A few months after my father died in the spring of 1993, I was in north east Scotland, visiting friends. One afternoon, some of us took a walk along the banks of the River Deveron. Lingering with my younger son, we stood just where the waters become tidal, fossicking among beautiful pebbles and bits and pieces on the river bank. Then wordlessly, and in a moment of ‘timeless now’, we chose a couple of boat-like pieces of driftwood and pushed them onto the water. Slowly they left us in the shallows, were picked up by the current and drawn out into the waters of the cold North Sea, gradually disappearing from our view. I remember well that strange moment when they could no longer be seen.
It was a small and spontaneous ritual that came back to me when I encountered a project called Shoreline to Shoreline, the creation of artists, Jo Hodges and Robbie Coleman. Working as part of a team in the Dumfries and Galloway based Atlas Pandemica initiative, they have been exploring experiences of loss in the early phases of the pandemic. Along with others in the team, they want to understand some of the manifold ways in which COVID-19 has been shaping social experience and to look for creative responses that might be supportive, and perhaps point to a kinder world as a result.
The carers, professionals and bereaved people Jo and Robbie spoke with, all echoed a similar theme in their stories. A sense of incompleteness pervaded their experience. The constraints of the pandemic were making it impossible for each of them to fully realise their desired response to the situation. NHS staff were constrained by work pressures, PPE, hastily adopted new ways of working, and the distance placed between them and those they cared for. Funeral Directors described attenuated rituals, where numbers were limited by law, no singing could take place and where live streaming became a new vehicle for remote participation. For those who had lost a loved one, whether or not to COVID, there was a sense of incompleteness born of a lack of proximity, social constraints and the inability to connect fully with others in a shared sense of grief.
Talking to Hanna Casement, whose nephew in Australia had been killed in a car crash, reinforced this sense of separation and something unfinished. Together with Hanna, who was unable to visit her family on the other side of the world, Jo and Robbie began exploring the notion of a collective public ritual that would provide opportunities for reflection, connection and resolution, perhaps even across great distances.
The idea that emerged is remarkably simple and based on fascinating principles.
Our world is connected by water. Seas, oceans, rivers, burns and streams, tideways, lochs, lakes and ponds. They can all inspire us to deeper reflection. The shoreline is a margin between the place we are in and the other places of our experience or imagining. Water is intrinsic to healing, to reconciliation. It moistens the lips of a dying person, yet is fundamental to life. It is the medium of cleansing, purifying, blessing.
Water therefore seemed to offer a vehicle for communication between people pandemically separated by distance, by loss, by death itself.
Shoreline to Shoreline invited people to place themselves at the water’s edge and to devote time to contemplation about someone or something lost. For those unable to reach the shore or the river, it offered the calm of water in a bowl or any other vessel that might be to hand. The arrangements were lightly sketched and non-proscriptive.
Jo, Robbie and Hanna had formulated an idea. The had given it a name. For its initiation they chose a date: 20 December 2020, the day before the Solstice. As the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic drew to a close, they invited others to join them at the water’s edge in an act of collective memory. Jo and Robbie described Shoreline to Shoreline as ‘a piece of functional poetry embodying the idea of a personal action that takes place simultaneously with others; family, friends and strangers on other shores acting together, whilst being apart’.
They have no idea how many took part in that idea, but the beautifully crafted and elegiac comments they received tell of deep experience, connections made around the world and an opportunity taken to act, reflect and move forward in a very special way.
The idea of Shoreline to Shoreline was put together and was then ‘set off into to the world to see if it resonated and captured imaginations’. It has left Jo and Robbie pondering how it might be nurtured and fostered. On 20 December 2020, as I stood by the Pennyland Burn that runs through my garden, I felt connected in new ways to my closest friends and family, and took the opportunity by the running water, to reflect on a year like no other I had ever lived through. I hope there will be encouragement to maintain the idea and let it grow.
Meanwhile Jo and Robbie have created a wonderful coda to the day, in a tiny and beautifully made book entitled Marking Loss: Ideas and Inspirations. It contains 40 ideas to inspire actions in memory of someone or something lost. They have given copies to Funeral Directors across Dumfries and Galloway, to pass on to bereaved people. Simple, uplifting, feasible and sustainable, it is a remarkable miscellany of creative responses to grief.
In the Spring of 2020 as the first COVID-19 lockdown in the UK was beginning to seep into all of our lives, it became apparent that there was much to understand about what was happening. Whilst the dominant discourse of the time was a curious mixture of bio-medicine, public health and political strategem, other perspectives were also emerging. One source of these was the world of the arts, along with academic perspectives from the humanities and social sciences.
Jo and Robbie are extremely well equipped to respond to the pandemic in a creative way. They have worked in hospital design, curated public participation art events, light festivals and dark skies events. They are skilled in working on the margins of environmental change, human ecology and committed to exploring, place, identity and memory. In many ways their work illustrates a wider end of life movement that has been emerging in recent years, often referred to as Compassionate Communities or public health palliative care. This approach gives priority to dying, death and bereavement as social processes, in which many actors are involved. It seeks to work in partnership with formal services, but recognises that communities and groups of many kinds play a hugely important part in the how death in society is organised. The Compassionate Communities ideal champions just the kind of creative response that we see in Shoreline to Shoreline, which in turn sits alongside other community responses to grief and loss in the time of COVID. It is an encouraging example, catalysed by COVID, of people coming together to explore a universal issue, that of human mortality and all its consequences.
More than three million people around the world have so far died from COVID-19. Countless more are still mourning their loss. Talking to Jo and Robbie about Shoreline to Shoreline brought to mind many thoughts and feelings about the pandemic. It also reminded me of that April afternoon on the banks of the River Deveron, nearly 30 years ago, and had me searching through old notebooks to find the poem I felt sure I’d written a few days later. My recollections were confirmed:
Sailing close to the wind of death We wandered down by Deveronside And watched peat waters meet with brine To fuse below the tide. Sailing close to the wind of death We found small stones of mystic white And cupped them in our hands like tears That trickle in the night. Sailing close to the wind of death We cast small boats upon the sea And saw them drift beyond our gaze Like prisoners set free.
Shoreline to Shoreline and the work that has emerged from it is not only a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also a reimagining of it. The work illustrates so beautifully something that hospice founder Cicely Saunders once observed: ‘The search for meaning may be expressed in many ways, in metaphor or silence, in gesture or symbol, in art, and in the unexpected potential for creativity at the end of life.’
To learn more about the Shoreline to Shoreline project and also the wider work of Robbie Coleman and Jo Hodges, go to:
You can also listen to Jo and Robbie talking about Shoreline to Shoreline, here: