Katherine May on quarantine self-isolation empathy

Illustration Abbey St. John

I told my family that if they didn’t leave me alone for an hour to write this article, my head would explode.

It was not an entirely empty threat. These last few weeks of lockdown have turned all three of us into raging clouds of frustration, as both parents attempt to work while looking after a bored and bewildered child. We have staggered our working hours (although I secretly believe that my husband is getting the lion’s share of desk time), and I’ve drawn up a timetable that sanctifies an hour of family entertainment each night, when we’re all supposedly behaving in a picturesque manner, playing card games and watching wholesome films.

In reality, we tend to use this time to growl at each other while watching the dust bunnies roll past. When I put ‘clean-up hour’ in our daily rota, I forgot that this was the moment when we need to eat, and so it has been routinely skipped. Everything is a mess. Life has simultaneously slowed down and become ridiculously compressed. There is no peace, no solitude, no time to collect ourselves in the face of enormous change and grinding fear. There is the sense that normality is just outside our grasp. We sometimes brush it with our fingertips, but it’s always distant, always elusive.

Every night at bedtime, we sigh and rub our eyes, and say sorry. We promise we’ll do better tomorrow, and every day we do, slightly. The pandemic has not turned us into ready-made saints, unpacked fresh from the box to behave splendidly in a crisis. We have not found untapped wells of patience or forbearance, but we are learning, in a disrupted, stop-start kind of a way.

This is how change actually works – not through resolutions and sudden, Damascene realisations, but through the slow, painful process of trial and error, and with a lot of swearing under our breath. It rarely arrives without us experiencing some dark emotions, and it rarely tidies up behind itself before it leaves. But these hugely painful moments in our lives are never time wasted. We are learning a lot right now, and we will carry this forward into whatever the next phase might be. This is a moment to hone our empathy.

Those of us who are experiencing anew the terror of infection will now have some insight into the reality of the chronically sick and disabled. Our struggles to lay hands on store-cupboard basics must surely teach us a little about the daily unease of those living in poverty. Our enforced separation from loved ones offers a hint at the suffering of the displaced. We will all come out of this altered, and if we don’t find a new level of commonality, we’ll have missed the point.

At the moment, many of us just feel helpless. Far from this being an article of shame, it is actually how we come to encounter our compassion. To feel helpless is not to be impotent or redundant; it is instead the sensation of wanting to help without having yet found a way. All over the world, helpless people are checking in with their relatives, running errands for quarantined neighbours, and donating money to food banks and medical charities. Feeling helplessness drives us towards doing what we can. Wherever we are in that ecosystem, we are currently reinforcing the bonds of connection across our families and communities.

My book, Wintering, is all about the seasons when we’re thrown into the edgelands of life, feeling cut-off, frozen, or cast out in the cold. I never dreamed that, within a month of its release, we would be propelled into a pandemic, but we’re all wintering now. I, for one, am sick of hearing the word ‘unprecedented’, so I’ll say instead that we have no roadmap for this: a mass isolation, when the old entreaties to gather together and keep each other company have a ring of danger. We’re fighting all of our human instincts to find comfort in gathering, and we’re facing some very real fears alone.

In a world where we’re so often told that the downturns in life are a failure of our talent, positivity or will, we are finally confronted with an indisputable truth: that some problems have no simple solution, and are not our fault. What we can do, though, is work on our response. This is a time to radically accept that we are not in control of the machinations of the fates. All we can do is respond to this moment, and then the next, and then the one after that.

When my son’s school closed, his class teacher set every child a task to learn a new skill while in lockdown. I thought we might finally learn to play the ukulele or perhaps pick up a few words of a new language; I was still seduced by the picturesque back then. My son had better ideas: he wanted to learn to open the child-locked cap of the mouthwash bottle. My first response was to think I must surely have the least ambitious child in the class. But now, a few weeks in, he seems like the sensible one. He’s achieved his goal, and has comfortably moved on to attempting a front flip on the trampoline. He’s taking this one step at a time.

Yesterday, I heard him on Skype, apologising to a friend for losing his temper during a Minecraft session, and I was bowled over by his sudden maturity. There are skills being learned here that can’t be shared at a show and tell, and that counts for adults too. Our job is to watch them unfurl.

And in the meantime, we can soothe ourselves with the smallest things. We can listen to the spring birdsong through the window each morning; we can notice the minute changes that take place, day by day, as nature continues its grander scheme without us. Amid all this chaos, it’s okay to snatch as much joy as we can. We should not feel guilty about it; our happiness steals nothing from anyone else.

These are the things that anchor us while all our certainties spiral away. And in a strange way, our frustration is instructive, too. It is the friction between the things we want and the things we need. Quite rightly, the needs are winning out over the wants in this disordered present. But here is the tinder box in which our future is being remade. Here are the set of values that will guide us into the life to come, should we choose them.

  • Wintering

  • Longlisted for The Wainwright Prize 2020

    'A beautiful, gentle exploration of the dark season of life and the light of spring that eventually follows' Raynor Winn, bestselling author of The Salt Path

    'Wintering is every bit as beautiful and healing as the season itself ... this is truly a beautiful book' Elizabeth Gilbert

    In Wintering, Katherine May recounts her own year-long journey through winter, sparked by a sudden illness in her family that plunged her into a time of uncertainty and seclusion. When life felt at is most frozen, she managed to find strength and inspiration from the incredible wintering experiences of others as well as from the remarkable transformations that nature makes to survive the cold.

    This beautiful, perspective-shifting memoir teaches us to draw from the healing powers of the natural world and to embrace the winters of our own lives.

    'A peaceful rebuff to life in fast-forward' Observer

  • Buy the book

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