By Lorna Dowson-Collins
Millie and I were connected as if by a piece of elastic. If she hared off during our walks after some smell, I could continue in a meditative state knowing she would reappear. Her attuned senses revealed hidden life, the scent of a pheasant, and the movement of a deer or a fox. Dog walks were a daily ritual of calm, a time immersed in the natural world. We would greet other walkers and stop for a chat. She loved everyone, and every dog and human seemed to love her. She was a great connector to the natural and human world; a healing balm in my daily life.
This changed with the arrival of Myshkin. Walks were no longer a ritual of calm; together they became partners in crime, disappearing after some scent or another, baying in high pitched excitement and in the case of Myshkin, on a number of occasions failing to reappear.
Back in March when everything changed, that point in time when we were all required to adjust our collective attitude to risk, Myshkin was permanently put on a leash. No longer was I simply able to walk in quiet meditation with my surroundings. It now became a matter of control of Myshkin in our daily walks and keeping our distance from others.
The first injury to myself was physical. At the start of lockdown, enjoying a newly found freedom with time, I set out on a long walk with the dogs. The landscape was familiar and yet different. It was silent of any man-made sound, the skies clear of planes, and the Forest deserted. There was not another person in sight and yet, there was a palpable aliveness. The dogs were excited, Myshkin pulling on his lead, sniffing this and that scent. As we walked down a hill, a distant soft thrumming alerted us to a swirling brook, glinting brightly as the water rolled over the pebbled bed.
The watery grace of the stream was mesmerising. We were all drawn to it. Myshkin jumped in, whilst Millie nervous of water, barked from the bank until she felt brave enough to join him. She walked in gingerly, lifting each paw before lowering her head to lap at the water. Once they had their fill of fun, they came and sat beside me on a sunny spot by the bank, where the sun shone through a gap in the thick of the woods.
There we sat, taking in the sights and sounds, Millie jumped on my lap, and Myshkin beside me, all of us savouring the still of the moment. A lone deer appeared on the horizon and stood motionless, eyes fixed on us. I felt cocooned in this special moment of oneness, until Myshkin lunged forward, taking Millie and me with him, as he reached the end of his extendable leash. It was only on the following day that I felt the pain from that moment and some weeks later when the pain had not subsided, I had a phone consultation with my local GP. This led to a hospital appointment and a scan. During the flurry of amusing videos and anecdotes that we sent each other at the beginning of lockdown, my sister, Maria sent a cartoon of the rear end of a lady with a laptop between her legs, entitled “A visit to the gynaecologist spring 2020” The world may have changed but thank goodness not to that extent.
As the days wore on, and we all held multiple Zoom meetings with online quiz nights and coffee meetups, a sort of virtual disconnect took hold of me. The stuttering, stilted conversations, the frozen screens, and dropped connections—it felt like, although we were together, we were definitely apart. I mentioned this to my father. ‘Lorna,’ he said, ‘do you remember what it was like when you were at boarding school? You kids were away for months without seeing us. Overseas telephone calls were only for emergencies. We really are very lucky to be able to so easily connect online.’ I recognised the truth in his words but was only partially comforted by them. What if this live-stream socialising was indefinite? Would we replace living in the physical world with a virtual one? I remember my dislike of sci-fi as the world depicted were enclosed interior places, sterile, devoid of natural life or sensory stimulation. These radical shifts in personal space and public contact are difficult to fully take in with our rational brains. And what is the future of the human touch?
One particular morning about a month into lockdown, I shared a three-way conversation with my sisters on WhatsApp, Maria in Perth Western Australia, Lydia closer in Somerset and I in East Sussex. Life after lockdown was our main topic of conversation. Maria reported how the pandemic felt unreal, a largely unseen threat only witnessed through reports from far off places, China, then Italy, Spain, and the UK which alerted them to the danger. The Australian government acted quickly by closing its borders, implementing track and trace and ordering lockdown. As a consequence, with so few cases, lockdown was being eased. The threat of the pandemic simply felt surreal.
Here in the UK, with daily news briefings on numbers of people lost to the virus, the threat feels more real. Faces and tributes of doctors and nurses, the elderly, the less elderly, and less frequently, the young playing across our TV screens, all lost to the virus. With talk of a second wave of infection, of vaccines or immunity, which may not last longer than three months, all indications lead to this: life would not be returning to normal anytime soon. To counteract the virus’s prolific spread, we have been asked to be equally prolific in our stillness and diligence—everyone must stay where they are, shun the contact that nurtures and sustains us.
‘Eighteen months for a possible vaccine that might not even work is a long time not to see Nia, my granddaughter. That would make her almost four-years-old before I could be with her again’, I lamented to my sisters. At some point, I would need to re-engage with the outside world, yet my biggest fear, which took a violent physical hold on me, constricting my chest and shoulders with a strange ache in my heart, was the dilemma on how I would be able to keep Nick safe.
I was still working away from home when Nick, a transplant patient, and therefore high-risk, decided to move out of our room into one of our spare rooms, to reduce the risk of catching the virus that I could potentially bring into the house. We kept two metres apart, ate our meals at the opposite ends of the six-foot table, sat at opposite sides of the living room, which became even more stringent when government advice stipulated that sharing the same air could be dangerous for those deemed most vulnerable. We shared a well-practiced dance as we moved around our home, silently co-calibrating our bodies, so as to preserve a two-metre buffer between us. On the rare occasions, we unexpectedly met in a doorway or on the staircase, what stuck with me after such an encounter was the look in his eyes, the simmering terror, the mild revulsion for my sudden presence as if I were the enemy. As if I represented death itself.
