Our guest blog this week is from the wonderful – and very witty – Nigel Barlow, who mines the rich rewards of creative distraction in these strange times. Tons of great tips here! Enjoy.
The worst thing you can do during the virus crisis is watch too much streaming news. It’s nearly as bad as streaming noses: science tells us that stress damages the immune system, so the common-sense approach is to take in news on a need-to-know basis. Preferably in print or radio form; visual images seem to burn anxiety into our nervous system far more than spoken or written media.
And then what?…After blanket coverage of Covid, there’s a segue like, “And now for the other news.” Except there isn’t any. An Irish friend describes her TV as, “That little demon in the corner of the room,” constantly pumping out the grimmest of predictions on the spread of the virus. Many are finding the need to free themselves from the fiends of despair and hopelessness, at least for a couple of hours a day.
I offer a Top Ten of ways to creatively distract ourselves in the era of isolation, some profound, and others downright silly…
1. Dinner Parties Online
While this isn’t entirely new, to have online suppers with friends around the world has been a great blessing. Okay, you will need to synchronise time zones, but assuming you have cooked or baked an interesting dish, it’s fun to share, toast and chat as if everyone was seated together at your table.
There are also benefits over the real thing – you don’t have to dress up, and there’s no pressure on one host to provide a sumptuous feast. Surprisingly we’ve found we can have deeper and longer conversations with normally over-busy friends. We have the twin gifts of time and attention. And don’t need to worry about drinking and driving…
2. Games Online
Even the virtual supper party can drift into too much talk about you-know-what, so we’ve found it a great de-stresser to engage in games before dessert comes around. Our personal favourite, which works well online, is our viciously competitive take on Charades. Friends have dubbed it ‘Extreme Charades’ – I won’t bore you with the format, other than to say that it bears as little resemblance to the genteel parlour version as, say, Led Zeppelin does to Liberace. From Montreal, a friend’s graphic performance of ‘The Contraceptive Coil’ (don’t ask!) reduced a dinner guest in Spain to helpless tears. He’s recovering from the virus, and said this kind of silliness was very welcome.
(There’s an App called Table Top Simulator, which allows you to play most of the games you thought you had to play physically -Monopoly, Scrabble etc.)
3. Count Your Regrets
Here’s a creative reversal of what we are usually urged to do – count our blessings – but it can lead to a positive outcome.
Edith Piaf was clearly wrong when she sang Je ne regrette rien – we all have things we’d rather not have said or done, or omitted to tackle.
Now’s the time to come to terms with a few of these ghosts from the past: not to wallow in them, but to see how many can be remedied a little. A phone call to someone you’ve neglected, or to whom you’ve said something hurtful.
The positive twist is then to make a list of the things you want to do when we come out of isolation: people, places and experiences. Regrets are only harmful when we can’t do anything about them, but there will be a number of desires on your ‘wish I hadn’t’ list that can be addressed with new vigour and clarity when you emerge.
4. Learning a New Skill
Acquisition of a new skill, whether it’s learning Portugese, embroidery or baking, in normal times is a classic case of ‘important but not urgent’. The activity trap of busyness steals our time and attention, and we are left with a wistful wish-list of noble intentions.
Fixing a drystone wall in our garden was an intensely satisfying project for me. Even though a more skilled neighbour gave my handiwork only 5 out of 10, I get a small surge of pride every time I walk past.
And don’t be put off that lifetime’s desire to acquire another language by the usual ‘yes, buts’: ‘we’ll never be able to travel there anyway’/ ‘Google translate is brilliant these days’/ ‘It’ll all be over soon’/ ‘we’ll all be dead,’ and so on. We’ve managed 20 minutes a day with online Italian, and although it won’t make us fluent anytime soon, it’s steadily building up our vocabulary.
My partner is also reaching out to her professional colleagues, arranging online sessions where they coach each other in skills each one feels they need sharpening.
Another friend plays guitar online every day with a virtual tutor, in between his webinar tuition sessions.
Hibernation is a more positive way of thinking of this time than ‘isolation,’ with its connotations of loneliness and being an island. Out of hibernation comes rebirth, as the seasons change……
5. Listening to – or making – music
Almost everyone seems to be in a virtual choir. Great for the soul, but if you’re feeling inclined to music in a more passive way, now’s the time. One of my obsessions is that people are too busy to listen to music these days: at best it’s like a scented candle in the room, creating a flavour with no-one really paying attention.
How about listening to Beethoven’s Emperor or Bach’s Goldberg variations, all the way through, without cell phone beeps and other siren calls of the digital age interrupting?
