In which we lock down


Pandemic existence: reaping what we’ve sown

There is nothing I can write about life on lockdown that has not already been written. Doing so risks the scorn of the likes of Times journalist Matthew Parris, who on Saturday opined:

I’m encountering what for me is an almost intolerable level of guff about reconnecting with nature, learning the joys of contemplation, home-cooking, realising how much more there is to life than nine-to-five, putting the rhythm of lovely walks and daily exercise back into life, birdsong, etc.

But what else does he expect? We are all processing what has been one of the most extraordinary times in living memory. Of course we are struck by the commonplace, with a strong desire to find the silver lining — there is little else to hand aside from fear and contagion, seasoned by social media ire, fake news, recriminations and the arrogant wisdom of hindsight (or what my fellow Americans might call shoulda-coulda-woulda).

So yes, my journal is full of repetitive and probably deeply tedious observations about birdsong, the lack of contrails, the calming reduction in passing traffic, and all the wonderful neighbourhood nooks and crannies we’ve discovered on our daily family walk. To Parris’s list, I could add jokes about attending teleconferences in your underwear, middle-aged aching glutes after too much PE with Joe, panic buying, and when gin o’clock starts in the new world order. This is now our existence, and sharing makes us feel part of something larger.

So with that apologia, I will write what I need to write, and count the blessings I need to count.

For the past three weeks — which feels a lot more like three years — my world has been compressed into a small domestic core, as it has for so many others around the world. Richard drives out for the weekly shop, but I’ve only walked or cycled since the government’s social distancing mandates went into effect, and then only once a day and no more than half a mile of distance.

I am acutely aware of how fortunate I am to have my health, my family around me, a job where working remotely is possible, and the green space out back — the green space that enticed us away from London some five years ago, despite the added hassle and expense of the rail commute. In addition to give us that extra breathing space, the garden comes with its own seasonal imperatives, which now keep us on track and add structure to weeks which might otherwise pummel us with same-ness — even as it is an unrelenting bootcamp that sucks up much of our free time.

We are near the beginning of the cycle now, just completing the indoor propagation of seeds sown into heated trays in March — tomatoes, chilies, cucumber, courgettes, sweet corn; or into cool trays in the greenhouse — broccoli, celery, Brussels sprout, sunflowers, zinnias, various bare-root towering perennials. This conveyor belt of new green life overlaps by a few months with the end of last year’s cycle, as we continue to harvest overwintered vegetables — onion, chard, cabbages, pak choi, potatoes, kale, purple-sprouting broccoli, broad beans, carrots, parsnips. Richard is the caretaker of the grape vines we inherited from the previous owners, who had a penchant for home-brew. He is, in fact, in charge of all alcohol-related activities (which go far beyond grapes, including hops, apples, rhubarb, blackberries, elder and sloe). But the vines are the fussiest charges. Soon the buds will need rubbing, apparently.

One of my colleagues joked to me that he’s always been a bit of a “prepper” even under normal circumstances, and the pandemic has sharpened this instinct like a knapped flint. I know what he means. Every morning I give a silent thanks to the three warm eggs laid by the hens we managed, quite coincidentally, to install just before lockdown; their regular feed is supplemented generously by garden weeds, and their poo rots down and goes back into the vegetable beds. I am being particularly careful this year to gather more seeds than usual from those vegetables we have that breed true (including six varieties of heirloom tomato), as garden centres and online plant distributors wink out one by one. We’ve always been frugal with leftovers, but in recent weeks the entire family goes to particular pains to consume every last crumb of what we are served, as staples like bread flour and yeast grow increasingly hard to find.

Work has been challenging, as we’ve had Joshua to home-school, with disappointingly minimal guidance from his teachers. Clearly a lab head has an easier job of working from home than does her research team — much of what I do anyway is write papers and grants, supervise my team and tend collaborations, all of which lend themselves to remote working. But I’ve been trying to do the same number of hours as normal on top of keeping Joshua on some semblance of a schedule — regular hours set aside for maths, English, art, music, science, exercise and eating lunch with classmates on the Houseparty app. Sometimes when I’m busy on Zoom or Teams, his sad little face pops into the frame.

With undergraduate teaching complete aside from assessment, and individual lab members settled into lab-less home tasks like writing papers, bioinformatics and analyzing data, most of my efforts now are future-focused. On the teaching side, I tend to my broader roles as admissions tutor and faculty careers liaison. On the research side, nearly all my funding runs out in a bit more than a year, so I’m trying to write as many grants as I can. With chronic urinary tract infection seemingly unfundable, I’m now, with regret, forced to branch out into other related areas (hopefully still allowing some scope for carrying on with chronic UTI). So I’m forging links with other researchers and clinicians who have bold ideas and the same roll-up-your-sleeves attitude to science that I strive for, even as many of us academics wonder whether our universities will be in the financial position to keep us on once this is all over. But despite the uncertainty and genuine fears for my prospects, thinking about the future, brainstorming with diverse colleagues and exploring new areas is deeply stimulating. I am sure that this old dog still has a few new tricks to learn, and that one day soon I will strike it lucky.

So yes, I’m busy, perhaps busier than I’ve ever been. But at the same time, I have the oddest sense that nothing is actually happening. This must be an illusion of lockdown, when the environment is invariant day after day. Meanwhile outside, the pandemic crests over our heads with ruthless efficiency, widespread heartache, and no end in immediate sight. The conduit of outside information that keeps us plugged into badly-needed intelligence from the wider world is also an agent of fear, uneasiness and rancour. So I’ve sunk wholeheartedly into Easter weekend, allowing myself to down tools (aside from the spade and hoe), enjoy this glorious summery stretch of weather, and reflect upon the positive side of my new normal.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
This entry was posted in Domestic bliss, Gardening, Staring into the abyss, The profession of science, Work/life balance. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to In which we lock down

  1. Henry says:

    I made some especially nice banana bread.

  2. So did we! Hope you are all well.

  3. I have a mental list of things I could get done with all my spare time. Guess where I am on that list? 😉

  4. Steve Moss says:

    Been an age since I last breezed through the blogs on OT, great to read all is well, and certainly UCL seems to find more than enough to keep lab heads busy with working from home. But I do feel for our post-docs, students etc., who really need to be at the bench. Their frustration is evident in our regular Teams meetings.

  5. @Winty – Yup, same. I thought I might get some more novel writing underway, but mostly by the end of the day I’m just knackered. The husband and I are currently bingeing on Farscape.

    @Steve – I share your fears. One of my PhD students is funded by philanthropy, so I’m not sure whether UCL will under-write any extensions or not. I’ve got a little bit of an emergency pot but it would be great not to have to burn through that lifeline.

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