Our New Lives: Major cultural shifts to our lives ushered in by pandemic unknowns

The pandemic changed our lives in more ways than just forcing us to work from home and use Zoom. Some of the changes ushered in were major cultural shifts and others were lifestyle changes, says Joyce Fegan
Our New Lives: Major cultural shifts to our lives ushered in by pandemic unknowns

The sea became an anchor for Lisa Collins when the pandemic hit.

The pandemic changed our lives in more ways than just forcing us to work from home and use Zoom. Some of the changes ushered in were major cultural shifts and others were lifestyle changes.

With the murder of George Floyd in May, by a white police officer in America, the Black Lives Matter movement gained a far bigger foothold. 

George Floyd’s cry for his deceased mother in his own dying moments resounded around the world, reaching Ireland too, where we had to look at our own systemic racism.

In today's Special Report:

  • 'My life was 80% work it was like being addicted to striving' - After selling her salon Lisa Collins was looking for a daily discipline... sea swimming became her  saving grace when the pandemic hit 
  • 'I coped with racism by singing' - Alicia Raye turned to music in a direct provision centre, says Joyce Fegan
  • Getting creative to find new ways to display your art - As galleries closed and exhibitions were rescheduled, artist Leah Hewson found a way to exist in the new normal
  • The anti-diet: A new way of getting healthy - With gyms closed and boredom rife, people were forced to physically slow down

The pandemic affected many people’s livelihoods, but none more so than artists, as their chances to perform and exhibit ground to a halt. Physically, as a people were forced to slow down, if not completely stop. This forced us into a relationship with things that were not working in our lives, especially around diet and exercise.

Joyce Fegan spoke to some of people at the forefront of these cultural changes

'My life was 80% work it was like being addicted to striving'

In 2020, with gyms closed and sports ground to a halt, open swimming surged.  With the mental health benefits well documented, this form of free "blue" exercise, took centre stage in Irish life.

Lisa Collins, who grew up literally beside the sea, had never swam at her local beach, but in 2020, it became her saving grace. She hopes that this daily ritual will remain a part of her life forever.

"In March 2020, I had sold my salon and scaled my business right back after building and hustling hard. Hustling hard is the reason I scaled back and to get balance back into my life, because it had just gone out of whack.

My life was 80% work. My health had also taken a toll at that point and I knew stress had been a factor. It was like being addicted to striving, you finish one goal and move on to the next. It was like a toxic business psyche.

"My new career plan for 2020 was to coach other small business owners and solopreneurs to build their business, I had done training in the previous years. 

And in 2020, I finished my diploma in personal and business coaching with the Irish Life Coaching Institution," says Lisa.

And then the pandemic hit, and she was thrown off-kilter — this is where sea swimming came in.

The sea became an anchor for Lisa Collins when the pandemic hit.
The sea became an anchor for Lisa Collins when the pandemic hit.

"In the search for a healthier more balanced way of working, I was looking for that anchor, a daily discipline, something that I could bring into my life that would be an anchor for balance. All my focus was on work, I hadn’t spent time exploring activities or recreation outside of work.

"My husband had been going down swimming and then the pandemic hit. I had been dealing with this massive pace for eight years to suddenly not having my business. The pandemic compounded that stress because I didn’t have work anymore. 

"I had these pent-up emotions. I kind of reluctantly went down with him, I had written that off, I have lived beside the sea my whole life and had never gotten in, I never considered myself one of those people," says Lisa, who adds: "When you’re in that much discomfort you’ll try anything".

So she got into the sea with her husband, albeit reluctantly, mid-lockdown, and she basically never got out.

"So I went down and I got in the sea, in mid-April, a month into it, and I’ve gone every day since," says Lisa.

After building a six-figure business and then taking the massive step to sell it in her 30s, the sea gave her a steady sense of connection.

"I felt like I connected to myself in there, outside of what I did, my achievements, it was just me and myself in the sea, it felt like a soulful thing to do. I did look into the science behind it, because I wanted to know: 'Why do I feel so great?

