At the beginning of 2020 none of us could ever have contemplated being confined to our homes because of a pandemic. As the virus made its way from China and across Europe, as businesses and schools closed their doors and international travel came to a standstill, we looked on in horror, beginning to grasp some sense of how our lives were going to be impacted. This deadly disease was going to change our daily reality beyond recognition, and we assumed the worst. It closed us off from our families, it took loved ones too soon, and it threw us into economic turmoil. We were stopped in our tracks.
But as lockdown begins to ease, and we see shops reopening and increased traffic on the roads, I can't help but feel a little downcast. I'm aware that we are perhaps all slipping back into our old life and old routines, where much will be the same as before. Of course I'm delighted to think that I will soon be able to have friends over and to visit my family in Fermanagh, and I won't be sorry to see the end of the horrendous suffering for those families impacted by Covid-19, but during lockdown my life has changed in many ways for the better and I'm worried that this will be lost.
I thought about what has actually changed for me, what a typical day looks like in my new world. This morning I took a Pilates class through Zoom. I've always practised Pilates, but many mornings I've found an excuse not to drag myself out to the class: it's raining, I'm too tired, I haven't got time. Now I practise several times a week because I have time, and because its much more accessible. I feel stronger for it.
I'm generally eating healthier, too. After the initial sense of being on some kind of holiday and breaking out a bottle of wine on week nights, I realised that I had an opportunity to focus more on what I'm eating. I have more time to make a healthy breakfast, rather than resorting to a bowl of sugar-loaded cereal, and because the kids are being home schooled we try to come up with new ideas for lunch and dinner. We're cooking together at mealtimes, when normally we'd be rushing to do homework, and having something convenient to eat before hurrying out to music lessons, or swimming club, or one of the many other activities the kids were committed to.
That endless rushing about has stopped. The rising stress as I shouted for someone to hurry up and get their shoes on, the constant driving here and there, fuming as I got caught in traffic, have all eased, and so too have my stress levels. Don't get me wrong, spending 24 hours a day with the same people inevitably leads to disagreements and falling out, but by and large life is calmer. I've had time to consider whether my children needed to participate in so many activities, and if they were actually gaining anything? As it stands they still have music lessons via Zoom, and focusing in on one thing has seen them improve considerably. I don't plan on signing them up to so many things once lockdown ends, but will choose what they most want to do, and that fits in with a more relaxed pace of life.
I'm lucky that my kids haven't questioned the need to do school work every day, that they haven't rebelled, and they're fortunate to have the technology and parental direction to allow them to continue learning. I know this is not the case in many homes, and as my son prepares for the dreaded transfer test later this year, I feel saddened that so many children will not get to realise their potential due to circumstances beyond their control. I'd hoped that in lockdown this unfair testing system would change, that the Education Minister would see a more sensible way to transition our children into big school. Thankfully, due to lockdown, some grammar schools are independently making the decision not to use GL exams as a means to allocate places. I hope that this will have a domino effect, serving to prove the workability of an alternative approach.
Home schooling is not something I had ever contemplated, but I've enjoyed having some insight into what my children are doing, what subjects they enjoy and where they may be struggling. Supervising homework never afforded me the same understanding. I can't say that I'd want to do this on a permanent basis, but I'm grateful for the opportunity to sit side by side with my kids as they try to make sense of something, as they work it out. And I'm glad that some days, when they have had enough, and that sitting staring at the page won't work, we can go for a walk, or play outside, or bake some muffins. They are not tied to a classroom routine.
Of course I wouldn't be in true lockdown unless I was baking, and we have baked in abundance. At the start it was all about the warm chocolate cookies and delicious cheesecake, comfort food, but that had to come to a halt or we were all in danger of losing the run of ourselves. So we turned to breads; focaccia and soda bread and of course sourdough! Finding flour or yeast in the shops was like trying to find the lost city of Atlantis, and I went so far as calling stores to find out when they were due a delivery to ensure I was ahead of the game. And of course warm bread with butter is so utterly irresistible, and full of sodding carbohydrates. So that too has had to be pulled back so that we are no longer eating a loaf a day. But I will continue to bake bread, just as my mother has done since we were small, and I will relish in that lovely crust when it comes out of the oven and in sharing bread with my family.
