On the cusp of new advice in the UK about the COVID-19 pandemic, I was teaching a writing course. We were a small group gathered from Scotland, the south of England, France and Wales. And the locus was my kitchen table and hearth.
In the few days we were together as a writers’ residency, the world changed rapidly. By the time we finished, one person had needed to return home very early, though not with sickness, and another had to leave a couple of days later to get back into France with borders closing. We were acutely aware that the world had changed rapidly.
In this new world we agreef with venues that all our upcoming launches for the small publishing house we run, Cinnamon Press, must be cancelled from then to June. We also cancelled a second writers’ residency due to begin at the end of March.
Together with our wonderful young chef from the course, who is also a writer and an extended family-member, we’ve hunkered down to work from home. We’ve been exploring ways to enable at least some of our books to continue getting into the world and how we might do online launches. Most importantly, we’ve turned our attention to how we can stay connected and build hope in strange times.
An approach to safety
Photo by Ruth Reyer on Unsplash
At the beginning of that writing course, which now seems ages ago and which will linger in our minds as a turning point; the last event before this period of isolation, we thought about how, in the midst of growing fear and uncertainty, we could create a safe space to write in together.
Of course, the answer to that question has changed radically with so many people either working from home or working on the ‘front line’. And safety has become a much wider concern. In a world where dualisms are so often used to divide us — them/us; in/out; sick/well — and in a world in which fragmentation, alienation and dislocation are more and more keenly felt, it seems more than a little ironic that the pandemic sweeping the planet is forcing us to keep our distance.
The world is always without guarantees. Security, to some extent, is always an illusion. But there are things we can do, not to assure unassailed safety but to connect and collaborate to challenge those dualisms.
We don’t know enough about this virus yet, but we can act responsibly with the information available. Some of this is about what we can do, positively, some of it is about what we have to let go of and admit we can’t control.
But what can we do?
Photo by Arseniy Kapran on Unsplash
What is in our control may seem minuscule, but it can still make a difference.
When stress is high and a pathogen is running across the globe, we can nurture the terrain of our own bodies and build up our immune systems. Drink teas using herbs like boneset, peppermint, yarrow and elderflower. Throw in a dash of ginger and/or a tiny pinch of cayenne pepper and a little echinacea. Make teas for those in your household. And, without panic-buying, try to eat the most nourishing foods available. Soups with herbs and mushrooms, as much fresh produce as is available.
Any one of us might still get sick, but we’ll at least have done what we can to be more resilient, more able to heal.
Embodying as much health as we can, even if we go through a period of illness, is only one aspect. There’s a lot of fear and misinformation around. There’s even a rise in prejudice and some callous attitudes towards the most vulnerable. Some of us will be alone for periods and feel cut off. Others will feel trapped in households with no respite from the same small group. Others will be risking life to work in crucial services. Whether you have a lot of extra time on your hands at the moment, or you’re working flat out to save a business or to save lives, take whatever time is realistic to nurture your spirit.
- Take time to write and journal.
- Read and lose yourself in the story, the poetry, the narrative.
- Watch great films and/or listen to music.
- Play, paint, create …
- Linger over meals, no matter how simple they are.
- Connect with friends in virtual spaces that nurture, but stay away from platforms that spread fear, or talk to friends on the phone or via apps that keep the cost low or free.
None of us can offer anyone, including ourselves, a warranty on life. But we can encourage a different notion of safety to emerge organically through the quality of our kindness and connection, internal and external.
And what can we let go?
Photo by Ihor Malytskyi on Unsplash
Some kinds of fear are life-saving. Knowing when to move away from a threat is crucial.
Other types of fear are toxic. Some fear is spread as click-bait or to get attention; it’s broadcast to sell myths that breed blame and create divisiveness. This kind of fear is not only useless, it’s destructive. But we also have to recognise that we each have different ways of handling anxiety so if you do feel afraid and overwhelmed, don’t suppress it and keep silent. Don’t let fear corrode you inside. Find the right person to trust or journal it out. No matter how dark or irrational our fears, they need love, trust and hearing to subside, not callous calls to ‘pull yourself together’.
The more heard and respected we are, the more able we become to let go of irrational baggage, even a tiny bit at a time. The more we can name the irrational dark, the less drama and projection we need.
Letting go of the things we can’t control is a wonderful experience; we feel so much lighter. But don’t force it. Do it at your own pace with gentleness and as much support as you can get, so that you in turn can reciprocate with emotional support for others. We nurture best when we feel nurtured. So let go of fear, one step at a time, and probably over and over as waves of propaganda rock us each day.
And let go of blame. Whether or not we ever know how this pandemic began, we’re all flawed and fallible. No individual or race should be vilified. That’s not to say we can’t learn from this situation or that we should not be deeply critical of bad policy or fear-mongering. But we don’t need racist finger-pointing or nationalist jingoism.
And we have to let go of the whole notion that we can isolate ourselves. I don’t mean that self-isolation is a bad idea. I don’t mean that any of us should flout the ‘stay at home’ policy. Rather, the isolation we should challenge is the ideology of separateness. We have to learn that we thrive together or perish together, across borders, across the world. Our interdependence is fundamental, not only with every other human on this globe, but with the stuff of life of which we are a part. When we stop thinking in compartments, we’re much less likely to hoard or abuse resources, whether food, toilet paper or emotional support.