We live in a soundbite and staccato age when ‘content’ is consumed in byte-sized chunks. Here’s an opportunity to reclaim some of our neurons from the ubiquitous ‘distraction economy.’
Try this: speak to someone you know who is more knowledgeable about music, and ask them to recommend a piece they love, with some understanding of why it moves/excites/thrills them. It will deepen your appreciation of that aria, movement or 3 minutes of pop joy, as it did for us asking a composer friend about the inspiration behind his latest string quartet.
More low-brow – but great therapy – is to come up with a list of ‘Anti-Virus,’ songs. Currently on the list are:
*Get Back by the Beatles
*Keep Your Distance by Richard Thompson
*Don’t Stand so Close by The Police
*Long Distance Love by Little Feat
*98.6 by Keith
You get the idea. In normal times you would advise me to get out a bit more: fat chance at the moment!
6. Keep a Plague Diary
You don’t have to be a Samuel Pepys to create your own journal. Ours is added to sporadically, and although you might think there’s not been a whole lot of action – places to go, people to see – in the last few weeks, it’s amazing how moods change daily, and dealing with the inner life is just as rich as outer adventures.
Sketches, poems, jokes, reflections – looking back on a week ago I’m surprised how easy it is in ordinary times to miss and forget an experience in our desire to rush onto the next one.
And there’s time to read and appreciate the poetry. Here’s some prescient lines by Pablo Neruda that appear to have been crafted just for now:
And now we will count to twelve
And we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth
Let’s not speak any language,
Let’s stop for one second,
And not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
Without rush, without engines,
We would all be together
In a sudden strangeness.
I suggest you read the rest – I love that phrase, ‘a sudden strangeness.’ That’s what we are going through right now…
Who’d have thought that half the world would want to do online dance, yoga, pilates, jazzercize, tai chi, aerobics etc etc? Or that the other half feel qualified to teach it!
But it’s essential, especially if you don’t have access to the outside world, to turn your living room into some kind of gym.
And then there’s mental exercise, in particular the art of experiencing inner calm. I’ve taught the simple, effortless technique of Transcendental Meditation for many years now, and it’s given a wonderful frame to an otherwise unstructured day to do a group meditation in the morning and early evening with hundreds of other practitioners from around Europe. Although you can’t learn an authentic form of meditation online – distrust any who offers it – if you are thinking of acquiring an effective and evidence-based technique when the crisis abates, let me know and I’ll put you in touch with a good teacher.
Mental gymnastics are also useful. Dictionary.com has regular word quizzes to beef up your vocabulary, especially if you are not feeling mellifluous, and want your verbal skills to fall into desuetude.
8. Reading – out loud!
Lucky grand-kids: our neighbour reads to hers over the phone every night, and has the added joy of them reading some of their favourite stories back to her!
With your partner, try reading to each other – much better than listening passively to some famous actor, as you can edit and select the passages you will respond to. I’m being read the amusing parts of humourist and essayist David Sedaris’ autobiography, Calypso. Laughing out loud together is the best type of therapy, as is reading beautifully written prose. For this, try Leslie Jamieson’s latest, Make it Scream, Make it Burn, for wonderfully crafted and searingly honest writing that will make you think and feel.
Of course, now could be the time to finally tackle Proust, Dickens or Shakespeare’s sonnets. Fine, if you have the stamina, but I wouldn’t go for any dystopias or zombie apocalypse reading matter. You can get all that on the mainstream news.
9. Make Babies
Health warning: an activity only for successfully quarantined and asymptomatic couples. Having said that, now’s the time to resume forgotten intimacies with the only person on the planet you can actually touch: physically, like.
I expect for every couple who decide now is a dodgy time to bring a child into the world, there are three who believe we need to re-populate. In particular older men with younger partners, wishing to leave a legacy. I’m studying the finer points of ‘Home Delivery’ as I write.
10. Perfect Your Hand-Washing Routine
20 seconds is a surprisingly long time, and one of the ways we’ve been advised to time it is by singing Happy Birthday twice. Which is unfortunate, as this must be the most depressing dirge ever written.
More enterprisingly, someone (with time rather than blood on their hands) has set the ritual to those lines from Macbeth – “Out Damned Spot, etc.”
Good chance to learn the speech, but as a Liverpool fan, no song will do better than You’ll Never Walk Alone while scrubbing my hands virus free. It takes about one a half verses, and keeps me focussed by trying to hit that high note on ‘never’ in the repeat of the chorus. You know, the one that the fans sing with great gusto – but completely flat.
Yes, I should get out more. But unfortunately that’s not an option. So I hope that some of these distractions help you also to enjoy staying in.