I wrote this poem, which was published in Coast to Coast to Coast Poetry in Aldeburgh 2019, last year. The question raised in the poem haunted me. What gifts do you have and can you bear what it takes to give them?
I had already begun to make changes in my life that I hoped, once established, would allow me to focus on what was most important and allow me to feel less exhausted. But I was struggling with how. I have been blessed with a full life. Weekly commitments include working part-time at Leeds University, part-time freelance work which can include workshops and performances and much related admin; active caring responsibilities; visiting my dad with dementia an hour’s drive away and keeping in touch with family. I have chronic health problems and the last few years have brought a cacophony of personal and family difficulties. But I am used to that. While I was at university, I studied stress as part of a Psychology module. Looking at Holms and Rahe’s Social Readjustment Scale, I was horrified to find I had experienced much of what was on the list in the previous two years. I have come to accept this as being a side-effect of being closely connected to a number of people and having a creative life. But when you are continually dealing with major life changes, pressure from multiple sources and chronic health issues (the last few years have felt particularly intense for me) how do you prioritise what is important to you? Sometimes it is hard to even establish what your priorities are. What gifts do we have? Do we have what it takes to give them?
There are other questions in the poem. How do we respond to what the universe bestows or removes? How do we fit into the whole? Painfully pertinent to me last year, these questions are relevant for so many of us now as we deal with the terrible consequences of this global virus. The government and other organisations call out for volunteers, people on social media ask things of us and our work and family situations demand that we adapt very quickly to this situation. We are all trying to do so.
My neighbour is a health visitor tending to oncology patients on a much-reduced service while her older colleagues have put themselves forward to deal with Covid-19 patients. My friends who are doctors have been drawn away from their usual disciplines to assist with the crisis. Another friend has been redeployed from his library post to a food distribution centre. This week my husband started in post as a support worker in sheltered housing. There are the volunteers – millions of them. And don’t forget, amongst others, those in social care, delivery drivers and supermarket workers, refuse collectors, postal workers, teachers and childcare providers who are delivering face-to-face provision for children of key workers at great financial cost to their businesses. Each have stories of immense and mundane sacrifices under very difficult conditions.
As a university tutor, my contributions are far less heroic. But with all my freelance work collapsing as the lockdown kicked in, it was good to have other university work to focus on. There was a lot to do. As a part-time manger and module lead on several modules, transitioning to online lectures with a day or two’s notice was a challenge. This was compounded by it all happening the week after the strike finished. I’d been so looking forward to connecting fully with my students again and now I was telling them we would have to conduct everything at a distance. Not at all heroic but still of value or so some of my students, whose mental health issues have been exacerbated by this situation, tell me.
Although I don’t have any of the particular conditions that qualify me to be ‘shielded’ (I’m not keen on the militaristic imagery), I suspected I would be more at risk than some in my age group because of my health history so I socially distanced earlier than most. It seemed the most useful thing I could do (other than my job) was to be available on the telephone. I would call my mum every day, step mum every few days and siblings and single friends regularly. The week before the lockdown I posted letters to 25 neighbours (many of whom are elderly) offering a daily phone slot when they could ring me for a chat or a personal poetry reading or as a jumping off point for further help. I specified that they could call in an emergency at any time. I offered the same to others and was planning to apply to be an official telephone volunteer. I was volunteering my voice but then I began to lose it.
Before the lockdown I put tiredness, fatigued voice and gradual worsening of chronic breathlessness and cough down to chronic health problems combined with overwork and yet another major family crisis. 2 ½ weeks ago, I called the GP who suspected asthma or COPD and prescribed me an inhaler and antihistamines. Over the next few days, symptoms worsened with acute upper back pain, fatigue and a deepening of the cough. I looked like Boris did on those Zoom shots, only paler. Unlike Boris and thousands of other victims, I wasn’t ill enough to go to hospital. Fortunately my health has improved considerably, but despite taking time off to rest, this week I have become more short of breath again and have no useful voice. In an attempt to heal, I’m currently into my second day of not speaking and have temporarily given up my one luxurious coffee a day. The doctor suspects that I have had Coronavirus. If so, we all know how lucky I am.
However, in losing my voice, I have lost what I saw as being my main tool for helping in this crisis. My friends have thoughtfully added me to their lists of people they need to check on – they haven’t said this expressly but I know (I do appreciate it – thank you). But what a shock to realise that my status has changed from helper to helped. I imagine this is similar to how parents feel when they begin to need support from their children rather than the other way round. The truth is, this transition started years ago. It has become more noticeable in the last few years after surgeries and as I have lost strength in my shoulders, wrists, hips and hands due to Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. I now have to ask colleagues to move tables for me, my husband to do up zips or hang out the rest of the washing. I can’t stand for any length of time.
Of course being a helper or helped is not a binary choice. We all need shielding in some ways. We can all contribute. This crisis has highlighted what people value – food, health, exercise, and human connection. It has also shown how much we need the nourishment of culture, entertainment and education. And, although I am in the fortunate position of not having to expose myself to high viral loads of Covid-19 for the greater good, I can do my own tiny bit. I may be very low on energy. I may have temporarily lost my voice but I haven’t lost my words altogether. Some are here in this blog, some scribbled on scraps of paper to my husband, some in messages to friends and family and students. Others such as poems or the novel I’m redrafting will take longer to emerge. I hope they will be gifts people want to receive.
That’s not to say we should place additional pressure on others, as Alaa Hijazi pointed out in her blog. We don’t know what people are going through. Most of us will give what we can when we can. If not now because we are too unwell or too traumatised then later, when rebuilding begins.