The sun is shining, the birds are probably singing (a car outside has been revving its engine for ten minutes and so I can’t actually tell) and the lockdown restrictions are easing and easing. After a year of misery for all, it’s finally a more exciting time, an upbeat time, a time for happy reunions with everything: friends, family, indoor seating, even the dead plant in the office. There are so many reasons to feel positive right now and among those reasons, I am feeling positive that I have absolutely no intention of approaching life in the same way I did before this thing came along.
I wouldn’t have dreamed that I’d ever find myself saying that sort of thing during the difficult Spring of 2020, but that was because there’d been no reason until then to have to review what “normality” really was. It was just: normal, something we were accustomed to, a sequence of unchallenged processes repeated day after day, month after month, year after year. Now if you were to try applying that same practice in the workplace, your organisation would quickly begin to fall behind and fade away, hence why every year we spend time reviewing every policy, procedure and strategy. We routinely embrace change in our professional lives, but when it comes to how we live there has rarely been such dramatic annual review like the one imposed upon us by COVID. There may have been the odd personal reflection here and there, whilst sat under a tree or looking out to an ocean or something, but there was nothing in the way of an overhaul to our “procedures” like the one we’ve just experienced.
When we were first told that we were pretty much barred from seeing anybody we care about, or going anywhere we like, it really hurt. For most people it was a real struggle, a lonely time surrounded by incessant quiet, incessant bad news, and incessant efforts to try and replicate every real life activity through Zoom. We craved “normality” and we felt so very distant from everything when we knew we couldn’t have it.
As the weeks went by we believed lockdown was well and truly isolating us, and by the very nature of it of course it was, but as we now sit shoulder to shoulder with “normality” again, the realisation I’ve come to is that maybe we’d been spending decades doing that to ourselves anyway. Pre-March 2020, we were desperate to live in our own separate homes in separate towns, so that we could be held financial hostage by separate bills for separate cars and separate mortgages, whilst using separate lawnmowers and cooking biannual meals in separate slow-cookers that spent most of the rest of the year gathering dust. We were consumed, mostly, by what was going on within our own four walls, mentally and physically: Home-life, work-life, social-life. Lockdown came and put fences all around us then suddenly we were each living in a fortress. On separate islands. How different could it have been if we’d chosen to live in the same fortress, though?
Pre-March 2020, it often felt like there was barely any time to really think, or any time to really reflect. Daily life often felt like a tampered-with Waltzer ride: you’d pay a silly fee without question then rush to get on and belt-up in time, then rush to clamber off once it finished, before it started going berserk again and risk tripping you up. Round and round, and round and round, the colorful structure would go. Eat, sleep, work, repeat.
Lockdown forced us to take a break from the ride. A long break. A really long break. Not just a, “Aow I’m back from mah two weeks of bliss in Mauritius” type break, when the holiday glow would fade within only a week of returning to one of the wettest Mays on record. It was a distressing time for so many nasty reasons, and given the choice we’d all rather it had never happened in the first place, but it did, and you can either unequivocally lament that or you can choose to make something from the ingredients stuffed at the back of the cupboard. And I’m not just talking about all that pasta we stockpiled.
Pre-lockdown, it wasn’t very often that we’d set aside a day to really sit and stare out of the windows of the homes we slept in every night. We were too busy looking either internally, or dead ahead, at just the immediate surround: the bills we had to pay, the jobs we needed to keep and the fence panels we needed to paint. We lay heavy decisions on decaying foundations, guidance proffered through handwritten scrawls etched onto recycled paper bound together by treasury tags in beige ring-binders. Take one and pass the rest along. We set life goals around what we felt was the societal norm. We chose where to live on the basis of its proximity to our work. We chose where to work on the basis of its reward: salaries, satisfaction, prospects… but rarely would we choose it on the basis of how well the job and its associated conditions – like hours and paid Leave – tessellated with everything else we hold dear.
We let our job titles define us, which is perfectly fine (and in many ways admirable) if you want it to, but it’s not fine if there are other things you care about and want to be known for just as much.
I would say that life pre lockdown was often more solitary than life during it. Too busy stuck in traffic to take a call from somebody who obviously wanted to chat. Sorry I missed your call. Too tired to chat as much as we should do. A busy calendar consisting of things we maybe sometimes didn’t even want to do but felt obliged to, and just like that that, another weekend would go by. Sorry, it doesn’t look like we can find a day we can both do. Maybe we can meet next year instead?
I sometimes wonder about the things that never got to happen because we were too busy losing entire afternoons to pilgrimages round ring-roads to buy Ronseal and Windolene, or making up the guest numbers at some loose acquaintance’s 32 and 3.5 months birth-week party in bars where the cocktails cost the same amount as a week’s worth of groceries from Lidl. Mornings lost to hangovers. Weekends lost to sofas whilst fawning blankly at forgettable box-sets because we were too knackered from spending hours brushing Ronseal onto fence panels that were promptly shat on by birds to do anything else.
In tedious exchanges of small talk which we hoped would help expedite the socially-awkward queue at the printer, we’d frequently ask our colleagues where the year was going. It was one of those safe topics of conversation, a bit like the weather, that we’d know everyone could empathise with. Facebook newsfeeds would groan each August as somebody proudly became the year’s first to post a meme about the dwindling number of paydays left until Christmas. “At this rate, we’ll start putting our trees up in January!”, somebody else would comment, in an equally irritating honk of a response. Time would whizz by and we’d wonder how it managed to go so fast. Well, see the previous couple of paragraphs. Ronseal. Windolene. Sickeningly-priced stuff and fings funded by a perceived obligation to buy them.
We assumed that busy-ness was the antidote to loneliness when often it was actually the cause, because it was the kind of busy-ness manifested from all those procedures inked out in a beige ring-binder that, it turns out, had stopped aligning with our souls long ago but just never had the time to be re-written. Because we were too busy following it without question, just like how we paid that silly fee at the Waltzer.
It wasn’t lockdown that made us feel isolated. It was us, and all of the habits we had fallen in to over years and years, frantically treading water to keep afloat whilst the important things slowly sank to the ocean bed.
We might soon be able to return to a life without restrictions, but there’ll be some rides I’ll be keeping away from for good.
It’s a fluorescent new dawn.
Song of the Day: Weezer – Aloo Gobi (Guitar Version)
You think you have a favourite song. You listen to it all the time. Then you hear a cover of it. Then you have a new favourite song.