There is only one item of news on the airwaves, only one subject to talk about. The language of the media and government is bullish and militaristic: lockdown, fight against, frontline. With all these overtones of imprisonment and war, no wonder we feel embattled.
The last few weeks have witnessed a surge of activity, as people rushed to stock their shelves, scrambled to reschedule events, meetings, performances, and in fact reconfigure pretty much everything so that it could happen online. Humanity went a’Whatsapping and life migrated to Zoom.
Except of course that Life – with a capital L – did the opposite. In the absence of humans and their cars and their planes and their endless rushing about, the natural world has blossomed into life. More birdsong, more nesting, more animals, more wildlife, clear skies. Less pollution, less noise, less dust, fewer cars, empty roads. Undisturbed, with only itself to interact with, the biome has burgeoned.
As humans have rushed inwards – inside, indoors, into their computers and out to the virtual world, the great Outdoors has rushed into the space left by our absence. Roadside verges, left uncut by the quiescent council put forth wildflowers. Unkempt grasses are full of undisturbed anthills, and busy with spiders, untrampled, unnoticed. Bird are so riotous in the trees it feels like they’ve been biding their time all these years for this grand finale (or is it a grand overture ushering in a new era?). Waiting in the wings – ha. It feels – and I know this is not the case everywhere, not by a long chalk – but it feels, here in this quiet corner of rural Somerset on this small British Isle, more like peace than war.
The radio is running out of ways to fill the time, TV serials are eking out their last few episodes, and everyone’s wondering what happens next? What happens now?
We are into week four of lockdown – and the ‘peak’ is upon us. More than 16,000 people have died of Covid-19 in UK hospitals, and 176,000 worldwide. There’s no shortage of grim news. There’s no shortage of grief and heartbreak. It seems impossible to now live in a world where the announcement that ‘only’ 700 people died in the last 24 hours is seen as a good thing – a flattening of the dreaded ‘curve’.
People are struggling to carry on their daily lives, to act as this all this is normal. To hang on to ‘normality’ in the face of such extraordinary upheavals tells us a lot about how ingrained our habits are, how difficult they are to let go of. In all of this craziness there is a voice of sanity that I turn to often (though truth be told, I’m only able to take him in small doses, because it’s powerful medicine, this), and that is Stephen Jenkinson.
His book, Die Wise is what the subtitle says: a manifesto for sanity and soul. If ever there was a time that the world needed both, it is now. Love in the time of Covid, you might call it. Jenkinson, now in his mid-sixties, worked for most of his adult life in “the death trade” as he calls it, much of it as director of palliative care in one of Canada’s largest hospitals, Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. He has seen out of this world literally thousands of people.
The wisdom distilled through these experiences, leavened with a wit and joie de vivre all his own, he shares in his books, and in his performances. The past few years he has been on the road with singer-songwriter Gregory Hoskins on what he terms “Nights of Grief and Mystery”. Turns out Jenkinson is an even more compelling storyteller than he is a writer.
“Our culture is a death-phobic thing to die in, probably irrevocably so,” he writes in Die Wise, “and many of the unbidden, unexamined thoughts and feelings we have about dying come from there. The darkness around is deep indeed, and it is only by enormous labour and courage and well-crafted speech that we are going to make our dying mean something more than what it has meant. That is the least of what we owe to those we will not live long enough to meet.”
If ever there was a time to stop and to wonder what it means to be human, to be mortal, and live in a culture that insists that we shouldn’t die, it surely must be now. I keep reminding myself of the extraordinary fact: all these people that are dying today, every single one of those ‘less than 700’ will die anyway, one day, and that includes you, and that includes me. It’s a sobering thought: but it’s also a liberating one. If taken in the right spirit, it is immensely energising. Perhaps it is time to slow down to as near stillness as you can manage – at least for a while – and wonder how to create a future post-Covid, that will not only honour the lives of those who have died, but build a better world for the ‘loved ones’ for whom we are the dearly departed.
Published in The Hindu Business Line, BLInk supplement, 26.4.2020
To hear Stephen Jenkinson’s talk on the days that we are currently living through, and how to make sense of this crisis, I would hugely recommend this podcast from the Orphan Wisdom school that he heads: https://soundcloud.com/orphan-wisdom/stephen-jenkinson-stranger-days