In Britain it’s common knowledge that if you are walking in a field and a nettle bush stings you, just look nearby for a dock leaf. You rub the dock leaf on the sting and it eases the pain. Of course, for this to work, you need to know what the dock leaf looks like.
So, within the turmoil of the last seven months, have you been able to identify your nettle; nature’s sharpest sting; where has Covid hurt you? And, more importantly, what has been your dock leaf? Often it’s closer than you think. Apparently.
I guess for me, my dock leaf is my love story, and I’m just starting to own that reality and share it, because, well… it sounds corny doesn’t it? Perhaps the voice of King Lear’s Fool has also been ringing loudly in my head recently, with his “have more than thou showest, speak less than thou knowest”. Survival mode has kicked in this year for most of us, so if you’re like me you have been keeping your stories tightly gripped inside your chest, maintaining life, responding, enduring, carrying on, waiting for the exhale.
This thing; this year; this time – it isn’t over yet. But I can’t keep the stories inside any longer. Let’s share.
There is PPE in a white plastic bag, inside another plastic bag, wedged in the crevice of my car door, in the space where I usually keep a box of tissues and discarded chocolate wrappers from meal deals. It’s medical grade PPE – Personal Protective Equipment – issued by my employer, a local council in southern England. Gloves. Masks. Thin, white, plastic aprons. It’s been there since April, since I walked through the empty hallway of our office and scribbled my name on the PPE register, unsure how many to take and secretly, ashamedly, hoping I wouldn’t need any. We were advised that it was for emergency visits, ‘essential visits’ which may need to take place during Covid Lockdown. We printed off official confirmations on our home printers: “Essential Workers”, permitted to be out of our houses. I packed a few pairs of PPE, disinfected my hands and pushed the fear down into my feet. Did I miss the PPE lecture of my Social Work degree? I’m not prepared for this.
“Lockdown was so quiet” my hairdresser mused.
“Yeah, was it?” was all I could manage in response.
Sure, the house was quiet, the town subdued, I became aware of the owls. But, inside my head it was all very loud; raucous. Closed off in a spare bedroom for 8 or 9 hours a day, I grappled with guidance. We all did.
(so you take the gloves off first? What? Really? Okay)
“Essential Visit guidance”
(but which visits are essential?)
“What is Considered an Essential Visit guidance”
“If a Foster Child Is In Your Car guidance”
“If a Foster Child Is In Your Car and Under 5 Years Old guidance”
“Vulnerable; clinically vulnerable; shielding; asthma; COPD; categories; categories; categories”
“Risk assess the foster carers”
“Risk assess the foster children”
“Stay at Home, Save Lives”
“Stay at Home, Save Lives”
“Except for you perhaps. You go out there and help lives”
(but what about my life and my family?)
(it’s your job. It’s your duty. Be thankful that you have a job. Be grateful.)
(c’mon now, you’ve given evidence in court in abuse cases, you’ve held the hand of a 15 year old client during her baby’s first ultrasound, you’ve got thick skin; dig deep again; toughen up princess)
(Covid deaths are rising; 800 per day)
“New guidance from IT”
“IT guidance changed from new guidance”
“Guidance about government guidance”
“Guidance about which government guidance doesn’t apply to us to allow an essential visit”
“Guidance about government guidance which is different to yesterday’s guidance about government guidance”
By the way, why aren’t you meeting your deadlines and why isn’t that GP replying to your urgent request for information?
Spend 2 hours on Skype with clients.
Feeling unprepared, winging it, feeling thankful for professional-muscle memory, pray nothing significant is missed in the chaos.
Talk to manager, try to decide if next visit is “essential” or can it be done virtually
(look at guidance: it guides us to make the decision at our discretion)
Spend 3 hours on another Skype call with another client, advising them why they are not going to be approved as foster carers.
(have a strong cup of tea)
Re-deployment? To Safeguarding? Inhale tightly.
No, staying where we are. Okay. Exhale slightly.
Eat. Sleep (sometimes); Wake up; Repeat.
My Dock Leaf
I fumble downstairs and wedge myself between you and the back of the soft sofa
I want to feel something solid; something real
I can’t respond to any reasonable question you ask me
(please just anything for dinner, I really don’t know…all the food perhaps?)
You take my hand, lead me to my walking boots and grab the house key
We walk at dusk
We wander through fields
We side-step cow dung
We pause to count tiny snails halfway along a branch
“Are you feeling better?”
I think of my friend who lost her father-in-law to Covid
It’s all a bit too much
I squint and squeeze your hand and we keep walking
We sit together in the evening chill on a hard park bench and watch birds swoop like starling
Until my heart slows
Until my shock passes
Until my tears dry
Until the light plays tricks with our eyes
Until we are both thinking about dinner again
As you cook dinner I curl up, sinking into the sofa and suddenly remember that you have hardship too at this time; your work and industry decimated and with it your entire income, lifestyle and friendships floating in the air, waiting to be grounded
I feel suddenly selfish for all my needy; hope I give to you as much as you need
Then you sing out “tea’s ready!” and for the briefest moment I forget about all the tomorrows I will spend working in the spare bedroom and we eat alllll the food for dinner
Somehow amongst it all we always giggle
Giggle and nuzzle and wind our way through the stings and the nettles and the cheap and nasty bites of life;
Finding solace in our home and in the fields around us, the owls getting louder each day.
So the next time you are walking through a field and you get stung by a nettle, be sure to look for a nearby dock leaf. Sometimes they are tricky to find. They don’t flower when they are crowded by other plants so for them to grow you may need to carefully spot the ones blooming wild and free on their own. Apparently.