My grandad taught me to appreciate a smaller world

Our world may have gotten smaller, but you should see it as an invitation to look more closely.

In the years before he died my grandad’s world shrunk. It wasn’t all that big to begin with; he wasn’t one for travelling, never understanding my incessant desire to leave Ireland each time I revealed to him the latest country that I would call home. A creature of habit, he found meaning in the known. Every morning before breakfast he would cycle to the 40 Foot diving point for a swim. He retired early at fifty-five, allowing him the luxury of a morning dip. Before long he was a regular, becoming close friends with his fellow swimmers in the seamless years that followed. During the summers he and my granny would sojourn in Wexford for weeks at a time. The sea was even closer to the chalet than their house in Dublin, and could easily be reached on foot. Even with a change in scenery, my grandad’s precious morning routine remained untouched.

My grandad lived a healthy lifestyle by most benchmarks. He was physically active, ate well, never smoked, and rarely drank. But old age takes no prisoners; eventually, his body began to let him down.

It is amazing how quickly change can arrive, stunning us momentarily and then, with a dawning realisation, alter our lives inexorably. A single visit to a cardiologist was swiftly followed by triple by-pass surgery. Although the operation was medically successful, my grandad never returned to his former health or even close to it.

His body had become a source of mystery. Like a house of horrors at a carnival, it aggravated him in unexpected and perplexing ways. Right up until his death he was plagued by an incessant and stubborn pain in his back that rendered even the slightest movement painful. As the pain progressed, he would find himself overcome by spells of shaking. Endless appointments with a host of specialist consultants yielded no clear medical cause, nor any particularly effective treatments. From painkillers, to patches and lasers, nothing made the slightest dent in the armour of his pain.  

With each new affliction my grandad’s mobility decreased. The world in which he moved became smaller and smaller until all that remained were the four walls of his home and his garden. All his energies became concentrated on his lawn, his vegetable patch and his greenhouse, besides his children and grand-children who were his pride and joy, and his ever loving wife. The rest of the outside world concerned him less and less; it might as well have not existed.

My grandad always tended to his garden with great care, but this duty took on a vocational quality as the outside world became increasingly off limits. He was extremely protective over his small plot of land and guarded it fiercely against intruders, waging battle against slugs, snails, and the next-door neighbour cats. Although outnumbered by the army of garden variety Mollusca who feasted on his leafy greens, they were no match for his dedication. But he would never kill them. Like a loving yet stern father he made daily rounds of his vegetable patch, picking them up with forceps, dropping them in a plastic tray and dispensing them on the green down the road. I like to think the same slugs and snails came back each time, slipping and sliding doggedly down the path under the cloak of night to return to the same patch from which he plucked them, the toing and froing all part of an elaborate, unspoken game between its players.  

Me aged four, posing next to my grandad’s sunflowers

Although only a foursome, the next-door neighbour cats with their wily cunning and nimbleness proved formidable enemies. Undeterred by his seething anger in their presence they would leap over the partitioning wall and defecate on his immaculate lawn. My grandad’s acts of reprisal were contained and peaceful, to begin with. His first defensive strategy was to lay out bottles of water, whose shimmering in the sunlight, according to an old wives’ tale, is said to perturb cats. If caught mid-act the cats would be hosed off the lawn, doubling down on the humiliation of public defecation. Although for all I know, they may not have been embarrassed at all. Perhaps their acts of defecation were intended as the anthropomorphic equivalent of the ‘flaming bag of poop’ prank, and their only regret was getting caught. After all, there was nothing unspoken about this battle; it was all-out war between its adversaries.

When water proved an ineffective deterrent my grandad turned to a more resistant material – steel – and attached a tall wire fencing around the perimeter of his garden, giving the impression from within of being contained inside a fortress. It’s likely my grandad’s efforts only emboldened the furtive felines, for they always returned. Eventually he resorted to installing a device which emitted sound at a frequency only perceptible to cats. Of all his offences it was most successful, but by this stage my grandad was spending increasingly more time indoors due to ill health.

Recalling these memories I find myself marvelling at my grandad’s unparalleled tenacity and focus. Never in my life have I dedicated my energies so fiercely to a single corner of this world, instead preferring to flatten myself like a pancake across the earth’s globe, spreading myself wide and thin as far my resources would allow.

Recently, however, everyone’s world has gotten smaller. Like my grandad, we found ourselves unwillingly confined to our homes and gardens, if we are lucky enough to have them, confronted, perhaps for the first time in a real and substantial way, with the vulnerability of our corporeal selves.

Once I let go of the frustration that mired the opening days of lockdown, my attention shifted to the details of my newly magnified surroundings. On one of my countless, looping walks around my estate I noticed for the first time a solitary bench on a nearby green. Had it always been there? I delighted in the colourful and verdant foliage of my neighbours’ gardens, warmed by my appreciation for their green fingers. I became interested in the people that came in and out of nearby houses. Who were they? How were they?

