Saturday, 21 March 2020

Thoughts on Corona, self isolation, discipline and what 'home' actually means.

I left work yesterday for the last time until I don't know when. I wasn't mentally prepared to say goodbye to my children (my pupils). My colleagues and I had put on a rather impromptu little celebration as a makeshift farewell, in case this would turn out to be their last day in Year 6, their last day in junior school. As I scribbled goodbye messages onto shirts, I tried my best to give each and every child a message that they might reflect on, a message of hope, assurance and above all one that would always remind them - I believe in them. 

I went to bed early last night and woke early this morning (at 6am) because I knew I needed to get words down. These are strange times after all. Schools closed their doors yesterday and so for the foreseeable future I will be at home with my children. We are trying our very best not to constantly feed ourselves news reportings and Coronavirus updates but I believe this will take more discipline than I'd like. Words like 'self isolating', 'social distancing', 'homeschool' and 'sanitiser' have become everyday and dare I say it, almost tedious. I try not to roll my eyes with every new mention whlist simultaneously obliging and doing all that is required of me. I follow the rules, do as I'm told albeit begrudgingly. 

On my way home from the closed doors of my workplace, I made my way to the closest shops to see if I could get some essentials to keep the family going over the next couple of weeks, a necessary task since my family and I have not stockpiled. We simply carried out our normal weekly food shop last Sunday and since then, apart from purchasing a nine roll pack of horrendously overpriced quilted, aloe vera toilet roll during the week and a fine bottle of Prosecco for Wednesdays date night, we have not shopped. I was overwhelmed by the empty shelves but managed to find enough things to sustain us, the overarching memory however of people's selfishness remains firmly in my mind. Reasons not to follow social media: those pictures which I've already consumed of individuals with trolleys containing twenty cans of baby formula, footage of a critical care nurse after a long shift pleading with individuals not to stockpile in order that people like her can actually purchase fresh fruit and vegetables to try and stay well for us (society at large) and be able to continue serving the community, that is, if there is not a complete breakdown in what it is to be community - to serve not just oneself but those around us, in particular those that are elderly, sick, vulnerable.

Individuals and families will, in the coming weeks be spending hours and hours cooped up with loved ones, of course there will be bonuses but I won't lie, this does fill me with some trepidation. I like time alone. I like alone time. I like time alone with my husband, just him and I. I enjoy spending time with my children individually, I love missing them and the feeling of looking forward to seeing them. We will have to be creative and patient and in our small house, we will have to find the few nooks to isolate from each other in order to remain sane. Headphones will be our friends. Books will be our escape. Primal screaming will be our daily exercise and solace, I suspect.

All of this has made me think about what 'home' is and ways that we might re-imagine it over the coming weeks or even months. As children, my siblings and I spent our three month summer holidays mostly indoors escaping the hottest season in West Africa, remaining as still as possible for as long as possible in order not to tire and overheat. We would search for sections of terrazo that were out of the sunny spots and we'd lie down writhing like snakes enjoying the cool tile against our skin. We'd use the annuals that my grandma would send for our birthdays as ice skates, one under each foot, we'd slip and slide on the terrazo floor practicing our 'ice-skating'! We'd cover our heads and button cardigans at the nape of our necks and flick the arms from side to side, pretending we had the long, wavy hair of Lucy Ewing (an inventive solution developed by my white mother to give her three afro haired daughters what we desired, what we called 'floppy hair'), we'd read, for hours and hours and hours, fantasising about ginger ale or Aunt Fanny's amazing picnics or wishing we could go fishing like Huckleberry Finn. We'd play ampe (a Ghanaian game that requires no equipment and gets your whole body moving) hopscotch, charades. We'd learn hymns off by heart. We'd write airmail letters, mostly to my Grandmother who lived in the UK, we'd sit and sift the stones and husks out of the rice we would cook for later that day, we'd walk to market and carry all of the food home in the hot sun, needing to rest upon reaching home. We would lie on our beds, legs and feet up on the walls daydreaming for what felt like days. We'd collect all of the rubbish from the house, including the paper scraps we used as toilet roll and take it to the dug out pit at the back of our house and burn it. The scraps of organic matter, the vegetable peelings and the like, we'd take next door to my Aunty Gita, who would use it for composting. We would make our own word puzzles and word searches, write our own stories, look through the bird books that out Grandmother regularly sent us and see if we could spot kingfishers, red throated bee-eaters and fat birders (my brother even drew a picture of each species we saw and sent them to my grandmother).

I look back now, especially in this current climate and I recognise the simplicity and joy of so much of those early days, as we often do reflectively. Our childhood was not all idyllic, we went hungry at times and didn't know where the next meal was coming from. There were days of eating just papaya and mangoes and very little else. There were days of being shut inside because of the coup. Times when we longed for the England we heard about and felt so disconnected from, where we clung to cookery books of dishes we craved, clung to letters that had the vague scent of our Granny, who we missed desperately, clung to magazines with the latest fashions that we'd ask our mum to try and recreate with her hands and her Singer sewing machine. What I know now more than ever, is this: it was home.

Us four children. Together. Squabbling. Playing. Hating. Loving. It was home. So much of my identity, so many of my ideals have come out of those long days spent together, creating and being 'home'. So, as I begin this new chapter with my boys at home, I will draw on all of this and rather than falling into the well of overwhelm, slipping and gripping and splashing in desperation to climb the smooth walls, I will think of 'home' in its many guises and draw from it as others have done so historically. 

I know now why my father would draw up a rota for each of us children every summer holiday. I think he felt, since he had managed to convince my mother to have four offspring, it was his duty to at least try and get the poor woman through twelve weeks of summer with no childcare respite or entertainment. I remember being as young as six and having six duties on my daily rota: dogwalking, washing up, buying vegetables (this involved a short walk to a lady in our village who sold the prettiest pyramid stacks of tomatoes, okra, onions, garden eggs, kpakpo shito), clean terrazo, sweep compound, get charcoal. I will use this to inspire chores for my boys, the older of the two is competent and mostly willing, the younger less so unless it is something that directly interests him. These are changing times. I'm sure each of us will have to surrender our own vision of 'home' and compromise it for a newer, more adjusted model. It will be an awakening of the lord of the flies, of that I'm sure.

For now, the days of coffee and cake are no more. This, being one of mine and my husband's favourite things to do, will mean giving up a great love, at least for now. Driving out to the cotswolds for a walk followed by good coffee, sometimes enjoyed by a real fire - this is sacrifice that perhaps seems small but is bigger in our hearts. Suddenly, this shot I took of me, alone on the most rainy of rainy days, umbrella on the table alongside that not often to be found, really good turmeric latte, with a trashy magazine, the sort that I'd not read in years and time on my hands. I'll feast on this image for quite some time, whilst trying to quieten the rumpus of the wild things ....

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