Everything, nothing, and more
Sometimes when change comes it’s a tornado on the horizon, kicking dust up into the sky. We smell it in the air like winter; there is time to prepare. Other times it’s instant; a tsunami washing everything we ever knew away. We wake to a new world, like the morning after heavy rain, raindrops still clinging to the underbelly of leaves. Like those first moments of grief, when sudden change comes, it hits us hard.
The first change washed everything away overnight. For a moment, the world stopped turning. We were trapped in our homes with the rising floodwaters of fear. Adapting to this strange, new world came in grief-like stages – shock, denial, anger, sadness, and finally, acceptance. We kept our fingers pressed to phones, eyes glued to TV screens. We counted the dead, created new rituals to keep us safe, learnt the new language of our times. The space around each human became sacred, the orbit around our breath a place of terror. We were frightened of everything – running out of toilet paper, dying alone, losing our jobs, and joggers! How they ran past spewing virus molecules into untainted air, all Lycra, sweat and death, each murderous step they took met with equally murderous looks from those they had the audacity to pass. We learnt a new form of awkward dance, side-stepping strangers on the street.
Like most of us, I wore grief and fear like a skin. And then, in time, a kind of peace descended as the world stood still and some of us had time to watch it. I walked along silent roads, through deep furrowed mud, watched winter give way to spring. I planted seeds, watched green shoots pushing up through the earth. I spoke to my children often; was grateful for the precious life that flowed through my body, and the bodies of my family.
At first, we were united in our grief and fear. As we stood on our doorsteps and clapped into the darkness, sparks of light flew from our fingertips. But soon, the inequalities in our society were held up to the light. For some, there was no lockdown, no time spent in the garden or baking bread. Some of us carried on going to work, risking our lives to save others. Some of us were trapped in tiny spaces, deprived of sunlight. Some of us had no home to be trapped in. Some of us were more likely to die.
And then, another change that rippled across seas, over land. A tsunami of good white people, rushing towards us brown-skinned folk, proclaiming their innocence, wanting us to make any vestiges of guilt disappear. I was marooned, bereft, overwhelmed. ‘Race’ is nuanced and complex; it loops back around on itself, ties itself in knots. Although they meant well, many white people were clumsy in their attempts to fix things. Ironically, their actions caused me to feel not-quite-human, a means to an end. The pain of racial trauma I’ve carried deep inside me for nearly half a century broke free, moved through my bloodstream, spilled up into my throat. I understood this: the white people I love can never truly understand how it feels to wear my skin.
Everything has changed. And nothing has changed. We inhabit a strange new world infused with fear. And yet, we do the things humans have always done – eat, work, sleep, laugh, cry, breathe. We still need to be part of a tribe. And change is nothing new – we’ve had to constantly adapt since we began, have woken to a million new dawns, faced trauma and survived. And we will do so again and again, until we are no longer here. Although for a time we gave the world space to breathe, soon we were filling the streets again, filling the skies with pollution. Carrying on as we had before, rushing around like stressed-out, capitalist ants. And although inequalities – the fault lines in our societies – had been lit up and exposed, they remained.
Have we learnt lessons from these times? Perhaps. But more change is coming – I can see it on the horizon, kicking up dust under a pewter sky. It might come in the form of continuous, quiet revolution, letting the oppressed rise like birds. We might reach a place of healing: of ourselves and the planet, a final recognition of these truths – we can no longer ignore inequality. We can no longer ignore what we are doing to the earth. I am hopeful that us strange and beautiful, flawed, often greedy, sometimes cruel, sometimes kind humans, can become the best versions of ourselves. That we can honour the planet we live on, its people, plants and animals, its rivers and forests and seas. More change is coming. I can smell it in the air like winter.