Familiar yet strange

Today I went to a cafe for the first time in three months. A tentative step back into the life I used to live. Or is it forwards into the new? Something as simple as ordering a flat white felt strangely exotic; paying for something I can make myself at home felt wonderfully indulgent. But sitting outside the cafe drinking my coffee, I was uncomfortably aware of other people walking past my table, moving through my space, not staying two metres away. Viktor Shklovsky wrote that art makes the familiar strange so it can be freshly perceived. It seems that lockdown has the same effect.

Lockdown has also helped me to freshly perceive what it’s like to take a morning walk through the woods and fields around my house. There was a time – before ‘all of this’ – when those walks would have been runs, not walks; and they would not have been every morning, as there was always something else more important to do. Now I have the time, and running – even at my slow pace – feels too fast. So, I walk. And I stop a lot.

What catches my attention? The shape of hay bales, the newly shorn sheep, the wind moving through the grass. I’m also more aware of the edges and boundaries that divide things: gates without fences, fences without gates. Yesterday I noticed the spot on my lane where the driver of a lorry had pulled to one side to make room for a passing car, and sunk his wheels into the verge that is softer than it looks; his axel gouged a strip from the tarmac surface as he pulled away.

There’s no need to look for meaning in any of this. But I’m thinking about another quote, that I think is from Seamus Heaney, but a bit of Googling doesn’t give me a source, or the exact words. The sentiment is this: poetry makes the strange familiar, and the familiar strange. Sharing words about hay bales and boundaries would have felt very strange; now it feels familiar.

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