2020 is nearing its close and, as has become a Christmas tradition, I am busy selecting photos for an album. Our pictures for January and February are much the same as in other years. Watching the New Year’s concert from Vienna, assessing the firework damage on our first walk of the year, eating a festive meal together at the close of the first day. Returning to school and work, flying to the UK for a family visit, going on outings to the museum and cinema. Looking at them now gives the same feeling as the first half hour of a disaster film, when you follow the characters through their daily preoccupations, knowing full well that soon their lives will be thrown into turmoil. Just as in such a film, the foreshadowing is visible to all but the oblivious participants, in the newly appeared bottles of hand gel and signs warning not to shake hands, which we photographed back then as amusing novelties.
The days count down inexorably, and suddenly there is a radical change in the photos. There are pictures of the first improvised days of home schooling, maths worksheets cribbed from the internet, made-up comprehension exercises, science experiments that went wrong. The welcome arrival of official lesson packages and a precious chromebook, followed by the even more welcome start of emergency daycare and school facilities. The conversion of our ‘parent cave’ into a home office, screengrabs of online meetings giving odd little peeks into colleague’s homes before the backgrounds took flight to the realms of fantasy. Official advice leaflets and photos of the yellow tape and plexiglass jungles that engulfed the supermarkets. As various organisations rallied to help us all through lockdown, alternative activities make their appearance: earning an at-home Scouting badge, going on a bear hunt to spot the teddy bears keeping vigil at windows, completing the 4-day walking event via an app.
Then the first signs of hope appear. The reopening of the school, the building decorated with welcoming signs. My partial return to work, hand gel and warning signs everywhere, but also the wonderful sight of actual colleagues, in person again after so many months. The first meal out on a restaurant terrace, in glorious sunshine. Our holiday abroad, happy faces gazing at the splendid views from a mountain peak.
The film would end there, the danger in retreat, happiness restored, everyone older and wiser. But it is these cheerful pictures that now pain me the most, as I know how the story continues. All of those precious gains have been wrested from us. As we approach the start of 2021, we are back to where we were in March, schools closed, offices closed, restaurants closed, life dwindled to a small circle. The difference being that, in March, we were confident it would only last a few weeks. As the numbers continue to climb alarmingly despite the restrictions, we can have no such hope this time around.
I always find the start of January a difficult time. The house seems dark and dull with the Christmas lights returned to the attic, the living room has an empty hole where the Christmas tree was, the tree itself lies forlornly out in the street awaiting the binmen. The fun and self-indulgence is over, and it is time to return to the responsibilities and difficulties laid aside at the end of December. The weather generally doesn’t help, dark days and chilly rain slowly spreading the reddish gunk left behind by New Year’s fireworks. In a normal year the pleasure of meeting colleagues again, the cheery buzz of conversation, and the broader horizons of work, physically and intellectually, are enough to carry me through until I find my way again. This year, however, the bleak prospect of at best a lengthy lockdown (and at worst, who knows?) makes 2021 gape like an endless black hole, ready to swallow me up.
The writer Maya Angelou tells of a time when, burdened with feelings of guilt and responsibility for her son’s illness, she felt so desperate that she considered suicide. Going to a friend for help, he demanded that she sit down and write a list of everything she had to be grateful for:
I picked up the pencil and began.
“I can hear.
I can speak.
I have a son.
I have a mother.
I have a brother.
I can dance.
I can sing.
I can cook.
I can read.
I can write.”
When I reached the end of the page I began to feel silly. I was alive and healthy. What on earth did I have to complain about? For two months in Rome I had said all I wanted was to be with my son. And now I could hug and kiss him anytime the need arose. What the hell was I whining about?
Wilkie said, ‘Now write, “I am blessed. And I am grateful”’.
Maya Angelou – ‘Singing and swinging and getting merry like Christmas’
I wrote the line.
Maya felt silly, and questioned what she had to ‘whine’ about. Often, when someone tells us to ‘count our blessings’, the subtext is indeed that we should stop moaning about nothing. Yet the troubles she faced were genuine, just as the effects of corona are not to be trivialized or ignored. They are here, they are real, and they weigh down on us heavily, threatening to tip us off-balance. All the more reason to take stock of the good things in life and place them on the other side of the scale, to try and restore that inner balance. The trouble is that while the negative side of the scales is effortlessly replenished during each day that the crisis continues, the blessings in life have become much more difficult to find.
One way to go in search of blessings is to compare myself with others who are worse off. Rationally, this works very well for me. I am very aware that I am incredibly lucky compared to those who have lost loved ones to corona, who are ill themselves, or who are threatened with the loss of livelihood and home. I am also fortunate that my life can broadly continue as it was, unlike others for whom study, career, relationships and even parenthood have been put on hold indefinitely. Emotionally, however, I find this approach completely counter-productive. It fills me with grief and sorrow for those who are suffering, a sense of powerlessness at my inability to help them, and dread that this could still happen to me.
A second way to find blessings is to look for the gifts in my life that I take for granted. I am fit and healthy. I have a job that not only pays my bills, but that I love doing. Against all my expectations as a shy, spotty, unpopular teenager, I have a partner who I love deeply and who appears to be daft enough to love me back. I have two wonderful children who fill my life with the joys of the unexpected.
The third way is to look for the blessings that are so small that I usually fail to notice them. A walk in the sunshine, a joke with my partner, a restaurant meal at home, a bird cheekily peeking in through our ‘office’ window. Individually, they are tiny, but together they become significant, grains of sand building up into a huge pile. The great advantage of these small blessings is that, unlike the big things in life, new ones appear every day – and there is much more that I can do to bring them about, if I only make the effort.
In this way, I can construct a long list of blessings. But it is just a list. To truly counter the psychological effects of this crisis, mechanically counting my blessings is not enough. I need to truly feel them. My employer called in an expert to give us advice on staying positive during corona, and one tip that stayed with me was to experience the good moments in your life actively and intensively. Sharpen all your senses, express your happiness to others, and remember the moment to recall later. That is something I can do to bring my blessings to life. Take a moment to close my eyes and feel the sun on my face. Hug my girls tightly, breathing in the scent of their hair and stroking their warm (and often sticky) little hands. Savour the taste of good food as I sit at the table with my partner and we relive all the good times we have had together.
I don’t expect the miraculous outcome that Maya Angelou had. But with the darkness of the winter months looming, and a new dawn so far away, finding every spark of light and cherishing it seems like a good plan to me.