A tide of emotions: but there must be Hope

Having experienced great relief on our return to the UK in early March, after surviving a once-in-a-life-time sandstorm and a COVID-19 outbreak at a nearby hotel, I was looking forward to a full diary of WI events.

Normality was the order of the day. I attended Elstead WI’s very special 100th birthday celebration and enjoyed, with around 40 Surrey members, the Spring residential weekend at Denman. I drafted my May column, a light-hearted missive, focussing on the celebration of May Day: Maypoles, Morris Dancing and Monty Modlyn, and even a little licentiousness and debauchery (relating to the origins of May Day celebrations, I assure you). I then moved on to address the VE Day commemorations, the role of WI members in WW2, their significant contribution to the war effort and post-war, as they looked to the promised future with an aim to change the world. I finished with an exhortation to members to support climate change initiatives, that have “rallied the population in a way that has not been seen since WW2” (Caroline Lucas MP, March 2020). I find it very hard to believe that I wrote this as late as mid-March!

Can you recall your last ‘normal’ WI encounter? On Wednesday, March 11, I went to a very well attended Emlyn Down Group Meeting, and what a very special day it was. We made a mosaic for the garden, engaged in relaxed conversation, shared a fish and chip lunch and participated in a very well organised meeting — thank you, it was a lovely day. Even a few hugs were exchanged. Maybe the last for some time, for some!

Over the next few days disbelief set in as the implications of COVID-19 struck, like a tsunami. Our world was turned inside-out, or rather, outside-in. Only four days later we were cancelling the Annual Council Meeting, then very quickly the demise of very many Surrey WI events, including Worplesdon WI’s Centenary and Bronzefield Bees’ 10th birthday, followed by a torrent of cancellations which included all Surrey WI and SFWI events until the end of June.

Reality now began to kick in. Could this be happening? The amount of work involved in hibernating the Federation kept me focussed for the first month and insulated me from the reality of what was happening in the outside world. A new, strange vocabulary emerged, of furloughing (formally a leave of absence granted to a member of the services or a missionary) and of shielding and social distancing. Our personal challenge was to address protocols, to work out which category we, our family and friends fitted into, and to restructure our daily lives accordingly.

Reality has become uncertainty. Nothing is clear, nothing is definite. We are in a constantly changing world where the goalposts move daily. Even the familiar things of life have changed their function. My handbag has become a receptacle for keys. The front door has not been unlocked for a month, my car’s boot is where the delivery driver leaves the food, which I obsessively spray with disinfectant (a freebie from Hampton Court Flower Show) and leave to decontaminate.

Amidst all this has been the arrival of Spring, and with it hope, but also guilt. COVID-19 has given us the gift of time, and with it more of a sense of awareness. It been hard not to celebrate the idyllic breaking of spring. To walk in the garden, to hear the dawn chorus uninterrupted by the drone of traffic. The sunsets seem more perfect. Is this a direct result of the drastic fall in air pollution? When was the last time the trees burst into leaf, silhouetted against a sky devoid of vapour trails? Guilt then leads to a deep sense of grief — for those lost, both known and unknown. Grief in being isolated from family and friends.
Grief for time lost, never to be reclaimed. The yearning to hug one’s children and grandchildren, to spend time with those who are most dear to us, and the question, that sits in the shadows, when will we see them again?

Guilt re-emerges. Why them and not me? What can I do to make a difference? However hard it is, the single most important thing we can all do at this stage is to stay at home. Inaction seems the exact opposite of what the WI is renowned for, but for the moment this is by far the best thing we, as individuals, can do.

But there is hope; there must be hope. In the words of the 14th Century Dame Julian of Norwich (who you may be familiar with if you, like me, have been avidly reading Elly Griffiths’ books, inspired by her literary lunch) and who, even though she witnessed the ravages of the Black Death, believed that:
“All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

And finally, in the words of Queen Elizabeth II, a member of the WI for 77 years:
“We will be with our friends again;
we will be with our families again;
we will meet again.”
(April 5, 2020).

Take care and stay safe.
Carol A. Gartrell, Federation Chairman

The photo shows Carol in her garden, sitting in the willow dome she has created, after learning how to on a course at Denman

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