"When you're calm in the water you bring yourself into the parasympathetic nervous system and into rest and repair," explains Lisa.

I feel I did a lot of healing in the water, and dopamine gets released into the body which is the feel-good hormone.

Now a community has built up around her daily ritual, and with it came an even greater sense of connection.

"When I look back when I first started going, I often went on my own, now I’m part of a community, there are four of us that swim every morning, we go down at 7.30am. 

"When there is a community side of things, it keeps you going when the water is cold, we’ve been doing this every day for months together. I make my tea and bring it with me and go for coffee after, and it’s connection, especially at the moment, it’s not on Zoom, or on WhatsApp. The screams from people getting into the water, is just gas," says Lisa.

Can she see herself continuing? "I’d be very surprised if I ever stopped," she answers.

Sea swimming has given Lisa Collins a sense of connection.
Sea swimming has given Lisa Collins a sense of connection.

However, it really was a case of the pandemic made me do it. "I feel it would be unlikely I would be swimming now were it not for the pandemic. We’ve been forced outdoors because of the virus. I would have distracted myself enough with other things.

"The sea has honestly been an anchor, it’s the foundation of my healthier way of living, it’s me prioritising myself before work. I’d be really sad if I went back to the way I was living," says Lisa.

"Sea swimming changed my life. I was someone who thought I could never do it, it’s Christmas and here I am still doing it and I’ve tapped into a strength I didn’t know I had. It really has changed my life," she adds.

Instagram @lisajennifercollins

'I coped with racism by singing' says former direct provision resident

Alicia Raye is an R&B artist and an Irish citizen.

"I'm a woman of colour and I’m saying 'I'm Irish' — and the Irish population doesn't want to recognise that, because I’m not like them," she says.

Ms Raye came to Ireland from Cameroon when she was aged seven, with her older sister and her pregnant mother. The family were seeking asylum.

It would take the State seven years to accept them and several more before Alicia would receive her "red passport" to become an Irish citizen. She spent from age seven to 14 in direct provision, moving from hostels to caravans and, finally, to Mosney.

R&B artist Alicia Raye came to Ireland from Cameroon as a child.
R&B artist Alicia Raye came to Ireland from Cameroon as a child.

She encountered racism in Irish systems and in Irish society. And in 2020, the year that the Black Lives Matter movement gained international attention after the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in the US, Ireland confronted its own racism.

"I know racism, but I tend to dismiss it a lot," she says. 

Sometimes, it's being called the 'n' word and it's just the way they say, they emphasise, the 'er': It boils my blood. It's like they need the 'er' to say it good.

"And, now, even though I have the 'red passport', I got my citizenship, and I still have some kid telling me to go home. But if you go home to Africa, you're too European now, and here you're black, so you're lost. You're never accepted."

Ms Raye has experienced racism on the street, in job interviews, in taxis, and with landlords. It is "covert", she says.

"'Oh, you're very articulate', the older generation will say. I get that a lot," Alicia says. 

"The first question I get asked in every interview is: 'Are you Nigerian?' The chances of getting a job are slim. In a taxi, you're asked: 'Where are you from? Are you from Nigeria?' Or a new landlord asks: 'Are you Nigerian?'."

They say 'coloured' a lot, because they think that's the right term, but I'm black: Call me black. And not every black person is Nigerian; there is a stigma against Nigerians.

Ms Raye says we need to understand how racism manifests.

"To be anti-racist, you need to understand the full spectrum of what racism actually is," she says. "Today, racism is covert: it's you asking to touch my hair, it's ignorance, it's a comment that 'your English is so good'. Racism might not be obvious."

But then at other times, it can be extremely obvious. 

"I've had friends who were just walking down the road and a white woman deliberately walks across the road to avoid them," she says. "They think the colour black is dangerous."

But how are we the scary ones, when we were the ones who were beaten? How are we the monsters?"

She has also witnessed violence.

