In Wales lockdown measures have recently been relaxed, so that we are now easing back into some kind of semi-normality. On Monday 12th April I returned to work for the first time since just before Christmas 2020 when it was announced that all non-essential retail in Wales would close. I vividly remember returning home from work on December 19th after a long hard day and hearing the news literally as I pulled into the driveway. At the time I imagined I'd be resuming work some time in mid-January, yet it has taken until now, mid-April for that to happen.
Being back at work this week has been a strange mixture of the familiar and the strange. The environment and the work is well-known and yet there's an odd sense of unreality that I don't recall feeling on my return to work after the first lockdown last spring.
I suspect I'm not alone in feeling this sense of confusion and dislocation. The long months suspended from our normal routines have been followed by a supposed return to normality which is anything but normal. I may be back working one of the several part time jobs I had before the first lockdown, but most of my other jobs have fallen casualty to the pandemic for one reason or another and ceased. I may be back in familiar surroundings fulfilling a familiar role, but I am doing it while wearing a mask and observing social distancing, and I still can't hug a workmate, invite friends into my home, or teach a workshop. Looking back, so much and so little has happened.
Seeing (separately) two friends for the first time in months this week highlighted this strangeness for me. It was lovely to see them and reconnect after being separated from them for such a long time. And yet I found myself floundering when they both asked me the simple question, 'So how have you been?'
How have I been? What have I been doing during the long months of lockdown? What has life been like, what has changed, where will life go from here?
All the answers that I could give are too deep or too shallow. How can I convey the spikes of fear and the blur of boredom; the endless anxiety about my elderly parents and my friend with COPD; the unaccustomed luxury of time to sleep in late and garden and cook and write and immerse myself in a good book; the stupefying lack of focus; the slow accretion of outstanding tasks which keep me awake at night, while I instantly forget the goals reached and accomplishments achieved during the same time frame?
When one friend asked me 'What have you been up to?' I found myself giving the slightly surreal, completely inadequate and not even wholly accurate response, 'Well, I grew a lot of carrots,'. At the time it was all my mind could pluck from the nebulous swirl of 'my life during lockdown'.
Looking back over the last year, it all seems rather like a fever dream - simultaneously vivid and vague, surreal, epic, confusing and impossible to convey precisely. Which is all quite understandable. We have all - the entire world - undergone a dislocation from our normal lives, experienced a trauma. Everyone experiences upheavals in life, times of pain and fear and loss, but we don't usually all experience them simultaneously so that the whole world is jolted from its tracks. And this trauma has not been a single short-lived shock, but a long, drawn-out upheaval which has left people exhausted.
And yet... I wonder what will come from this in the long run? I am hopeful that we as a species will move forward from this having learned some useful lessons, and thinking hard about what it is we want to 'go back to'.
Some years ago at a Witchcamp, I took part in an elaborate life/death/rebirth ritual in which people were guided through a series of gateways, each representing an aspect of their lives such as their name(s), possessions, achievements, friends/family/loved ones etc. At each gateway they were instructed to leave every one of these things behind. It was a gradual stripping away of every part of identity and self. At the final gateway they were greeted by a priestess aspecting the Goddess, who blew out the tealight they carried (symbolising their life force). They were then given as much time as they needed to bathe in Her Cauldron of Rebirth (a hot tub!) while meditating on what they had left behind, what they wanted to retrieve - and what they wanted to leave behind. It was a gruelling process for most people, but deeply informative and transformative. So much of what we carry with us through life we carry through habit, or because we've been told by others we must carry it. Stripping everything away and consciously choosing to recover only those things of value is immensely freeing. When each person was ready, they left the hot tub and were given a new tealight symbolising their rebirth. They retraced their steps through each gate, picking back up the things they wished to carry into their new lives - but crucially, leaving behind those which they had decided they no longer wished to carry. So, for example I have been known by many names in my life - Susan, Moonroot, Moonie, Susie, Wallis, daughter, sister, wife, witch, aromatherapist etc. But I have also been called ginger, fat, stupid, ugly, bitch etc. Some of these names have come from other people - and some I have called myself. When I strip away these names and identities and leave them at the gate, on my return I can choose which names I wish to carry - and those I am happy to leave in the dust.
This pandemic has stripped our normal lives away from us. When we return through each gate, I hope that we will think very carefully about what it is that we wish to pick back up. My 'normal' life before all this began was actually pretty dysfunctional in many ways. Post-divorce, job insecurity and fear of poverty had led to me working 6-7 day weeks. I was permanently exhausted, short-tempered and ill, but I couldn't seem to get off that hamster wheel. Every time I was offered more work I said yes, because I was always short of money and afraid that the work I did have would dry up, leaving me penniless. Being forced to slow down and stop made me realise how joyless life had become. During months of lockdown I have started to read books again, cook from scratch again, grow vegetables again, observe the Wheel of the Year again. I have finally learned how to properly use the camera I bought several years ago and have taken reams of photographs. I have had time for the long, deep conversations that feed my soul. I have written more in the last year than I have managed in the previous three or four years. I have had time to sit and drink in the beauty surrounding me. And most importantly I have had time to reassess the way I've been leading my life and come to some important decisions about what I want to change about that.
Much of my 'normal' life was in direct contradiction to my values and beliefs. I was buying pre-packaged convenience foods because I was too damned tired to cook. I was driving miles and miles between my scattered jobs, eating junk food on the hoof. I was too tired to have much of a social life and short-tempered with my loved ones. My house was a mess. Every so often I would manage a holiday or have an enforced break caused by illness and I would resolve to do better - but immediately fall back into my old ways. My mantra seemed to always be, 'next month, when things are less busy...', but next month never was less busy, and so it went on.
All of that has been taken away from me. I have lost three of my part time jobs and of the remaining three, restrictions mean I am only able to work at one of them at the moment. When I am able to resume all three, that will be enough. I am determined to find a way to manage financially without damaging my physical and mental health further and working myself into an early grave. My petrol consumption has plummeted. I have been gradually sorting out the house and making my environment a pleasant one. I have stopped shopping at big supermarkets and now buy most of my groceries from a small local zero-waste shop. Guess what? Their prices may be higher than the supermarket, but because I am only buying what I need and not getting sucked in by special offers and convenience foods I have actually cut our food bills and food waste. I have been growing our own vegetables and cooking proper meals - I make my own hummus and veggie burgers and bread from scratch. What I have realised is that staying on the hamster wheel required me to spend more money than it brought in. My life is now more manageable, less expensive, less wasteful, greener and infinitely more satisfying.
The other great lesson I hope we can learn from the pandemic is that we are all in this together, and working collaboratively for the good of the whole is the best and fairest way to run the world. Look at the awe-inspiring collective effort that has brought us effective vaccines in the space of a year! We humans are at our most marvellous when we co-operate rather than compete.
I believe the sense of unreality I am feeling is the world re-making itself in a new and hopefully better way. We have all had much of our lives stripped away over the last year, and spent time immersed in the Cauldron of Rebirth swirling in a fever dream of possibility. Now as we prepare to leave the Cauldron and re-enter the world, let's consider very carefully the kind of 'normality' we wish to return to. What will you pick back up? What will you choose to leave behind? The great blessing of every period of difficulty in our lives is the lessons we learn from it, and the chance we are given to grow. Let's seize this unprecedented opportunity we've been given with enthusiasm and build a better 'normal'. The old world wasn't working anyway, why go back to it?