At the beginning of my first week of self-isolation I found myself staring at the bunch of daffodils on the kitchen table, slowly fading, with that deepening yellow smell they produce on the point of demise. I wondered if I would only see daffodils again through Wordsworth’s “inward eye which is the bliss of solitude”.
It seems a strange metaphor —this bliss of solitude. Many of us staying alone in our homes, banned from seeing our children or grandkids, won’t find anything blissful in it at all. We are facing Pesach — some synagogues offer online second night Seders – but many people will experience it alone, or not at all. The great festival of freedom seems more and more like a prison sentence as the weeks stretch into months ahead of us. If you want to keep amused, try ringing the kosher butcher. You will hear the chaotic screaming over the phone at fever pitch, as people interrupt your call demanding to add to their order and being told — “sorry, you can’t add anything, you’ve reached the limit!”
Like everyone else, I have seen supermarket-ordering collapse under the strain of demand, but while shop queues are seething, my local kosher deli was quick to deliver matzah boxes, fruit and vegetable the next day with hardly a murmur.
But I know several people in the danger category who still go out to parks or queue in crowded shops, demonstrating that Blitz mentality — that little Englander attitude — of those who lived through the war or the Holocaust and feel invulnerable to the unseen threat. They may represent a microcosm of London life, but if no one takes this seriously, as they initially refused to do in Italy, the consequences could be horrific.
So what can the self-isolating do? I have taken part in a virtual shiur with a much admired Chasidic rabbi debating the spiritual meaning of animal sacrifice (it’s not exactly my thing) and with great hilarity joined my daughter’s online singing group, our timing going over the roof. And for those of us who write, compose or paint, the isolation may give time to complete all those promised but unfinished creative works.
I listen to some friends’ upbeat positivity and to those more likely to sink into despair at not seeing their children’s faces and their grandchildren playing. I notice some of my Israeli friends taking the situation more seriously than we do; to them the reality is not bombs at the border but this unseen, unfelt menace present in the very air we breathe. It makes us consider what we have done to the earth, our environment, our inner cities where even those not sleeping rough on the streets are dying. It makes us ponder the issue of distance; of treating even our loved ones as potential carriers, of shrinking into a shell of self-absorption.
But being apart can bring us together. It can also make us conscious of every living thing, every smile that you miss on the faces of your friends or family, the song of the birds, and even the daffodils fading in the vase.
Towards the end of last week, still lost in thought, I jumped when I heard my mobile ring. “Come to the door, mum, I’m outside in the street, beside my car!” At the door stood a box. And there was my daughter in the distance, wistfully smiling. She had delivered her Mother’s Day present. Chocolates, bath salts — and yes — a new bunch of daffodils!
Gloria Tessler is the JC’s Obituaries Editor