All writing is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality – by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back.
Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead
The quietness of the pandemic. I cycle in slow motion, meandering along Guildford Road with my 40-year-old Atala, the golden chrome dotted with rust and the headlight broken. Still reliable, though emitting a rhythmic clanking sound when I pedal.
Most of the time I ride in a circle around the area where I live; there are about eighty semis, townhouses and a few apartments in this tiny suburban village in Surrey. The road has the shape of a loop – one end stretches to a gate, with a pond on one side and oak trees on the other. The shore is fairly tidy near the road, but if you follow the path along the lake you can find a wilder and more invading kind of nature expanding in nettle, wild fennel, wild garlic, pink purslane and more. I ride in a circle that ends in nothing and triggers casual reasoning that refreshes my brain. Exercising gave me a target during the lockdown – every day, a sense of release in the static, imposed condition. I come across some of my neighbours from time to time; they are coming back from work or are going out for a walk with the dog. We exchange shy smiles. Sometimes I stop and have a distanced chat with the ones I know better. We update each other quickly, wondering if we are daring too much.
The virus has not reached the shores of our lake. In the pond, where an umbrella-shaped fountain splashes reassuringly, ducks paddle with their little ones and an ash heron appears occasionally, a good omen, like a discreet and protective god.
The doors are shut but I can see that the houses are lively inside, with rainbows at the windows and baskets hanging at the sides full of marigolds, begonias and geraniums. Some children cycle too, so we need to decide if we are going clockwise or anti-clockwise. I prefer clockwise, though you can go both ways in Lakeside Drive, even by car. Cats can be a problem. There are a few wandering around – a slow, stout ginger cat with a circumspect gaze, a fiery and fit black one and a slim and swift black and white feline, the most lively one and probably the youngest of the bunch. They chase each other and cross my path, unexpectedly coming out of a bush. I pull on the brakes, thinking how is it possible that I nearly had an accident in such a quiet and semi-deserted place?
When I feel bolder and fit, I go out of the gate and venture into the town. I turn right on Windsor Road and reach the end of the village or ride as far as Heather Farm. I pass by my favourite shops: Betty & Claude, Dry Cleaners and the Italian restaurant Rosso Mazara, WSBH boutique, a charity shop, the wine cellar and Shanny’s picture-framing studio.
They were all dark and shut during the lockdown, then started to open only at certain times and on certain days when the restrictions eased off, with all the prescribed precautions, of course. St Laurence’s bell tower stands unflinching, and the imposing magnolia tree bloomed then faded, and after the church, the White Hart’s flowerpots wither in the sun
The barber’s, hairdresser’s and the bridal shop make me feel that eventually everything might to back to a normality of sorts, but they are still waiting, we do not know for how long.
I pay attention to the bumps in the tarmac and the people that walk on the pavement in groups, looking down as if they are doing some kind of searching work, or are on duty. I stop when I need to cross the street; few cars are around, but they speed, thinking the road is empty. I need to be careful. Though I wear a helmet, it is a fact that most drivers do not pay attention to cyclists – we are invisible.
I go back to my circling around the loop, where everything seems more predictable and safer. My mind wanders, goes back to my studies, connects ideas, finds new conclusions. The art of storytelling, exchanging experiences during the pandemic, a revived oral tradition that Walter Benjamin, in his essay ‘The Storyteller’ thought was on the verge of extinction because of the rise of the novel. He remarks that we repeat our stories in a variety of ways and push them further and further beyond the lived experience in ‘a trip to the underworld’, as Margaret Atwood puts it. This has become crucial in the lockdown condition. We crave to express what we do and how we feel, and we wish to voice our experience, release frustration, anger, and, why not, a re-found sense of balance in the long time off that we are forced to embrace.
Italo Calvino speaks of repetitions and variation in storytelling where the narrator respects conventions and, at the same time, changes something in the stories, speaking about ‘ciò che gli sta a cuore’ (what they care about) and revealing their ‘libertà inventiva’ (inventive freedom). Therefore, storytelling creates destinies and reveals the possibility of change, of metamorphosis; it is a reality that leads to the imagination. Calvino refers to fairy and folk tales, but the same concept can be applied to everyday life too. When we voice our experiences, we develop a plot that alludes to other stories and is in dialogue with an audience. Communicating not only means expressing feelings but also connecting to other texts, absorbing and transforming in a process of self-discovery that develops identity.
According to Margaret Atwood, storytelling is an art with moral implications, political intersections and therefore power. In Negotiating with the Dead, she clearly identifies the illusionary, almost magical quality of storytelling and the ambiguous position of the writer, who is described as a wizard, a manipulator, a witness and even a fraud. But authors are also survivors who convey what happened, or might happen. She remarks that ‘stories exist in a realm that is neither fact nor fiction, but perhaps both: let us call it enhanced fact’. She also considers writing to be ‘a reaction to the fear of death’, a surviving voice that makes a bargain with the dead, or, as Benjamin posits, ‘death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell’. It limits mental wandering and plotting, and allows a deal of sorts with the uncertainty that characterises life.
While I cycle, I ponder how important it is to tell our stories while we are in this unsettling pandemic condition in all possible forms: videos, performances, songs, literary and non-literary texts. This comforts and heals a great deal and also promotes the negotiation with death that now, more than ever, seems to loom in our everyday life. Pushing on the pedals as I cycle around the village, I start to think that storytelling seems to be a possible liberation from fears and a diversion from obsessive routines and restrictions – an encouraging path to travel on.