A shifting sense of sanctuary in the time of pandemic

Alison Koslowski

Thursday 30th July 2020

Lockdown for me came just days after moving from Leith to London. Our intentions were to use the flat in London as a base from which to launch to various work trips, including for me, a regular shuttle up the East Coast trainline to Edinburgh. It was never intended to be a place where we spent so much time, day in day out. But mostly, it was a new place, and so lockdown hit us before we had the chance to form a new mental map of how things worked around us.

This experience leads me to ponder the role of sanctuary in our everyday lives. We can be said to have found sanctuary when we feel safe and protected, cocooned from any outside pressures that might be waiting for us. Sanctuary is not a regular constituent of the sociological canon, but I wonder whether we might want to give the concept greater consideration.

Our homes have been presumed by Governments across the globe as sanctuary from the virus. Sometimes ‘home’ is the environment over which you have the most control and so the place where you can best create sanctuary. Other times ‘home’ can be a place where you might not feel safe or might struggle to be comfortable, or simply have to share space with (too many) others. It is usual to seek sanctuary elsewhere than home, even when you also have a home that does shelter you well.

Everyday practices of sanctuary

Where can you find respite from the world; rest; take a moment to pause undisturbed? Where can you be fully yourself in the moment without immediate concern? Where can you take a break from your inner theatre of thoughts? The routines we have to these ends are our everyday practices of sanctuary. I usually find sanctuary in the water. Not being able to immerse has been really hard. Getting in the water at the Parliament Hill lido last week as it reopened was wonderful.

Sometimes you stumble on sanctuary in a lucky find, but more often creating or discovering sanctuary takes effort. Early on in lockdown I saw a clip with top tips from a submarine captain for surviving being cooped up. Top of his list was keeping your home clean. The washing up involved in staying home – who knew! But I agree with the submarine captain, for most of us at least, it is difficult to feel well if things are too unclean. Observing a (new) neighbour during lockdown revealed a cleanliness paradox: She was truly terrified by the virus, to the extent that she was scared to touch anything or go out even to put out the rubbish as the outside world was too ‘unclean’…for months. Last week she had to get pest control in and is only now putting out her rubbish again.

Are you able to sleep well? We had some night time noise issues with our new flat. Without sleep, it is difficult to feel that you have sanctuary; it is one of the basics. Whether it is another flashing light disrupting the darkness, or a mechanical whirr disrupting the quiet of the night or stompy nocturnal neighbours; these things matter if you are to feel safe and well. Having a dedicated, peaceful place to sleep, without electronic gadgets, is an everyday practice of sanctuary for many.

Sanctuary refers to holy places. Whilst we live, at least in the UK, in times of declining religiosity, I wonder if the lockdown has seen a boost for spiritual approaches centred on nature, which encourage us to cultivate a feeling of reverence, awe and wonder for and unity with the natural world. Having somewhere to be still – or indeed to move -, to be outside, to be in communion with something beyond yourself can be very beneficial. During lockdown I took out a subscription to ‘Silly Greens’ who, for a nominal sum, posted three sets of seedlings every week – effectively a fancy version of cress, and it was soothing to see their irrepressible nature to sprout. Since arriving at the new flat I have seen from our kitchen window: a squirrel, a fox, jays, blackbirds, robins, pigeons, a myriad of insects, and the piece de resistance, we have had a resident nightingale in a nearby garden, which renders a smile every time I hear him.

The disruption to our usual sanctuaries during the pandemic

There are various public spaces that are regular sanctuaries. I have mentioned swimming pools. Libraries can also be such places (thinking of Emma Davidson’s work on the multi-functions of public libraries). My Mum was delighted when the library reopened last week, but then terribly disappointed: “they are just lending books”, she said. As someone who lives alone since my Dad passed away, and is extremely outgoing, she does not really use her local library to borrow books, but for the company at one of the various craft sessions that they usually run. Sanctuary can be experienced alone or communally, and Mum is a person who feels more relaxed when in a group. Similarly, my Aunt is very much missing meeting with her church congregation in person (she does not use the internet and so the zoom services are not available to her) and so for someone who usually goes to church a couple of times a week, this has been very hard.

The role of dedicated spaces for different aspects of our selves is part of sanctuary. In so far that we have various identities, how do we find places to live out these different component parts of who we are, when we are sharing space with others needing to do the same? Noise cancelling headphones only get you so far: I love working from home when it is just me. I do not love working from home at the same time as my husband and my neighbours.

For some children at least, schools are a sanctuary. For some adults, their places of work are a sanctuary. Others find sanctuary at their local gym, as part of a music group, at music gigs, at church; these can be safe spaces. For others, sanctuary is found in a couple of hours at the cinema, or in their local coffee shop. All of which have been unavailable to us recently.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the incidence of domestic violence increased during lockdown. Home is not a safe space for some, and the usual refuges have not been available. It is deeply problematic to make the blanket assumption of home as sanctuary.

In search of sanctuary

Removed, at least in terms of physical distance from my former community and places in Edinburgh, I have started to consider the component parts of my sanctuaries that are external to home and to think about what I need to find in the new place. At the same time, finding myself dropped into a new flat has also fine tuned my sense of what I need to feel safe and at ease whilst at home. I am sure that I am not alone following lockdown in reconsidering what I should make manifest to create the sanctuary I need.

How much better at realising good outcomes might many of our social and public health policies be if we incorporated a more explicit consideration of sanctuary into their planning – both during and beyond this pandemic?

Staying at home may literally provide sanctuary from the virus, but I would suggest caution that the home, and more specifically a lifestyle where we are encouraged to stay at home as much as possible provides sufficient sanctuary for many of us. Whether we have sufficient sanctuary is not a question we are regularly asked: but I think it would be helpful to do so, if we are to better understand the mechanisms underpinning good health and happiness.

Alison Koslowski is Professor of Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh.

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Liz Stanley

Liz Stanley is Professor of Sociology @ University of Edinburgh, email liz.stanley@ed.ac.uk. I’m a feminist sociologist who works on everyday documents of life, particularly letters, to research social change over time.

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