At this time when we are all constrained in our lives and so many of us feel the pain of separation or loss I am reminded of a ritual I used to perform each May with a dear friend. One May Day in my early twenties I contracted sudden onset arthritis affecting both my arms and both my legs. In under a month I lost all mobility, my partner left me and I found myself without a home. My life suddenly became very small and very focused. Priority one: find a safe place. Priority two: manage the pain any way possible. Priority three: work out my finances.
During that first year I learned a lot about my own strength and resilience. I learned just how much I was loved by my family and friends. I learned that my employer valued me so much they employed someone who could do my job by listening to my spoken instructions over headphones until I was better (thank you King’s College London). I learned that if I couldn’t walk or write I could still sing (and I did so, loudly and vigorously). I learned that, given enough time, even a person with braces on both arms can whittle a mighty fine stick. I learned that when you are blinded by pain the sheer beauty of a rose blooming outside the window can give you some respite. At the end of that year I climbed Glastonbury Tor on crutches, backwards, with my dear friend. I cannot tell you what a triumph it was.
During the second year I learned that a young woman with a walking stick can carry a lot of clout if she puts her mind to it. I learned not to mix alcohol with my medication. I learned that there is such a thing as walking lessons (thank you NHS). I became an Equalities Champion at my workplace and have carried this cause with me in every leadership role I have held subsequently. I made new friends and did things I would never have dared try before. I learned that very few people notice if you occasionally wear no shoes (or if they do, they don’t say anything). At the end of the second year we walked up the Tor again, I had just the one stick and managed some of the climb facing forwards.
It took my years to regain full mobility. We visited the Tor every May for many years. Each time provided a moment to reflect on how far I had come and what I had learned. Even when I had regained physical mobility I had a long way to go before I trusted my body again, or even liked it very much. I remember resolving one memorable Glastonbury trip that I would stop making ‘old noises’ every time I got up (how I did that will have to wait for another time).
This year I cannot climb the Tor and my body has a strange, residual ache as if that time of pain is closer than it has been in a long while. Would I wish to go through that again? Of course not. Would any of us choose to be constrained in lock down right now fearing, or experiencing, the loss of security, certainty and the ones we love? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from times when we have no choice. That we can’t find a garden rose to lift our spirits or a little bit more strength we didn’t know we had. Whether you are in isolation or on the front lines right now, when you start to emerge, one step at a time, remember all the things you have learned about yourself and the world. Good or bad they are the legacy of this time. Remember them and find a way to honour them. Because we will never be the same again. But we might be better.