Still locked down after all these years

Dear friends

I’m sorry it has been so long since I wrote. I haven’t written because I have been depressed. A lot of us have been depressed, probably most of us, so I make no special claim there. I don’t even really know why I’ve been depressed – I’m in a comfortable home, with enough alcohol. I have been walking far and eating well. I have lost some kilograms and watched good things and read good books and I feel loved and capable of loving. I have earned less money than usual but then again I haven’t spent as much as I normally do, and my life hasn’t changed as much as other people’s lives have changed, and yet for a couple of weeks a wave of glumness and bleakness came upon me, so long and steady that it affected my work and the balance of my heart and the quality of my living, and there was nothing I could do about it.

(I know it is one of the modern stations of the cross that a middle-class person living in relative comfort should preface everything they say with “I know how lucky and privileged I am”, but if you don’t mind, I won’t. I have a few reasons for this:

  • It has become an inert part of any utterance, neither clarifying nor truly qualifying. I think of it as a prefix that doesn’t modify the word that follows it, like the “in” in “inflammable”.
  • It feels like reciting a script of such crushing and formulaic unoriginality that any juice or value in the sentiment have long since been squeezed out, and I become itchy when I’m expected to do or say things for no better reason than that they’re expected of me.
  • I prefer to do people the courtesy of assuming they are adult enough to assume that I am adult enough to be aware of my position in the class hierarchies.
  • At this stage, it really just feels like a pointless superstitious ritual, a kind of verbal clove of garlic to protect you from the vampires of social media criticism: “If I acknowledge my privilege, no one will be able to accuse me of having unexamined privilege!” This seems to me a waste of time. I’m not saying the vampires of social media criticism don’t exist; I’m saying they’re not afraid of garlic.
  • In this context in particular, it would seem to be implying that there is some sort of necessary correlation between mental health and material wellbeing, and that furthermore, depression is only legitimate if its sufferer fails some sort of economic means test. I don’t agree with either of these thoughts.
  • If anyone has ever genuinely made themselves feel less miserable by the thought that other people have it worse than they do, I’m not one of those people.)

But it’s not good enough just to say you don’t know why you were depressed. Being depressed suggests something is out of whack, and what’s the point of having been depressed at all, if you don’t formulate some theory as to what that was?

This is my theory: when I was a younger man I was prone to these same bouts of helplessness and hopelessness and despair. I associate them, looking back, with a sense of powerlessness, of being at the mercy of circumstance and not being able to control my responses to those circumstances, and furthermore to not having the emotional resources and wherewithal to shape life in such a way as to de-emphasise the everyday opportunities for psychic drag.

I think part of the cause of this depression has been a kind of sense-memory of adolescence: the struggling, half-defeated awareness that my life, in small, niggling, trivial-yet-important everyday ways, is not my own any more, that it is being dictated by rules I do not always understand, with which I do not always agree, and administered by individuals I do not necessarily respect, playing out in the larger context from which there is currently no escape.

Of course, that’s not the reason why I was depressed – that’s the reason why things went out of whack with me, and when things go out of whack, a cascade starts that has its own momentum. But it’s simpler and not untrue to say that think I have been depressed because on some molecular level I am sixteen again, except now it’s even worse because I am an adult and so have had a taste of what life should be, and also, being an adult I can’t even paint my bedroom walls black or listen to The Doors. No one, over the age of eighteen, is allowed to listen to the Doors.

So there it is, I’ve been depressed. No big deal. I am sure you have too, for your own reasons, and I’m sorry that you have been feeling depressed. I hope you are not as depressed any more, or if you haven’t been depressed yet, that when it starts it won’t last too long. I think mine is lifting, and while it has done possibly irreparable damage to a couple of deadline-driven projects, well, I’ve done that before without being depressed, so who’s to say?

So not much has been happening, but here’s something I want to tell you about:

This is a story that played out partially in the media, but which I had stumbled upon myself. It’s a story that seems to contain just about everything of the local experience of the past eight or so weeks.

I have a number of routes I regularly walk, and one of those routes is along Beach Road in Mouille Point, from Three Anchor Bay to the Waterfront and back. It is very peaceful and quiet, and you are beside the sea and breathe the salty air. Every time I passed that way, I would see a man and sometimes a woman sitting in a car, a Mini Cooper, or sometimes leaning against it. I wondered what they were doing there, but these were the early days of the lockdown, when people still weren’t speaking to each other in the street.