Like my grandad, I now endeavour to spend as much time in my garden as my pinky, Irish complexion and the temperamental Irish weather will allow, setting up a makeshift office in the back garden on sunny days. A wooden chair serves as my desk and like a mystic I squat on a mound of cushions while tapping away at my laptop. During my outdoor yoga sessions I share my mat with crawling ants, taking care to avoid them as I shift from one pose to another with the grace of an elephant. To close a session I lie down and stare at them intently. I observe them carrying the dead bodies of members of their colony, a sanitary measure to stop the spread of infection and disease. It reminds me of the horrific scenes I had seen on the news, depicting countries overwhealmed by dead bodies in the wake of Coronavirus.

A single ant bears the weight of a deceased brethren. One for one. I watch it struggle, pause, and continue on for the good of the colony.

Life under lockdown: my affinity towards darker genres is harder to accommodate

At the beginning of isolation the bad days came once a week. They were tinged with a melancholy that, beholden in the right light, had the romantic quality of a Shakespearian play. On one or two particularly melodramatic occasions I even shed a few tears, luxuriating in its cathartic after-effect while shamelessly pity-texting a friend pining for sympathy.

“I hope this email finds you well during these strange and challenging times.”

When I first began using this email greeting, which has replaced standard emailing etiquette across the board, I meant each word wholeheartedly. I truly did hope the email found them well. But like many of the recent changes and upheavals in our daily lives, the things that once felt significant can lose their meaning quickly.

In recent weeks my intermittent sadness has given way to numbness and fatigue. The daily doomsday announcement, which I once tracked religiously, is barely afforded a passing glance. Like many of us I was a fervent amateur epidemiologist at the outset of the pandemic, but the endless debates about lockdown exit strategies that weasel their way into every single conversation are beginning to grate.

As of late I’ve noticed that the bad days are coming fast and steady, their recovery periods longer. One bad day spills into two, then three. The novelty of the early days helped absorb the sting of overwhealming loss, but as time crawls on, the sacrifices demanded of us have become harder rather than easier to bear.

My threshold to tolerate human suffering, real or fictionalised, indigenous or exogenous, is diminishing, making it harder to accommodate my affinity towards darker genres of music and films. I had to watch ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ in two sittings to get through the whole thing, which is unlike me, and there have been days where my staple diet of heavy techno has felt too crushing, as though my body, feeling waif-like had to physically receive the impact of the pummelling beats.

I’m not the only one feeling too raw to enjoy dystopian commentary on the fuckuppery that has defined the 20th century. Black Mirror series creator Charlie Brooker has returned to writing comic scripts “aimed at making myself laugh”, claiming he doesn’t think there is much appetite for a new series at the moment.

Like Brooker, I am revisiting artefacts from happier times to help me get through the present tense.

I have found myself gravitating towards uplifting and over-produced pop classics reminiscent of more innocent periods in my life; their plastic, shiny texture feels safe and sanitised, the banality of the lyrics a welcome respite from the all the doom and gloom. Prince, Kyle Minogue, and Britney have all had a look in, but Robyn is the Swedish goddess whose syrupy lyrics and bubbly synths have been my saving grace. At my lowest ebb I played Rebecca Black’s infamous song ‘Friday’, which also served as a handy reminder of which order the days of the fall (and also mostly because Vice made a mini-doc about her infamous rise to fame).

This retroaction of music appreciation has proved a tried and tested coping mechanism during periods of distress throughout my life. I select a song, usually a girlhood pop favourite, and play it obsessively on loop, its repetition simulating a synthetic predictability that counters the loss of control defining reality. I have recently complied these songs into a Spotify playlist, which I have labelled ‘Guilty Pleasures’ in case it should one day be discovered.

For those of us who have been lucky enough to escape loss of employment, illness or the death of a loved one, although we may be growing stagnant through sensory-deprivation, at times it can feel difficult to rationalise that we are in the midst of an unprecedented global crisis. Confined to the familiar domestic setting of our own homes inventing endless chores to distract ourselves, the carnage and devastation typically associated with a crisis is happening elsewhere, quite literally out there.  I imagine what it will be like recounting my personal experience to future generations: ‘It was awful, a huge tragedy. I worked from home, couldn’t see my friends or get laid, and basked in the sunshine reading books.’

When the low points do come, (as one friend aptly put it, “Most days are grand, but some days you wake up and feel like you’re in the middle of a pandemic”), I try to remember the frontline healthcare workers. They have borne the brunt of the suffering while tirelessly performing their duties; the first-person stories they tell their grandchildren will be harrowing.  

Save each other, touch yourself!

When staying safe means staying apart, a lot of us are missing out on human touch. Non-sexual intimate self-touch can help.

