On disability and illness in a time of pandemic

Life finds a way. So said Michael Crichton (often) in Jurassic Park. True: and yet humans, like the misguided individual who thought raising dinosaurs from extinction was a good–and lucrative–idea, like to mess around with life. This morning I was frustrated almost to tears by the human propensity to play God, especially when disability is concerned. We want to avoid illness and disability–not just for ourselves, but for our families–whatever it costs.

Health, illness and disability. What do we expect for our lives and the lives of our children? Health. We expect health and well-being. We expect the usual range of abilities and capacities: to see, to grow, to hear, to learn, to walk and run, to feel, to think and read and write. These are all good things, and there is nothing wrong with hoping for them, even expecting them. The trouble comes when we begin to believe that we are entitled to well-being and certain forms of achievement–and so are our children (whether we have them yet or not). And we decide which limitations we will accept and which we won’t. Of course we all want to be healthy, and we want our children to be healthy, and insofar as it is up to us, we ought to do what health requires. At the moment that involves some extra caution–more frequent and thorough hand washing, avoiding public places when possible, and wearing a mask and keeping our distance when it’s not possible to stay home. (Soon, perhaps, it will also involve a vaccine–which is good and yet a symptom of the very thing that worries me so much these days.) In more ordinary circumstances we know we ought to eat healthy food, get fresh air and exercise, limit our alcohol consumption, and give up smoking. And I suppose most of us try, a good bit of the time, to do those things.

Even with the ordinary and extraordinary measures that we can take, we may still fall ill. If we manage to avoid COVID-19 (looking all the more possible if this vaccine is as good as it seems to be), we can catch cold, end up with pneumonia, break a leg, go down with norovirus, or develop cancer. Much of what comes our way in the realm of health, illness, and disability is beyond our control.

I hate that, I admit it. I am a bit of a control freak, and like a lot more order than life with four messy kids and a non-neat-freak spouse affords me. I hate it that, despite reasonable eating and exercise habits, my “fat” jeans have become my “thin” jeans and the “thin” jeans of yesteryear have long gone to some lucky person who came across them in a charity shop and could fit into them. I can’t even control the ordinary, daily-life things that I think I should.

Maybe you are better at housekeeping and staying slim than I. But the point is that there are only a very limited number of things in life that are ours to decide, and these mostly fall into the category of responses to what life throws at us. We are not masters of our destiny, we are scrapbookers, arranging the materials we’ve been given into a pattern that makes sense to us. We cannot make one hair of our heads white or black (as Jesus observed)–at least not by sheer force of will. We cannot change our height or bone structure (oh, how I wish I could make myself 5’8″ and fine-boned!), we cannot cast away our spectacles and think our way to perfect vision.

So when I heard on the radio this morning about the careful and agonised consideration that went into a fictional couple’s decision to terminate a pregnancy based on a Down syndrome risk, I thought, ‘oh, poppycock’ (or maybe something less appropriate). It’s not that, because I have a child with Down syndrome, I think nobody should terminate on that basis. I never wanted to have a child with Down syndrome–I was sure I couldn’t handle it. My strategy was to have kids before age 30 and so reduce my risk. When that plan failed, I never thought that termination was the alternative. When I was expecting my first child, at 32, it was out of my hands. And, like Nicola Enoch, who criticised the termination storyline, I’m glad that I failed to avoid having a child with Down syndrome. It’s not easy. But my daughter’s life is absolutely worth living, and it is worth everything that it has cost me to be her mum.

If there is anything that I have learned in my fifty-one years on this planet, it is that I do know with certainty what is best for me. ‘Even the wise cannot see all ends,’ as Gandalf said, and I believe I am not to be counted among the wise. Life unfolds in mysterious ways, and  however sensitively a decision to terminate a pregnancy is portrayed, it is still a decision that ends life. I don’t mean that it terminates the life of an embryo, though it does that. I mean that it interrupts life’s unfolding; such a decision is like leaving life’s crooked path and striking out into the undergrowth to right or left. ‘There are no safe paths’, as Gandalf also said, but it does not follow that we ought therefore to head out into the pathless forest. (If you know anything about Gandalf’s advice, you’ll know he insists that leaving the path is more dangerous still!)

