I suppose it comes as little surprise that I haven’t been able to finish a piece of writing in over three weeks. It seems my ability to focus, hardly enviable in the best of times, is pretty much obliterated now. I am a nervous bird fluttering about the flat, starting a letter to a friend only to glance at the clock and think 830?! how is that right? and leap up from my task with the pain of realisation that the silence from the children’s rooms is a cry of starvation—with daylight savings in the midst of all of this, the light lingers in London and how disorienting the long days have become—- when I receive a WhatsApp that I must reply to immediately, for that attached video of the Parisian ballerinas dancing to Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet in their kitchens and basements and bathtubs has stunned me, stopped me in my tracks. I flop on the chair in the salon and begin to weep (let’s watch it again)—and oh my gosh, that reminds me….

But, what is that? My God, look at the way the mouse has gathered the fallen tulip petals behind the couch, how shocking and beautiful. Is it true? Four red petals with brushes of yellow, arranged with thought. He must have gathered them from under my desk while I slept. Who is this industrious and sweet nocturnal mouse who I admire so? Who is he who has defied the odds for months, foraging about, non-plussed by two exterminator visits as well as my cunning network of old-fashioned traps? I smile thinking of my son’s stern breakfast advice, We can’t get too attached to it (which made me laugh, thinking of my favourite line in a film when two urban drunkards must kill a chicken in the country for their dinner)— because just that morning we had read a children’s story about a dreamy mouse who is considered sort of useless until the last months of the winter descend, when most of the nuts and berries and straw was gone, and the corn was only a memory, and it was cold in the wall and no one felt like chatting, and the dreamy mouse who was considered sort of useless begins to describe the rays of sun, how it glows, and soon the other mice begin to feel warmer, and he tells of blue periwinkles and red poppies, and they see the colours as clearly as if they had been planted in their mind… Soon the tired, scared mice are reassured and they applaud, and the dreamy mouse is a poet. And behold, I think to myself, we have him in our midst.

What will happen if illness sweeps through Africa? I wonder for the millionth time, turning to the window and procrastinating dinner. I do still love the world (I reflect) but I can no longer apologise for my desire to flourish. I clear my throat, it is perhaps a bit sore? Or I’m probably just hungry. There is still no dinner happening as darkness settles out the window, and that incredible indigo blue twilight reaches deep into something profound. I hear the children’s quiet and wonder, how does illness begin? I try to remember when I last had a fever. He found an odd bruise on his leg and a month later he was dead… I fucking hate those stories, and touch my forehead—perhaps I should take my temperature—and I think of a line that I read today:

To avoid pain, they avoid pleasureTo avoid death, they avoid life.


Will we ever be so foolish to postpone our love again? Will you continue to play those stupid games, or even hesitate before you reach over to touch her cheek? If we choose to shelter forever, we shall go to our graves with regrets, I think, shifting my gaze… How lovely those red and yellow tulip petals behind the couch, arranged like Japanese calligraphy, cryptic and startling. This is a mouse after my own heart, I decide. Ok, you win. You may live. I can’t pretend to kill you anymore, it’s too exhausting. But let’s agree to this— please don’t have babies. I turn back to the window with the delicious sense of peace that comes with a truce.

How I digress! I haven’t been able to finish a piece of writing in three weeks; my focus is obliterated. But this morning, torrential rain came to London after weeks of generous light and one’s thoughts turned inward, my friends are writing to me from their beds. What is the use? they reason. It is what it is, and it’s lovely being in my body, and look how even time has started to transform. Let us sleep and dream and flutter about all day, and shout from the windows each night. We are all artists now.

And when this ends, some of us will remain in stillness, and we will teach you how to love. Look, here is an online lecture about how to manage an architectural firm from home, and a trillion zoom calls about how this institution or that framework will proceed during and after the time of quarantine. I am enamoured by the will to keep the world afloat. Tomorrow the dreamers will benefit from your determination today, thank you. But we will never sit at a cafe by the sea with a glass of wine in the same apologetic, distracted way again. We will look into your eyes this time, and it will hurt. For soon, we will all suffer from an open heart.

**


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A few weeks ago, when this great mystery was beginning to unfold and I was wavering between hoarding cans of beans and a sort of fluted exasperation over all the foolishness, I walked through the park near our flat in central London. The trees were beginning to blossom, their gushing pink and white blossoms still bewilder me after the years spent in Dakar surrounded by desert, sand and dust. The grass was lush and wild, drenched with morning dew. Pale purple tulips rose in the flower beds and later that day when I returned to walk with my daughter, she would comment on the tulips and wonder aloud who had planted them. We talked about the quiet but tenacious character of gardeners, and the perennial nature of tulips, and the perennial nature of life, and I recalled how the first tulips used to rise up through the dry leaves and mulch each cold New England spring in my childhood yards—slender and pale, such weird tender gestures of hope, almost lurid after months of bleak winter. Then the conversation petered off and we walked in silence, and it dawned on me that she probably wouldn’t have given a thought to the tulips in a previous life; our life of the week before.

That week spring arrived for a brief surprising interlude here. Now as I write, my fingers are numb again with London’s chill. But the warmth was a blessing, a powdery blue sky after months of endless grey. I moved into this flat in November, a bivouac during my husband’s post in South Sudan—a three room flat close to my son’s new school, the top floors of a 19th century townhouse. The ceilings are low, the rooms small, but the sky fills the windows and it was just for my son and I for a year. It was enough. We shippped our container to storage in Norway and bought a few things to hold us over, and spent the weeks walking to the National Gallery, to the Tate and St Paul’s Cathedral, along the Thames and through the parks and gardens—weaving in and out of museums and churches and cafes. We settled into a simple routine as the winter days folded in on themselves and the darkness lengthened, celebrating centuries of western beauty after years in West Africa.

