When I was little we used to go for PAWs.
Perfectly Awful Walks
They probably weren’t that long, or maybe they were for little legs and adult ears listening to aforementioned little legs whining. I’m sure not all of them lasted half the day and involved lots of hills and bucketloads of torrential rain but those are the ones I remember most.
I also remember that absolutely none of them were optional until, one day my cousin whose birthday fell on Boxing Day and who, therefore, always had to go on a PAW revolted. On his 16th birthday, he announced that, since it was his birthday, noone who didn’t want to go for a walk had to. There was a shocked silence as the adults looked at each other and tried to do that parent thing where you talk via ESP and second guess what each other’s preferred parenting decision will be. While they did this, the grandchildren barely dared to breathe while we waited for the answer.
Never has sitting by the fire and reading the book you got for Christmas felt so good.
Many years before this eye-opening revolution (I forget how many but I’d guess eight to ten), I was trudging up a hill with, among other people, my granny. It was the one that led away from Poflet for the few of you who know what that means. We all had anoraks on (you know, the ones that seemed to feel a bit damp from the inside the moment you left the house) and welly boots that squelched through the mud and you were never quite sure if they had a small hole in the sole or if your socks were just wet from the rain going in the top. The rain wasn’t heavy but it wasn’t drizzle either and the wind blew it into our faces making us wonder why we had our hoods up at all.
Getting up the hill
I was all for powering up the hill as fast as I could, keen to get the torture over with as fast as I could with my eyes on the prize at the end. Granny, rather infuriatingly for an eight(ish) year old, maintained her steady speed.
“It’s easier if you just focus on putting one foot in front of the other Em,” she said as I impatiently tried to increase the pace. “You don’t need a long stride or quick steps. You don’t even need to look up at how far you’ve got left to go. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other and the rest will take care of itself.” Aged eight or so, I took her words at face value and, although I knew I could make it up to the top of the hill at my speed, I also knew there was no hurrying her.
I’d forgotten that conversation until recently and then, as memories sometimes do, it just popped back into my head as if that chat had happened yesterday instead of more than 30 years ago. As if it had been in the front of my mind all along.
Funny how memories do that
Right at a time when you need them.
I’ve thought a lot about those words in the last six months and how they reflect on my way of handling the pandemic. Back in April, while many mocked others for being delusional in thinking that summer travel might still happen, I quietly put off cancelling our flights. As time went on, I knew the writing was on the wall but I just couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. I even enrolled the Things in summer camps but clicking that refund button just seemed too…well, too final. Eventually, just six days before we were due to leave, I made myself do it.
It was the same with online learning. Extended by just a week or two at the beginning, it seemed manageable. A six-week stretch announced in April took my breath away. The mere thought of doing it for an entire school year – a reality I know many are facing – sounds dizzyingly overwhelming. Back then, while many lamented the goalposts being moved time and time again, we plodded on. Heading to the next milestone. And then the next. And then the next.
And now it’s happening again
In the expat world, August is super late to only start talking about Christmas. In any other year, plans would have been made up to 12 months in advance. Maybe more. Flights would have been booked weeks and months ago.
Not in 2020.
In 2020 we’re still having the debate and trying to second guess the future, the system, and our fellow travellers. Is it too soon to book? Too late? Flight prices are already higher than in previous years: has everyone else already made their plans and got the cheap tickets? Or are the airlines just desperate to claw back any profits they can in this insane year?
Our school in Singapore has already made the call for the second time. Last week they swiftly and decisively changed the dates for the academic year. Gloom spread among the parents: “They’re sure we won’t be travelling again this year.”
I know all of us are hoping against hope for a miracle that we know may never come.
Just put one step in front of the other
Looking back, I highly doubt that Granny was speaking metaphorically about all manner of challenges that might come my way. I’m pretty sure she was just being practical for the purposes of that hill in front of us and trying to make me Slow The Heck Down.
Whatever she actually meant, I’ve taken her words and they’ve sort of become my metaphor.
I know lots of people would rather have a deadline, to see the top of that hill. For someone to be able to tell us that it will be ‘x’ amount of time until we can go back to normal. Sometimes I feel like that too.
But I only want that if it means we’re near the top. If we’re only half way up that hill, then I think I’d rather not know.
Christmas feels like a really big hill
Right now, day to day, we’re doing ok. Right now we’re allowed some semblance of normality. Not that there’s anything normal in going about our daily lives socially distanced and with masks on. There’s nothing normal about having our temperatures taken every hundred paces or so and checking in everywhere in case they need to contact trace us later. But we can go out, we can see friends, we can exercise and the Things can go to school. Day-to-day, that’s pretty much all I need to keep me going.
It’s when I look up that I falter.
I can’t look up and think about yet more plans that won’t happen. I can’t think about where we ought to be or where we were last year and the year before that. I can’t look up and think about how long it has been since we saw our families let alone how long it might be. It’s not even looking up, just looking around means seeing other people together, because they all live in the same country and can travel.
Right now, I can’t look up and see Christmas because getting there feels like a hill that is too big and too steep to climb. Even when we get there, we all know it’s unlikely that we will be at the top.
Yet I can’t write it off, either. I can’t go to that place where I look up and realise Christmas is only half way up the hill.
So for now, I just need to keep my head down, put one foot in front of the other and hope that the rest will take care of itself.