Let the chalk do the talking

13th April 2020

A Tweet by @RobGMacfarlane one day last week, got me thinking about how we’re all communicating with friends and neighbours in the time of Covid-19. 

MacFarlane tweets a “word of the day” and that day he’d chosen ‘philoxenίa’ (Greek origin meaning kindness shown to people unknown; hands opened in care to those in need, tenderness offered across time and space) illustrating his tweet with a photograph of the Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands), an artwork that dates back more than 10,000 years.

It takes its name from the vivid outlines of human hands, stencilled onto the walls of the cave. Apparently there are also pictures of animals (though none perhaps as comical as the chalked dinosaur illustrating this blog, courtesy of James Withers @scotfoodjames)

All over my home neighbourhood of Portobello, Edinburgh – probably like neighbourhoods across Scotland and the UK – chalked messages and drawings have been appearing at garden gates and in communal doorways, on sea walls and steps.

In Glasgow, my daughter and her flatmates communicate with the wee girl living opposite by exchanging messages on bits of paper in the tenement windows.

Alongside the now-ubiquitous rainbows-in-windows, new chalk messages spring up every day and then disappear in a shower of rain.

Some are birthday wishes, others messages to friends or words of encouragement to strangers and passers-by.

Like the Cave of the Hands, these liminal spaces – literally ‘crossing over spaces’ – seem a particularly appropriate place to leave a message.

Appropriate because they are transitional spaces, between one physical place and another (e.g. between the inside and the outside) or between one state and another (e.g. between sleep and wakefulness).

In psychological terms, liminal space involves moments in your life where you are waiting for what is next. They are moments of transition, between one phase and another, where you feel and experience the discomfort of being on the threshold of a transition and often need the support of other people to help you get through them, such as leaving your home for uni or moving from one job to the next.

That seems a comforting thought while we’re in lockdown. As many people have said, “these times will pass”.

Perhaps we’ll look back on this liminal time – when we’re living between what was ‘normal’ and what will come after Coronavirus – as a short period of quiet streets, louder birdsong, clean air and care for neighbours and friends.

And like the chalk messages washed away by a rain shower, the world will all to quickly return to ‘normal’ and carbon emissions will shoot up and the pace of life will pick up again to its usual, frenetic pace.

Personally speaking, I hope some of the lessons we’ve learned – about the importance of living more connected and conscious lives, about kindness and mutualism, stay with us.