Day 29: ‘A degree in pottering’

Contributor: Jo:

During virtual coffee with a good friend last weekend she asked me “what have you achieved today?” As she went on to express her frustration and boredom at life under lockdown, and how she was rapidly running out of things to do, it occurred to me that firstly we were not experiencing lockdown in the same way emotionally, and that in a strange sort of way, my recent life had been preparing me for emotionally coping with ‘lockdown’ conditions long before they were imposed.

So how did I come to this mental place? After working full-time since 1995, about 7 years ago I reduced my hours and began to work part-time. This decision was in part triggered after finding myself in ‘Sainsbury’s’ doing a big food shop at 9.45pm, flying around the store before it shut, on my way home from an evening playing badminton, which I had gone to less than an hour after I arrived home from work. As I stood under the fluorescent lights, stressed and frazzled, wondering at the madness of that situation I decided to take a step back and live some of my life in the ‘slow lane’, to give myself time to actually enjoy it and do some of the things I wanted to do with my life. Now here unexpectedly in lock-down we are all to an extent being forced to do the same.

Sharing a day-time coffee with another friend soon after this, we discussed her new retirement lifestyle and how to achieve ‘the slow life’ on my non-working days, and she made me promise to ‘get a degree in pottering’. In attempting to achieve just that; – continuing to do the housework and DIY, see friends and family regularly, get more exercise, yet build in space to spend an hour or three reading a good book without feeling guilty, taking time to develop new hobbies – finding the balance between feeling like I haven’t wasted the day, but also living my life and taking ‘me’ time – I have found the skills and attitudes that now serve me well in our current situation.

What I initially found hard to deal with was the need to feel ‘productive’. When I first went part-time, people kept asking me what new things I had achieved with my 2 days off, as my friends ask me now ‘what have you achieved in lockdown?  Part of developing ‘a degree in pottering’ is considering ‘what is being productive?’ Who sets the measurement parameters for productivity? How have we all become innately measured by the marketplace, by the terms of business and busy-ness?

The pressure to fill every minute with ‘useful’ tasks as judged by ourselves and society now haunts us in lockdown.  As we are all now suddenly and unexpectedly confined to our homes for an extended period I hear rumours of landfill over-flowing, refuse collectors over-whelmed by the national frenzy of decluttering in order to be productive with our time; there is a national shortage of flour and yeast as the nation collectively bakes enough cakes to feed the five thousand. Certainly, ‘enforced leisure’ is a great time to catch up on those outstanding jobs. Since lockdown began I have achieved some ‘tick ‘em off’ items on both my working and non-working day lists. However, these are largely lifestyle changes for the better, and also things I should have done ages ago – such as sorting out ordering organic meat from a local farm, buying more things direct from local businesses, and holding more phone calls with friends; ‘pottering’ can also disguise a good deal of procrastination… as the pile of junk in the dining room not taken to the tip before they shut also testifies…

So over time I have re-framed what I consider ‘productive’. Is it achieving lots of ‘goals’ or having a good day? I consider the notion of the things ‘to do’. I look it up in the dictionary and see several different interpretations including ‘to take action’, to complete a task’, and ‘to be occupied with something’. I think we get too hung up on the notion of ‘complete a task.’ On an alternative Covid-19 lockdown to-do list,  we could include, I didn’t get ill today, I supported a friend having a hard time, I cooked a delicious (if I say so myself) and nutritious meal without ‘popping to the shop’ for any missing ingredients, or I relaxed and read some of a book (not even a whole one).

I am thus in no danger of running out of things ‘to do’. As we enter lockdown for another 3 weeks, I realised that from the start I have been mentally prepared and ready for 3 MONTHS of lockdown, ever since the first rumours that the elderly and those with health conditions might have to self-isolate for 12 weeks. Way back in early March I made a huge ‘lockdown list of things to do’, including many activities I have been meaning to find time for for a while which keep me busy alongside the usual weekly and daily sourcing and preparing of food, and house-cleaning (which now takes a lot longer than it used to!), and the seasonal gardening tasks. And I am working from home 3 days a week, and that comes with its own comprehensive list of things to do. My virtual coffee friend teased me that I probably still wouldn’t have finished all the jobs on my ‘lockdown list’ by the time the pandemic is over, and to be honest with you she’s probably right!

This is underpinned by my habit of writing more on the list than could possibly be achieved in the given time-frame, even by superwoman! Plus, I don’t feel the pressure to have them all the items done on the allocated day; they will keep for another day, and time is one thing we have a lot of currently. This is the beauty of the ‘pottering’ paradigm. I also have a simple solution to the pressure of completing the ‘things to do list’ – before all this started, another friend and I laughed as we both admitted that we secretly add things on to our lists that we have already done that day, and then immediately cross them off just to satisfy the psychological need to feel like we’ve been useful.

