Letters from Cardiff in lockdown: Catriona James

Today’s instalment for the Letters from Cardiff in lockdown series comes from theatre-maker and performer Catriona James. We’re looking for your stories, so please contribute to Letters from Cardiff in lockdown

I want to write an uplifting letter. Today that feels easier. The sun is shining; I ate lunch in the garden with my partner and admired the flowers that are emerging.

I bought and moved into this flat in late October, so each plant’s appearance in the garden this spring has been a surprise. I’ve enjoyed the changing patterns of light – celebrated as each new sunbeam needles its way into my kitchen.

Yesterday was a different letter. Grey sky, a cold wind. I was tired and sad. So was my partner. Not because of each other, but still, it’s hard to comfort another when our own reserves are running low. And so much of the sadness is situational and the solutions are beyond our control.

Lockdown has been a complex time.

And at the same time, the most simple of times – my life stripped down to basics. I’ve taken a lot of joy in the simplicity. I like living with my partner – it was a near-impulse decision as we realised lockdown was coming, for them to move in with me temporarily. And probably the best decision, because not being able to see them for an undefined period of time would have been so hard.

We cook good food, and bake bread. We’ve built raised beds in my garden, and planted seeds. We take long bicycle rides and make the weekly veg shop and fortnightly braving of the supermarket a lot more pleasant for each other. We camp in the garden and make the effort to organise date nights at home.

We introduce each other to our friends and family over video calls. We started drawing on the calendar in the kitchen, a small picture of each day’s highlight. It makes me smile when I look at it, but it also brings to mind the time-marking of a prisoner – a colourful version of a five bar gate tally scratched into a wall.

We became unwell, and we recovered. We both had symptoms of what may have been mild COVID-19. We isolated. We looked after each other and felt grateful for friends who brought us food and groceries. We got off lucky, this time, if that was indeed what we had. I don’t take this virus lightly – I never did. Even with mild symptoms I found myself at times crying with exhaustion and fear.

We try to work. Someone said on social media – You’re not working from home. You’re at home during a crisis, trying to work. I’d credit them if I could, but I don’t recall where I saw it.

I’m a theatre-maker and a performer. I’ve been fortunate that all the work I was contracted for when the lockdown started has been honoured, so while money is a concern, it’s not an overwhelming one yet. To be clear: I’d rather have the work.

Some things have been possible – I did a 15-hour improvised performance called Crack of Dawn on 2 May as part of an online festival called GIFT (Gateshead International Festival of Theatre). Originally meant to be in-person in Gateshead, the festival organisers took the imaginative leap of moving their programming online.

This isn’t possible for all performance work, and it isn’t how I want to make or engage with most of it. I want a live audience. I want to be part of a live audience. I don’t know when this is going to happen again. I enjoyed performing as part of GIFT but I also found myself wondering if it was the last time.

I want to write an uplifting letter. But over the past few weeks, I’ve come to accept that I am grieving. Part of looking after myself, and being able to help others around me, is navigating that grief. It comes in waves. I’m not mourning the loss of the arts industry – there’s a lot that was wrong with it, like much of the “normal” that came before this.

Other people have articulated those problems and what needs to change more clearly than I can. But for me, personally, working in the arts had been very difficult for a long time and it was just appearing to get easier. Then overnight much of what I had been looking forward to melted away, some of it likely forever. I’m trying to be balanced about this. I know that other things will emerge that I will also love and enjoy, but that will not erase this loss.

Occasionally I consider that I’m living through a time that may define the rest of my life. It’s no small thing. So I’m trying to be kind to myself. I’m trying to be accepting, and take what lessons I can from this experience. I am astounded by our capacity to adapt. The things I thought I wanted may well be different in a few months, and that may not be so terrible. I’m trying to remain open, trying not to hold too tightly to anything. I’d like to be surprised by what could emerge.

Follow Catriona James on Twitter @catjames or her website catrionajames.com

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