What can I offer in unprecedented times?

Written by Karen Szydlik 


As the reality of the ramifications of the Covid19 virus slowly dawned on me I started to think about what I needed to do to protect my family. I began to envisage long periods in isolation and increasingly all the things I can’t do became apparent.

My niece is an expert cook and her Facebook site was filling with easy, economical recipes with minimum ingredients. That was useful.

I stood in front of the ever – diminishing stock on the shelves at my local supermarket wondering what I should buy. Flour seemed a practical solution- but what would I do with it? Make my own pasta? Bake a cake? Thicken a sauce. I felt particularly useless.

The conversation of moving to online learning ramped up. IT is not my strength; I hoped my kids could help me…if something goes wrong, I won’t be able to fix it. I am not a technician.

I concentrated on conversations about exponential growth, wishing I’d paid more attention in maths, and grappled with the science around this new viral threat researching and working out which expert to believe. I am neither mathematician nor scientist.

I began to catastrophise- I can’t build, I don’t know about electricity- what if we are cut off from the world…and down I went full spiral into doomsday-prepper-land. What can I do?

And then I remembered a little mouse called Frederick.

‘Frederick’# my favourite of Leo Lionni’s books is one that I would seek out and read when I was teaching a child who didn’t feel like they quite fitted. It is one that embraces the creative, the individual, the unique. It values the artist. I could see the illustrations in my mind’s eye and hear Frederick’s words. Frederick who didn’t collect the ‘corn and nuts and wheat and straw’ for the coming winter, but gathered instead sunrays, colours, and words…perhaps I could be like Frederick the little mouse…I gather stories and words and ideas too…

I sat at the computer and started to type so as to put my observations and thoughts and feelings from the previous day into words, and a poem emerged. I posted it to Facebook.

Here is my offering for unprecedented times. I sincerely hope it brings a smile.

 Smiles from a distance

In a time of
(Social) Physical Distancing*
when strangers move to the other side of the footpath,
when we sidestep gingerly in supermarket aisles
and friends take a step back.

In a time when we ‘other ‘neighbours with quickly closing borders
And a farewell for who knows how long,
is a silent wave through a glass panel in a door;
In this time
I am also noticing more smiles…
I am delivering and I am receiving.
A smile in solidarity when I fill up the tank, essentially.
A smile as I buy the family’s bread as you buy yours and we navigate the required 1.5 metres, essentially.
A smile to a familiar colleague as we pass in the carpark for the last time essentially.

And today a loving couple standing at the traffic lights
On an empty street
Prod the button with an elbow and
Join their heads in a sad gentle touch and I
from my safe distance
watched and wondered and
at their connection.

(Szydlik, Facebook ,24 March 2020)

#Susan David- Ted Talk 24 March 2020 referred to her preferred term ‘physical distancing’
The (bracketing) is a nod to Derrida’s ‘under erasure.’

*Leo Lionni’s Caldecott Honor-winning story about a little mouse who gathers something unusual for the long winter…Winter is coming, and all the mice are gathering food . . . except for Frederick. But when the days grow short and the snow begins to fall, it’s Frederick’s stories that warm the hearts and spirits of his fellow field mice. Winner of a 1967 Caldecott Honor, Frederick has been cherished by generations of readers. “A splendid achievement.” –School Library Journal, starred review “In Frederick, a mouse who is a poet from the tip of his nose to the end of his tail demonstrates that a seemingly purposeless life is indeed far from that–and that we need not live by bread alone!” –Eric Carle


Youtube reading with the illustrations