"I've seen people picked up and thrown into bins," she says. "'Oh, you're on the Mosney [direct provision centre for asylum seekers] bus', they'll say and then that could happen.

"But you must have some kind of heart to do that to another human being. I can't imagine going out of my way to lift up someone else's child and throw them into a bin." 

This racism is happening to people who are in extremely challenging situations, waiting in direct provision for their asylum application to be processed.

Ms Raye spent seven years in this system, and it took a heavy toll. "A huge part of my childhood was in direct provision, Mosney in particular," she says. 

"I came to Ireland when I was seven, with my older sister and my mum, who was pregnant with my younger sister; heavily pregnant."  

"We took a flight and got to Dublin Airport and were immediately met with immigration control and we declared asylum at the airport. You're just a child and you don't understand why my mum had left Cameroon.

"I thought I was going on holidays —  I didn’t know I was in direct provision — and being here seven years later: that's a long holiday. We went from the airport to a hostel. It was the worst hostel I've experienced and a lot of people are still in those communal hostels." 

Ms Raye's family was then transferred to a caravan park in Athlone and her mother was sent to a hospital in Mayo to have her baby, at Christmas.

"I was seven, and it was the first time I spent Christmas without my mum," she says. "We couldn't even get in our caravan; we were just outside walking around for hours. This Muslim woman took us in — she knew us — and she said: 'Your mum has gone to hospital, you're going to be staying with us'."

"You're seven, Christmas is a big thing, but when we came here, there was no such thing as Santa," she says. "We were in a caravan and my mum was in hospital."

The family finally got moved to Mosney, where they would spend the next six years. 

"But, then, my whole attitude and personality, as a child, changed," she says. "I went through the worst time, mentally, in direct provision. 

The best description I could give is that it's like a voluntary prison — almost voluntary. You're not forced to be there, but you're not given any other options. 

"You either stay here or you go back to the country you're fleeing from." 

Her mother lived on a weekly allowance of €19, and €9 per child, as she was not permitted to work. When the family received asylum, seven years later, they moved to Drogheda. 

"It was a huge relief, initially; it was bittersweet," says Ms Raye. "I went from growing up in this gated community, this sense of safety, to coming out to the big bad world, with very little support.

"Only when I moved out of Mosney, I saw the effects it had on me. I was very angry, emotionally unstable, and my teachers would always say I had the grades, but my attitude wasn't good.

"But I'd have been up at 5am watching my friend get deported, to go into a Caucasian teacher who had no understanding of what you were going through. It was just so hard to deal with it."

Following mental health issues, Ms Raye turned to music, having had it fostered in her by a woman called Dolores, whom the children called the "grandmother of Mosney".

"My interest in music developed in Mosney, but it burst when I went into mental breakdown when I was 14, 15," she said. "I was in a white room and I had nothing else to do. 

"So I just started writing lyrics ... I got into this habit of writing music. I was a bit of recluse. I kept myself to myself. Then, before I knew it, I had my first studio session. I wrote a song called 'Let it Go'; it was my first-ever recorded track." 

This year, she led a collaboration of 38 Irish artists, releasing 26 songs on a collection called Alphabet. It was released on November 27, and by December 5, it had 256,000 streams.

"I have 26 songs, with 38 artists, who are black and Irish artists within the music scene," she says. "My project was just, really, to show there are so much of us. If we aren't getting radio play, then you are just ignoring us.

"Every song is different, and I don't sound like Erica Cody, but we're all women of colour in the music scene and we're killing it."

But despite her experiences in our asylum systems and of the racism in Ireland, she felt "supported" by the Irish population in 2020.

Getting creative to find new ways to display your art

In 2020, while so much could be translated to a virtual world and be brought online, the arts were virtually decimated. Galleries closed, gigs were banned, as were exhibitions, shows and gatherings of any kind.

In an industry that survives on public attention, the inability to connect with an audience was fatal.

But leaning into their innate creativity and innovation, some artists found a way to exist in this new normal.

