In this strange suspended time, we are physically separated from one another yet long for emotional connection. How can we be here and there, different yet the same, distant yet close – both, at the same time? This ambiguity of ‘both – at the same time’ has been a central fascination of my meandering mind since I was a teen.
My all-time favourite film is Sofia Coppola’s 2003 Lost in Translation. Recently, I indulged my longing to watch it. This cinematic masterpiece follows two characters, Bob and Charlotte, as they find an unlikely connection even while they each feel a deep sense of personal isolation. I am one who disappears into my own self-protective world or realm in response to feeling isolated – unheard or unseen – the disappointed dream of being deeply connected to those I love. I experience this realm as a desert of deep loneliness, with both hot and cold winds that blow away my voice and leave me in a vast landscape of insatiable hunger. It is not lost on me that this film resonates so deeply for me, or that I returned to it in the time of Covid-19, and my own self-isolation.
Thinking back, Message in a Bottle by British pop band The Police was the first song that claimed me.
“Walked out this morning
Don’t believe what I saw
A hundred billion bottles
Washed up on the shore
Seems I’m not alone at being alone
A hundred billion castaways
Looking for a home.”
• Message in a Bottle • The Police, 1979
The UK 1979 number one hit is a song about loneliness and alienation, and finding solace in connecting through the shared experience of separation. I wonder at the seven-year-old me, the one who dropped my own message into the English Channel as we took the ferry home from camping in France.
Was I lonely?
An only child until eight, I often played alone. On the beach in France, I spent hours digging in the sand, the deepest hole I could. Chin resting on tucked-up knees, I sat peering over the edge. Watching siblings play together, hoping to pluck up the courage to approach them.
As my message was carried away on the green-grey sea, I imagined a lone child in a faraway land picking up the bottle as it washed up on their shore.
“I hope that someone gets my message in a bottle.”
Flash forward to summer 2015 and my adult self. A year had passed since I last saw my family in the UK – mother, sister, brother, brother and sister in-law, and my nephew. Here they were, all together with us around the campfire in Canada. Sting’s voice sang out from the mobile with increasing urgency. The flames of the campfire danced to the reggae beat. It was our last evening camping and it was my turn to share my Desert Island Discs.
A BBC Radio Four treasure, Desert Island Discs has, since 1942, asked its guests to imagine being a castaway on a desert island. Radio guests are asked to share the eight pieces of music they would take with them and why, along with a book and a luxury.
Eleven of us. Sixteen camp fires. I’d asked my family to come prepared to share their Desert Island Discs. To my delight and everlasting gratitude, they did without groans or rolling of eyes.
To my great surprise, they brought a level of eagerness I hadn’t anticipated. Laughter, tears, surprise, and groans emerged in response to our own cheesy choices of music. Of course there was singing.
It was the highlight of my summer. Together we created the level of connection that I seek. I knew as I relished the company of my family each night that this time when they left I would not complain that I hadn’t spoken to them enough.
“What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.”
• Helen Keller
Two days before my sister left, she asked the question I’d been anticipating. It had been lingering in the space between us.
“When will we see each other again?”
Having all lived away from the UK, in the past we had been careful to arrange our next time together before the current one ended. It may have been one year or even two years away, but we would confirm plans, taking comfort in the knowledge that we knew and were certain when we would be together again.
This time it was different. My family of origin was in a different season. My brother and sister were both married now, had bought houses, and had begun to start to have children. It was no longer so easy to drop everything and be together, for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
This time my siblings and I said goodbye with dreams and ideals, but no definitive plan. As a family we were stretching our tolerance for uncertainty, ambiguity, and the vulnerability of staying open to the possibility of what might unfold.
When I returned from dropping my family at the airport, my husband was waiting for me at the door. He reminded me that it was usual for me to feel a little lost for a week after they left, and encouraged me to do all the things that I needed to feel held and connected to self.
I heeded his warning. Purposefully, I put on a sad movie, then wallowed in the bath whilst listening to – you guessed it – Desert Island Discs. This intentional moving down into the depths of my emotional range works to release my emotions physically every time.
“Slow down. Calm down. Don’t worry. Don’t hurry. Trust the process.”
• Alexandra Stoddard
That week, my brother texted me to say he wished we could see each other more often.
My sister texted to tell me of all the reminders of us that had shown up for her in the past week – sweet potato fries, the same soap we have at home found in a cafe washroom, chipotle sauce in a sandwich on a train on the way back from London.
Their texts reminded me that like the castaway in the song, I was not alone in the swell of emotion to the changing of seasons. Through the goodbyes and the hellos, others are with us in the emotional process of change. Instead of separation, we can continue to connect.
“Ocean separates lands, not souls.”
• Munia Khan
In the five years since that camping trip, we’ve been together physically as an extended family in Portugal, Italy and the UK. While we are a family who spend more of our time physically distant, we are also a family that keeps emotionally close.
Across the globe in 2020, it is clear that a crisis – danger plus opportunity – is upon us. Covid-19 has acted as a disrupter for me, as it has for everyone around me.
Along with danger, it also brings an opportunity to connect again to my life-long fascination. This time, I join with a global community to explore how we can be separate and remain connected at the same time.
WRITTEN BY: Kerry Woodcock, Ph.D., who leads change for a world of change, coaching pioneers and influencers to amplify the power of relationship and lead over the edge of change. As principal of Novalda, Kerry develops change leadership capability in organizations and social systems. Kerry is privileged to be CRR Global’s Canadian partner, bringing the magic-making ORSC training across the country.
Do these words seem familiar? An earlier version of this blog, originally shared in 2015, has been edited in response to the current situation.