From Brenda in Hove: It’s Part of my curriculum

the Toulouse-blue crepe van

11 July. I have been feeling a bit poorly for a few weeks and haven’t been out much. Truth be told, life felt somewhat joyless. Covid and attendant restrictions are getting to me. Today I felt a bit better and went to the park to find out if my legs still worked (they did). I trod my usual paths and looked out for anything different since I was last there. Same old thing: lots of men with very shaggy beards; lots of men who haven’t heard of clippers; lots of women with weird hairdos who clearly haven’t made it onto the appointment lists; boisterous teenagers being the only people who at least don’t seem as subdued as the rest of us but behaving rather recklessly nonetheless. No joy there.

I noticed that there are now well trodden, clearly discernible paths alongside the main paved paths around the park – made by people like me trying to keep an acceptable distance from the people on the paths – lots of them. I read somewhere (The Observer, 14 June) that these are called “desire paths” (can you believe it?) – paths trodden by people who are usually intent on a shortcuts but are now intent on keeping to social distancing measures. It struck me how furtive and suspicious we all seem now – avoiding each other as if our lives depended on it (and they may). If an alien landed from another planet, it would think we were a very unsociable species. And that is before we don our masks. No joy there either.

The children’s play area was open. Now there is a joyful thing! I love children and I love watching children play. They have been kept away from the playground for so many months that they were relishing being back. Children walking with their parents on the path and spotting the playground just took off, faster than they have ever run before. Amusing. And joyful.

And then I caught sight of a dear little Toulouse-blue van advertising French crepes (gluten free, by some miracle). I felt genuine joy! I love crepes and haven’t had a single one since I went on a gluten free (dreary) diet. The brand name was “Oui!” I leapt to it – even though I had to go back to the apartment for my card. It was delicious. It reminded me of what I already knew: joy can be found in small things. It doesn’t do to be too ambitious.

I read a book some time ago called The Book of Joy by Douglas Abrams in conversation with the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. There was much to be learnt from it. One story stuck with me and comes to mind as I try to come to terms with a life after Covid (challenged as I am by my advanced age). The author’s father had fallen down some stairs and suffered a traumatic brain injury – with no guarantees that he would ever return to his former self. As it happens, he did, eventually. When one of his sons said that he was sorry he had had this terrible experience, the father replied, “Oh no, not at all. It’s all part of my curriculum.” (page 157)    

I think it is very much like this with Covid. We have to learn to find joy in new ways. It’s part of our curricula.     

From Brenda in Hove: Picnics, more or less

“There are few things so pleasant as a picnic eaten in perfect comfort.” W. Somerset Maughan

Namaqualand daisies by James Gourley

14 June. Lockdown restrictions are easing here in the UK. So when I went for my usual walk around our park today, I was interested to note the differences this occasioned – especially as it is a Sunday. There was much that was very different. Teenagers, in particular, seemed to have embraced their freedom with a vengeance – especially the boys: riding their bikes and skateboards as fast as they could manage on the tarred path; having riotous games of basketball; having football games; and generally hanging out with their friends with no heed at all for social distancing. I suppose they have read about their odds of getting the virus and even the longer odds of dying from it. I felt very sympathetic towards them. Lockdown must have been very difficult for youngsters that age.

There were also more people in the park than has been usual – many of them picnicking. Picnics seem to me to be the ideal way of meeting your friends when social distancing is required, and they are seeing a resurgence. But I have to say that either none of them today seem to have had much experience of picnics or they were all very unimaginative. If a picnic is to be enjoyed there needs to be some sense of occasion to the affair.  

I have been spoilt in this department. One of my very best picnics was at Glyndebourne during the opera season. I have a generous friend who does the spoiling. One year, he ordered everything it was possible to order for a picnic during the interval. He had a table (no less) with six chairs, draped in damask, cut-glass wine glasses, silver cutlery, champagne on  ice, and an excellent three course menu served by a waiter. Somerset Maughan would have approved!  

