The first Spiritual Director I had, when I was fifteen or sixteen was in many ways an impatient man. In one meeting with him I explained some injustice or bad deed I thought I had suffered. “Well, there’s no point whining,” he said, “What have you learnt from it?”.
I don’t recommend this as good practice on all occasions in spiritual direction. However, it is an ill-wind and all that. I’ve been thinking about what I am learning during the lockdown. Apart, that is, from the necessary skills of using Zoom (I can do break out rooms and everything); Go To Meeting, FaceTime, Microsoft Teams and more.
Yesterday, in a messaging conversation with my dear friend the Assistant Diocesan Secretary in the Diocese of Liverpool, I suggested we have a Zoom conversation, “How about one’o’clock?”, he returned. “Sorry, that’s lunchtime,” was my response, before we settled on a time later in the week.
It was only afterwards that I realised how extraordinary my response had been. Not because Stuart minded in the least. But because I haven’t taken lunch breaks for over twenty years, since I was appointed Acting Deputy Head at Emsworth Primary School in 1998.
I remember lunch breaks in school staffrooms before that as rather good times, friendly banter, much of it with colleagues who remain friends to this day. Birthday celebrations, cakes, those piles of books and odd objects that companies sold in staff rooms. Even my friend Becca introducing us to the Physalis in her lunch box one day. Exotic stuff indeed.
Since then, however, lunch has been always on duty, walking the corridors and playground, chatting to pupils or seeking out colleagues for whom this is a chance to have a quick ‘meeting’. School leaders are, and I am one of them, proud of this. Whenever Heads are together on a conference or residential training and have a sit down lunch somebody will soon comment on never sitting down to eat usually.
When I moved to the role of Director of Education here in Liverpool I brought these working habits with me. Like my colleagues in the team I am often driving around. So there are breaks between schools. I have learnt what food I can eat in the car as I drive without making too much mess. Sandwiches are hopeless. Thank goodness for Samosas and Baby Bel cheeses.
In the first week of the lockdown, like many other people I was introduced to Zoom. I think it is wonderful. I hope never again to ask people to drive to attend a meeting that takes a fraction of the time they were travelling. I have renewed old friendships and given real life to existing networks. It is a good thing. But that week I was frazzled. I learned how much I needed those driving times between meetings. Zoom meetings came thick and fast with barely time to pop to the toilet or make a cup of tea. Texting for a cup of tea to be brought to me during one meeting really made me realise how bad it had got. It was utterly unsustainable.
So I made some rules. Coffee at 10 every day, away from the desk, not a long break but time enough to make and drink a coffee; lunch for an hour from 1 to 2, tea at 4 – again just time to make and drink a cuppa, and not drunk at the lap-top or even on the phone. No Zoom meetings for work after 6. I still do early meetings when people want them, often early phone calls; so I don’t think I am being lazy in any way. Of course I have to be a little flexible, there awesome meetings I can’t control the times of, but then I move the break time.
This is the learning. Aren’t lunch breaks wonderful. It’s been helped, of course, by being able to sit in the garden most days. But taking time to make a proper meal (no more Samosas or sausage rolls), sitting down and eating it, conversation about something different to work, eyes off a screen.
Is this a lesson I can put into practice once this is over? I don’t know. Is it possible to do this as a Headteacher – perhaps some of my colleagues will tell me that they do? And, even as I write, I realise that in this crisis I am immensely privileged (not just in having a garden to sit in), most of our schools are open, most of our Heads are in school every day (I keep telling them not to be) and as for NHS staff and other Carers the idea of a lunch break must seem like a distant prospect.
In our Anglo-Saxon world we have always looked jealously at cultures where proper meals are part of working life – my dad used to drive five miles home and back to have lunch with mum and us during the school holidays. Even in the little village where I live the farm workers pass by as they walk home each day for lunch.
Corona Virus 19 is going to change our world. So many of those changes will be devastating and awful, but perhaps a few of them could be for good.
“Sorry, that’s my lunch break.” I’ll ask Stuart if he noticed. I am slightly proud of myself.