Over the days and weeks that followed, I worked out that food must be involved. Sometimes I would see homeless people clutching food in small plastic containers, walking away, in both directions, from the man and the woman and the Mini Cooper.

This man and this woman, it turned out, were feeding people who had no food. But their neighbours were not pleased about this. They would call the police to complain, and the police would come by and tell the couple to stop feeding people. The couple would respectfully acknowledge the instruction, then continue to give food to hungry people. Soon enough a video appeared on social media, depicting a confrontation between a policeman and the couple. It is a difficult conversation to watch, because it becomes increasingly clear that the policeman does not want to be enforcing this regulation, but it is equally clear that as a working man with a boss and a job, he has no real choice. Here is the video:

It made me sad, that clip, because everyone involved in it is trying their best to do the right thing in an impossible situation. The cop is doing everything he can to avoid doing anything. The guy is trying everything he can to feed hungry people. The only villains in the story are, as usual, the ones you can’t see, the curtain-twitching neighbours who put in phone calls to the police because someone in their neighbourhood is feeding hungry people.

A week or so later, this story appeared:

The man and the woman woke in the early hours of the morning and looked through their window to see the flames from their burning car reflecting on the sea. Someone had thrown a petrol bomb underneath the vehicle. Someone at that moment was congratulating themselves, perhaps getting a proud kiss from their wife, saying, “That will teach those people not to feed hungry people in our neighborhood.”

It shocked me. It made my heart very heavy to think of some of the people we live among. I didn’t return to Beach Road for a while. I didn’t want to see the burnt-out car and I didn’t want to look up at windows and wonder if on the other side of that window lurked the kind of person who could do this.

But all good stories come in three acts. I returned to Beach Road earlier this week. It was a cloudy day and winter, while not yet here, was coming nearer. When I reached the block where the Mini Cooper had been parked, I saw it was still there. The wheels had burnt out and the plastics had all melted and the windows had shattered. The car was a husk, and I expected to feel sad, or angry, or something like defeat, but the car did not look like a symbol of defeat. There were flowers on the back seat, and it had been decorated with bright colours and words of encouragement. People had written notes of sorrow and appreciation, and placed them under the wipers and wedged into the doors. Someone has scattered the inside with bright gold stars.

Nearby, at the bus stop, I recognised the woman who owned the car. She was handing out food to hungry people, and now she had people helping her. She told me that since the car had been burnt, she had been overwhelmed by the outpourings of support and donations. She said the children from the block came down and painted rainbows and flowers on the car. She said she had been upset on the night of the attack, but ever since then the car has become a source of hope and deep joy to her, a source of pride every time she sees it, something that reminds her that people are more good than bad. She said that to her, it is like a flower blooming.

I told her that I thought the car should be cast in bronze and turned into a permanent memorial at the side of the road, something to remind us all of this time and to make us think about how we responded to it. She said she has been approached by an artist who wants to turn it into a sculpture. I suppose what I’m saying about this is that good things can come from bad things. I’m glad I went back to Beach Road, to be reminded of that.

It rained here this morning – a brief flutter of rain that came from the sea and has already passed by, bringing thin warm sunshine behind. The air is good and cold and clean, and I am looking forward to it being winter again.

I am very happy that you are there, and that I can write to you. Thank you for being there. I send you my very warmest love.


28 thoughts on “Still locked down after all these years”

  1. thank you Darrel for noticing and saying what so many are feeling, and then saying more. I’m sad that your reflective voice has no place in our media. I am tired of the facts and opinion and indignation and jolly humour. And while New York Times magazine has beautiful reflection in buckets, it’s a long way to go for it, when there is so much to reflect on closer to home. So thank you for writing. I am so glad to be on your mailing list.

    1. Thank you, Darrel. I’d seen the video and agreed with comment about both the people featured. Couldn’t believe the cop’s vocabulary and style – not SAcan cop? Also the calmness of the good Samaritan. So glad to hear the outcome. As for Mouille Point fresh sea air – can’t wait to experience it again. But grateful for mountain air too!
      Please stay safe and healthy!

