Day after day, week after week, I have spent my days without seeing any friends or family members.

A unique experience which I have never expected to ever go through. Waking up in the morning and facing an empty day. No exercise class, no meeting a friend for coffee, no going shopping for clothes or to Ikea, no visit to a bookstore, no lecture, no concert in the evening, no bridge club and no movie at the Bytowne; no need to dress up before going out.

An unexpected situation; the first in my entire life. Any kind of entertainment I had always taken for granted suddenly was forbidden, inaccessible. I felt lost, disoriented, not knowing what to do with myself and my time. Apart from telephone calls I would not speak or see a single person during the whole day apart from strangers I might meet on a walk. Since I meditate daily I decided to step up my meditation practice but even after meditating twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon there were still many hours left to fill.

          After a few days of hanging around aimlessly and listlessly I developed a daily schedule to give me a sense of purpose; a reason to get up in the morning. Under no circumstances was I going to stay in my pajamas all day, not make my bed or not even have a shower. I could easily do it. Nobody would see me; nobody would care. That was the road to depression, I knew that.

          Fresh air and exercise were important. Thus my daily rhythm included a good two hours sitting on my balcony, all bundled up and reading. What a delight! Reading, not somewhere in between appointments or in the evening,  but getting immersed in a book as long as I wanted to with nothing to distract me. Slowly it began to dawn on me that it was actually quite wonderful to have literally all the time in the world for anything I was doing.

          Among the many e-mails I got every day there was a video with a sequence of paintings relating to this extraordinary situation the whole country was in. Why not do something similar with paintings of my own choosing? Picking out a Picasso for this theme, a Renoir for another I spent blissful hours making a selection and in the process discovered many painters unknown to me.

When it was finished I sent it off to friends and received a wonderful response.

          With my interest in art history I soon discovered that many museums worldwide had developed special digital programs while they are closed. My favourite is “Cocktails with a Curator” from the Frick collection in New york.

Another pleasurable way to spend time in isolation.

          In one of the books I was reading the painter Lucien Freud says; “My idea of leisure was to do with that luxurious feeling of having all the time in the world and letting it pass unused.” I was slowly getting there. It is a bit like going on a holiday away from daily obligations. It usually takes a day or two to “unwind” and to settle into the freedom from home and work. It took me at least two weeks to throw off a lifetime of needing to be useful, productive, busy.

          Normally, our inner judge does not allow us to “moodle and doodle” as one artist put it. We feel guilty when simply doing nothing, playing solitaire endlessly, or other useless activities. The protestant work ethic which most of us have internalized, tells us to work and be somehow productive; otherwise we are “bad” and selfish, or so our inner voice tells us. Where did I get it from?

          My brother told me that my mother wanted to die at the age of ninety because nobody needed her anymore and she could not be useful to anybody. Her answer when asked once, why we are here, was “to do our duty”. Of course I internalized that message, swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

          Many elderly people struggle with the feeling of being useless, no good to anybody. How can we overcome this painful realization that we cannot do our duty anymore by whatever means it has been before? For women usually looking after the family, children and grandchildren, for men their profession.       Our responsibility shifts. We now have a duty to ourselves, be our own project. What better goal than to live a peaceful old age? Accepting your fate, whatever it has been, is a huge part of it. To be bitter and angry, to be full of regrets and feelings of guilt is a sad way to spend what can be twenty years of your life or more.

          These reflections, for which I had ample time, have helped me to overcome the niggling feelings of guilt that have been bothering me since I retired. I have realized that my sense of selfworth does not have to depend on how useful I am to my environment.

          So, surprisingly,  there are reasons to be grateful for this time of enforced solitude. I can throw off the guilt and be my own best friend and simply be kind to myself and others. That’s good enough.

 

Maria von Finckenstein

Ottawa

May 2020