O-C-C-I-P-U-T—Awesome! +7 points flashes the New York Times Spelling Bee app. A little smug smile. That’s a good one.
It started with a lot of four-letter words back in the Autumn months of lockdown—Good! +1 point. Now the Spelling Bee is clapping letters and the daffodils are smiling golden.
Go slow, they say. Be kind on yourself, they say.
And then … Stay connected, they say. Reach out, they say. Another virtual meeting to make sure everyone is doing ok? they say.
Join our online pilates. Participate in our online forum. Enjoy the company of friends through online wine parties. We must catch up on Zoom.
Without a doubt for some of us, the denial of human company is the toughest bit. People who live alone, forbidden all face-to-face social interaction—save the hour they are permitted to leave the house for exercise or shopping—have certainly copped it. Even when we can get out, human contact requires demanding eye efforts and working through muffled mask conversation. The cracks are showing. An existing loneliness epidemic of high tech, detached modern life has ploughed into an infectious disease pandemic. We all need a healthy dose of people in the flesh—chins, noses, toothy grins and all. Loneliness in COVID-19 is real.
There is another truth to the COVID-19 story. The flipside is an overwhelming busy-ness some of us feel. Forced to engage in work Zoom calls from early morning to late night. Attempting to support our children through home schooling, all the while knowing that mostly we spend our time trying to overlook the hours expended playing games on screens. We ignore our children, ignore our partners, and spend hours wracked with guilt for not accomplishing a wholesome balance.
Like Alice after she eats the cake, we feel like our heads are hitting the ceiling. Constant racket, inescapable thundering voices on simultaneous work calls, school calls. A house of four feels like a herd. We are living from work, not working from home.
Social media and email inboxes are a cacophony of contrived ways to reach out. We must find novel means to stave off loneliness and melancholy. We must timetable our connections with the outside world. The disrupted life is filled with noise and contradictions. We should go slow, but we must always be doing. Saying no brings self-reproach all over again.
The air is dense. Sometimes it’s almost suffocating. We try to go slow, but it’s hard to feel silence. What some of us crave above all else, is aloneness.
Like our social exchanges, interrupted too are the everyday rituals that give transient space to withdraw. Commutes to work, the calm walk home after dropping kids at school, scanning the newspaper headlines whilst waiting for a takeaway coffee. Pauses from which we derive energy to be social beings and to re-immerse ourselves in a communal life. Pauses which allow us to privilege thought and contemplation.
British social historian, David Vincent, says that ‘In the present lockdown, there is evidence that there is a growing thirst for solitude as people are jammed into their houses…Many more people are hankering for solitude than those experiencing loneliness.’
Our six-year old son (having long renounced home schooling) has quit leaving the house. Concerned about the impact lockdown is having on his mental health, we grapple with ways to keep him connected with school mates via FaceTime, persevere with attempts to engage him in ‘fun’ family games, schedule regular backyard trampoline breaks, and try fruitlessly to limit screen-time.
In usual times, our son enjoys the company of his friends. He is often though equally content in his own company. Even when good friends are present, our son can habitually be found concealed in shrubs or under trees, immersed in his own thoughts—quite regularly wielding a superhero ‘sword’ or ‘lightsaber’ as he natters to himself topics of great six-year-old importance. He achieves a delightful and wise balance of shared experience and aloneness. Our son is, in usual times, perfectly satisfied in his solitude. He floats with his imaginings to a world only he can reach.
May Sarton, poet and novelist, wrote that ‘friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone… .’
Pandemic lockdown for many of us has been a persistent push and pull of finding equilibrium between connection and aloneness. We have needed to seek alternative ways to achieve solitude and stillness. Jigsaws and crosswords are not simply to pass the time but essential tools to reach total absorption in something else. The means may be more passive, less dipped in nature. In seated quiet with headphones watching Teen Titans on Netflix, my son is finding a different solitude. An abstract solitude. His imaginings still suspended in a place only he can go. We must be tender. Go slow.
For oft, when on my couch I lie,
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils. — William Wordsworth (1815)
O-P-T-I-C Great! +5 points. The daffodils are smiling golden and the Spelling Bee is clapping.
I’m waiting for the letters to spell R-A-N-U-N-C-U-L-U-S. What a word. What a Spring flower. Ranunculus.