It is simply not the case that we can leave one path that looks like it ends in disaster and make our own way to that happy ending we have dreamed for ourselves. No, as another wise character once said, ‘one often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it’ (Master Ugwe, this time). We cannot straighten life’s crooked way, and we cannot avoid every catastrophe that awaits us. Sometimes life really, really sucks. It is never, ever fair. Usually when it feels fair to us, that’s only because the balance is tipped in our favour, not because the scales are perfectly balanced.

I wish I could tell you there was a guaranteed happy ending. Nope. There’s no guarantee of that. All I can recommend is trying to find peace in the middle bit. Recycle. Love your family. Eat your vegetables. Do what you can. And don’t worry about the danger of the path. It’s probably better to stay on it. You never know when there might be giant spiders or murderous trees in the forest.

A word of encouragement from Granny Nancy

Thanks to Paddy McCafferty and Izzy Armstrong-Holmes for posting this to Facebook.

Ireland’s oldest citizen, Nancy Stewart, aged 107, has written an amazing letter to encourage everyone in these difficult and anxious times 🙏❤️

To Anyone Who Needs a Reason to Keep Going:

My name is Nancy Stewart and I was born on the 16th of October 1913. This weekend I turn 107 years of age.

Imagine turning 107 in a world pandemic. This definitely is something very unusual even for me and all I have been through. I live in Clonard in County Meath and have lived in my home for over 83 years.

I lost my husband in a car crash in 1989, and lost my twin daughters Margaret in 2007 to motor neurone and Anne in 2010 to utter heartbreak of losing her sister. I’ve lost all my friends throughout the years which comes with living so long on this earth.

I’m very lucky to still have three daughters Kathleen, Mary and Olive and one son Finian and I have 84 grandchildren, great grandchildren and great great grandchildren.

I have faced many heart-breaking moments and also have seen many hard times in our country witnessing world wars, division in our people and numerous sad times for our nation.

I write to you today to send you my love and to offer you my prayers. We are in a very difficult time at the moment in our country, in our lives and in our world. But I reach out to you in this letter to offer you hope, faith and belief that everything will be ok in the end.

We are in another stage of this battle against the virus but we will get through this. Like everything I’ve been through since the day I was born in 1913, no matter how bad things have got, I’m the living proof that we can survive and in years to come, this will just be a distant memory.

I have a great faith and it has helped me keep positive throughout the struggles I’ve met. I thank you for keeping your faith and for keeping your resilience strong, through this hard time. Sadly for the moment, we can no longer stretch out to a friend and embrace them nor can we call to each other’s houses.

But I’m here to share my story. I have been in lockdown in my house since March, alongside my granddaughter Louise and even though it has been a tough time, we have got through it together.

We drink tea. We say prayers. We bake. We laugh. We make phone calls. I can even video call lots of my family and friends and am making new friends everyday that God gives me on this earth.

And that’s a very important thing to say. If you are feeling low, make sure to try call someone or even go for a walk. I also ask God to help me if I’m feeling low. This is a hard time for everyone but please make sure you keep yourself well and wear your mask. If you keep healthy, your mind will stay healthy too.

Keep talking to one another. All my life I have always believed in chatting and drinking tea and saying a prayer or a decade of the rosary and it has got me through. This is our moment to keep our faith and to keep believing that everything will turn out ok.

We must try to make sure we leave nobody behind and also that we don’t lose sight of each other. This is a moment for humanity to step forward to take care of the other. We must mind ourselves but we must also mind all those around us. Look up and smile even if you have your mask on.

