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.  



screen-shot-2013-11-12-at-2-58-55-pmI read Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal a few years ago. Reading the original entries, in her neat handwriting, with imperfect spelling, drew me to her in a way her fiction never did. The darkness in the stories she wrote and the grim picture of human beings and the world we inhabit haunts me; it doesn’t make me want to re-read, or to read more. My tastes, sorry as I sometimes am to admit it, run more to the likes of Jane Austen and George Eliot. Anthony Trollope, even. But Flannery O’Connor’s journal was something entirely different. It in, she recorded her struggles as an aspiring writer and a faithful Catholic woman.

The entry that struck me most deeply recorded her frustration with the feeling of mediocrity. She thought she was mediocre! As difficult as I find her prose, I would never, ever call it that. She possessed a gift for fiction and for expressing that darkness about which I am so squeamish–so that however fearful I was about what was about to happen in her stories, I couldn’t just stop reading. But she worried about being mediocre in the midst of her struggles in writing and in life.

So it is, I think. I know I haven’t her gift for fiction, or her dedication. My energy is spent in so many different small channels that there is nothing that remains of it, no landmark to show where I have passed. I feel utterly mediocre, completely ordinary, no different from anyone else. The older I get, the clearer it becomes to me that the world for all time has been full mostly of ordinary folk. That’s how children are born and raised; that’s how crops are grown and harvested; that’s how the things that need doing day after day after day get done.

If anyone knows how to keep chasing dreams and still make sure that there are school clothes ready for the week, the homework gets done, and the children get to school on time (or thereabouts), I would love to hear how that goes. Because the ordinary ordinary seems like the place where dreams just die and hopes have to be transformed or they kill you. When all the energy is expended in the dawn-to-dusk routine, there’s not much left for chasing dreams by moonlight. The ghosts of hope linger, haunting me after bedtime. Sometimes the extraordinary interrupts, and shows something beyond endless to-do lists and dirty laundry. images-1

Mostly, though, it’s ordinary through and through. Someone please tell me there’s nothing wrong with that.