We can also, perhaps especially as writers, let go of clichés. I have my son, who has had the virus, to thank for this insight, which you can read in full. He points out how authoritarianism and propagandists thrive on cliché. And how cliché dulls the senses, distancing us from diving deeper into what might be uncomfortable questions and explorations.
[…] every cliché takes place in lieu of a more authentic, more original, perhaps rawer, perhaps flawed, perhaps vulnerable response. […]
Because authoritarianism has no original thought of its own, it can only borrow from the stock of decaying tropes. Artists do well when they disrupt those tropes, and leave the propagandist with a scarcity to draw on.
As writers we have a responsibility to the difficult questions, as Rowan goes on:
Horror is not the wrong reaction. Neither is a desire for utopia, for a better world. What’s important — vital — is that these human urges are met with kindness and curiosity, rather than a callous dismissal. Listen to those who are in pain, those suffering most: disabled and sick people who feel abandoned, the elderly who are so intensely at risk, people who have seen the worst of this crisis already — our siblings across the world. Learn from their perspectives to make your own more robust.
Yes, this virus can threaten lives and that is huge, but division, hatred and irrational fear can threaten our core humanity, and that is the essence of dystopia.
As we let go, however slowly and imperfectly, of fear, divisiveness, ideologies of separateness and clichés. As we make time to listen and to nurture ourselves and others, so connection, trust and kindness increase. And so the story begins to change.
What’s your new story of humanity?
Thank you for reading — new story and transformation has never been so urgent and writing, whether it’s your identity or the journalling that helps you think, is a big part of that. You’ll also find free courses on my site wbere you cn also sign up to my email list. While you’re here, take a look at my book Writing Down Deep: an alchemy of the writing life, which will connect you to more transformative ideas to become a different story.
Frances Sackett says
Thank you for this Jan. I am struggling to find ways of feeling that this is Easter amid all the horrific news. Living on my own and only recently getting over my husband’s death it is harder not to get anxious and feel overwhelmed. At least I can write down my feelings and write a poem every now and then. Last night I watched ‘Easter from Kings’ which was so calming; such wonderful music.
I have many friends who ‘look out for me’ but reading your blog also is a good time to reflect on all the kindness that there is in the world.
Thank you, Frances
I have a couple of good friends who are alone and my 88 yo father-in-law across the country who lives alone. They are coping mmazingly well but I’m aware that the sense of overwhlem is quite a different thing when alone. Take good care.
Marina Sanchez says
Happy Easter to you & your family Jan!
So very glad that Rowan has recovered!
Thank you as ever but more so at this time for your wise & practical perspective.
As this is like an enforced retreat, I’m trying to come to terms with how my creativity can benefit but I’m still flitting between things.
I remember reading somewhere that there are four existential issues: isolation, freedom, meaning & death and it seems like we are collectively being hit with all of them at once. No wonder we are exhausted.
But yes, duality & fear mongering are not helpful at this time and we need to be discriminating in order to move past them.
I’ve also become aware of the urgent need to really cultivate compassion towards ourselves & others because we are so challenged and we’re all muddling through.
One more thing to add to your list is watching favourite poets on YouTube. I binged on Jane Hirshfield the other night & it was soothing & exciting at the same time:)
Wishing you & loved ones well & safe
Thank you so much Marina
Yes – really resonate with what you say about being hit with all the existential issues at once and even more resonance with what you say about compassion – for ourselves and for those we have any kind of contact with.
And listening to poetry is a very good place to feed that compassion.
Keep well 🙂
Maria Straw- Cinar says
Thank you for this Jan. It takes me back to our writers workshop in 2018 – my course with you which I enjoyed so much and all your support and encouragement. You will always have a special place in my heart and I really enjoyed that time together eating Borsh and sharing stories. Dad is back in that space that he was then as he too has had the virus and in hospital now. He came home but couldn’t speak and was in a bad way like before with dehydration – the only thing he could say was my name. We pray that he will come home and be able to recover.
Diana and I were due to have our books out this month but launches have been postponed – I’ve waited years for publication of this so my Buddhist friend said I can wait a little longer and encouraged me to chant!
It was so hard nursing Dad wondering if I would get it and what about Iris- not wanting to leave her- I’m not sure if I had it or not but we are in the same house and trying to stay well with ginger and lemon hot water and helping each other.
I love your thoughts and I would like to do the course – I’m trying to journal but my head is too scrambled waiting if Dad will come out and feeling responsible as the youngest sibling- The one who is here.
I took part in an Arts night online on Friday and it have me a boost to be in that space sharing music, monologues and poetry. One day I dream of a retreat like yours somewhere by the sea with a few writers staying…
Sending love – I think one of the best ways is to stay in the moment – take each day at a time. My husband is experiencing anxiety which he has never had- checking all the news in Turkey, where his family is, as well as here.
We may have no job, no house by the end of this but we feel the love of friends and family and the connections that we will all help each other survive and hopefully thrive and if not we can say I lived with an open heart and I loved.
Thank you so much for sharing this Maria
There are an unbearable amount of heart breaking stories and terrible dilemnas for people, even before the disasters of job and house security beging to be thought of. But we need to hear these stories. Take good care. Hope your husband’s family are safe and lots of love to Iris.