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  • Christine Cohen Park

How Sharing Stories Can Save Lives: The importance of oral storytelling in a crisis

In a chaotic world acquiring books is a balancing act on the edge of the abyss.” Wrote Walter Benjamin in Unpacking My Library. The same could equally be said about reading books. 

At the onset of the first UK Covid Lockdown in 2020, my partner and I were living in different towns and suddenly were unable to be together. Panic. I was alone, there were initial difficulties getting food deliveries, toilet paper, a supply of masks. We were allowed only one walk a day, and that by ourselves. 

On one of these early walks I noticed signs posted on telephone poles requesting volunteers to help those in need. I thought I might pick up medicines for the infirm who couldn’t get out, and leave them beside doorways. 

On my first attempt, the narrow pavement outside the chemist with other pedestrians passing along required me to step off onto the road to avoid contact. A passing motorist pulled down his window and shouted at me: what are you doing? I told him. Go home, he said, indignantly, it’s not safe and you’re causing trouble, stay home, old woman, and let the volunteers look after you!

Be looked after? I was struck for the first time with the realization that in this new Covid world, at 78 I was old. And I was no use. This flummoxed me. I had anticipated helping others (not being helped)  – to keep fear at bay.

Then a chance change occurred a few weeks later. My family were phoning, Zooming, the usual. All of us asking how the others were getting on. By now I had chivvied my regular Library Shared Reading group into using Zoom – with some resistance from the less tech-savvy ones who’d eschewed the internet up till that point.

I’d adapted to plastic gloves and antiseptic sprays, and putting letters and parcels in quarantine for two days. With the help of friends I’d sourced food supplies. My road had set up a WhatsApp and we made a plan to come to the doors of our houses twice weekly to check up on each other. My partner and I phoned every night. My daughter, and brother, frequently. I was near open spaces, and had a dog. I was comparatively fortunate, I was coping.

But the stories of people in difficulties ballooned. One family story was of my sister-in-law’s mother, Nancy, who had very recently moved into care facilities in the same complex in which her husband was in a nursing home. When he’d begun to need more care than she could give him, they’d thought it a solution to give up the house they’d lived in for years, and for her to have a retirement flat in the same complex as the nursing home, so she could visit him every day. They’d been together for over sixty years.  

Mere days after Nancy moved in, the nursing home was closed to visitors. She had had no time to get to know her neighbours before lockdown. Worse still, very soon the retirement home’s garden – the only allowed outdoor space for the residents – became out of bounds when a stone wall that backed it became in danger of collapsing. She was incarcerated in unfamiliar rooms, adrift, alone, bewildered. 

When I heard this, I wondered, would a reading session once a week be any help?


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