Your eyes will smile and that might be all someone needs to keep going. No good deed ever goes unnoticed so try your best to keep being good. We are not here to live for ourselves but to live for each other.

I can’t believe I’ve made it to this age, I only feel like I’m 50 but now that I’m here, all I can say is please God I’ll be here for my next birthday. We must always look forward. I can’t believe I’m the oldest person in Ireland living in my own home, I don’t feel that old.

When God wants me, he will come take me but for now I will keep enjoying my life, I’ll keep loving my family and I’ll keep saying my prayers day by day…..oh and not to forget eating lots of good wholesome food is my tip. Good food and lots of tea is my secret to a long life as well as keeping positive as best we can. We must always look forward and hope for the best.

Thank you for thinking of me in your prayers and your thoughts and I promise I will think of you in my many rosaries I say everyday.

Thank you so much for reading my letter also and I hope I have, in even a little way, helped you feel less alone in this moment. There is always hope and once we keep talking to one another, no day will seem empty and we can get through this together. It only takes a small candle to take away the dark and in each of us, we can be that light in the world.

This hard time will indeed pass like all the rest and all that matters is that we helped each other through.

Many blessings and much love,

Granny Nancy x

Clonard

Co Meath.

Psalm 142 and the enemy within

The enemy pursues my soul; he has crushed my life to the ground; he has made me dwell in darkness like the dead, long forgotten. Therefore my spirit fails; my heart is numb within me. Ps 142.3-4

Depression–the enemy within. This is one of the most apt expressions of the experience of depression, for me, that I have come across. I return to it again and again–or, rather, it returns to me in the daily office, at Lauds or at Compline. Whether I pray it in the moment, feeling the failure of my spirit and with numb heart, or with the psalmist from a place later in the psalm–a place of hope and relative peace and light–I know the enemy still pursues my soul. I remember clearly what it is like to feel that my life has ben crushed to the ground and to cower in the face of encroaching darkness.

I read recently, in the acknowledgements of a new book, an expression of gratitude for a spouse who saw the author through two seasons of depression. These sorts of reports–the experience of going in and coming out the other side of depression, a “before” and “after” somehow identifiable and discrete–puzzle me. While I have had some long seasons of peculiar numbness of heart (one of which began to lift on the feast of St Teresa of Ávila nine years ago), I move in and out of that dark place far more frequently than I would like.

Depression is the enemy that stalks me constantly, sometimes striking me with great force from behind, other times attacking head-on. Struck from behind, I fall to pieces, and slowly re-gather myself like the T-1000 in Terminator 2 (but without the malevolence, I hope). When I see my enemy coming, as I sometimes do, I fight. Sometimes I even win. It is amazing how powerful the weapons of fresh air and exercise, of restful days and good nights of sleep, are against the darkness that threatens.

The achievement of a long peace, however, is not my experience. I cannot look back to a “before” depression and I am certainly not living “after” depression. No, I come through each battle (or emerge from the shattering darkness) with the sense of having survived once again. That doesn’t mean the war is over, any more than the seven samurai hung up their swords after having driven the baddies from the vulnerable village. I do not overcome. I do not claim victory. I simply live to fight another day, and, I hope–by the grace of God–to survive again.

Lost in thought?

Tonight I should be joining a zoom discussion of Zena Hitz’s lovely new book, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life. I’m not–or I will only be in and out, as I flit from chores to bedtime rituals and back again. Not that I couldn’t just put the TV on and check out of the household evening routine. After all, that’s what the kids are doing now, as I write. I am not going to draw up a chair with a glass of wine for a chat about the intellectual life with a load of fellow academics because we are the proverbial choir. I’d rather save my evening away for a discussion of such a book with other mums and people who work with primary school children.