Another standard-setting picnic years ago was in South Africa on a trip to see the Namaqualand daisies which come out once a year for about three weeks and are as spectacular as anyone could wish for. We and a group of friends had booked out a very small boutique hotel near a place called Velorenvlei (the name translated from Afrikaans means ‘lonely marsh’ describing an estuarine marsh on the Atlantic coast and a bird lovers’ paradise). We had left the booking to our friends in the Cape and left the arrangements to them as well.

We didn’t realize that one of the hotel’s claim to fame was its cuisine. One of the arrangements made was that the hotel pack us a picnic basket for a day out to one of the nature reserves in the area. When we arrived at the reserve we picked out a suitable place to have our picnic and set about opening the three massive hampers that the hotel had furnished. The most astonishing things came out of those three hampers. All the ingredients for a three course meal (including, I seem to remember, ostrich eggs) – complete with a printed menu for each of us! Damask cloths on the lawn, beautiful crockery, silver cutlery, you-name-it, even silver cigar cutters.

One of our party used to write the wine guide to South African wines every year and he had brought us just the right wine for every course (in an ice-packed hamper). I can’t drink wine so it was wasted on me – as was the conversation discussing the merits and demerits of every wine. At first, it was hilarious – again Somerset Maughan would have approved – but then we found that the reserve was on the tourist trail and we had settled ourselves very near to where all the tour buses parked. Dozens and dozens of people from all over the world who had come to see the daisies (!) were absolutely amazed to find this decadent scene of South Africans having a serious picnic. Out came the cameras and we were the subjects of an untold number of photographs. So embarrassing. How were they to know that none of us, before or since, had ever had such a picnic?

Moving on, we are planning to have some picnics of our own in the near future with much missed friends and family. They might not meet Somerset Maughan’s standards but they won’t descend to the minimalist fare seen in the park today!  

from Brenda in Hove, UK: A walk in the park

Hove Park, UK

“Thinking about the things we used to do! 🎶🎶 – like a walk in the park …”

Most days I go for a 20 minute walk (government guideline time!). We are fortunate to live abutting a park so we are very familiar with the seasons and many of the people who walk there. Many are walking their dogs and often one stops for a chat. There is a small cafe selling breakfasts and lunches and tea and coffee.- and, among others, lots of mothers with small children meet there. There is also a gym as well as people with personal trainers doing their thing. There are tennis courts and table tennis facilities. Altogether, a friendly, active, humming kind of place – that was! 

It is not like that any more. It strikes one as anything but relaxed. People walk at a two metre distance and they do so in a purposeful way. Cyclists go past you, children on scooters, runners – all going about their daily activity as if their life depends on it. There is little in the way of eye contact, no tarrying, no chatting, no bird watching, no photography (despite the breathtaking beauty of the cherry blossoms at this time of the year).  The cafe is, of course, closed – as is the gym. The young mothers have disappeared. No tennis. No table tennis. A police car cruises around the boundary from time to time. I don’t know why they bother. A more orderly bunch of people would be difficult to find. 

Yesterday, a woman called across the path to me “it’s very cold today.” She had a slightly desperate air about her. “It is,” I said. “Just when we thought the winter was over.” “I don’t have heating in my flat”, she said. We had a short conversation about keeping warm and not mistaking a cold for corona virus – and I awkwardly exhorted her to keep warm and safe – and moved on. I thought of all the lonely people whose daily routine included a coffee or meal at the cafe and a walk (and chance encounter) – and how a walk for some is an important contributor to their mental health. For those who suffer from depression this corona virus has visited a double crisis upon them. Many live alone and even their short venture out provides no contact. If you add in the fear and anxiety that many people must be feeling, not just about the virus itself but about their jobs and mortgages and future, we have a serious issue which must be causing enormous suffering. 

A Guardian columnist (#AndrewSolomon) writes that “from now on, when someone who hasn’t experienced clinical depression and anxiety asks me what they feel like, I won’t have to resort to florid comparisons. I’ll say: “Remember when the Covid-19 pandemic hit town?”  And they will understand.”