Some days over the last few weeks it’s been hard to find much to laugh about at all. If I’m honest, it’s been a while since I laughed till it hurts. It’s a healthy thing to do on a regular basis and I’ve missed it. It’s been even longer since I laughed so much that I fell off my chair.
This week we have been fortunate. We’ve been able to get out a little further from home, even meeting up with friends and family: separately and at appropriate distance. But it is still strange. It is so hard, without a hug, to share joy or to offer comfort to those with whom we have been reunited.
Some days, we say that we don’t know whether to laugh or cry. There’s a time and a place for both. Sometimes they are indistinguishable. We laugh till we cry. We cry tears of joy as well as sadness and anger. We don’t always understand what we are feeling.
Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy, from the sound of weeping because there is so much noise. That’s recorded in the Old Testament book of Ezra. It makes me think about the Thursday evening clapping and banging of saucepans, celebrating the work of many essential workers, but tinged with sadness at the situation.
Whatever we are feeling, it will pass. And we will, one day, laugh until it hurts again.
I wrote a couple of flash fiction stories last week, both based around cold water swimming. They led to the cheeky question have you ever? This may, or may not, answer that question.
This granny lives inland; well away from the sea and a longer walk than I like to the nearest river. No lakes within walking distance. One of my daughters lives by the coast, another by a beautiful canal junction and the other has a duck pond in her village. Despite living in the centre of a town which built its Victorian prosperity on spa water, I often suffer from a degree of water envy.
I have swum, quite recently, in the North Sea; in my youth, and somewhat foolishly, in a canal, but never in a duck pond. And I am lucky enough to have a memory of swimming beneath a waterfall in the Cuban mountains.
After a chance comment from my hairdresser, the sort of low key challenge that I can’t resist, I started thinking about outdoor swimming as a more regular activity. I bought a season ticket for our local pool, thinking that I would build my swimming stamina. Just a handful of sessions of my granny style swimming later, the pool was closed for lockdown.
Somewhere near the top of my post lock down to do list, just below giving all my girls a hug, is another swim in the North Sea. In mental health awareness week, still living in lock down; just imagining the sight, sound and smell of the sea refreshes my mind.
We shouldn’t have been at home for the VE day confusion of Bank Holiday Monday falling on a Friday. We were supposed to be on the North Yorkshire Moors, walking St Hilda’s Way with friends and their dog. Another event cancelled, or at least postponed. We tried to rebook the same accommodation for May Bank holiday 2021; someone had beaten us to it.
The road in which we live is in the centre of town, a short walk from the station. With all the comings and goings, it’s sometimes hard to know who lives locally and who’s just passing through. Suddenly, the traffic and footfall has stopped. Thursday night is clapping night. We look up and down the road. These are our neighbours. You’re new here, I shout to the people who have been here for 10 years… you get the picture.
Disappointed not to be going away, and having seen a small homemade poster in another part of town, the idea came to me to build on the Thursday night spirit. I was nervous of being seen as, at best, a rule breaker; at worst, jingoistic. I felt prompted to take a risk. I texted a neighbour. A Northern Irish Catholic, she knows about risky communities. And she may have a view on displaying Union Jacks. If she does, she didn’t say. She definitely has a view on sharing a cup of tea and a cake with her neighbours.
Go for it she said. So we did. We each contacted the people we know and word spread up and down the street. Almost without exception, people came out for a ‘no rules broken’ cup of tea, or something stronger. Spilling out from our driveways, we shouted and maintained good social distance. We even had music, and some dancing, thanks to the church music group’s provision of an amplifier.
It was an afternoon blessed by sunshine. There was real community spirit in the air. People wanted to bottle it and take it home. Now, our neighbours are all seeking to build on the day, something good is happening.
I dream of the luxury of a spa day. In the past, waiting on a cold station for a delayed train, I have imagined myself into the warm spaces of our town’s Turkish baths. Today, I dream of the freedom to visit that public place. Ironically, a public place which is more often visited as an escape from the busyness of life.
My diary reminds me that one year ago, with the sun shining in the Yorkshire Pennines, I set off to enjoy a 60th birthday present. A spa day, with dinner and sleepover, with my 3 daughters.