But man cannot live on bread alone, so we set about growing vegetables. This was a project for my son, and thankfully I'd had some foresight to buy up lots of seeds and bulbs in Homebase just before lockdown commenced. He has planted a host of berries and vegetables and has tended to them carefully, setting a cage over them to keep away the birds, laying down tubs of beer to trap the slugs. Cheerfully bringing in a lettuce for us to have in a salad, or some strawberries for dessert, he has developed skills that a classroom couldn't deliver. In this vegetable plot we have copious amount of rhubarb that make for a nice crumble, but also provides flavouring for a rather impressive gin! I followed a recipe that was easy as pie and after a gruelling wait of four weeks I now have the most scrumptious rhubarb gin I've ever tasted. Hurrah for gin indeed!
And what do you do whilst drinking homemade rhubarb gin? Why, you knit of course. I decided I'd teach myself to knit by following YouTube tutorials. I bought a kit from weareknitters.com and set to work on a snood. I persevered with dropped stitches and starting again (and again) and in a couple of weeks I had my lovely snood, and to my surprise there were no gaping holes. The fact that the sun was shining outside didn't stop me ordering more wool, moving on to a beanie for my son. So, in the evenings I knit and it's therapeutic and satisfying, and by Christmas I will have my whole winter wardrobe sorted.
Which brings me to clothes. I wasn't a big shopper before lockdown, but I couldn't resist an online bargain, some trawling through JohnLewis.com as a way to unwind, and there are a host of beautiful shops on my doorstop, which were calling out to me when I was out on a walk. Lockdown has curbed our need for clothes shopping - where are we going anyway to warrant that fancy jumpsuit? Aside from clothes for my kids, who refuse to stop growing, I haven't bought myself anything during lockdown. I could spend my days in gym gear, but have unearthed many items of clothes in my wardrobe with the price tag still on, things that I've never worn. It was all mindless shopping and much of it I didn't need, don't even like and will never wear. I won't return to that level of consumerism again. I don't feel the need for it.
When lockdown commenced we had just moved house into a street where we only knew a couple of families. It seemed in those first few months that we might never get to know our neighbours as people drove out their gateways to go to work and then drove back in when evening approached. There were no opportunities to get to know one another. We'd had a drinks party at Christmas as a way to introduce ourselves and I quickly realised that these lovely, warm people were equally keen to know one another, but then they would disappear for weeks again. Lockdown changed our community for the better. We set up a WhatsApp group in order to keep in touch, we posted flyers through doors to ask if anyone needed help with shopping, and some of the wonderful ladies in our street organised a street dance to raise money for the NHS. It was an amazing experience, learning the dance together, dressing up in colourful clothes, decking the street with balloons and streamers, and it brought together young and old. We danced, someone played the banjo and we listened to a beautiful rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow. It was buoyant and emotional and an evening that many of us will never forget. We are walking more now, so we meet one another on our street and stop to talk. I deliver groceries to one of my lovely elderly neighbours and enjoy our chats on the doorstep. We have gained a sense of community that I hope will last, and have promised to organise a party once Covid has slung its hook.
As a writer I assumed that having my kids at home would knock all chances of writing on the head. When would I ever get peace? There are days when the printer won't work, or someone can't figure out a maths conundrum, or I need to give a helping hand with a project, but I decided I wouldn't let this situation stop my writing in its tracks. I published my second book at the start of lockdown and promised myself that I'd write 1,000 words a day. I delved back into a novel I had started working on months earlier, but had been much neglected. I started moving the plot forwards and began to enjoy being with my characters again, seeing their stories unfold.
Lockdown has given me so much more than I could ever have anticipated. It has taught me to slow down, to have patience, to appreciate the people around me, to use my time wisely and productively. And as I sit with my rhubarb gin, knitting resting on my lap, I'm content. I don't want to go back to the status quo, but I'll embrace my freedom to do the things that make me happy, and I'll rejoice in my health.
I'll make the most of this extraordinary, fragile and unpredictable life.
Olivia's latest novel Black Beach is available now on Amazon, price £5.99