spanish clapping their healthcare workers, of the extraordinary mobilisation, stoicism and diligence of Asian societies in adhering to the harsh but necessary actions to minimise the spread.
In the UK we have at least our sense of humour to keep us bonded and buoyant, but I’m hoping the global community can come together in a more significant way to both enact and celebrate the glory that is human kindness. This virus has shown us not only how vulnerable we are but how inextricably interconnected by the web of life. I hope we may also learn to truly value our extraordinary (if much diminished by austerity policy) National Health Service and other forms of social care.
Lastly, while I will continue to work on book two, particularly developing the prehistoric storyline (which is coming along nicely) I have also had some thoughts about new short stories which may be easier to work on while I rethink the contemporary narrative. And apart from meditation, long walks and time spent with loved ones, my greatest comfort at this time has been reading. I’ve been gobbling up so many books that I’ve wanted to read for a long time. I do hope you are also finding similar comfort and joy?
I wish you well, safe and supported.
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