To make choices and to take chances.

I went out on Saturday. Just for fun, just because. It was a big deal for me. After 18 months of Lockdowns and restrictions telling me to stay at home an not socialise, I had really adapted to that lifestyle. I’m naturally introverted, so lockdown suited me down to the ground, maybe a little too much.

Now that things have opened up and we are being encouraged to get back out and do things, I’ve developed some re-entry anxiety. I’ve only been going out for essential reasons: work, volunteering, groceries. I’ve got some very set routines. And I like my routines, they’re comforting, but after a while, routines become ruts. The Human Brain needs variety, new sights and sounds are the seeds of inspiration.

So on Saturday I went out. As I was getting ready, I got a headache and my chest felt tight and I considered staying home, but I realised it was my anxiety and went out anyway. Sure enough, halfway to town, the headache dissipated and I could breath again.

As I got off the bus at Charing Cross, I smelled Caramel peanuts being sold from a vendors stall. A few steps more and it was onions frying at the Sausage -in-a-bun cart. I breathed deeply, consuming the aromas (which are the only part of these foods that are safe to consume; seriously, covid would be the least of your problems). Then I turned a corner and remembered the value of shallow breathing, I was in a urine-soaked alleyway. All part of the rich fabric of London.

In the courtyard of The Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields there was live music. A Cafe was set up in the corner with tables and chairs, and folding deckchairs surrounded the raised platform where the musicians were. I bought an overpriced juice and sat at a table. The deckchairs were the traditional wooden frame with fabric in the middle, strung like a vertical hammock. They look fun, but they’re low to the ground and I know if I sat in one I would need some sort of hoist to get out.

It was a beautiful afternoon, the music was good and I rediscovered a long forgotten pastime: people watching. It’s been a while since people were out in any numbers, and even if they were I wasn’t out to watch them. Many people were still dressed lockdown casual, but some people were quite dressed up, giving their day out a sense of occasion. Lots of little girls were in pretty, frilly dresses, though in some cases I think it was against their will.

I’d forgotten how entertaining people can be. Like the little girl, about 3 years old, carrying an Ariel doll that was roughly half her size, who kept trying to get on stage. She would run out, climb/roll onto the platform, then her mother, who was also looking after another child, would dash in to grab her before she could get her feet underneath her on stage. I think if that had happened she would have become part of the band. I wonder if the keyboardist knew how to play Baby Shark?

People wandered in and out of the courtyard. All the chairs were consistently filled by everchanging people, but the place never felt too crowded. Which is a sign of how much London has changed. In the before times, any free, live event would have been packed out, standing room only. No one was monitoring the flow of people into and out of the courtyard, we all just…self-regulated. It was nice to see Londoners giving each other space, but it was also a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle I remember.

After a couple of hours enjoying the music and nursing that one glass of juice as long as I could to justify taking up a table, I started to make my way home. I stopped in Brixton and took a stroll down Electric Avenue. For the first time, I was able to really look around at the shops and stalls because, just like in the centre of town, there were far fewer people than usual. I looked in the various butchers, fishmongers and grocery stores and saw so many things they don’t sell at Sainsburys. I have never even considered eating cow foot before, but now that I know a place that sells it, it’s only a matter of time. I have already googled some recipes.

So, here’s a few take-aways from my day out in London.

  1. London is still the amazing city I fell in love with so long ago, although it is nicer when it’s not so crowded. I know the lack of crowds can’t last. A city like London needs people (and their money) to sustain it, so I will enjoy this while it lasts and hope the crowds return gradually so I can get used to them again.
  2. The fact that the city was not crowded tells me I am not the only person hesitant to return. Re-entry anxiety is common, and not something to be ashamed of or dismissed. But it is something that can be dealt with. We need to have patience with ourselves and each other. Start small. Dip your toe in, then your whole foot. You don’t need to jump in all at once, but eventually, you have to get wet.
  3. The days after my big day out, I watched the news. Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. Billboards with ads featuring women are already being painted white, and there are very few women on the streets. While the new regime says they plan to continue the current level of rights for women, they have also not ruled out a return to public stoning, so my hopes are not high. To see how quickly things can change makes me realise I need to enjoy every freedom afforded to me.

I took so much for granted. I went to pubs, or not. To the theatre, or not. Then Covid came, and the choices went, and I got used to it. Now I need to shake that off. I don’t need to fear the world, I need to fear the cage. As Eowyn describes her fear in Lord of the Rings

A cage. To stay behind bars until use and old age accept them and all chance of valor has gone beyond recall or desire.

So it’s time to step out again. To engage with the real world. To make choices and take chances.

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