One of the joys of living by the sea are the ever-changing views across the estuary. But the severe frost and snow of recent days took change to a new level, to near unrecognisable. The water draining down the cliffs turned into yard-long organ pipes of glittering pale glass. The brilliant white of the snowfall on the beach at low tide made the breaking lines of surf look diminished, the soiled waves outshone by the shore. The hard grey of the sky was darker than the ocean, and the land in between a patchwork of black walls and snow-covered roofs. We found ourselves in a disorientating new world of monochrome.
But the strangest shift for me came after all the snow had melted. I came downstairs early and looked out. The paving stones on the patio and the road beyond were clear at last. Were normal. I opened the door and stepped outside to feed the birds. At once I felt my feet slip from under me. I grabbed the door and steadying myself, looked again. It had rained in the night, and the rain had frozen, leaving a fine glassy film over every surface. It was a continuous sheet of ice. I had been completely taken in.
I thought of Bilqis, Queen of Sheba and the crystal floor of the palace of Solomon. Bilqis and her people were sun worshippers, and Solomon wanted to show her the way to worshipping Allah, the true God. First he bewildered her by having her throne transported instantaneously from her own country to his. Then he invited her into his palace. Here is the Qur’anic account of her moment of truth;
“It was said to her: ‘Enter the palace,’ but when she saw it she deemed it to be a great expanse of water and bared her legs. (Solomon) said: ‘Verily this is but a palace smoothed of crystal’. She said: ‘My Lord! Verily I have been unjust to myself, and I surrender with Solomon to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds’.” Chapter 27 Surah 44
The floor of Solomon’s palace is covered with glass. Bilqis believes it to be water and draws up her skirts to avoid getting wet; she is deceived by appearances. When Solomon tells her the truth, she sees that indeed, she has been illusioned by the Apparent. With Solomon, she submits herself to the Real.
I had my own Bilqis moment out there on the slippery pavement, a momentary jolt to my habitual perceptions. An ordinary moment became extraordinary. Normal became new.
The pandemic has been a huge jolt to our sense of normal, a wake-up call too unsettling to hear. As lockdown wears on, we talk longingly about getting back to normality, as if there were some forgotten state of permanence, of stability, where we used to live, which we didn’t notice or value at the time but which now seems inexpressibly desirable. We want to go back to our blinkered routines and our illusions of entitlement.
Right at the beginning of the first lockdown, in the days of food shortages and stripped shelves in the supermarket, I learned a new fear; the fear that there would not be enough food. It is the most ancient fear of humanity, yet in all my privileged life I have never felt it. Since then it no longer feels normal to have food on my plate. No more normal around food. I have learned a new appreciation.
And then, somewhere in lockdown, hardly noticed, I turned seventy. It was another Bilqis moment. Till now, or around now, it has seemed normal to be alive, to have a functioning body, to be in control of one’s life. It was all a given. Mortality was a theoretical concept.
Not any more. I’ve reached my three score years and ten and the best I can hope for is injury time. Does it sound depressing? Strangely enough, the reverse is true. Consciousness of mortality fills one with joy. I feel grateful every day that all parts of my body are working (more or less), that I can walk out in the morning, that I can hear the curlews on the rocks. I can still feel the wind and watch the sunrise. I have time to sit at my desk and write. Better still, the spouse is fine too. We are both alive and well and it is no longer a taken-for-granted normal but a small miracle to be rejoiced at. We celebrate our locked-down birthdays together, we laugh at familiar jokes, we skirt amiably around our differences. Every moment of this seventy-hood is precious and to be savoured. No more normal.