Since I last sat here and gazed at the candle on the table beside me, the U.K. has now gone into lockdown to try to counter the worldwide pandemic that has now taken hold on our shores. Nevertheless the candle is still burning with a steady and bright flame.
Before the final lockdown I had to go into Kingston-on-Thames, the largest town nearest to where I live, to collect a prescription. It was a beautiful sunny morning though the streets were rather dismal as so many shops were closed up. After I left the pharmacy, I took a stroll along the river. The leaves of the trees glistened and the green river gleamed in the chill sunshine. It was a comfort to watch the swans, ducks and terns smoothly making their way through the water as they always do. It was as if nothing has happened.
The warmth of the sun in the chill air was matched by the atmosphere on the waterfront. As I walked along, strangers smiled or raised a hand in greeting. Because of social distancing, everyone seemed to be more aware of each other than usual. There was a polite choreography about everyone’s attempt to step aside for joggers, mothers with pushchairs, and for each other. As I sat for a while on a bench, I observed this delicate ballet of manners accompanied by gracious smiles. It warmed my heart to observe people looking out for each other in this small way.
I had sat down to drink a carton of coffee and eat a large cookie I had purchased earlier. By this point, whichever food and drink outlets were open, were only dispensing takeaways and Waterstone’s cafe was no exception. So I took my coffee and cookie down to the river. As I sat there sipping my coffee and munching my cookie, the inevitable little flock of pigeons assembled near my feet to catch the crumbs.
I was reminded of a time I spent in Venice several years ago. I had a little winter break in the early New Year on my own. I sat outside a little cafe in the winter sunshine with a coffee and slice of pizza. The cafe was in the shadow of the imposing Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute. In fact it was in a little piazza behind it. I was amazed to see some little sparrows hovering around my table looking for crumbs. In my head, sparrows lived in London, not Venice. In any case, those humble little sparrows looked quite incongruous in the shade of the grandiose basilica, though they were not in the least overawed by it as they swarmed around my feet to eat the little pieces of pizza crust I gave them.
Then I thought of Venice itself, which has been severely hit by the virus along with most of Italy. The lagoon and the canals have clear blue water again and wild fowl have returned now that the excessive shipping has departed. Perhaps some good is coming out of these devastating days. Despite the recent tragedy, La Serenissima (as the city of Venice is dubbed) is calling to me again. Hopefully one day I will return. When I do, I shall make sure I feed the tiny humble sparrows again.
So in honour of those little Venetian sparrows of years ago I crumbled some of my cookie onto the pavement for the little cluster of Kingston pigeons near my feet. I watched them swarm around for the tiny pieces of biscuit, fluttering over each other and jostling each other out of the way. It was quite amusing as in their desperate flurry to peck at the tiny crumbs, they were completely oblivious to a sizeable piece of biscuit behind them all. It was some time before one of the flock realised it was there and then the fluttering took another direction of course.
Their desperate flurrying brought to mind the panic-buying that had taken place all that week. I was as guilty as the rest. Seeing sections of empty shelving in the supermarkets makes you grab whatever you can, like the pigeons grabbing whatever crumb they can. Like the pigeons, you don’t see what else is there, what might be behind you. You may even forget what you came in for and you may come out of the shop with things you don’t really need. Thankfully the panic has died down now and, since the lockdown, food shopping is conducted in a more orderly and calm fashion.
Looking at those pigeons, scurrying around after those crumbs reminded me of our rampant consumerism. We are forever buying: shopping has become a pastime, a hobby, an afternoon out or we can click,click, click online at home. When sales arrive and special offers and Black Friday, the adrenalin surges and out we go shopping again or we rush to our laptop or i phone to see what we can get. According to very recent news, we cannot cope with being in cold turkey now that the shops are closed so internet purchases are soaring instead. So we are still flurrying around indoors like a bird trying to get out when the window or door is shut.
Perhaps in the weeks ahead, as this lockdown takes a greater hold, we will slowly let the sudden quiet calm atmosphere take a hold on our hyperactive selves. It is taking a hold in the streets and parks now where every day seems like the chill calm of Christmas Day. After all, this is the time to appreciate what we have rather than hanker for what we do not have. Perhaps that is one way through this crisis. It is also time to appreciate and cherish who we have: our partners, family and friends. The larger crumb that is there all the time in the midst of our scurrying. The pearl of great price.
Ave atque vale – Hail and Farewell! Till the next blog.
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A selection of previous meditations is also available in audio form as ‘Meditations of Neiulus Aurelius’ ASMR on YouTube.