My One Lucky Prize
Updated: Apr 9, 2020
It’s been a long time since my fingertips tap-danced across this keyboard. The same keyboard that suffered a million or more finger-stabs as I wrote Serenity Song. I remember the sound well, as vowels and consonants combined, sentences connected, amended, deleted and rewritten. At first tentative and arrhythmic, punctuated with long silences, these taps built momentum with each chapter, and by the epilogue, the click clack of keystrokes came at such speed that, from the next room, you might have imagined some sort of early Cotton Gin was at work.
But there came a day when this metronomic music stopped. The keyboard was disconnected from the laptop, and like a second-rate Houdini, it lay loosely coiled in its own cable under the stairs.
Why? Well in a delicious piece of irony, it’s taken a global pandemic and an internationally enforced societal lock-down to rouse me from my own self-imposed hibernation.
And the topic that has driven me to release the keyboard from bondage?
A cheery examination of isolation, loneliness and solitude of course!
While most of those I’m in contact with are pulling their hair out trying to teach elementary science to toddlers whilst furtively scrolling through the divorce petition process, I'm at home, alone, along with another 7.7 million souls here in the UK trying to cope. So this post is for you.
Long before I found myself alone, I’d always been fascinated by those who chose to self-isolate; Celtic monks on rain swept islands, Coptic Christians in caves and the crème de la crème of social distancers: the pillar-hermits. The most famous of these was Simeon Stylites, who spent 4 years living on a pillar nine feet high, another 3 winters eighteen feet above the ground, a decade on his third pillar, thirty three feet up, and an impressive 20 years looking down on the world from a pillar that was sixty feet high and only six feet wide. Clearly Simeon was none too subtle in letting the rest of humanity know what he really thought about them. However, in seeking isolation from the thronging masses, this pillar-dwelling lark didn’t actually work – instead of blissful peace, Simeon woke up to thousands of pilgrims milling around at the base of his ivory tower expecting miracles and transformative words of wisdom. Which, to his credit, he gave daily, but mostly he just prostrated himself before God.
In fact one witness says he bowed 1,244 times in a single day. You have to wonder; was he just ducking beneath their line of sight and popping up repeatedly to see if the crowds had gone? Or maybe he was doing some sort of Joe Wicks work-out?
We’ll never know. But for his lifetime act of self-isolation, Simeon earned a sainthood. Which was nice.
However, theses pillar hermits chose to ostracise themselves, whereas we haven’t. And some of us aren’t coping quite as well. Judging by what I’ve seen on social media, personal hygiene has gone out the window. I had a Houseparty get together at the weekend and, such was the state of the motley crew staring back at me, I had to check I’d not inadvertently clicked on footage of the ‘Dirty Protest’ at Long Kesh in the 1970s. I hadn't; these were people I'd grown up with!
Even more worryingly, a best friend of mine – one of the few who’s going solo through this - has made a sock puppet and posts her words of wisdom on Facebook. She’s called Sockette and she’s a big advocate of staying in and staying safe…. that’s the puppet, not the friend.
The friend is a big advocate of drinking gin and talking to footwear.
But will she be beatified at the end of all this?
Somehow, I doubt it.
Isolation is HARD! Just look at Chris Pratt in Passengers. He gets so messed up travelling alone in space with only a synthetic barman to keep him company that he wakes up a fellow passenger from cryogenic slumber – effectively condemning her to death. That’s the modern day equivalent of caving in and going to spend the weekend with your grandparents who both have chronic emphysema just because you can’t face another Saturday night watching Gary Lineker analyse a series of football matches when the mullet was still à la mode.
It’s this mental and ethical battle that brings me to my next point: We are grieving a world temporarily lost.
There is a wonderful article in the Harvard Business Review in which world renowned thanatologist and bereavement expert, David Kessler, explains that dealing with Covid-19 is like coming to terms with a divorce or death, and that we have to go through the five stages of grief. Early on, a lot of us were in denial – 'it won’t come to these shores, our town, our street.' Then we got angry and fought each other in supermarket aisles for toilet paper and hand sanitizer. We’ve probably all been through the bargaining phase where we try to reason that if we follow the rules for one more week, it will all be over, won’t it? Then, of course there is deep sadness. Sadness for all the death. Sadness at the fact that our lives have been turned upside down. Sadness that the world may never be the same again.
But at the end of these five stages is acceptance. The acceptance that there is nothing we can do. This is life for the time being and we must make the best of it.
Naturally, living alone has intensified the sadness stage. I don’t imagine that many of the 7.7 million of us who wake alone, spend the day alone and lie alone in bed every night without having touched another human being have chosen this emptiness. Maybe a partner died. The kids all left home. The last relationship just didn’t work out. You've never made a connection. For whatever reason, clearly, in any of these circumstances the pain of self-isolation is magnified tenfold. According to the ‘Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners", adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2015, solitary confinement for longer than 15 days is considered to be illegal under Human Rights Laws. Yet many of us are on Day 20 already. So it is tough.
Yet, paradoxically, amid this terrible bleakness can be found solace;
“But if you could just see the beauty,
These things I could never describe,
These pleasures a wayward distraction,
This is my one lucky prize.
Isolation, isolation, isolation, isolation, isolation.”
Now, quoting Ian Curtis from Joy Division is not necessarily a wise choice of exemplar when arguing that there's something positive to be found in isolation – he did commit suicide the same year this song was released – but his point is supported by the American poet, May Sarton, who wrote; “Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is richness of self.” Through this crisis, I have come to understand the wisdom of their words; I hate living alone because I’m lonely, and because I’m lonely, I’ve made sure that when I’m not working, I’m anywhere else but home. But loneliness follows me everywhere. I’m still lonely when surrounded by friends. What’s happened since lock-down is that, for the first time in years, I’m free of the self-imposed expectation that being around people will solve my problems. There aren’t any people to meet. I can’t make plans. Hopes and dreams are on hold for a time. I can’t mend things. And that’s a relief. There’s nothing I can do about anything; other than be in the moment.
I genuinely believe that if you can get past the denial, the anger, the bargaining and the sadness and reach a modicum of acceptance – there’s some kind of exquisite liberation waiting for you. And therein, lies the hope.
Maybe I have found, after all, what St Simeon was looking for and May Sarton extolled; solitude as opposed to loneliness.