Visual artist Leah Hewson, whose work is collected around the world by famous names and private collectors, found several ways around the pandemic.

Between selling prints online, being part of a ticketed exhibition, as opposed to a free-for-all, and taking a gallery outdoors on Culture Night, 2020 was surprisingly kind to the artist.

“When the economy is potentially going to go down, the arts are the first to go. But as an artist, we are used to living precariously anyway, this feeling of unstable is not new to me, working in isolation is not new to me, so my immediate universe hasn’t changed,” says Leah.

As well as outdoor exhibitions, her work was picked up by three large companies this year, including Facebook and a drinks brand.

Leah Hewson in her Wilton Park studio: She believes Covid-19 forced us into finding new ways of doing things, which is not a bad thing.	Picture: IPut Real Estate
Leah Hewson in her Wilton Park studio: She believes Covid-19 forced us into finding new ways of doing things, which is not a bad thing. Picture: IPut Real Estate

“Waterford Distillery commissioned me to do a label. It’ll be for their whiskey. They’re a new enough company. So I had an initial meeting with them and I loved their ethos. They’re not going for this old-world heritage whiskey vibe,” says Leah.

Another piece of surprise work to come in for the artist in the pandemic was with NPP, an Irish packaging company founded in 1984.

“Up in their factory, they’ve asked me to do an installation for them on their lobby wall, like a mural for their entrance,” explains Leah.

Facebook’s new office in Ballsbridge is another company where Leah’s work will adorn the office wall. The company runs an artist-in-residence programme, where artists come in and have their work displayed on the atrium wall. It took Leah two weeks during the last lockdown to complete her work.

“I had finished doing the murals and no one is going to see the work until July next year,” she says.

In the more traditional art world, exhibitions are the norm and Leah was set to take part in the Atelier Maser exhibition last March.

“The show in Atelier Maser — that was the day we went into lockdown — the work was already up and ready to be seen. So we had the show in August and managed it in a different way. Openings usually happen on Wednesday or Thursday evening, from say 6pm to 8pm, but it was moved to Saturday 12pm to 6pm and it was now a ticketed event. I thought it wouldn’t have the same buzz,” says Leah.

Instead there was a different, but equally positive, atmosphere.

“I was able to have long conversations with people and I met new people. And people were able to see the work. This is in comparison to a two-hour opening where everyone is rammed into the room to drink free wine. It was more relaxed.

“You could tell people were slightly unsure of themselves, like they didn’t know how to socialise — that’s bound to happen when you’re stuck at home with your cat all day,” jokes Leah.

And what was the effect of a slower and ticketed exhibition?

Vogue Williams bought one of Leah’s laser-cut perspex pieces, which the influencer then shared on her Instagram page of nearly 1m followers. And Vogue’s purchase aside, Leah received six commissions out of the exhibition.

Come Culture Night, the artist was getting used to thinking differently about the display of art.

“We did an outside projection-mapping video on Harcourt Street. It was a direct response to people not being able to get into galleries on Culture Night, which is usually a massive night for the arts and this year was totally different.

Visual artist Leah Hewson found several ways to get around the pandemic and show her work
Visual artist Leah Hewson found several ways to get around the pandemic and show her work

“So we were like: ‘let’s put art out on the street’. It was brilliant and it was the night before we went back into lockdown,” says the artist.

In 2021, there will be more art outdoors — she and street artist Kurb Junki are painting a mural on the side of a house on the way into Ballinskelligs in Co Kerry.

Would she call 2020 a good year? The artist believes it forced us into finding new ways of doing things, which is not a bad thing.

“I think there’s the obvious way of doing it — you put an exhibition up, photograph it and put it up online — but this is a really good opportunity for creative people to see how the arts is presented, to find new ways of experiencing the arts, to present it in a completely different way,” says Leah.

Leahhewson.com

The anti-diet: A new way of getting healthy

With gyms closed and boredom rife, people were forced to physically slow down.

