I have found it very strange, over the past two days, to move between the rapidly emptying college site and the school, where the boys are darting about the playground, kicking footballs and inventing new games, and once inside cheerfully reminding one another not to touch the handrail on the stairs. In college, I have encountered fellows, lecturers, porters, maintenance staff, and scouts who all stop (from 2 meters distance) to say how strange the world seems now. It’s clear that quite a few of us have not yet understood what is happening, or how long it will last, not because we are incapable of understanding, but because it is just too much to take in. So many things we took for granted, now cancelled or altered beyond recognition. I breezily said a few weeks ago that I’d like to save up the Young Rembrandt exhibition at the Ashmolean so that I would have something to do when I was at a loose end in Oxford; what hubris that seems now! I was meant to go to the cinema on Monday (before social distancing was announced), but my friend had a cold so we stayed away, and yesterday, inevitably, the cinema closed.
But alongside all of those little pleasures that have gone, we’ve also seen the rapid alteration of nearly every mundane aspect of our working life here: no more meeting over a cup of tea, or looking through resources with a colleague, or gossiping over the newspapers after lunch, or, for most of our students and staff who don’t live in Oxford, coming in to college at all. It’s the end of term, and many things–tutorials, student societies, committee meetings, chapel services–were taking a pause anyway. But we are waking up to the fact that that pause is likely to go on, and on, and to take in so much more than we thought it could. At our last SCR lunch on Tuesday one colleague sat in stunned silence, her food untouched, unable to process the news that the Bodleian was closing. Last night I woke with a deep sense of grief as I finally understood that not only is our choir unlikely to be singing together as long as the restrictions continue, but every choir, every band, every orchestra is now in limbo, suspended between movements, unsure when the baton will rise again. There is still music–recordings, and streaming, and spontaneous songs from Italian balconies–but something is lost. I keep hearing, over and over again, the notes of Alma del Core, the last piece I sang with our singing teacher on Tuesday, the rise and fall of the lover’s voice bright, absurd and carefree.
Sarò contento Nel mio tormento Se quel bel labbro baciar potrò.
(I will be content in my torment, if I can kiss those beautiful lips.)
When I leave college to walk to the school, the streets are not yet deserted; staff at our neighbouring college stop for a chat in the street, and to say, again, how strange it all is, and students in masks are rushing with suitcases to catch buses and trains while they can. But it is much, much quieter than on a normal day in ninth week, and the screech of playtime at the school is a shock as I turn the corner. There are dozens of boys dashing around, playing football and fussball and a number of other things I can’t identify. A boy runs up to the Headmaster to tell him breathlessly, and incomprehensibly, about a new game they have invented. The teachers know the boys well enough to see at a glance who is playing with whom and what they are playing, but to me they are like bees dancing, groups forming and dissolving faster with a meaning that eludes me. They know that something is happening. The older ones know some of the facts, and even the younger ones have taken in their parents’ anxiety. But a term off school looms like a deliciously long snow day. When we had to cancel evensong and close the school for the first time a fortnight ago, I apologised to the choir when we were able to gather again. The men were grateful; the boys were confused. Why would I apologise for a day off school?
As this strange week continues, I have been so grateful for this daily reminder that life continues, in its joys as well as its sorrows. Children are so good at feeling whatever they are feeling right now, regardless of what they felt this morning, or five minutes ago. As this extended snow day unfolds we are going to have to learn to do the same: to take the joy that comes to us as it comes, amidst the shock and fear and sorrow. This is more than just counting our blessings and storing up gratitude. It is a willingness to live suspended, to tell time at a new pace. Children have so much future in front of them that it is almost impossible for them to see; just ask a small child how old they think the oldest person in the room is, and wait for some astonishing answers. Daily, hourly, we are seeing our adult certainties about the future dissolve into nothing; morning and evening, a new thing we took for granted is gone, and the things we fretted about last week (should I go on that date? cancel that holiday?) seem absurdly naive. And yet there will still be footballs, and friends, and screaming at playtime. And family string quartets and vocal ensembles, and compline sung via an online meeting. And loved ones we will long to touch, and dread to lose, and be oh so grateful to have in the world, sending us penguin videos and smiling, or weeping, from a screen. May God bless you and all you love, and give you the grace to receive the gifts of our life together, whenever and wherever they come. Amen.