The stress was eased when my place of work closed—and I could join Nick in lockdown; once again we could be together, to have and to hold.
The government directives had been clear: no un-necessary journeys. All my dog walks had to be kept fairly close to home. But with the new government directives, I was craving something different, so I took a ten-minute drive to another part of the Forest. I switched on the radio to a phone-in program echoing conversations I had had with my sisters, on what the “new normal” would look like when we emerged from lockdown.
As I pulled into the car park, I was surprised by the number of cars, which was ridiculous really. If I felt the urge to go somewhere different, to experience the tiniest bit of freedom, why on earth should ‘Joe-public’ be any different? I carefully parked two metres away from the next car, feeling hyper-conscious of stepping beyond the comfort zone of my home turf. The words, ‘the virus goes where people go’ flashed through my mind as I imagined where each car might have come from. Certainly further afield than Twyford Lane; but then I knew from the recent faces with their guilty, furtive glances, that those taking walks in my neck of the woods were not from around here. If Nick was with me, he would mutter under his breath, “What are all these people doing here? They are meant to be staying home.” But I felt sympathetic. We were so lucky living in the Forest and having the privilege to step out into this “area of outstanding beauty”. If I lived in one of the nearby towns, I would also want to take drives to seek solace in nature.
Once I was certain it was safe to get out of the car, I took in a deep breath and let the dogs out. Could this non-essential need for a different dog walk and scenery be putting Nick at extra risk?
Part of what makes this pandemic so terrifying is the invisible passage of the virus’s journey through space and time. We see the effects of it through the unknown faces of the deceased on the daily TV updates, so we know it is real. Yet we have little idea of who carries it.
My mind was racing with the comments from the discussions on the radio programme, ‘Wide-scale poverty will most likely become rampant.’ My shoulders and chest tighten. I take a deep breath. The dogs and I set off; taking a route, which I think, is less likely to come across other people.
I am particularly fascinated by the term “social distancing”—by its contradiction, it’s melancholy. The phrase reminds me of the difficulty of trying to pat your head whilst rubbing your tummy in a circular movement. Sensing this disorientation, we have tried hard to be alone but together, another contradiction in terms. Social distancing implies some kind of emotional distance, not just a physical separation, but also a mentality. You, my family member, my friend, my fellow walker are a threat and therefore I will treat you as such.
I reminded myself yet again to return to the here and now, to notice the beauty that surrounds me, to treasure this pause. The consequences of such stillness will linger long after the virus itself is subdued for better or worse. Keep to the beauty or at least be neutral, I told myself as my thoughts imagined the worst of consequences.
At this point, about five dogs bounded across the open heathland. In normal circumstances, my dogs would have approached them wagging their tails, keen to make friends. Yet Millie jumps in front of me, barking ferociously, her hackles up, as she walks with a strange stiff bossy sort of gait keeping the dogs away. Myshkin strains at the lead; barking and growling, ready to join in. The owners called their dogs away and walked in a different direction. With tears in my eyes, stifling a sob of pent up emotion, shocked by my dogs’ aggressive behaviour, I walk on.
This new aggression in my dogs is the second deeper injury to myself; I have always felt a sort of pride in the fact that my dogs are so friendly. I feel a deep sense of loss for the days of sociable dog walks, of chance conversations, of general conviviality… gone. I sat down on a fallen log, Millie jumped up beside me, licking my tears. Myshkin joined her, keen to comfort and remove my distress. Millie wriggled into me, and Myshkin leaned against me, his head on my shoulder looking up into my eyes. I laughed; they wagged their tails, Millie’s mouth widened into a smile.
‘Come on,’ I said, ‘let’s get going.’ Millie bounced along ahead of me, puppy-like, playful, and pleased with cheering me up. I spotted an elderly couple coming our way and stepped off the path respectfully.
The lady stopped, turned to me smiling and said, ‘Thank you.’ Millie approached her, tail wagging, and I said, ‘I’m sorry, Millie doesn’t understand social distancing.’
‘Well, she won’t will she?’, the woman answered, ‘Not if she is a friendly dog. Oh, look at her face! I would love to pat her, but I shouldn’t, should I?’
‘No, I’ve got to be careful. I’m shielding my husband at home. He’s a transplant patient.’
‘Oh yes,’ she replied, keen to talk as her husband stood beside her, patient, understanding her need. ‘Me too, I’m a cancer patient. I have been in lockdown, but I had to come out for a visit to the hospital, so we decided to stop for a walk. It’s such a joy to be out in this. Aren’t we lucky?’
‘Yes, aren’t we just!’
There was something about that encounter with the lady just out of hospital that brought about a change in my relationship to social distancing. Perhaps it was the mutual recognition she understood as I stepped to one side that my behaviour was about care. Once I reframed my own mind from thinking threat to care, my energy changed. My dogs regained their friendliness.
This showed me the capacity of our internal thoughts to create our reality. As we now step out of our own bubbles back into the big wide world, with all the uncertainty that living with this invisible virus involves, it is our internal thoughts that will shape how we adapt. Humans are so adept at doing. We can create our new reality. For now, we can only pray that we may remain mindful of all that this great pause in our lives gives us.
Lorna (June 2020)