Daily during lockdown I set off alone for a walk through woods, playing fields and meadows till I reach the Grand Union Canal, where I enjoy a stroll. In the evening light the serene scene lifts the spirits as I stretch my legs. Besides a few other pedestrians, and occasional young men who hurtle towards me on the narrow towpath on bikes and electric scooters (making no concession to my existence, so that I have to leap into the brambles to prevent one or other of us ending up in the drink) there are only ducks and swans there, gliding past billowing cow parsley and the odd longboat. I listen to a podcast, chat to one of the many men I have met online, or enjoy the quiet.
Other than that I don’t usually leave the house as I am able to work from home most of the time. Except:
My son and I have settled into a routine where on Tuesdays we receive a box containing the wherewithal to make three dinners for two, and on Thursdays another box arrives from a farm in Sussex, laden with an abundant mix of fruit and vegetables together with eggs, bread and milk. On Saturdays we take delivery of baked goods (sourdough, focaccia, whatever) from the little farm I pass each evening on my walk. They have an outdoor clay oven where work begins weekly before dawn preparing an assortment of breads and pastries. Given the farm is closed to visitors during the pandemic, they have started to make local deliveries (though I would be happy to collect if I were permitted); this makes a real treat for our lunch at the weekend. They also deliver locally produced honey, and beer from the micro brewery.
So what with one thing and another our provisions come to us. But every Saturday I visit my local supermarket to supplement our deliveries with detergent etc as well as the odd piece of meat or fish and other odds and ends.
And this means standing in line. The queue snakes its way round the carpark with people standing the regulation two metres apart. Funny how we adapt. Each patiently waiting shopper is holding some bags. I remember about 25 years ago writing to all the supermarkets to complain about their profligacy with plastic bags, which used to be displayed in vast stacks at the end of the till, so that people could help themselves and often took extra, to line their bins or something. Now everyone brings their own. Many are also wearing masks. For the most part, they stand alone. From some couples, or those individuals on phones, I hear the murmur of voices speaking languages I don’t understand. On one hand, I detect suspicion: people are worried that any of us might be carrying a deadly disease. On the other, when I catch anyone’s eye and smile, we show solidarity. We are all in this together. The famous British stiff upper lip. Stay calm and carry on.
I join the back of the queue. I have learnt, after the first time, to bring a book, and I stand reading, taking a few steps forward from time to time. I noticed yesterday when I had been there a little while that nobody had yet joined behind me. I noticed, too, that this bothered me. It is comforting to feel I am not last in line, though I am not sure why this would be. I examine the thought. It makes me feel foolish (what do others know that I do not?) and a little vulnerable (I want someone to ‘have my back’).
This is a tiny, barely imperceptible anxiety, and yet I observe a slight tension. I know there need be none. So I consciously drop my shoulders from where they have risen a little without my awareness. I remember an exercise with Bruce Fertman a few years ago at an Alexander Technique retreat in Germany. He had us stand in lines, asking us to imagine we were in a Post Office. Ah yes, terrible: the fear that one has chosen the slow queue! Watching as others shuffle forward. We talked about how we felt about this imagined situation. Bruce gave us a tip: don’t ‘wait’. Just stand there, and don’t wait. This has the effect (if you pay attention) of allowing changes in your body. Your jaw can hang ever so slightly because you are no longer setting your teeth. The little muscles around your eyes, similarly, expand as they relax. Your buttocks drop: you are no longer holding yourself up away from the ground. And so on. I feel all these little alterations take place, and my feet melt slightly into the tarmac, while my head, bowed to read the words on the page, rises imperceptibly from the back of my crown, releasing tension in my neck. I stand, not waiting, not worrying about the pandemic, or how long this is taking, but perfectly at peace, and reading.