The morning after it was announced that schools across the UK were to close indefinitely, I went for a run.
My route took me past a group of secondary school children on their way in for a final day. Some of the older teens were tearful, shellshocked. Their friends put their arms around them, held their hands. Social distancing hadn’t yet been fully embraced; our new normal was still in its infancy.
As I stepped off the path to allow them to pass, a lump formed in my throat.
The school leavers’ grief was palpable. COVID-19 wasn’t just robbing them of the opportunity to sit the exams they’d worked towards, or the chance to participate in final sports days, dances, prize-giving ceremonies and parties. The virus had also stolen the certainty of their imagined futures.
Later, on the path home, I found myself running towards an acquaintance, her new-born baby sleeping in a carrier on her front as she walked. We both slowed to a stop, a generous buffer of four or five metres between us. We spoke about how strange things were; how frightening. She talked of the impact on the preschool she works at.
“Loads of the girls at work have recently maxed themselves out with mortgages,” she said, tearfully. “It’s just dreadful.”
“It is,” I said. “On so many levels.”
My voice caught as I shared what I’d seen earlier among the school leavers, and now there were unexpected tears running down both of our faces. Two grown women, a handful of metres apart, crushed by the gravity of the moment. No reassuring hugs or soothing words to offer each other, just the shared recognition of something much bigger than either of us.
Her baby began to stir.
“I should get on,” she whispered.
“Yes, me too.”
“You take care of yourself,” she said. I stepped aside so that she and her baby could pass safely.
“You too,” I said. “You too.”
As I fell back into a run, my chest began to tighten, my breath shorten. It’s strange, what our bodies do with emotions we cannot fully define or understand. I slowed to a walk.
Exhale, I heard a voice in my head say. Focus on the exhale.
A physiotherapist once told me that, when your breathing rate increases, it helps to think of the sensation not as breathlessness or air hunger, but as a signal to put more effort into breathing out.
Part of the reason your respiratory rate goes up during exercise is a response to the increased carbon dioxide you produce due to the effort you’re expending.
Very often, the in-breath will take care of itself: most people in good health can trust that their bodies will get enough oxygen with very little effort. But sometimes, we must consciously direct our energy towards what we need to let out.
That morning, long, deliberate exhales helped me to get my breathing under control. But I was shaken. I felt as though I’d skirted something terrifying.
The irony of responding to a pandemic lung disease with psychologically-induced breathing difficulties is not lost on me. As I’ve reflected on what happened that day, and the recent similar experiences of friends, I’ve come to realise that for many of us, there has been a near-constant inhale of uncertainty during this crisis. And that’s accompanied by a kind of collective holding of breath as we each try to make sense of what we’re taking in.
How long will lockdown last? How soon will there be a vaccine? Will the people we love still be there on the other side? What will become of our livelihoods; of life as we know it? And yet, how dare those of us with any degree of privilege, far from the front lines, have an emotional reaction to this - especially if we are not currently unwell?
“Am I the only one who cries at the drop of a hat?” a friend asks. “Even the colour of the sky can set me off right now.”
“No,” I say to her. “You’re absolutely not.”
I have begun to picture this pattern of inhaling and breath-holding as carving deep ravines into our collective psyche. In my mind’s eye, those ravines are the places where poignance is felt as it recklessly rubs its back against the rawness of our edges.
“You stay safe,” the Tesco delivery driver says. There’s a split second when he and I are both silent, the unspoken hanging in the air between us.
“Thank you…” I say. “You too.”
An unexpected side-effect of the devastation of COVID-19 is that poignance is suddenly everywhere. The kindness of strangers is an aching afront. Cherry blossom is excruciating in its ephemerality; single condensation trails behind solitary planes slice the world in half. Birdsong. Children’s laughter. Sunflowers. Rainbows. Thursdays. Thursdays. All bruised, raw. Unbearable.
“Can you believe that sky?” a runner asks, as he steps aside for me to pass.
Every day since schools closed, I’ve run the same countryside route, a ritual that has been elevated to sacred now that outdoor exercise is rationed. Running serves to focus my mind on consciously exhaling, and to re-connect me to a world which I’m otherwise only tethered to electronically. It brings me out of the family unit and into the changing seasons; shows me the shifting qualities of light at different times of day. It connects me to other runners as we exchange nods of thanks, recognition and solidarity while ensuring enough distance to keep each other safe. In other runners I see reflected a common humanity and a shared experience of a crisis that, for me, is otherwise playing out in the cocoons of my own home and mind.
The sun is sinking in a blaze of red and gold. I shake my head, smile a little.
“No,” I say to the runner.
I cannot believe that sky. The colours. The defiant magnificence.
I breathe out, carry on running. I’m struck by the notion that perhaps, somehow, painful gorgeousness and unthinkable hideousness can peacefully co-exist.
I’m beginning to think that our collective exhale may come not in the whoosh of a happily-ever-after, but in the whisper of a quiet surrender. A letting go of needing to know if, or how, things will work out. A realisation that, despite all of our Google-acquired PhDs, we don’t have any of the answers. A reckoning with the ways in which those of us away from the front line can strive to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem (Stay Home. Volunteer. Be kind.). And an acknowledgement that, in the meantime, it is still a beautiful world.
By Laura J Church