Across the Kingdom of Fife, green fields curve upwards to meet the sky—today a brilliant blue. The Scottish village of Ceres, a cluster of cottages between the hills, has been my home since lockdown began. The village’s namesake was the Roman goddess of agriculture, which seems fitting: there is something otherworldly about the way spring unfolds here. I’m on my own, isolated from family and friends, undergoing chemotherapy for stage four cancer. This is not the life I imagined for myself when I turned twenty-one last year. Still, these days, who is living as they expected?
In the afternoons, I look out for the owner of my cottage, who lives at the other end of the garden. We regularly discuss her burgeoning vegetable patch, the rhubarb plants she has been working on. She once explained to me that she has been collecting worms, as one dangled ominously between her fingers. She’s enthusiastic about her vegetables’ progress (I wonder if they’d sustain us if we lived in the days before grocery stores). When the wind picks up, I go indoors, and fall into the pages of a good book. Reading is a solitary sport; one I’m suited to. I packed more books than I could read in a lifetime. I derive great comfort from reading about people who endured more trying times than my own. Those like Etty Hillesum, the Dutch writer who, age 27, had the Holocaust to deal with, yet still found joy in life’s wonders.
Sometimes I wonder how long the pandemic will last, when I will be able to return to my family. In restless moments, I break medical advice and venture beyond the garden. There’s an old stone wall in a nearby field where I sit, a lonely rebel. Or stand, like the pretentious Romantic I am, in a pose similar to Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.” From my vantage point, I look out at the great green nothing. Not only is there an absence of people, there’s no evidence of human life whatsoever. In my mind, I fill in the landscape with a crowd.
Waking one morning, with a fever and sore throat, my consultant demands that I come into hospital immediately. Do I have the plague? I wonder. Is this how it ends? I call my boyfriend to tell him I love him. He says, wryly, that if I do have coronavirus at least he’ll no longer be a threat to me. How is it that by following medical advice I walk straight into a hotspot, putting myself in far more danger than all of my field visits combined? I brace myself, going into the coronavirus ward, for the sound of sirens, coughing, beeps. Instead, in a private room, I’m met by the sound of nurses’ voices, who, in an attempt to calm me, tell me I can take off my mask. I thank them for the offer but reply that doing so would have the opposite of their intended effect. I test negative. Relief. Now don’t touch anything, I think, rushing home to embrace my solitude.
Etty Hillesum once wrote: “The sky within me is as wide as the one stretching above my head.” I think I know what she means—it’s easier to get by when you give breath to your imagination.
As time has passed, I’ve become more introspective. In our hyper-connected world, the thought of being alone—actually alone—might be enough to induce panic in the best of us. Society teaches that excessive introversion leads to a detachment from reality, eccentricity, narcissism. But in my experience, the opposite is true: my isolation has made life clearer, made me realise who I miss, and appreciate those people more than ever before. For those struggling to accept the new pandemic limitations, perhaps turning inwards to the “sky within” will help us all get by.