Why? Because–and I don’t think the author would disagree with me here–the problem that reaches its apex at universities begins before the first year of school. It wasn’t surprising to find that my ethics students looked puzzled when I asked them whether they had come to the university because it was the only way to satisfy their intellectual curiosity. (A few gave me a knowing look, and smirked. But they didn’t raise their hands, either.) It wasn’t surprising, because from quite early on in primary school, pupils are taught to write ‘L.O.’ and to state the learning objective at the top of pages. (I caught my then 8-year-old daughter doing this at Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and had to exercise tremendous self-restraint. CGS is about listening, not learning objectives!) Someone, somewhere, has decided that children are really just miniature adults, who like to be told why they are learning something, as if learning wasn’t something worthwhile for its own sake.

As I have said, the author would not disagree. And my colleagues wouldn’t disagree, either. But the people who have time to write the books are not the ones who sit with the 7-year-olds who are struggling to develop reading fluency and struggling even harder to understand why they need to learn to read fluently. If reading is about learning school stuff, and learning school stuff is about doing well on tests, and doing well on tests is about being employable (I kid you not, I saw a 7-foot by 3-foot poster in a primary school hall that indicated skills and traits that made a person more appealing to prospective employers), then if your dreams don’t tend in that direction, learning just isn’t important. Love of learning for its own sake has been squeezed out of the curriculum, and it isn’t just professors in the humanities that have noticed. It’s just that professors in the humanities are the people who have time to write letters to periodicals, and journal articles, and books.

I am not one of those people. My life is complicated by the needs of my children, who are extraordinary in sometimes demanding ways, my own struggles with basic sanity, and an impatience with injustice that remains as hot and irrational as it was when I was seven or eight. ‘But it’s not fair‘ I still protest, in spite of all the grown-up arguments for why it is what it is. So I am no good at explaining to the real grown-ups what’s wrong with the grown-up world. (This is the point at which somewhere in the back of my mind the idea that I should retrain as a Montessori teacher pops up, and I quash it with a memory of trying to do Catechesis of the Good Shepherd with boys between the ages of six and nine: I was rubbish!) And I also have a CV that appears ‘thin’ to people in the academic world; I look at it and wonder when I had time to write anything. 

Thus, I am opting for a different sort of evening. When I have finished my chores (the kids have done their share, I promise) and everyone is settled, the chances are very good that I will lose myself in Trenton, NJ* rather than Princeton. And tomorrow, I’ll get up feeling regretful that I missed the opportunity to have grown-up conversation about the intellectual life and its pleasures. I love learning and I don’t need an ‘objective’, but I am more at home arguing with my nine-year-old about whether the tree is a silver birch or a paper-bark birch (I don’t always win) or insisting that my 13-year-old son explain to me why fireworks explode in the microwave rather that just being entertained by the fact that they do. (Why do fireworks explode in the microwave? I could make up some stuff that might not be far from the truth, but I’d really like to know.) So, if anyone knows why fireworks explode in the microwave (beyond the basic, ‘because they’re explosives, silly’), let me know.

And thanks to all y’all who read my blog post last night and let me know. So wonderful to know we’re not alone.

the chaos inside

Once upon a time I went to a counseling centre–in Pasadena, CA. It has been at least a couple of decades since I was there. I remember a framed poster that read, ‘You must carry a chaos inside you to give birth to a dancing star.’ At the time–I was in my early twenties and hadn’t yet read all the Nietzsche I have so far–I thought it justified my internal turbulence. A dancing star sounded good, like the right reward for having struggled through the darkness and desperation.

A good few years on, I have yet to see anything like a dancing star. Just a lot more chaos. I’d like to be able to explain how it all worked out, to point to the low points on the journey and share the momentary, spectacular views. Not that there haven’t been splendid vistas along the way–there have, of course–but that the way is rather up and down and meandering: the journey is ongoing. The chaos is ongoing. I’m not certain that the dancing star is ever going to turn up.

Perhaps I was foolish to mistake depression for some sort of spiritual gestation. I guess that’s a thing some of us do in those hopeful, early years of adulthood. Things have to mean something, and we need to be figuring out that meaning. Now I am not so sure: the chaos inside is just chaos. I am not any nearer to figuring it out now, three decades after I started trying.

