The chip at the end of a bar of soap

The title of this blog will make sense only if you ready to the very end. But I wonder, is your week more a tiny bit settled at the end than the beginning?

we’ve had a week of walks and solitary confinement and the days have been beautiful.

We’ve all been adjusting to the new normals – how fast, in a sense how terrifyingly fast, this process happens. 

The world slows down. On Sunday evening, last week, at the suggestion of our bishop (and, later in the week, for the first time in history, all churches have been locked) we lit a candle in our window at 7pm.  

Many in the village, I am sure many people in the valley, have been doing this. A beacon of hope, a sense of continuity, a light in the darkness. It’s a good thing to do. Charlie’s been lighting the candle in our window every evening ever since – and it’s extraordinary to realise how much light a single candle provides on a clear, dark, moonless night.   The moon has begun to appear as a tiny sliver. It’s curious the small things we suddenly realise more intensely now.

In the mornings we’ve been getting up to cold frosts and the stillest calm days.

The light has been beautiful, and therapeutic. 

In the evenings the house has glowed and the birdsong has been extraordinary.

Repeat, daily.

Everything seems more intense.

Some mornings we’ve mixed it up and walked our walk the other way around….

The evenings have seen powerful sunsets. One evening, we went up to the attic to catch the last of the light. I’m recording this photo in the blog, now, so that when we’ve all forgotten these days it doesn’t get forgotten. It was a funny moment.

Each day the light was subtly different – things you don’t notice if it’s once a week, or once a fortnight…

The light plays tricks with shadows as the sun is rising. Every line on the hills is like a drawing in soft charcoal.
The fold of the hills in the Valley of the Stones could have been sculpted by Barbara Hepworth.

Last night, an extraordinary sunset lit up the sky.

And we came to the end of the strangest week we’ve ever known, yet also, in another way, the most uneventful, the most ordinary.

As I wrote on instagram, this morning, “I’ve realised that a lot of people right now are liking being able to see the morning walk that Charlie and I are doing with the dogs each day. For us, in a way, it’s nothing special – it’s what we do every morning when we’re down in Dorset, the same round. But every single day – and this week more than any, perhaps, you realise the extraordinary specialness of ordinary things“.

I’ve been thinking a lot too about how life may shape out on the other side of where we are now. Clearly, there is a sense of uncertainly and forbidding to come, but I can’t help but feel optimistic. So many people, ourselves included, are rediscovering a sense of community and neighbourliness, even at the precise moment when we must move to a solitary confinement. This is powerful.  On Thursday evening, here in the village, at 8pm, we stepped out into the garden to clap for the NHS – and were so moved to hear so many others do the same; and then people from my office started sending videos of the extraordinary applause echoing across the whole of London – so incredibly moving. But beyond the here and now, I’m still feeling optimistic. The world is being forced, momentarily, to pause – to stop and to think. The music has stopped, but we know a time soon that it will be back, and we’ll have so much fun with our friends and families and loved ones when it is.

But I wonder if we’ll also find we’re in a world that is a permanently repositioned to live as it was before, but more carefully; a little slower, a little more gently, to be a bit kinder to the planet in a way that now seems quite possible – and two weeks ago, frankly, didn’t; a world which appreciates food, and where it comes from, and who it is grown by, more profoundly; a world which realises that there is life and energy within the space of a ten minute walk – and if there isn’t, really tries to do something about that; a world that realises that we have the choice to heal as well as to damage. A world that doesn’t prevent travel, but in which it’s a bit rarer, more special, less everyday, less empty.

These are still all questions for another day; tomorrow the task is to continue with the more pressing work of living with life as we find it today – and working hard at it, solving problems, keeping the show on the road for as many people as we can, as best as we can.

I wanted to end with an email I got earlier in the week from my great friend Marianne Cusato. Twenty years ago now, she and I shared a desk space together at the office where we both worked, Fairfax & Sammons, in New York. We worked together, we actually wrote a book together (which is amazingly still in print – Get Your House Right it’s called), and have stayed closely in touch ever since. She now teaches, as well as writing and polemicising and designing beautiful buildings. Normally I call Marianne at the start of each year to find out what her ‘vibe’ is for the year ahead. I’m glad I didn’t on January 3rd, because that would have been unfair, perhaps – could any of us quite have expected what this year was to bring?  But this was the email I got on from her Thursday.  I couldn’t think of a better conclusion to the blog, so much so, it provides our title this evening:

Hello! I loved your last blog. I’ve been meaning to write you because as we are adapting to our new normal on this side of the pond, you, actually specifically your mother, have come up in many conversations.
I was on a field trip in Washington DC with students when our rapid pace of things caught up with us. The university canceled all in person classes and we were brought home. That was March 12. When I left for the DC trip, the world was twitchy enough that I planned ahead and bought a few groceries. When I got home, with two quick shopping trips I had everything I needed for at least a month. 
As I’ve settled in to my new life, I’ve noticed that I am so much more respectful of groceries, especially single use products. It is embarrassing the number of paper towels I would use pre-CV. I was so mindlessly wasteful. 
This is where your mom keeps coming to mind. I remember sitting at our desks on the third floor of Anne and Richard’s office. You told me a story about your mom collecting all of the little soap chips at the end of the bar, then once enough were gathered, remaking them into a new bar of soap. This was a result of living through the war. We of course laughed, deep belly laughs I recall as people with endless means and no reverence for the finite nature of our fragile planet. 
I’ve thought of that conversation many times since then, each time as I chucked the little soap chip in the trash glad I didn’t live in a world where I needed to keep it. 
And now here we are. I’m telling everyone who will listen about my friend Ben’s mom who never lost her respect for the resources she had even when everyone else did. I hope if there is any silver lining out of then entire mess, it will be that we collectively have a reverence for things so small as the chip at the end of a bar of soap.


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