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.