Like many people I went into lockdown carrying hope, anxiety and a list. Of all the things I would strive to accomplish during this strange interval (every email I wrote and received opened with the phrase ‘these strange times’) before ordinary life resumed. It was important to have goals, so I stockpiled goals like toilet rolls. I would improve my languages. I would slog through my pile of unread books. I would learn to roller-blade. And since the children weren’t going to school for a few weeks, I would grab some proper sleep.
I hoped it would be a showcase for the survival skills I had acquired in the time before and after my wife died of cancer six years ago. The pandemic was giving everybody – rich and poor, young and old – a dose of isolation. And I was a veteran of isolation. I knew things would get worse, but eventually better. I knew many people would suffer and most of their suffering would go unseen. The main thing was not to despair. Grief teaches you to mask your pain, because without the mask you are hideous.
I hoped that as people’s social lives migrated online, it would benefit those of us who are usually housebound. And to begin with, that was exactly what happened. Friends set up chat rooms and held socially distanced gatherings in their living rooms. I joined a pub quiz hosted by another widowed parent. But Zoom confirmed a trend that has become apparent from social media: it’s easy enough to talk to people on a computer screen, but it’s a hell of a lot harder to empathise with them. Twitter became an essential place to congregate, but also a crueller one, in the tradition of the school playground. Disinformation, gossip and distrust flourished like weeds.
It quickly became clear that any notion of pandemic ushering in a kinder epoch was a cheap middle-class delusion. That was the source of my anxiety. The earnest chatter about tackling the shadow epidemic of loneliness quickly dissipated. Lockdown magnified every type of inequality. Covid-19 disproportionately targeted the elderly, the physically frail, the disabled, the urban poor and ethnic minorities – the least visible and the least empowered in society. That in turn piqued some of the more fortunate into complaining that the government was committing economic suicide for the sake of those who had outlived their usefulness. Corona conspirators were afflicted by a form of wilful myopia, believing the pandemic – either the virus, or the loneliness, or both – wasn’t happening because they didn’t see it.
The starkest contrast from my perspective was between the time-rich and the time-poor. When my children were kept off school, the membrane separating my work and leisure hours disintegrated, so that every waking hour was contested. Those with time to spare bemoaned the fact that they could no longer go out to eat or spend a night at the theatre or cinema, while the time-poor struggled to remember what it was like to sit and have a cup of tea. And inevitably, the time-rich, as the wealthy and privileged do, spent their surplus hours on Twitter browbeating the time-poor for their lack of discipline. If you weren’t starting a new business venture, or binge-watching a new TV series, or going on long bike rides to keep the corona pounds at bay, you weren’t trying hard enough. While the time-rich found solace in red wine and Hilary Mantel and homebaked sourdough, the time-poor were pressganged into mimicking a man doing star-jumps on the telly.
Work and domestic time merged into a black hole that devoured my few leisure hours. I fell into a cycle of perpetual motion, squeezing in three hours’ work by midnight on a good day. The goals I had set myself drifted away on the waves of anxiety. Sleep was an erratic visitor now that day and night were increasingly indistinguishable. The stack of books beside the bed lay untouched, oppressively near and yet beyond reach, now that I lacked the time and the state of mind for reading. The grief I felt when my wife died was reactivated, like a dormant virus. So much of what I read about Covid-19 revived memories of her final hours, hooked to a ventilator, a plastic mask on her face, panic swimming in her eyes as inflammation swamped her lungs.
I hit a limit when a colleague joked during a conference call that I was struggling with my mental health, which was painful because, having slept for about five hours in the previous two nights, I was indeed struggling with my mental health. Grief creates a sense of timelessness which makes the days bearable but over a longer period becomes corrosive, because it deprives you of the rhythms of day and night, work and leisure, social life and solitary life. My brain was constantly flickering with low-level activity like a broken neon strip light. I was in urgent need of a break.
In early June one of my children had a week off school. I cut back my working hours – I work freelance, so in most cases I could simply skip a shift and go unpaid. I furloughed myself by reducing the amount I drew from the bank each month by 15%. I had fewer expenses, so this was no hardship, and I realise this choice is a privilege not everybody enjoys. This wasn’t about money: it was about time. Time to spend by myself and with my children. Time to relax, time to sleep. Even, occasionally, time to read. I sorted out some proper language lessons, so that I could turn one of my goals into a social engagement. As the weather improved, I went out for more walks, runs and sessions on the rollerblades.
Unfashionably, I don’t have much advice to offer here. Just be aware that isolation changes you and the way you interact with the world. Life won’t simply go back to normal: the world will have to be remade. Before corona we worried we were living in bubbles. Now we’ve retreated into cubicles, emerging only for ‘essential’, strictly functional, socially distant excursions. Everywhere beyond the front door is a hostile space, a hard hat area. It is a social trauma we will not easily recover from. Our lives have become separated by computers, window panes, face masks and plastic screens. It’s become easy to screen out our own suffering and other people’s at a time when human contact has become precious and fragile. When your neighbour smiles and waves through the window as she brings the shopping home, don’t assume all is well: it might be the only bright moment of her day. Make time for people. Give them a break. And if you can afford it, give yourself one too. That, and rollerblading is easier than it looks. Give it a try some time.