That’s not to say that there aren’t any dancing stars, or that hanging on and working on the chaos isn’t worth it. It’s just that there is no formula that dictates how bright a star we are owed for the years of chaos we have endured. It doesn’t work like that. If I knew how it did work, I would try to explain it. But I don’t, and I am not sure that there is one way it works all the time for everyone.

So if you are on the chaotic road, I can’t tell you where it ends or how to get off. But I can tell you you’re not alone. I’m going that way, too. Maybe we can walk together.

on dyslexia and superpowers

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I think a lot about disability. This is not just because I have an 18-year-old with Down syndrome. It is also because I have a profoundly, excruciatingly dyslexic 13-year-old and a 9-year-old whose dyslexia is less devastating.

Knowing about my struggles with dyslexic kids, a neighbour (author and educator Adam Bushnell) kindly lent me Philip Schultz’s memoir, My Dyslexia. I can see why he commented that, for Schultz, dyslexia was ‘like his superpower.’ Having overcome his dyslexia to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Schultz credits his success to the blocks to reading and writing that seemed insurmountable in his early childhood. Not in spite of his dyslexia did he achieve what he has achieved, but because of his dyslexia.

Maybe so. I don’t doubt that the struggle shaped him. But not all dyslexics are as fond of books and words as he was (and never mind the slipperiness of the definition and diagnosis of dyslexia). And–more importantly–not everyone with dyslexia has his grit. He owes much to his persistent, even indomitable, self-belief: ‘even when the entire world seemed to be ganging up on me, some persisting sense of myself argued on my behalf’. Ditto for the young scientist Schultz admired, who called her dyslexia ‘her secret weapon’. I’d say the credit goes to her consistent, pig-headed determination and sheer force of will. Dyslexia provided her with a mountain, true. Hope and courage enabled her to climb it.

The challenge that people with dyslexia face is the same, at bottom, as the challenge we all face: to ‘learn to love what is weakest and most confounding about ourselves, because and despite and in deference to what is essential about us’ (all quotations p. 117). The great challenge of his life, and mine, and my children’s, and yours, is very simple. It’s all about not giving up.

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This is true whether it’s dyslexia or depression or Down syndrome (or just daily life during a pandemic) that challenges us. I almost wrote ‘afflicts’ there; I hesitated because it’s an unpopular way of thinking about disability. So negative. But affliction is exactly what Schultz describes; it’s what my son experiences; it is, if I am honest, the way I experience depression. And it is the affliction that stirs, in some of us, the gritty response that makes for success. The super power of the oyster is not the irritation provided by the grain of sand but the ability it has to smooth over that irritant until it forms a pearl.

In a sense, then, we are the most ‘disabled’ by the conditions that afflict us when we lack either the ability to recognise the grain of sand or the mountain for what it is, or we lack the hope and courage to surmount it. Most days, I would say that Anna, my 18-year-old with Down syndrome, isn’t especially ‘disabled’ by her genetic idiosyncrasy. Having thought through Schultz’s book, though, I see that’s not exactly what I mean. In terms of sheer not-being-able-to-do-stuff, Anna is always going to ‘win’ the competition for the most disabled. Yet she is not usually afflicted by her condition, and I am beginning to see why: she doesn’t see the summit. We clamber around on the slopes together, but there’s no determined ascent.

Maybe that’s why I’m still a little uncomfortable with these thoughts about mountains and overcoming. Why do some people make it to the top while others are defeated by the summit? I don’t know. I may not know much more about disability than I did before reading Schultz’s book. But I have seen in a new and crystal clear way that my kids who need to see the summit and learn to climb need grit more than any other intervention. And that is more helpful than I can say. Thanks for the loan, Adam.