  2. Well, Darrel, you’ve done it again: touched me to my deep heart’s core. In the first part you could have been my ghost writer.
    Then, as soon as you mentioned a Mini Cooper, I knew where the story was going – even here in Ireland, 10,000 kilometres away, I’d read about it, and was so sad to think there were people who could do that.
    But how glad I am now to read of the response of others. In these very strange and unsettling times it is encouraging.
    Thank you for keeping on keeping on. 🙂

  3. Hi again Darrel – You do it every time – make me laugh and make me cry. You are a deep sensitive soul and what’s wrong with that! We know the story of the “black dog”. He lurks in our home too. May it all be good, onward and upward from here. One thing we do have to be grateful for, we are not part of that really sad pitiful group of negative people. For them there is no hope.

    Love as always

  4. Lovely to hear from you again. As usual, your musings touched a resonant chord. We have seen the very worst of people during this lockdown, but we have seen far more of the best, and that’s what I cling to when I start feeling down. Thanks again for the reminder.

    All the best

  5. Thank you, Darrel. Somehow you always make me cry, even when your stories have happy endings. I dream of using words like you do.

    Take care

  6. Dear Darrel
    How beautifully you write, how much your words always touch me to my core and cause an emotional response from my heart. Your honesty and genuine human feelings strike a chord that resonate with me. I feel sad and uplifted at the same time. I just love reading everything you write. I love the way you are accepting of yourself ‘being out of whack’ and accepting of others also ‘being out of whack’. I have found since I started accepting myself each day for how I am that somehow I have more peace. Thank you for your newsletter, always a delight and thank you for your daily delights too. I wish you joy and contentment xx Rose

  7. I also love reading your columns. On occasion I even use them as comprehension texts in senior grades’ cycle tests and examinations. Am busy, right now, marking a comprehension based on the story in which you are caught in a lift during load-shedding and you realize you are not quite the African-god-Clint-Eastwood-sexy hero you would have liked to have been. (I hope I don’t get into trouble for doing this. 😳)
    I hope this also cheers you up.

    1. Hi Lee. Well, that is very pleasing indeed, thank you, but I have to say – I can’t remember writing that story. Would you jog my memory a little more?

  8. The wrongest thing I saw in this story was the policeman shouting at the masked food giver without wearing a mask of his own. That was dangerous and irresponsible.

  9. My version of teenage angst was sitting on the garden wall, watching the sun set, playing Françoise Hardy songs (badly) on my guitar with tears dripping down my cheeks.
    I also refuse to apologise for my comfort and privilege – it just adds guilt to the cauldron of lockdown emotions.
    A friend’s psychologist said, just because you’re better off than most doesn’t make your anxieties and stresses invalid. They’re real and you’re entitled to feel them. Recognize them, don’t bottle them up. You’re allowed to feel that way.
    Thank you for lifting my spirits, as always.

  10. I look at that page in the Sunday Times and imagine you there. I never missed a single article of yours then. Never mind. At least I get to catch up now. Thanks for the beauty in this piece.

  11. You’ve taken the messy feelings of horror, frustration and sadness that I’ve been contending with since lockdown and laid them on the table in such an honest, unapologetic and reasonable way that it allows me to smile ruefully at them, and feel more able to keep them contained. Thank you. Brilliant writing as usual. And woe betide any social media vampire that takes on those garlics! Warmth and wellness to you, Kate.

  12. What a story. Love all your writing and agree with the beautiful comments which followed, and which said it all so much better than I could. Thank you for your newsletters, Darrel.

  13. Darryl thank you for your eloquence and experiance. I had a similar experience, i was walking down my street and found the sweetest dog that looked hungry and disheveled. I decided to pop home get water and some food for the dog and he sat there eating slowly and as i walked away knowing i had helped somthing that could not perhaps helped itself i began to feel better…. funny that… the next day i went downstairs to see the dog and an unexpected thing happend the dog attacked me….!!!! After i had helped it !? now i am fearful to leave my home and walk in my street because the dog is in my street i no longer walk outside and smell the fresh air as i am afraid of the dog.

  14. Locked down after all these years…….hard to understand…you seem so sweetly in touch with your emotions..
    Thanks for sharing your stories.

  15. What a lovely tale of poignancy, hope and wonder. Still crazy (and now less locked down) after all these years. I’d heard of this story too, here in the south of France, and now it all makes perfect sense. Thank you so much for sharing your insights and feelings about this, and for facing your depression with such franchise and eloquence. As always.

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