Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
Spring seeps in through the cracks of the season. Light creeps in illuminating a changed world. A world of empty shelves, empty buildings, an empty diary. The world is different and yet it is the same. The seagulls are still on the roof opposite, probably the same pair that nest there each year. The daffodils and crocuses follow the bloom paths of previous springs. Blackthorn blossom has come, the hawthorns are clothed in green. And the birds sing for the lives soon to be born. For the past three months I have been obsessively checking sunrise and sunset times, desperate for the darkness to recede. Finally light pushes it back.
Christmas is hardly over when the cracks begin to show. It is in the early hours of Boxing Day when my panic attacks begin in earnest. A wave of fear and panic that propels me out of bed, downstairs, turning on every light in the house, then, paradoxically, out into the dark air of the yard. A desperate need to escape, but there is no escape from the dark until dawn, so the fear remains. Cold sweat, tingling in my body, pacing and fidgeting, quick breathing, utter dread and despair. Panic has arrived and come to stay.
I had an inkling the darkness would be hard for me this year. I tried to accept it. It worked for a while, but then it came rushing in until I was at its mercy. The fear isn’t fear of the dark. I know this. The fear is about being trapped, out of control. I know that nothing will happen to me. I don’t fear death or disaster. I fear the feeling of fear and not being able to escape it. I cry and wail at the worry that this could be my life now. I can no longer sleep without a night light. I go to bed late because I dread waking in the early hours when fear might strike. The hours between my alarm and dawn are excruciating.
My fear expands. From darkness into light. First the evening, then coming home, then in the heart of the day. I can’t sit still long enough to eat a meal (my appetite is gone anyway) or to watch a TV programme, before I have to rush outside in panic. I cling to my partner, afraid to be in the house alone now. There is a weight in my stomach that twists and burns. I’ve had bouts of depression before over the years and I would trade it in a moment for this panic. Being outside is the only thing that brings a fleeting modicum of relief.
I don’t know why this panic has suddenly arrived but I suspect it has grown in the lull after a very challenging couple of years. A challenging decade. Now that life has finally let up, there is a vacuum, and the vacuum has cracked. I try all I can to get relief: meditation, yoga, chamomile and lavender, counselling. I become worn down by trying to keep the panic at bay. I am weary and depressed. I don’t write. I walk only as far as I have to. I still go out to work but I am not myself. Medication helps. I’ve always avoided medication before, but I will do anything to get rid of the panic. The anxiety recedes to night times again and is not as sharp. During the day there is sadness and indifference.
My dreams are vivid. In them, I am often being hunted. I flee from assassination or revenge. I cross Europe, trying to find a place in which I can settle and be safe. Unusually, I dream often of my late parents. In my dreams I am sometimes me, sometimes someone else. Part of me longs for change, an end to this period of my life, but I’m not ready. I haven’t found joy yet. After a few weeks of relief, the anxiety gets worse again. I start a new medication.
I don’t panic about the appearance of a new virus. My internal fear is far worse than a fear of an external disease. It is only when all our libraries are closed and I see the queues and empty shelves in the supermarkets that I think perhaps this might be serious. We are told to stay at home as much as we can, but I have agreed with my counsellor to take a longer walk this week, to try to recapture something of the life I had before. So Winston and I head to the dene.
The streets are quiet but not empty. It feels like a Sunday. I give anyone I see a wide berth. There will be no doggy greetings today. Dandelions, daisies and daffodils bloom. Dog violets peer between the undergrowth. The blackthorns are just beginning to fade and the cherry blossom is just beginning to flower. A wood pigeon sits in a hollow in an ivy-covered tree. Its pecking makes a soft ticking. A lone coot complains on the pond. Delicate new fronds of willow catch the light.
A group of strange mounds on the grass reveal themselves as sleeping mallards, as four small heads pop up to watch us. We walk through bunches of summer snowflake and fallen poplar catkins. Marsh marigolds illuminate the burn and a cluster of celandine peeps through ivy. Suddenly, the voice of Vera Lynn at full volume washes over the park. She sings about meeting again – of course. A couple of verses and the last swells with a chorus of voices. I wonder if this is on the recording, or if these are real people, having a last gathering before saying au revoir.
I find it hard not to think there is a pattern to existence as there is to the seasons. In these months in which climate change has been at the top of the news, when we have had some of our worst floods and fires, a virus comes which compels us to act in a way that reduces our impact on the planet. This is an opportunity for the earth to sigh in relief. Without wishing to downplay the fear and death the virus brings, I wonder if this should be a hopeful moment for our future. I wonder if we will come out of it changed.
For now the world seems both different and the same. My life had already altered before the virus happened and I can’t yet see what I will be when I emerge. But there is light. I have picked up a paintbrush again. I have had good news about some of my writing. My anxiety is much less than it was three months ago. I am here, writing words down. The cracks in our existence have widened this year, but there is always light waiting to pour in