A few days before Christmas, I went as a parent helper with my daughter’s class to a carol service: shepherding seven-year-olds along frosty pavements, trying to keep their wiggly crocodile in line, shushing them as they waited excitedly in the pews. To be honest, it was the last thing I wanted to do when I had assignments to complete and presents to purchase and mince pies to bake and all I could think about was what the hell happened on December 12th? What do we do now?
On the return journey, one little girl fell down and scraped her knee. Her friends all clustered round, pushing to see, eager to know what had happened, wanting to help; yet she turned them all away because, in her pain, anger and fear, it was just too much: she was overwhelmed and she couldn’t connect.
So I lifted her out of the throng and held her, shielded her, carried her awhile, her feet bumping my knees, her wet check against mine, until she was calm enough to re-enter the hustle and bustle of the class.
I needed it as much as she did.
Of course it’s a busy, crazy time of year. So much to do. So much to remember. So much to process. But this year, overriding everything, the panic and disbelief of the general election result. Not really anger, not bitterness, not pain or frustration, at least for me. But the overwhelming feeling of how much more this means there is to do.
A different result would have meant I could relax a bit. I could trust that those with the time, expertise and resources of government would put them to good use. That climate change would finally be taken seriously in the UK. That disability rights, child poverty, inequality, the treatment of refugees, investment in the NHS … the things I care about … the policies that affect those I care about … that we could start to leave them to those in power.
But now? It seems that there are fewer people who actually care than we even realised. And a government that really doesn’t care. All the axes of the world: the UK, the US, China, the useless Madrid climate talks, Brexit, they’re all turned the wrong way now. So not only is there going to be more to do – harder battles to fight, more vulnerable people to look out for – there are even fewer of us to do it than before. Those of us who do care have got to do so much more.
I was overwhelmed.
It’s no longer going to be enough (it was never enough) just to share Guardian articles on social media and piss around buying bamboo toothbrushes. I must become an active member of Extinction Rebellion. I must get my planned Community Circle off the ground. I must fundraise more, campaign more, give more …
And of course I’ve still got a job to do and three children to ferry to an ever-increasing number of places at the same time, and a household to run. I’ve got to keep Benjamin alive and read my girls a bedtime story occasionally. I’ve got to exercise more and eat less and remember birthdays and organise a Hogmanay party and thank God at least Christmas is done for another twelve months (realistically, ten).
I’m already stretched in so many directions, the schedule is so tight, the leeway so little, that if one thing goes wrong – a hospital admission, a car breakdown, a washing machine recall – the whole mass of spinning plates comes tumbling down.
I read all the feel-good posts about how there are things we can do to counteract the shitstorm that is going to hit our most vulnerable. How we can donate more to charity and give more to the food bank and support more petitions; I’ve done that, and I’ll keep doing it, because I know that I am privileged to be able to. But money doesn’t solve everything, does it?
Money won’t set more stringent climate change targets. It won’t roll back universal credit. It won’t make schools more inclusive or stop Heathrow’s third runway. It won’t close the ATUs or the gender pay gap. it won’t stop the hate crimes.
Not long ago I wrote “If not now when and if not who me?” But I’ve started to feel that if I hold myself to that, I’m going to be so stretched that I’ll fail at everything… And anyway, I don’t know where to start.
Except, as I held that wee girl against my cheek and struggled back to school, one foot after another, with her in my arms, I did know where to start. I felt at last that here I was making a small difference, to one small person, and that has to be better than panic-stricken paralysis.
One foot after another I carried her back to school. One foot after another.
It’s easy, when overwhelmed, to want to shut out the world like she did. To close off connection. To silence the noise and the questions and the endless bad news. To keep our heads down; to say no to the request for parents to chaperone the chattering children to their carol service. Yet disconnection has to be part of the reason we are in this state in the first place. The Scots feel no connection to the English. The North feels no connection to London. Sitting here in our solid houses with our solid-ish bank accounts and our secure food supply we feel no connection with those who are already starving and drowning from the effects of climate change.
But if we let it, connection can spread like wildlife. If I can hug one hurt little girl, I can smile and shake the hand of the Big Issue seller outside the Co-op. If I can teach my children why we use bamboo toothbrushes, they can tell their friends. If I can start one conversation over coffee at work, I might influence a chain of people I’ve never met. And eventually I might just build up to starting that Community Circle.
Overwhelmed, but holding out hope for greater connection.
With love from our family to yours, for 2020.