Well, today (30th of March) marks precisely a year since I kicked off the Comfort Classics series. How on earth did that happen?!
I started the series, a year ago, on a whim. Lots of things had been happening in quick succession in March 2020 – lockdowns, events cancelled, exams cancelled, schools closed, rumours flying, toilet paper disappearing – and people were feeling adrift. My phone was ringing constantly, with students worrying about what would come next and how they’d be able to get through the coming weeks. Many of them were in tears.
I couldn’t do much to help: my own situation was pretty tough, being locked down on my own with my son to look after and a more-than-full-time job to do, in a house that desperately needed work, while dealing with financial problems, precarious contracts and a divorce which I was handling myself. I was staying up later and later every night, since most of my work had to be done after my son had gone to bed. But… I had a lot of students (more than 120 at that point), and they were anxious and in need of something to focus on…
So I came up with Comfort Classics: a series of email interviews full of happy thoughts, which would give my students something to read every day, to lighten the gloom just a little. I’d thought about doing a daily post myself: but I was down to four hours of sleep a night as it was, and there was no way I could manage that! So the best solution I could come up with was to ask other people to write things for me.
I started out by asking friends and family to contribute. With two classicists in the family, a handful of classicist friends and former students and possibly some obliging work colleagues, I reckoned I might manage two weeks of daily posts. That would do, surely: the worst would be over by then…
[pause for hollow laughter]
What I didn’t expect was how helpful people would be. Almost everybody I asked said yes: and some were kind enough to pass on the request to distinguished classicists whom I would never have been brave enough to approach! My website stats shot through the roof, because it turned out that it wasn’t just my own students who were reading the interviews.
From the messages I started to receive from students – and from other people whom I’d never met – it became clear that the interviews were helping. People were buying the books which contributors had recommended, and following links, and discovering new and interesting things… and they were distracted, even just for a little while, from everything falling apart around them.
So of course I had to keep going – but I was running out of acquaintances! My professional circle was never a big one, and I’d asked everybody I knew. The next step was to start contacting people whom I didn’t know – and for someone like me, who takes introversion to extremes, that was a pretty terrifying prospect. But Twitter, and the lovely ClassicsTwitter community, came to my rescue. Not everyone I contacted agreed to join in: but everybody was kind, and nobody yelled at me for my presumption!
Then another great thing happened: people started to contact me and ask if they could contribute. I was pretty cool about it, and would say things like ‘yes, you’d be very welcome’… but my son can attest that there was lots of loud and enthusiastic shouting every time somebody contacted me out of the blue!
For a while, when things were looking better, I stopped the series: I thought maybe we were done. But then there was a second wave, and further lockdowns, and school closures. Students were dealing now with bereavement and job losses and huge uncertainty… and again, the only thing I could do was to throw some happy thoughts in their direction.
As I write this, at the end of March 2021, I’m still getting the tearful phonecalls. These days it’s not panic and anxiety: it’s pressure and sadness and the struggle to focus, and the constant strain of dealing with a whole year’s worth of situations that are so far outside what we see as normal. I still can’t fix anything, but I can listen, and I can keep putting out interviews that might raise the occasional smile. The interviews have now been viewed over 100,000 times – and that doesn’t count the hundreds of people who’ve subscribed to have new interviews sent by email – so at least I know they’re reaching people. I’ll keep going as long as people keep reading!
So really this is all just a big and rambling thank-you to all those who’ve made Comfort Classics a success over the last year: from the readers, to the (so far) 155 contributors, to the people who’ve promised to get involved when life gets easier, to the students I’ve turned down because I want them to focus on their work, but will gleefully accept once the course is done. Thank you all.
As a reward for putting up with my rambling today, here’s a special contribution from my first-ever interviewee, Steven Havelin, who agreed to join in last year despite my very vague description of the project, and who’s also agreed to write something for this one-year anniversary.
Comfort Classics #2: Steven Havelin
I was thrilled to be asked by Dr C-B for something to kick off Comfort Classics a whole year ago to this very day. And I’m so pleased I was up first; I’d’ve been otherwise far too intimidated by all the brilliant contributions that followed to have dared submit anything in their illustriously-crested wake. Anyhoo – here’s a one-year-on offering. Shout-out, too, to Dr C-B for all the hard work she has so positively piled into this fantastic initiative. Absolutely brilliant! (I’ve made her promise to include that bit!)
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
I’ve had a postcard of the memento mori mosaic from Pompeii stuck above my desk since soon after first lockdown:
When did you first come across this mosaic?
An animated version of the image appears in the title sequence at the start of each episode of the 2005-07 blockbuster HBO TV series Rome:
Can you tell me a bit about this mosaic and its context?
Now in the Naples National Archaeological Museum (Inventory Number 109982) the mosaic (dated 30 BCE – 14 CE) was found in the dining room (triclinium) of a house-cum-workshop in Pompeii (location I, 5, 2) where it had been preserved – along with everything else buried under the ash and debris from the explosion when the nearby volcano Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE.
What is it about this mosaic that appeals to you most?
It raises a wry smile! The pandemic has been a great leveller. There are people who have had to endure lockdown, or severe restrictions, for all sorts of other reasons, all over the world, for far longer than just this past year; some for their entire lives. Now everyone knows what that feels like, most of us are clamouring to get back to all that’s so familiar which we miss so much: things which, to others who’ve never known such ‘comforts’, would be miraculous; or luxuries, at least.
The mosaic symbolises such levelling up. It is, quite literally, a ‘level’ i.e. the builder’s tool, plumb-line and all, with its bob-tip touching a skull, under a butterfly, atop a wheel – all precariously balanced between gorgeous garments on the left and rotten rags on the right.
The ‘message’ is not, for me – not at this moment in time, at any rate – the point that death (the skull) ‘levels’ us all in the end. Rather, it’s a pertinent reminder of the need to be resolutely determined to put in sustained (and, at times, Herculean) efforts to maintain a productively positive balance by making the very most, for now, of the best possible life (doesn’t that just sum up what we’ve seen of the best of people throughout the Coronavirus crisis?) so as to stay strong in spirit (the butterfly) however much fortune’s wheel (the wheel [obviously]) wobbles.
Material wealth (the clothes): that’s… well… err… immaterial (!) really, for now, isn’t it? Money’s not going to buy you your way out of the pandemic, clearly. No – it’s the wealth of close connections with those who matter most for what matters most which is… er… what does most matter. That’s real riches. That’s really comforting.
That’s why Comfort Classics, in connecting every contributor with all those who read what they’ve written, has created a connected community which very much matters, too.
Cue applause. Take a bow, Dr Cora Beth. All you’ve done is immensely appreciated.