Everywhere in North America, children are heading back to school…only it’s not with quite the same unabated enthusiasm for many youngsters and their parents. COVID, despite the many months of lockdowns, social isolation and available vaccinations, hasn’t finished with us, as the Delta variant and climbing case numbers demonstrate. Since my three grandchildren are beginning another school year, I can’t help but wonder about the spread of the virus among schoolchildren who have not, as yet, been eligible for vaccinations.
That low level anxiety lingers–all too frequent a visitor in my life during the past year and a half. While my husband and I enjoyed some of the gradual opening up of restaurants, galleries, and stores during the summer months, we also remained cautious. Then the dog days of August descended with haze, heat and oppressive humidity. That, coupled with the daily reports of drought and wild fires around the world, put the reality of advancing climate change into sharper focus, and coupled with the rise in COVID cases, my anxiety rose. The blistering heat forced me back indoors, which was all too reminiscent of the months of lockdown. Days dragged, headlines screamed disaster, and my spirits took a nose dive.
Mornings, which are my quiet time for writing, offered little relief. For many days, my notebook pages contained more white space than words. I couldn’t seem to get inspired, unable write through my monumental case of sagging spirits. The days seemed cast in muted, colorless tones. And worse, when I looked at myself in the mirror, my image reflected back seemed dull and grey, just like my mood. I remarked to a friend, “In these times, grey has become a primary color.”
That one spontaneous sentence, and the next day, my associations with “grey” came out of hiding. I recalled Mordecai Richler’s wonderful children’s book, Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang, published in 1975, read and re-read to my young daughters. Jacob, is a young boy in a large family who has to repeat everything twice just to be heard, which results in his nickname, Jacob Two-Two. His habit is also the reason he is misunderstood and considered rude. All of it results in his being punished and sent to the children’s prison, “Slimer’s Isle,” which is run by the Hooded Fang. Slimer’s Isle is a place where captive children like Jacob never see the sun. The image of that sun-less place seemed a perfect description for the grey mood that had lingered in my psyche for months.
Yet Remembering Jacob Two-Two and Slimer’s Isle was also an inspirational nudge. It was enough to inspire me to a fruitful morning writing, and this time, the words came. I had fun tinkering with the song lyrics of “I guess that’s why they call it the blues,” substituting the color grey and adding a few lines about COVID in my version. While it’s hardy ready for public consumption, my husband and I had a laugh over my attempt at song lyrics. A day or two later, time spent with my granddaughter led me to the old memory of the Crayola Box of 64 colors—an item which accompanied every “back to school” bag during my childhood. Grey was my most unused color in the box, but thinking of it transported me to the memory of a delightful poem about color written by a medical student in a writing workshop I led for faculty and students of Stanford Medical School in 2015.
I used color as a writing prompt. To get people inspired, I spread out a handful of paint color chips on a table. Not only are a full range of colors represented in the interior paint chips , but they have somewhat exotic—one might even say “silly”—names, such as “first light,” “little princess,” “dinner party,” “head over heels,” “windmill wings”… Whether using the color or the names associated with them, participants had great fun working them into poems and stories. But one med school writer’s poem stood out above all the others. She had chosen the least popular color of the lot: grey, labeled “hickory smoke.” When she volunteered to read aloud, we were in awe of how she’d brought that mundane color to life. Here is an excerpt of her poem, simply titled “Grey”:
…“Air with dirt,” they say.
Floating soot clamoring cold and unwanted
against a clean white wall…
…Grey is the color of “yes, life has been here,”
and “don’t you know I have a story to tell?”
Grey is the sidewalk that’s been walked,
the white house that’s been lived in…
White is before, but give me the after
Give me the ninety-year-old under her old grey comforter.
Has she lived? Well, tell me the color of her soul.
Show me the spots of grey, and tell me how you’ve lived,
the story printed dark and true in the deepest, most imperfect,
ugliest and sweetest shade.
–Workshop Participant, 2015
It’s probably no surprise that after re-reading her poem again, my grey mood had begun to dissipate. Since then, I’ve pulled my ancient and well-worn copy of Jacob Two-Two from the shelf to recall his experiences on Slimer’s Isle, how he won over the Hooded Fang and returned to his family a hero. I suppose that all the little memories of grey served as a reminder that while life has been difficult, and despite Zoom, lonely at times, it’s within my control to find ways to navigate this rather strange “new normal” with a more positive outlook. Even in the greyest of times, it seems we can find new insights, ideas, perspectives. School is starting for my grandchildren, my teaching daughters, and even for me, beginning new series of writing workshops for cancer and heart patients. This is activity I truly look forward to, and I am particularly grateful that despite these months of lockdown and isolation, I can be engaged in meaningful ways. While my mirror doesn’t lie—I am getting grayer–but that would have happened even without COVID! So grey hair or not, I’m engaged in ways that matter to me. And that’s how I want to live.
“Show me the spots of grey, and tell me how you’ve lived…”
. How have you navigated the long months of COVID isolation? What kept you going?
. Did you experience “the greys?” or “the blues?” What helped you through those less positive moods?
. Pull up a color wheel on the web—or open a box of 64 colored crayons. Choose a color, any color. Make a list of what comes to mind for just 3 minutes. Read it over, then choose one thing from your list and write for 15 minutes. Try playing with a narrative or a poem that uses that color in it.
. Did COVID help you gain clarity about what matters most in your life? Write about the lessons from lockdown.
. Back to school. What memories do you have from your childhood about a new school year beginning?