Here we are in late August at the point in The Time of Covid-19 which may come to be known as The Stopping and Starting. I’m finding it difficult; despite evidence of lower numbers of deaths here from The Thing, the last two weeks have felt more worrying than the previous months. Any illusion of a slow but steady easing of rules as we progress towards a resumption of the Old Normal is slipping away as local lockdowns become more common and quarantine periods are imposed with only a day or so given as notice. Even New Zealand, once proudly free of The Thing, now has cases again. Plus there’s the weather; it makes me realise that what has been manageable in warm dry conditions is going to feel very different when it’s cold, dark and dismal out there. When I’ve aired these feelings in conversation, many have agreed, and have even been grateful that I’ve voiced this so that they know it’s not just them.
Dislocation, in physical terms, is when the ends of your bones are forced out of their normal positions, and your joint is immobilised. And it hurts. I think there’s a mental equivalent, and I had a moment of it last week. We went for tea and cake at a familiar local venue which doesn’t require bookings. Social media had suggested that this venue – which has lots of open-air seating, some of it under a canopy – is well-run and safe. And it is: you have to sanitise and then to give your details to a visored staff member before they’ll lift up the rope and let you in. Ordering is online or you can go in and take a look, using the one-way system. Outside there are arrows and new boundaries between seating areas. It was great: but as I started my cake I had a moment of dislocation. I’ve been to this place so many times, with family and friends. On the surface, it is very, very familiar. Yet so much of it was unfamiliar, and it felt like the remembered place was trying to break through the current reality. I’ve had this feeling before; for example, in going to an academic library where they completely refurbished the familiar reading room and added on a modern extension, and where my many years of knowing the old system kept coming to the surface as I negotiated the new building.
Let’s just dwell for a moment on the booking system, from which that café is mercifully free. One of the aspects of The Time of Covid-19 which I’ve found particularly challenging is the need to plan. Book a table for a meal (for the record, I have eaten out precisely 6 times since March). Book a slot for an English Heritage or National Trust visit (I’ve done more than 6 of those). Book to go to church (so far, not done that). Today on Church Coffee Zoom someone with family members who were shielding was saying how the life of bookings doesn’t work for her, because she never knows if it’s a good day until the day itself. This conversation reminded me of Kathy Charmaz’s book Good Days, Bad Days (1991) which looks at the way perceptions both of time and of the self change as a result of chronic illness.
After several conversations last week, I’m wondering if Charmaz’s work applies to all of us in The Time of Covid-19. Plenty of people are suffering a different kind of ‘dislocation’ as their homes become their offices while they live on Zoom and Teams; their weeks still have structure but what they do is still very different. But many of us have lost our grip on time; the regular commitments which punctuated our weeks have gone and our calendars are empty. The middle days of the week seem particularly difficult to grasp. As for the year, in my town the end of summer is usually marked by a huge, free, music festival on the weekend after the August Bank Holiday. This conveniently happened at the end of our garden. It was an occasion for friends and family to descend on us to join in, and for festival food to replace normal meals for three days. No more.
Time, both week by week and across the annual cycle, has other meanings now. What about Charmaz’s other focus: the self? In another conversation last week, someone said that what she most disliked was that she felt she had become a different person. Specifically, this applied to shopping. From buying bits and pieces as needed, she has been transformed into someone who secures her supermarket delivery or click ‘n’ collect slot and then decides well in advance what she needs and, as soon as one ‘shop’ is complete, she then plans the next one. I identified strongly with what she said. Again, it’s that lack of spontaneity. I know we are very fortunate here in that we aren’t particularly restricted by our incomes in terms of what we can afford; we aren’t relying on food banks. We have a garden and can invite a few people into it. But just because there are other ways that the self can be threatened doesn’t make this one less significant to those who experience it.
One of the punctuating points of my week used to be attending church on Sundays. I’ve posted elsewhere about how I took my mother on a lockdown tour of churches she knew, to see what they were all up to. My mother has since died. At my church, things have now moved; from pre-recorded in people’s homes, to live streaming from the church building. I haven’t been back yet. I thought that my faith needed the Eucharist, and before The Time of Covid-19 I regarded non-eucharistic services as somehow ‘not really worship’. Clearly for some in our congregation this is still their position as, despite the lack of congregational singing (we have organ + cantor + invitation to hum along) and despite the oddity of communion in one kind delivered to your hand by a masked and visored celebrant using gloves and tweezers, they want to go every Sunday.
In terms of time, yes, Sunday is still when I (virtually) go to church, although it may be a service other than the one at ‘my’ church. Last week I went to the church I used to attend in Vienna, because it came up on my Facebook page at breakfast time. I have less sense of the church’s year, because I’m not seeing the liturgical colours every week and Easter wasn’t anything like it usually is, and I may be peeling vegetables while ‘being at church’. I normally go to the Church Coffee Zoom, because although the full screen of people can feel very falsely positive about everything, when we are sent to breakout rooms of 4 or 5 people there may be deeper conversation. Sometimes I go to several online services, maybe fast-forwarding through the hymns. I usually stick around for the sermon, which is how a couple of weeks ago I found the most helpful piece I’ve heard since all this started, by the Bishop of Reading, Olivia Graham.
+Olivia acknowledged the disruption we are feeling and linked the current stage of the pandemic to ordinary time and to the hard work of dying. Her sermon acknowledged instability and looked at how we’ve shifted from the drama of the ‘acute’ stage of this pandemic to the long haul of what she called the ‘dull ordinariness’ of the ‘chronic’. She reminded me that I need to stay as far as I can in the present moment. At some point, I suppose I will be back in the building doing what someone at Church Coffee Zoom referred to as ‘real church’, a label I’d resist. I suspect that here, too, the remembered place will try to break through the current reality, and I’ll feel disoriented and it will hurt. But that is ‘then’, and this is ‘now’, and what matters is what’s important ‘now’.