So gaining my ‘degree in pottering’ has involved recalibrating what ‘productive’ means for me It has involved stepping away from the pressure to ‘achieve’ in terms of constantly complete tasks, and gained acceptance of the process of ‘doing’ as equally valuable. I am not bored, I have plenty to do, and time to do it in. I am not ‘filling my time’ for the next 3 weeks, but adapting my life to the on-going situation. This isn’t to say I don’t have bad days too, when the enormity of the global situation, the inability to physically visit friends and family, and the long-term possibly permanent nature of these changes hits me, but on a day to day basis for now, I am pottering along reasonably well.

Day 18: ‘The essence of “essential”…’

Contributor: Jo:

“Essential – there’s a word of the moment. Of late I have been mulling over what exactly is “essential”? Is it fixed and immutable, or does it depend on circumstances and context?

Thinking back to a training day in the early ‘90s I learnt that the four basic elements ‘essential to life’ are food, water, shelter and air. The last of these is freely available to all; and the second is easily accessible to anyone living in accommodation simply by turning on a tap (unlike in many parts of the world currently, where living through this pandemic must be considerably harder than here.)  Likewise, for those of us on this street, but again sadly not for increasing numbers in this country and elsewhere, shelter is largely a given. That just leaves food as the ‘essential criteria’ to fulfil.

I look up essential in the dictionary. The definition which strikes me as most applicable is “something that is absolutely necessary”.

The government says ‘you may only go outside to shop for essential supplies’, but what does that include? It is then qualified as “groceries and other shopping” – and already the guidance has broader scope than just the basic necessities for life.

Does buying a mascara refill, razor blades or new deodorant actually count as essential? Can I justify sending people out into the dangers of the outside world to visit the shop, or risk warehouse employees picking and packing my goods, simply for ‘beauty products’? I rarely leave the house currently so they are not needed, but they do help with the illusion of ‘normal daily life’ to feel fresh and be ready to face the world.

Is it essential to buy chocolate? (depends on the mood I’m in) or Easter eggs? Can I consider lemons (good for vitamin C, but mainly used for gin and tonic at present) an essential item? What about crisps or biscuits?  None of these is essential for survival, but will certainly make living like this easier; and if I’m shopping for milk and bread anyway, often considered ‘ basic essentials’, does it make a difference if a few less ‘necessary to life’ items make it into the shopping basket?

When we get down to brass tacks, even some of those things we consider totally essential are actually not – we can survive without them. Take toilet paper for example – it is widely publicized that people have been panic-buying and hoarding enough for the next 6 months as an ‘essential’, but as anyone who has used a public toilet will acknowledge – it is frequently a missing item, and yet we all survive!  Furthermore 5 months spent back-packing around India in my distant youth will also testify it is a valuable and luxury commodity to have, but not strictly speaking an essential.

According to official guidance I am allowed outside each and every day to partake in ‘essential’ exercise. However, is going outside for my daily walk strictly necessary when I can do a Zumba class on-line, mangle yoga on my lounge carpet, or cycle on our turbo roller? Some days I think it is essential, as my mental health benefits greatly from seeing a different view, from getting out and about, and I go out. Other days it seems an unnecessary trip out, a risk, and I stick to my inside exercise.

I return to the dictionary, and I find ‘essential’ is also defined as ‘of the highest importance for achieving something’. Many of these items which at first appear less than ‘essential’ in its basic sense, are vitally important in helping us all adjust, adapt, and tolerate the strictures we need to live under currently, and if that helps us all achieve this for the greater good, then I’m all for them.

Day 16: ‘Does life imitate art?’

Contributor: Jo:

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide,
No escape from reality.”

Although I know in my logical brain that this absolutely is our current inescapable reality, my days had been having a dream-like quality – like I have been living a film. By this I mean where when you watch a film (or read a book for that matter) you are living the experience along with the characters, but you also know the bigger picture that will influence their actions, and the implications of that; simultaneously you are both in the events, and standing outside watching them.

Several films have accompanied me in my waking hours of the last few weeks and months. I admit they are not necessarily classic, critically acclaimed films or even ‘worthy’ of the epic events unfolding in our lifetimes, however  I often seek to make sense of life through film or novels and these are the films that have provided the ticker tape commentary to my experiences of the pandemic story to date.

The first film which began to pop up in my thoughts was ‘Sliding Doors’.

