When their paths into the world are frustrated by a pandemic

It’s New Year’s Day, and I’m thinking about the month ahead and how we will find our way with these new restrictions. We had some good plans for January. We’re organising a debating group, D wanted to join a coding club and take up a martial art, we found a place to go riding.. Now that’s all postponed for a while and I have some fear of the meandering slowness ahead. Whereas the Springtime lockdown of 2020 came with sunshine, long days and an abundance of community spirit, this new phase feels tired already and it has hardly begun. It’s hard for the adults, and harder still for those who are forging their paths into the world for the first time. So I wonder what we need to bring to our days to make sure that we’re all okay.

I notice that each person here is feeling the strain differently. I think this has a lot to do with where they are in their lives and how they are connecting with the world around them, the relationships they’re building, the interests they’re developing. People often question how children who don’t go to school can engage in the ‘real world’, but they are always in the real world. They each take it at their own pace, but they’re always observing and learning, and when it feels right for them they step out further and further. I think they are doing something that most of us were not able to do – creating their path from dependence to independence at a rhythm that is absolutely correct for them. It’s an intricate process in which for the most part everything is finely balanced. Tension arises when there’s an unresolved need to push out further or maybe when the journeying out has gone too fast, too soon.

I wonder at this interplay between our inner lives and outer journeys and how it showed up for people in 2020. The permission to withdraw back into ourselves, rediscovering forgotten hobbies and neglected relationships, enjoying a break from the relentlessness of modern life whilst also finding some loneliness and disconnect there. Our sense of purpose in the world, so intricately bound up with the world itself, suddenly diminished, or perhaps, finally discovered. So many people realising they need to make profound changes to their lives. Like them, my own path has so often felt at odds with my sense of self, and whilst my children are busy constructing, I feel like I am still deconstructing so much.

Yesterday morning, I had to double check the calendar as I often do these days just to make sure I got the day right. It was Thursday, but there was no discernible sense of Thursday in the air. It could just as easily have been a Monday or a Saturday. At one point in my life, not needing to know what day of the week it was would have been a wild fantasy. For over 20 years, I was bound up in the monthly publishing schedule of a magazine. Every day of the week and week of the month had a different purpose to it. Editing, proofing, artwork, ad sales, payments, printer, distribution. Each of these had its own particular rhythm, and those rhythms dictated my life. And when I woke up each morning I didn’t just know what day it was, I had a clear list of all the things that needed to be done and when. Although it was entirely my choosing to do that particular job, my life was overwhelmingly determined by its rhythms and demands. I had little room to manoeuvre the pace of life, and little time to nurture any seedling creativity of my own once external demands were met.

The transition from relying on the outside world for structure and meaning to living in a way that I am almost free to mould each day as I want has been both liberating and challenging. Alongside the glorious knowledge that Monday morning no longer belonged to everyone else came the realisation that my sense of purpose was tightly bound up with other people’s expectations. I had a couple of years to unpick all of this before COVID-19 came along, but last year made me realise that I’m still finding my balance. I’m still understanding how to hold onto myself and push out into the world at the same time.

I’m sure that since they were babies, my children have also been figuring out this universal dilemma. How to be true to oneself whilst creating a life in the wider world. As they get older, I see them more and more engaged in how they see their lives unfolding. Things that were done for fun or interest take on a more contemplative note as they consider whether these are things they might go on to study or to work in. There’s some fear that if you let a child just play, they will never get serious about life. But that would go against our natural progression into the world. Play is just the beginning of the process—it may look like fun, but it’s serious too. It is the start of the long road to independence.

And so, here we are, each child with their own rich inner life, laying down their unique path into the world, and facing perhaps some months of obstacles and delays. C is still a homebody and so her life is less affected by the strange comings and goings of the world. We can’t visit the animal sanctuary, and she is sad about the shops and cafes being closed, but otherwise, life is fairly unchanged for her.

For D and E, it is harder. Now 15 and 13, they naturally know the limits of the family and feel the restrictions more deeply. D’s frustration is palpable, as though the world is making him stop when it is precisely his moment to go. But, I notice that whilst they feel disappointment and frustration, they also have deep reserves to call on. Outside life may be on hold, but their years of directing their own learning and diving freely into their passions and interests have also created a well of resilience. They are used to following their own curiosity, researching whatever comes to their minds, delving deeper where they want to. The world may not be the way they want it, but they have many ways to sink into the moment, to rest in their inner lives. I admire the strong foundations they are building, and their formidable self knowledge. It is hard for me to imagine them ever straying as far from themselves as I did. They have too much experience already of following their intuition and of making choices that feel right to them.

So what can we bring to our days this January? What can we learn from the stillness and from each other? Home won’t replace the missing things, but it can be a safe place to vent the frustration and to feel the sadness. Maybe the older people in this family with our longer experience of life can stay light, in the learned knowledge that although the outside world is beyond our control, eventually everything lands. At some point we will all be out there again, constructing and deconstructing, and in the meantime, we can still find pleasure and comfort in life, however unpredictable it may be. And the younger people, with their infinite curiosity and passion, can keep showing us how it is always possible to dig deep into those things that light us up and that give us purpose and joy, so that when February or March, or April or whenever it may be rolls around, and our paths in the world are clear once more, we will all be on slightly more solid ground.

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