Many years ago I came across a photogravure by the French-domiciled Syrian artist Ghayath Al-Akhras. The image was entitled Passage Quotidien. Structured in descending bands of sepia, from light to dark, it depicted a simple scene on a flat-roofed house, where some family members were handing jugs of water from one to the other as they tended to a group of large potted plants. At the time I had to look up the meaning of ‘quotidien’. I immediately warmed to the picture’s notion of daily life as a form of passage or journey – taking us through one state or task to another in ways that could enhance the meaning of each.
Decades later I was in conversation with Professor Muiris Fitzgerald, Dean of Medicine at University College, Dublin and ventured to ask about the composition of his role. He briefly emphasised the relatively rare ‘big picture’ activities, in which he got involved from time to time, and then quickly went on to expand in detail on the ‘quotidian duties and tasks’ that took up most of his day. To my surprise he seemed to bring out a special sense of reward in dealing with these and in contributing to their successful accomplishment. His elegant use of the word quotidian stayed with me and somehow invested the everyday with a deep sense of value, lifting daily occurrences from the mundane or routine, irritating or irksome even, to a higher level of significance.
The pandemic-induced lockdowns of 2020-21 foster and shape this sense of the quotidian. I note many commentators, friends, colleagues and family members who have thought more deeply about previously taken for granted – or sometimes neglected – daily routines. For those with the resources, this has meant such things as more reading, regular and longer walks, slower cooking and a renewed interest in the vegetable patch. Old musical instruments have come out of the attic, virtual choirs have been joined, sketch-pads have been acquired. Daily routines have been shared on social media, often with detailed photographs. There will no doubt be many a Shepherd’s Calendar to emerge from 2020 – the year that slowed down and opened our eyes just a little wider.
BBC Radio 4 has been broadcasting ‘moments of light’ in which people celebrate quotidian pleasures such as hanging out the washing, lashing butter onto hot crumpets, or indulging in the back catalogue of some long-running TV series. But this trope has not met with universal acclaim. Annoyed by such apparent trivia, Rob Delaney delivered a moving account of the death of his son, and the boy’s continued presence in the daily life of his family. His moment of light had begun with contemplation of his own mortality.
We cannot ignore the dark side of the quotidian. For those whose home is a place of fear and cruelty, the pandemic has brought extra suffering. One woman I read about remembered her abusive husband’s chilling remark on hearing news of the first lockdown: ‘now the games begin’. For others, daily life in these times has been about isolation, loneliness and a creeping ‘social death’ wherein one’s own life becomes less and less relevant to others. For many sick or dying with Covid, separation from loved ones, fear, distress have all exacerbated its terrible physical symptoms, turning daily life into a nightmare.
The paradox – and heartbreak – of lockdown lies in these positive and negative dimensions. Both require our attention.
But I do take heart from the idea that our ways of viewing things have been enhanced in the confines of the pandemic. I recall last spring thinking that there were so many more birds in my garden than ever before. Then I understood that I was simply looking at avian life more closely. I was beginning to engage in new ways of seeing, to take a phrase from John Berger. Nothing had actively prevented this more intense gaze in the past, yet now it came at the intersections of confinement, public debate about COVID-19, and a growing moral imperative to be more grateful for what you’ve got.
It is these engagements with daily life and simple activities and how they can be shaped and understood by external circumstances that I want to explore on this site. There will be some global as well as local dimensions to the reflections, stories and memories I conjure up, as well as profiles on people I know and find inspiring.
I had a close encounter with the quotidian very recently in watching Sharon Lockhart’s film Double Tide, screened by the excellent Cample Line arts organisation, that is based near me in Nithsdale. The film comprises two sequences, each of about 45 minutes, taken from a static camera, in which we see clam picker Jen Casad going about her work somewhere in the mudflats of the Maine coast. The first sequence is at dawn, the second at dusk. The ‘double tide’ here is when the water is at it lowest ebb twice during one period of daylight. So it’s a propitious time for the picker whose work patterns are heavily regulated by tidal conditions. The rythm and physicality of Jen’s back-breaking labour is mesmerising and inspirational as she works random areas of mud with her sledge and basket, her hand expertly retrieving shellfish, each time with a noise that defies onomatopoeia. The film maker and picker seem to turn what might appear as quotidian toil into something balletic.
Should we be preoccupied with the quotidian in this way? I confess that for much of my life I have not been. Day to day concerns have often seemed like barriers to more important issues – political crises, humanitarian disasters, structural determinants of health, wealth and poverty. Surely these – and many other such ‘public issues’ – need more of our attention? On the other hand daily practices, routines, associated beliefs and values make up the DNA of a culture. Perhaps their genomic sequences can reveal far more than we see on the surface, in ways that may be deeply consequential?
My starting point is that the quotidian belongs to us all, and through it we make and re-make ourselves. It is part of the very process that makes us human.