On a Friday night five weeks ago I was seated at the only empty chair I could find in a crowded Dublin bar, scrolling through the news headlines while I waited for my friends. Ireland  was one day out from its first official confirmation of Coronavirus, but already the media were heeding warnings of how the public should behave. One headline caught my eye: ‘Coronavirus advice: Wash your hands and avoid hugging, kissing and hand shaking.’ I scanned the room, observing the crowds of people sat in small groups, leaning close together to hear one another speak over the jovial hum of voices.

The advice was at odds with the scene before me making it easy to make light of as one tends to do at the penumbra of a crisis, when you know the worst is yet to come but the present hasn’t altered enough for real worry to set in. I joked that it was my civic duty to patrol the bar and break up any kissing couples. Back then it seemed comical that the State concerned itself with the intimate Friday night activities of its citizens, offering well-intentioned warnings usually delivered by parents to the turned-backs of teenagers as they head out.

62 days, 20,612 confirmed cases and 1,232 deaths later the government’s intrusion in our personal lives has been welcomed, demanded even. With the entire country in lockdown my in-person social interactions are limited to three family members, and my movements restricted to a 2km radius. When I do leave the house, strangers wait behind a corner or cross the road to avoid me. No one has touched me in over four weeks.

This isn’t the first time in my life that the absence of touch has registered itself as a physical deprivation. Over the last four years I’ve moved to a new city six times, each time finding myself alone amongst strangers. The experience is not the same as self-isolation or social distancing, but when you know no one and no one knows you, it can feel like everyone is crossing the road to avoid you. You don’t find yourself being touched very often.

It wasn’t until I left Ireland that I came to appreciate how much Irish people like to hug one other. We are a nation of huggers, embracing friends old and new with equal enthusiasm (often to the bewilderment of visitors).

Each time I found myself in a new city trying to imitate the local greeting customs I found that I sorely missed being hugged. There is no greater feeling of intimacy than when someone wraps their arms around you and pulls you close, squeezing the distance between you to almost nothing. The weight of their bodies tells you, ‘I am here for you, I am present’, far better than words ever could. It is the opposite of feeling alone.

What better life-giving affirmation is there than the fission of skin-to-skin contact? To be seen, desired, acknowledged, to experience the warm glow of human connection. We spend so much time communicating through our devices or living in our own heads that we have become oblivious to subtle bodily sensations. Touching and being touched offers us an escape from the incessant chatter in our head; guided by instinct and desire the cognitive side of our brain disengages as we become both the giver and receiver of pleasure.

Although I recognised my internal restlessness during periods of yearning, I always looked outside of myself when I craved touch, operating under an implicit belief that this need could only be satisfied in the hands of another.

It wasn’t until I came across renowned relationship therapist Esther Perel’s ‘Where Should We Begin’ podcast series, which allows the listener to ‘sit in’ on an hour-long couple’s therapy session, that I began to think about this differently. In one of the episodes she helps a client overcome his physical discomfort by coaching him in masturbatory touch, which she defines broadly as touching one’s entire body for pleasure (in contrast to its common usage referring to genital stimulation for sexual pleasure). She encourages him to stroke himself, to caress himself, and to pay attention to the pleasurable sensation it arouses.

I had never considered touching myself in that way and realised that I am not nearly as good a lover to myself as I am to others. Although we touch ourselves constantly (our face especially, as we’ve realised as of late), we are rarely conscious of these absentminded movements nor the sensations they evoke.

Even my daily beauty routine is be performed with a heavy hand, moisturiser slapped on, rubbed in, washed off aggressively.

I compared this to a recent afternoon spent getting a facial and a massage. Over the course of two hours the beauty therapist blended oils, creams and lotions into my skin. Her movements were tender and gentle, and I lay there like a baby submitting myself to her healing touch. The experience was utterly relaxing, devoid of the pressure to respond a certain way or perform the receiving of pleasure often expected of lovers (women in particular).

I realised that I had been neglectful towards myself and needed to be more conscious of how I handled my body, that I should be gentler, more loving, more affectionate in my actions. I also realised that I needed to value the power my own touch if I wanted to unlock its potential to bring myself comfort.

I felt my loneliness most keenly lying alone in my double bed at night. I decided to put Esther Perel’s advice into practise. Applying delicate pressure, I traced my fingertips along my collarbone and across my chest in a sweeping back and forth motion, tuning my attention to the faint tingling sensation left in its wake. The effect was incredibly soothing and slowly the ball of tension in the pit of my stomach began to unravel.

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic we find ourselves experiencing unprecedented levels of collective distress, while simultaneously being closed off from our regular stress-relieving outlets. With the virus having weaponised our social instinct, the panacea found in the company of others is the very thing we must avoid at all costs. The absence of a clearly defined exit-plan from our current phase of state-sanctioned celibacy is immensely frustrating, but on the bright side, it has created the ideal conditions for us to spend time alone and give more attention our relationship with our own body. In  a capitalistic and social media driven wellness era the affection we give ourselves is often undervalued. Now is the perfect time to change that. Save each other, touch yourself!