Forgive Yourself

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Author: Nayana Chakrabarti, Parenting and Education Editor

As I write this, in December, I think I’ve read and heard the words ‘social distancing’ enough times to last me a lifetime! I still remember hearing it for the first time on the ‘The Late Show’ and snorting with laughter. Social distancing? What was that?

Oh, if only I knew what I know now.

All I can say is that I hope ‘social distancing’ goes the way of butterfly hair clips, ‘shag bands’, inflatable chairs and hair mascara! A distant but quaint memory where the past really does look like a different country.

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What will we build when all of this is over?

Oh 2020, where does one even begin you? Well, let’s begin here. You are not the year of big achievements. You are the year for survival and small discoveries. And, for those of us cushioned by privilege, you are the year of the ‘staycation’.

You are the year of mass human migration, the year when Black folx once again had to remind the world that their lives matter. You are the year of protest. You are the year of learning and unlearning. You are the year of us needing to remind ourselves that while we are all in the same boat, some boats are considerably larger than others.

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We are all in the same boat…But, are we really?

There is no doubt in any of our minds that this year will go down in history. 2020 will not blur in memory through the passage of time. It will be remembered. At the time of writing, the Oxford English Dictionary hasn’t yet chosen a word of the year. In 2019, it was ‘climate emergency’. I assume that at least one of the contenders for 2020 will be ‘new normal’ and of course, ‘social distancing’. But, I suppose, it could also be Zoom?

The vast public histories of this year throws our smaller domestic histories into relief. Ensconced in Switzerland, my family and I have truly been one of the lucky ones. In fact, I don’t think we have ever spent more time together! When I try to look back on this year, my mind draws a blank. I can’t see the wood for the trees. So, I’ll try and think back to the smaller details.

When it all began, for us, in March, it took no time for us to dive into the new novelty of it all. And indeed, novel it was. It seemed like the world was coming together as one sort of giant global community, at least on a superficial level. With the children out of school, our mornings would begin with PE, in the morning with Joe Wicks. In the evening, we would round up with Rob Biddulph’s ‘Draw With Rob’. Sometimes, my eldest would do his schoolwork with David Walliams’ ‘Elevenses’ playing in the background. At night, we would listen to celebrities read stories aloud on Amy Adams’ and Jennifer Garner’s ‘Save With Stories’.

Benedict Cumberbatch reading from a picture book? Yes please.

It feels terrible to write this at a time of such huge human sadness but it felt cosy and rather lovely to spend so much time with my own children, to have my husband at home. Even though we all got on each other’s nerves from time to time, banana bread and Dalgona coffee leapt in to save the day.

In fact, I felt so inspired by these global community ‘events’ that I started my own smaller one. I launched two projects.

Firstly, I began to do read-alouds over Zoom. In the afternoon, I read aloud from picturebooks to young children and then, in the evening, I read aloud to older children from chapter books and YA adventure novels. For the younger children, each session was bookended by songs and for the older ones, each session was bookended with conversation. Together, they accounted for an hour of my day and it was the time when we all saw each other. The numbers grew and shrank depending on interest but they provided me with solace. I felt like I was doing something.

Secondly, I created a creative writing course for young people and differentiated it to three different age groups. I loved doing it and it helped me to understand all the bits that needed to be ironed out if I ever wanted to do it professionally. I was in the lucky position of being able to use the lockdown to do things I had never done before, trying things out ‘if only I had the time’. Suddenly, I had the time.

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Paradise on our doorstep

Lockdown birthdays came and went. Zoom parties became a thing leaving me to wonder why I had not done it before. Birthday parties for the children have always been about the friends they have in Zurich. I’d never thought to include our friends and family in India and the UK. What a missed opportunity! With no access to shops, I found myself turning to small businesses and we spent the children’s’ birthdays crafting and painting pottery. A far cry from the usual soft play! My friend organized beautiful birthday decorations and it all felt very special. That human connection we were all missing manifested itself in strange but prescient ways.

Then, in May, when the schools opened. I returned to work. It felt like we were returning to a different world. I felt like a character in Emily St.John’s dystopian novel, Station Eleven. Having missed spring, it was difficult – a relative term given the circumstances – to suddenly find myself in summer.

In fact, this – the return to a semblance of normalcy when everything was decidedly not normal – was when I first began to falter. Every single sniffle had me cowering with anxiety. Everything that I had said ‘yes’ to when I felt like I had nothing but time, came back to haunt me. All the plates I routinely juggle started to teeter precariously.

I was one of those people who truly believed in those inspirational quotations I shared on social media. You know the kind?

The ones that tell you to be kind to yourself.

The ones that tell you that just surviving this year was enough.

Well, while I believed in them for everyone else. It turned out that I didn’t really believe in it for myself. I was being neither kind nor understanding of myself.

One by one, I bid goodbye to my lockdown projects. You see, when you have a ‘portfolio career’ you try to say ‘yes’ to everything because you never know where the next opportunity might lie. After all, there are so many unaccounted hours. But the pandemic has been hard on parents irrespective of whether they stay-at-home, work full-time or part-time. In my burst of yes-ing, I had backed myself into a corner where I wasn’t really making time for my own family. The summer was a good opportunity to reset that and arrive at a fresh equilibrium.

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A touch of whimsy

Once again, the pandemic enforced ‘staycation’ reminded us of what we have been missing. Summers have always meant leaving the country but this year, we naturally did not, only to find paradise on our doorstep. It’s not like the wonders of Switzerland were lost on us before but as it was always there, it was easy to take it for granted. This year, with day trips and excursions, we truly appreciated that in spite of its size, Switzerland is no less rich in culture. We were able to notice how things changed – and remained the same – from one village to the next, from one canton to the next.

It was during one of these times that I was reminded again of how lucky we were, how privileged we were. We had been to Flims and had a wonderful time walking by the Caumasee only to return home to learn that Cyclone Amphan had raged through our home state of West Bengal in India along with parts of Orissa, Bihar and Assam. People who had already lost everything due to the pandemic, lost everything once again due to the cyclone.

I felt like an amoeba, I didn’t feel like I even had the right to feel sad. I could only allow myself to feel guilty. Guilt has been my constant companion in 2020 and I imagine it might be the case for many people although in our culture of positivity, we might not admit to it. I appreciated for the first time how our choice to be expats and seek our fortunes abroad have affected our family. When they really needed us, we couldn’t be there for them. We didn’t even have the option of being there for them.

Throughout the rest of the year, I’ve been trying to come to terms with the consequences of my choices and working hard to focus on the things that I can control and trying to make time for the things that I enjoy. For me, that’s writing, teaching and storytelling and of course, spending time with my family and the friends (whom I’m allowed to see!).

As we look forward to 2021, I am conscious of actually looking forward to it. I am determined not to dread it. I am also determined to carry my learnings from 2020 into the new year.

My main resolution for 2021? Do unto myself as I would do for others. I am very big on self-care for other people and not so much into making it a priority for myself. Hence, right now, I’m stocking up on books, coffee and moisturizer – in that order!

And to end on a bookish note: I will forgive myself for the books I cannot finish. In fact, let’s make it more general: in 2021, I’ll forgive myself. Feeling guilty is draining. That energy is better manifested elsewhere, don’t you agree?

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It’s been A YEAR!

As Dickens once wrote – and subsequently found himself oft quoted – 2020 was the best of times and it was the worst of times. Amidst all the tragedy, there were true gems to be found. We discovered resilience we didn’t know we had, grit was freshly discovered and hopefully, we discovered empathy too. Here’s to remembering this year’s learnings and working on the foundations of those so we carry forward hope into next year and the one after.


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