Cleansed by steam and ice; hot rooms and cold plunges; oils and scents; we enjoyed a complete de-tox for the body and rest for the mind. It was followed, of course, by a mini re-tox in the evening. Just a small glass of prosecco to add fizz to the celebrations; and possibly a G&T and a glass of red… a perfect birthday present, from which we all returned invigorated and ready to face the real world.
It is an extravagance that I can enjoy or, quite easily, live without. For those within the industry, self-employed or maybe on zero hours’ contracts, it is a time of huge uncertainty. Government schemes will offer some help in the short term, but some may fall through the support net. I don’t know and I hope not. I can only hope that, once facilities are able to safely reopen, I will be there ready to support the industry and enjoy the luxury.
It should be a time of celebration. My mum on the mend from the virus, back in her care home, convalescing. But the joy is not there. She is on the mend, but there is still a sense of bereavement. Visits remain forbidden. Harder for her than for us.
I at least can escape, stand in the middle of a green space and breathe. Last week I ran or walked fewer steps than ever. A quantifiable measure of my pain. A lack of motivation, combined with complaining knees, held me back. I tell myself that this will not help anyone, I will get back outside.
Thisgranny loves a board game. Throwing the dice, taking chances, climbing ladders, crashing down snakes. Long ago, I used to talk with school gate friends about the game of life. The chance cards: ‘Washing machine breaks down, go back 3 spaces’; ‘Sick child, miss 2 goes’. It made the badly timed mishaps laughable. We never anticipated this turn of events: ‘Global pandemic, spend 6 weeks (or more) without your family’.
My wise daughters gave me three pieces of equally good advice. Ticking things off on a list releases happy hormones, definitely true; it’s good to lament, don’t feel bad about it, also true. Finally, remember we’re operating at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid just now. In other words, we’ve crashed down that long snake back to square 1. Survival mode. I’ll keep throwing the dice, hoping for ladders and double sixes, and not worry too much about the inevitable snakes.
Despite the joy of the Easter message, I found the bank holiday weekend hard. Seeing others by zoom, in some ways brings them closer. It can also remind us what we’re missing. Each in our own homes, no visits from family, no hugs.
Sometimes too, there’s a feeling of overload: an expectation that, since we can’t go anywhere, we can respond to many screen calls. I felt confused and torn in all directions at the beginning of the week. Mixed in with the celebration of Easter, there was the realisation that lockdown is here to stay, for now at least.
Then, on Thursday, my mum ended up in hospital with suspected COVID-19. A worrying time. That evening, as per the new normal, we went outside to applaud the NHS and carers. Our friends and neighbours all offered support and prayers; but of course, no hugs. This morning a much welcome, life size, drawing of a hug arrived in the post from my granddaughters.
In the heart of Northumberland, there is a simple chapel that has been a refuge for me. It’s a lean to building on the outside of a walled garden. Wooden benches run down either side; a wood burning stove sits in the corner. The path to the door runs through the edge of woodland. By the door, there is a simple painted sign: ‘those who lean on Jesus’ breast hear the heartbeat of God’. Those were the words that brought me comfort when the journey felt tough.
Six years ago, in April 2014, I had my hair cut and coloured ahead of a wedding. A rich deep red, I thought; bordering on purple, my daughters said. I’d been getting redder for around twenty years. ‘What colour is your hair?’ my youngest daughter asked, frequently.
That summer I decided, I would go cold turkey on the hair colour. I let it grow out just enough to show the roots of grey, then I went short. Very short, and to be honest not quite as grey as I had anticipated at that stage.
These days my hair is decidedly grey at the front, getting slightly darker to the back. ‘That’s always the way’, my hairdresser says. ‘If hair was darker at the front and greyer at the back, no one would ever feel the need to get it coloured.’
Friends who have not yet taken that plunge are now posting pictures of their greying roots, wondering how to camouflage the stripe along their parting. This wise old granny is feeling quite happy to have embraced the grey before it was forced upon me. However, nearly two months on from its last cut, I’m maybe not quite so content that the tightly shaven shape of my hair is growing out quite fast. I’ll resist the scissors and the self-styled hair and go for a softer look for now.