HELEN CONWAY

SUPERVISOR - COACH - TRAINER

The real gift of 2020

My coach took me through an exercise last month in which he asked me to write down a memory for every year of my life. The first interesting observation that cropped up was that the supposedly best years of my career, the nineties ,ended up blank. These were my years at the Bar and conference speaking, the ones which set me up for the judiciary and my current coaching business.

I had plenty of stories I could recall; lecturing in London hotels for days on end and living it up on expenses in the city at night. Driving endless miles to Whitehaven County Court only to get there and find there was a POCA issue that required an adjournment. Virgin trains, my car blowing up en route to Stockport County Court, briefs arriving by taxi at seven at night, forgetting my gown for a committal in Cardiff, late afternoon toast and talk in Chambers. I have a cornucopia of day-to-day recollections. But not a single one could be attributed to a particular year. 

We can safely say that 2020 will not be disappearing into a mush of memories for anyone. “What was 2020 like for you?” will be the question for our generation replacing “How did you find out JKF had been assassinated?” or “Where were you where you heard of Diana’s death?” But what from this long and remarkable collection of days will we choose to remember? As I assess the year, how I contemplate describing it depends very much on which window I choose to look out of as I remain in quasi-house arrest awaiting the vaccine.

Take my bathroom window, for example. It’s a small window that looks out at the neighbour’s side wall and the fence that my husband half painted in the summer and which stands now semi-naked begging for a better treatment in 2021. We’ve spent quite a lot of time in this bathroom this year. Mostly because the shower started to leak through the kitchen ceiling in the first lockdown and never stopped despite all the many and various cockamamie ‘fixes’ attempted by the local plumbing firm. 

This window functions perfectly well to let me air the year out but it’s a limited outlook. From this window I can see that 2020 was the year that mental health illness ended my career, decimating my income and the lockdowns hampered the setting up of a new business as firms put their training on hold. It was the year we had a holiday ruined and others cancelled and the one in which we never got to see my nonagenarian mother-in-law at all. It was the year my graduation ceremony in London was cancelled, the golf membership was pretty much wasted and the synagogue doors locked. It was the year of no gym, no cake and coffee and café life, no decamping to our regular rental flat in Bath.

It was, from this window, the Year of No.

But let me take you upstairs to the attic conversion that was built as an art studio and reading lounge and serves now as my business premises. Here there is a large window in a dormer that gives a high-level view out over open fields in which horses graze and rabbits run. From this window the year looks somewhat different. 

It is the year I was given the immensely privileged and freeing gift of an early retirement package, celebrated turning fifty with a ( social distanced) afternoon tea at Armathwaite and the same day started a business that has been profitable from day one. It’s the year I completely recovered from that illness, trained as a Mindfulness teacher, graduated (again) from University. I had a trip to Israel in January where I sang at the Israeli Conservatoire and had half of a month’s stay in Paris before we hotfooted it home the day they closed Charles de Gaulle. I embraced a new identity as a coach, finding like-minded community in the Lawyers Coaching Lawyers group, the Association for Coaching and at Professional Training Ltd. I painted (and finished) all the fences in the garden proper, including the shed and the immense pergola, and spent long summer days swinging happily from a hammock reading books and eating watermelon ice lollies. I wrote for a batch of new publications and in a brief lull between lockdowns ate cinder toffee ice cream with my parents on the banks of Ullswater.

It’s the year I became a company director and a trustee of a synagogue, the same community that kept me company with endless varied activities via Zoom. And the year I discovered mail order ‘taste of the world’ chocolates from 5D chocolates which frankly almost topped all the rest of that list. Oh, and it’s the year we spent the run up to Christmas putting a whole new swish bathroom in (with a different firm) and finally sorted out that leak. From this window it was The Year of Yes.

There is no question that there is a degree of privilege – literally and metaphoric –  that cushioned my 2020. Whilst I have had acquaintances and a distant relative die of Covid, I have not suffered the crushing blow of bereavement that many had, nor the desperate loss of all income others faced. But there is also choice of outlook and the practice of reframing that allows a real diminishing of the disappointments and frustrations. The limitations of the year remain true facts, but the choice of thought affects how we feel. I choose to feel joy and delight and gratitude.

Who knows what 2021 will bring? For now, when I look forward, I am choosing the Velux window which today shows me empty grey skies full of potential.  I have ambitions and plans, desires and aspirations that I hope will flood the days to come with sunshine. It might not be in my control if black rainclouds scud across at times or if hard balls of frozen ice pelt the pane. But I can choose to remember that to live life to the full we must experience both ends of its spectrum. Joy is only recognisable as a counterpoint to grief. Without a nadir there can be no zenith. 

The real gift of 2020 is not the frippery despite-it-all career achievements or the sourdough-banana-bread baking activities that distracted but the underlying experience of being held back so that we can fully appreciate the feeling of acceleration when we once again see life taking off.