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The Most Holy Trinity

At least during the pandemic, we don’t have the weekly argument about going to Mass, or the complaints that it’s boring. That doesn’t exactly comprise a silver lining, though: when we (the parents) tune in to Mass at Blackfriars (Oxford), the kids get on with other things. The 16-year-old is asleep, the 13-year-old is watching YouTube, the 9-year-old is skating around the house on her roller blades, and my eldest is listening to music and humming along. This is better than the nerf war that was going on during the Liturgy of the Word. (It may also be noted that one of the adults is asleep on the sofa during the Eucharistic Prayer and the other is writing this blog.)

Keeping the feasts and fasts while physically separated from the Church is tough. We fail a lot. And regular prayer is hard, too. I thought that one of the redeeming things about the pandemic would be the possibility of praying Compline ‘with’ the community in Kent I so enjoy visiting. But it is often impossible to follow along–we can’t understand the sung words, and the video lags. I don’t mind. The rest of the family does, and so we haven’t been joining in. Universalis has continued to be a lifeline for me. I stay connected by knowing what day it is–today is the feast of the Most Holy Trinity; were it not a Sunday, we would remember St Robert of Newminster today. When the kids are out of school, holidays are cancelled, work is squished in around lessons, and the usual schedule of activities and appointments is suspended, it is easy to get lost–hardly remembering what day of the week it is, much less the month and date. Tomorrow there will be no school run, and we won’t go to work. It will still be Monday, though: Monday of week 10 in ordinary time (or St William of York, if you observe his memorial). Liturgical time goes on, pandemic or no pandemic, lockdown or no lockdown. I am grateful for that.

And I am grateful, more grateful than ever, for communities like the Dominican friars we join for Sunday Mass and the Benedictine nuns I like to visit at Minster Abbey. A few years ago, I wrote about the nuns, reflecting that my misunderstanding of Sr Johanna revealed an important truth about the relationship of the wider Church with such communities. ‘I’ve got your back,’ I thought she said. That wasn’t what she said, but it was true. While I am here, with my family, loosely following the Sunday Mass, it is happening, just as it always has, at Blackfriars and everywhere that religious communities gather for the celebration of the Eucharist.

I would rather be there, of course. And I would rather wrestle the kids out the door of the house and into the door of St Bede’s than listen to them running up and down while I try to follow the homily. But in these strange times, it is good to know that we are the Body of Christ: we are incorporated at baptism and we members are nourished by our participation in the Eucharist. And yet, we remain joined to the Body even at this distance. The regular communion of the nuns, the monks, and the friars benefits us; we participate in a mystical way. So the act of spiritual communion that we make (thanks to the prayer given us by the friars) is real. It’s just not physical.

I think what I have been doing for the last hour, since the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer, is considering why I keep on sitting here, while Mass is going on somewhere else. While my participation in the liturgy is rather two-dimensional, involving two senses rather than the usual 5, it helps me to make the spiritual act of communion. And so I will tune in again next week.

May days

Keeping up with writing is harder than I expected. Fortunately, spring is unfolding whether I write about it or not!

Of course, it hasn’t all been sunshine and flowers. For the last few days, winter has stretched out a long, cold arm! I’ve had to cover my seedlings and put an extra layer on myself. The up side is that we have a great excuse to light the wood-burning stove.

These are strange times. Yet the birds and the sheep don’t notice, and the trees are almost all sporting their summer foliage. Some things are unaffected by the virus, and I am very glad to be in a position to notice them!

Deo gratias

Strange times

I keep writing that: ‘Strange times we are living in’, I say. What I mean, I think, is ‘deeply unsettling times’. On the one hand, I rejoice at the recovery of the planet. I hope some crude oil remains in the ground, since we don’t need nearly as much of it at the moment. I am glad to read the news about clear air in India. And I am having a love-hate relationship with home-schooling. Since my 13-year-old hates school to the point of anxiety and borderline depression, I am happy that he doesn’t have to go. But trying to get the kids to do schoolwork is difficult, and trying to plan educational activities for them—things that they might enjoy doing that also count as learning—is even more difficult. There’s a reason I teach at a university and not at a primary or secondary school.