While some people joked about their ‘Covid stone’ and weight gain, hard statistics emerged from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) that people, women in particular, were eating more ‘junk food’ and exercising less, because of the pandemic.

However, when our new norm settled, things in the diet space did not go back to business as usual, with people restricting food intake and punishing themselves with strict exercise regimes.

The opposite happened.

Carla Bredin, a registered associate nutritionist (ANutr) and certified intuitive eating counsellor, was at the forefront of Ireland’s new anti-diet culture.

Last summer she appeared on 2FM, talking to Louise McSharry about her work.

She says: “The timing of my interview with Louise Mc Sharry on 2FM was fantastic. I was invited onto her show this July to discuss fatphobia, weight stigma, health at every size, and intuitive eating, even though I had stopped taking on clients at the start of the year.

“The reason I had closed off my diary was because I was focusing 2020 on my other business, Echelon, an indoor cycling studio in Dublin city centre that I launched last year — I just didn’t feel I had the bandwidth to do both at the same time.

“The response from that one conversation, however, made me completely re-organise and re-prioritise my work. Many people reached out after the interview to say they’d never ever thought about the things we were discussing. We used language that was completely new to them and they were excited to learn more,” says Carla.

Louise’s lived experience and my clinical experience created a conversation that helped a lot of people grasp the concepts for themselves in very real terms.

“I had a surge of enquiries after that conversation and so, with Echelon closed during Level 3, I reopened my diary to take on new clients. It’s been incredible to welcome so many people to my clinic and start this journey with them,” she says.

Carla works with clients who are eager to repair their relationship with food and their body. The work she does is often described as a non-diet or anti-diet approach, as it rejects the old tools of nutrition and dietetics such as restricting foods/food groups, creating meal plans, or using scales or tapes to measure results.

Instead, the clients she works with examine their relationship to their own bodies and their beliefs about food, as well as reviewing their complete history of how they have used food in restrictive or punishing ways.

Carla says: “They often attend following years and years of dieting and have arrived at a place where they are ready to reject dieting and diet culture in all its forms. Intuitive eating is the framework we use in the clinic. There are 10 principles that we engage with as a jumping-off point for repairing someone’s relationship with food and their body.

“The principles include making peace with all foods, honouring your hunger, exploring fullness and satisfaction in eating, rejecting dieting and the myriad voices we have internalised about what’s good/bad/healthy/unhealthy, and finding additional tools to cope with our emotional needs.”

The concept of intuitive eating is gaining major traction online, with personal trainers and celebrities embracing an anti-diet approach to life, including Roz Purcell, who talks about it to her 455,000 Instagram followers.

 

Aside from the radio interview, did Carla notice a demand for her anti-diet/intuitive eating work this year?

“My clinic is definitely getting busier month by month. People are more aware of intuitive eating as a concept. Many have spoken to me about wanting to embrace it for themselves in a practical way, with support from a professional, while others talk about tip-toeing into it on their own to see how they get on.

“It’s gaining popularity for sure and there are still only a handful of practitioners in Ireland who are certified in intuitive eating and aligned with the anti-diet and health at every size message within their nutrition practice,” says Carla.

She also believes that the uptake in intuitive eating is connected to much deeper cultural change.

“I think 2020 has seen a collective surge in how intensely we’ve been examining systems of oppression in all its forms. Diet culture has such an oppressive history and I’ve definitely welcomed people into my clinic who are reckoning with global conversations surrounding racism, the patriarchy, and ableism and how diet culture sits at the intersection of a lot of this,” says Carla.

The global picture aside, at home in our own sitting rooms, people have been forced to confront patterns and habits that no longer work for them.

“The pandemic has forced a lot of us to reckon with how we’ve designed our lives or how we’ve fallen into patterns. And many people have said ‘no more’ when it comes to punishing exercise regimes, restrictive eating patterns, and unrealistic beauty and well-being standards.

“The headspace required to shrink ourselves, augment ourselves, or micro-manage every bit of ourselves has taken a hit, and I think that’s an important cultural shift,” says Carla.

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