Like others on this street diary, we started our self-isolation early. On Friday 13th March I had one of those rare and lovely treats, a ‘day off’, and had planned lunch with a friend in Nottingham followed by a weekend away with my sister and her family in Manchester, and a Sunday night film with the neighbours. However having been following events in Europe, and after long discussion we took stock of the situation (including my heart condition) and it was with heavy heart that we postponed (??cancelled) these events, and so started to reduce our human contact with others. At we sat alone in our lounge that evening, we were party to conversations on social media as friends set up a night out, and got together to see local bands. We wondered if we had made the right decision, when NO ONE else seemed to be doing the same.

Much like the two realities in ‘Sliding Doors’, it seemed like our lives were running in parallel to ‘normal life’. On the news, and outside on the street we could see people still shopping, eating out, socialising, visiting family, and we were sitting alone in our house. It was hard to see why, as life outside the window looked just ‘normal.’ This discontinuity was exacerbated by the knowledge that despite reducing all social contact at home I was still expected to go into work that Wednesday where I would have contact with at least 60 other human beings. (In the event, I was told by the doctor not to, and working from home began from then). I felt distanced, alone, and out of kilter with the world; it almost felt that we could re-join the happier blissfully ignorant alternative reality on the other side of the sliding doors. Two possible ways of living through the same days and nights were unfolding side by side, and yet totally apart.

From late February I had begun to read more and more about the approaching epidemic. As we talked about it at work, colleagues looked at me in disbelief and astonishment, and asked if it was really going to affect us here in the UK? People were surprised I might be considering cancelling our upcoming holiday. Was I over-reacting I wondered? Was I becoming the unnecessary doom-monger of my social group? At this point the film ‘Titanic’ became a constant feature of my thoughts, and I continued to draw parallels for some time. Initially Jack and Rose have seen the collision with ice berg, and know things are not right. They quickly become aware that it is serious and begin to prepare for the worst. As they pass through the ship, everyone else is carrying on a normal, as if nothing is happening, as if it’s all going to be alright. In my life, from conversations I was having, and what I was observing I felt like I was one of the few who knew what was coming or was reacting to it. We all carried on at work as if nothing was happening, socially little seemed to have changed around me, and people still flew away on holiday. And yet a catastrophe was steadily, inevitably unfolding around us. I grappled with trying to understand why others were not preparing, why the government was not acting.

As the pandemic has progressed, later scenes from the film have been played over and over in my mind – like the earworms you get in the middle of the night. The captain tells Rose to remember what he said about there not being enough lifeboats to save everyone, and that she must make sure she gets on one – it starts being confirmed that there are not enough beds/oxygen/ventilators for everyone who will get sick enough to need them. Much like in the film, people carry on regardless, maybe assuming class and those in charge will save them, or just remaining unaware.

Throughout the film, the boat continues to tilt as it fills with water, and the impending doom gets more apparent. Passengers beginning to panic and fight for the lifeboats is reflected by our selfish panic-buying in the shops – each out only for his own. With each passing week and each new development (such as the government sign-posting that lockdown was coming, schools closing, flights cancelled), in my head I saw the boat tilted further, the essential systems keeping it going struggling to cope, and the people partying on.

Towards the end Jack tells Rose they must be one of the last into the water as the cold will be hard to survive and there is better chance of rescue by clinging on until the end, however hard that is – likewise we hold out from catching the virus by self-isolating, waiting for the rescue boat of a vaccine, or an effective treatment, or at the least, when more ventilators have been produced. Some people have sadly already been lost to the tragedy, and those numbers are rising. Currently to my mind as we approach the peak infection time we are at the point where the boat is fully upended, the remaining passengers are clinging on, waiting for the headlong plunge into the full maelstrom of the pandemic.

At this point ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ has joined my inner narrative. Like Hermione, Harry, and Ron we listen each day to the rising numbers of dead and infected in a tragic rollcall of the missing. As the characters search for the ‘hoar cruxes’ they travel to beautiful parts of the country, and yet they move through them viewing all around them with fear, unable to trust; as I take my allowed exercise in the local area, I see the trees blossom and the flowers grow, but I move through this world with similar fear and anxiety whilst I am out, hoping it will not be a decision that comes back to haunt me.

Finally in those few and far-between moments of hope, my subconscious shows me the ending of ‘The Day After Tomorrow’. Many have been lost in the storm, but different nations reach out  to offer help and support to each other. I ask myself, as this world-wide pandemic wreaks its damage across the entire globe, will nations pull together to help each other through, learning from each other and sharing resources? Can we create a new normal on the other side which is better for all humankind? It is a far-reaching hope I know, but in this case I would hope that life does imitate art.