And it’s stressful. Teaching on zoom is weird. Maybe I will get better at it, but so far, I have found it completely devastating. It will take a while for me to get over the feeling that I am inarticulate and stupid. Perhaps I have always been inarticulate and stupid, and zoom teaching is only bringing the real me to the surface. That’s my worry, of course: I am the person who heard about impostor syndrome and thought, ‘Well, yeah, I understand that that’s a thing. But everyone really does know more than I do. Maybe even the students…’ I am the one person who really is an impostor, apparently. Shifting teaching platforms and expecting to lose my job (a half-time contract renewed every year) pushes all my ‘I am not worthy’ buttons.

And yet, I am not on the front-line. God help those doctors and nurses and all the people who keep the hospitals and doctors’ offices running during these ‘strange’ times. I cannot begin to imagine life as someone facing COVID-19 at work on a daily basis. I couldn’t come home: the risk to my daughter is too great. My husband and I are fortunate— working from home was already a reality for us a lot of the time, and working through the crisis is like trying to write a conference paper for early September during the summer holidays. Difficult, but not impossible, however impossible it feels mid-August. The stress of caring for the sick and the dying and of the possibility of infection, illness and death is beyond anything I am likely to experience, however long this craziness lasts. Thank God the people who are keeping the medical establishment running are keeping on.

Except they’re not, are they? I didn’t read the article about the ER doctor in New York who committed suicide. Why would I? It would be voyeurism. Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her, I say. She needs my prayers more than my curiosity about the circumstances of her death. How? I wondered when I first saw the headline, how did she commit suicide? A doctor would know the best way. I didn’t read on, because to do so would have been wrong. Not for everyone, but wrong for me. I’m so sorry for her, because I have a sense of what the approach to suicide is like, and it is awful beyond words. I’m sorry for her family, who will have lost a loved one to COVID-19 in a twisted and bewildering way.

Let’s face it: nobody is ok. Parents are not ok. Health care professionals are not ok. People who are out of work because of the crisis are not ok. Teenagers are not ok. My 16-year-old is really not ok. He should be preparing for exams he’s likely to have to take (though they’ve been cancelled) in September, but he can’t focus. He should be reading ahead for his new course of study (A-levels) that will begin in September. ‘It’s school without friends,’ he says. School was made bearable for him by having his friends around. My younger teenage son is not ok, either. He hates school, and got through at secondary by staying under the radar, doing the minimum required and not getting into trouble. At home, the threat of coming under uncomfortable school scrutiny disappears, and there’s no motivation to do anything academic. I discover, to my deep dismay, that the child who loved learning his whole life has forgotten what it is to enjoy learning. He can’t translate his curiosity into a desire to learn. I am sad for him, so sad. Families are not ok—not the kids, not the parents.

But it isn’t all bad, as hard as it is to live in the mess and the chaos and insubordination. The boys have moved from the bickering and fighting that characterises the first few days of any family vacation into the hanging out and doing things together that comes after that initial period of friction. Walks with the kids are more frequent; reading together is becoming more frequent; and watching Star Trek (TNG) with the girls each evening is a treat. And having compline streamed online from the monastery that is my soul’s home away from home is beyond a treat. It’s a lifeline, and being able to share it with the family in the living room is sublime, despite the kids’ grumbling and the livestream lagging.

These are strange times, to be sure. And we are definitely not ok. But I suppose if there is one thing that being a person dogged by a dark depression-cloud has taught me, it is that being not-ok is not the whole story. It’s not the whole reality right now, and it is not a permanent state of affairs. It sucks for now. So I am letting the kids have afternoon screen time, and opening the wine early.

When we don’t have compline with the nuns, this is one of my favourites. Pray it with me if you are so inclined.

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous, and all for your love’s sake.