Without fail,  a friend would pass through London each week—from Nairobi, Brussels, Dakar, Vancouver, San Francisco, Austin, Florence, Cambridge–for a meeting or a layover or visiting family. For the first time in years, we gathered with my family for the holidays. Friends from my past began to emerge all around us, themselves returning from expat life to usher their children though high school. Swiftly, the isolation and alienation I had experienced in Dakar, where I never quite got a hold on the endless heat; never responded to the call to prayer as I do to church bells; never mastered the choppy broken French—where I had drifted into sort of a perpetual, seemingly endless waiting game—swiftly those quiet years were replaced with friends, art, music and nature. Swiftly, almost overnight, my life poured back. It happens, I promise you— it happens overnight. And each moment was now a gift, appreciated in ways I could never have conceived before the lockdown I experienced in Dakar.

Anyway, we moved into this flat in November and so I was not yet aware of how the afternoon light would pour through the west windows as the days began to lengthen. My daughter, whose bones were built on a diet of mangoes and African sun, basked in its warmth as she began to accept her own waiting game: her boarding school and her  life suddenly canceled, her identity pulled out form under her, I watched her begin to arrive to a foreign, cruel place; to a time that will test her patience and faith in ways no parent would ever wish upon their child.

The sun was a blessing for her, though I had to wonder as I prepared for this invisible infestation, this influx, this silent encroaching war, if a few more days of cold and grey wouldn’t make it easier to hunker down. I wondered too if being by myself, without the anxiety of tending to children alone in a foreign city, wouldn’t be an enviable fate right now. I wondered: had I done my life differently, married an investment banker and settled into a suburb with a minivan, a clothes dryer and an entertainment system— would I not be more at peace right now? Would I not feel so smug and calm in the assurance of affluence? I would certainly be better off in a country house, absolutely I decided that, with access to a beach or woods. I might, I considered, even welcome such a severance from the world. For two hours—or was it two days? time by then had begun to lose its boundaries, spooling into its limitless uncertainty—for two hours, or two days, I envied and even sort of despised, my friends in the country.

But then I changed course, and I desired for nothing. I thought: to be a monk, drifting along through remote, monastic hours; the days measured only by a rhythm of prayer; solitude with my eternal God— untouched by the illusions of society now dismantling so closely around me… that… yes, that would be ideal. For an afternoon, I was at peace with this plan.

By now the sound of sirens in the near distance was almost incessant. Out my bedroom window, a blade of modern white tower, the College University Hospital, rises from the gritty 19th century London rooftops. And it beckons during this time of plague; it hovers, it haunts. That night, it was just last Saturday I believe, I made a strong drink and before I finished drinking it I passed out on my bed with my clothes on. The next day, the monastery was quietly put aside.

I called a friend in Dakar. The last foreigners had been evacuated and the airport was closed, she had chosen to stay with a handful of other families and wait it out. Uncertainty was looming, and still looms, and my most beautiful friend on the planet—ephemeral and poetic and wise—who was evacuated from Tunis after the school was blown up; stayed in Cote d’Ivoire with three babies through the unrest, and once killed a mouse with her hands in Jordan while the kids were taking a bath in the next room—had an unusual, slightly-forced lightness to her voice. I could hear the birds singing in the background. “Well at least,” she said in her soothing Dutch accent, “we’re not in Spain.”

Though my Spanish friend was at peace with her decision to return with the children, and was relishing the first time she’s had in years to herself with the children and the essentials, with dancing and board games and a new way of living. Likewise, my family in Norway wondered about us in the heart of London, but then three of them fell ill so I didn’t see how it was better there and I have my community here, friends who call to talk and commiserate and who now end the conversation by saying, “Well, at least we’re not in the US…” while my American friends and family send photos of the birds, beaches, lovingly-prepared dinners. Maybe at some point, we all yearn to be somewhere else, and then realise at the end of the day that that somewhere else is where we are.

I settled into my fate here and my panic and desire to be elsewhere faded away, and I began to see what was before me. This is what I have now: a three-room flat with my two children, alone, together, in a foreign city. This roof, these neighbours, this light through the window. It is what I had in Dakar, in New York, in Maine and in Norway. It is always the same. For now there is food and enough coffee for a year. My son on the internet; my daughter with her art. We watch too much tv. But there are no more rules; expectations are obliterated. It makes me uneasy; and it is such a relief. What is there to care? As together with each human in this world we become painfully, acutely aware of our very essence: each breath. As together, we begin to honor each breath. That is life. And this is my time of acceptance—of our resources, our circumstances, our shocking and beautiful and terrifying sudden fate. Where else is there? It’s all right here. It’s always been right here. It’s all right here, before us.

Do not let joy in, do not let love—
Banish lust and God and doves.
Do not let angels touch your hair,
Silly rainbows, I don’t care.
No tarot cards, no Holy Ghost,
Prayers are futile. Art is rote.

History is good and true.
And war, of course, and tax law too.
Excel sheets and hedge-fund rates—
Will usher through the Pearly Gates.

Society, I cherish so
It’s all so noble, it’s all so droll.
Just don’t stare long at the sun—
For what you worship, you become.

Stones churn and roll with each new tide,
Boys lift their legs on a bicycle ride!
A little martini at half past two—
A woman’s lips— succumb to you—

Like a river passing through the night
That moves the bridge’s reflecting light
On black black water— like dragon’s blood—
How it Lures me, enchanting— before the flood.

Here’s Sylvia Plath talking about her childhood in a 1961 interview with The BBC— & seagulls in Regents Park this winter, a few blocks away from where she once lived with Ted Hughes.

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