No return

(Also available as a podcast here)

Two weeks ago I wrote about how I was experiencing life in lockdown. This post reached the second-largest number of readers I’ve ever had, the largest being for the post I wrote the day before the Scottish independence referendum, in 2014 (make of that what you will).

The lockdown post also drew a very large number of responses. Normally I try and reply individually but this time I felt overwhelmed; that in itself, perhaps, being a consequence of what is going on. What I write today is both an apology-cum-thank-you to everyone who contacted me or shared that last post, and an attempt to pull together what was often so eloquently said.

First, we ran a one-day online The Stories We Tell workshop earlier this week, Living With Lockdown. Many of the themes to emerge during that day were the same as those in people’s responses to the blog. Underlying them all is an apparent thirst for sharing feelings and stories about this time, whether face-to-face or in writing.

I believe this is necessary to our wellbeing, and will continue to be so as time passes and we come to refine and modify these stories so that they settle into place in the larger narrative of our lives. But for the moment, any real perspective is necessarily beyond our grasp and all we can do is note our thoughts and feelings as they blow through us like the weather.

Paradoxes and contradictions are everywhere: take gratitude and guilt. People admit to being grateful for the gift of time (“Forty days—in theory that’s time to write a short novel!” wrote James Robertson, or “Time to re-connect with our own hearts and with our deepest love for life,” as Eleanor Currie put it), grateful for the recognition of intimate joys and small pleasures like planting seeds or tackling a new recipe, grateful to be safe and well; yet guilty not to be making enough of that time, or guilty to be healthy and financially secure when so many others are not.

There’s a tension between the wish for reflection and connection. This time to look inwards and take stock, free of the demands of ‘normal’ life, seems so precious; yet unused to prolonged exposure to our own company, as most of us are, we crave connection however we can find it. “I have never been so ‘connected’ in my life … yet I have never felt so much lonesomeness,” wrote Faye Sharpe. There’s cognitive dissonance, too. “We’re trying to address this as a logical, solvable problem when our brains and bodies are reacting with a degree of instinct,” said Heather Atchison.

Anger is one of those instinctive reactions. “I’m angry … about attitudes to our old folk,” wrote Gillian Cleland. “We laud Colonel Tom, as we should … yet there seems too ready an acceptance of the loss of his peer group, less able and possibly less well looked after.” Grief is another, not just for lost loved ones who cannot properly be mourned, but for loss of identity. Think, for example, of those in some sports or performing arts who can no longer do what defines them.

Conflicting moods are a constant. “I find I’m able to talk quite blithely about the positives of sheltering-in-place: the time for projects that I wouldn’t normally tackle and long walks and lots of paying attention to the flowers and birds. But I need to try and sort through the dark days, too,” offered Vicki Winslow. Dark days counterpointed by moments of humanity such as Robin Cunninghame Graham witnessed when his neighbours in Spain “went out to clap a nurse working in ICT when he returned home from another gruelling shift at 11:30pm.”

And then there’s the desire for a different future, perhaps the single most widely and keenly-felt of all the wishes expressed. “Maybe it’s about preparing NOT to go back to how things were, since we can’t, and trying to shape a way to live differently in the future,” wrote James Robertson.

For Ruth Dorward it was the admission that she is “increasingly comfortable in our family cocoon and wish to face the world at the end of our track less and less,” while acknowledging the need “to think smaller, simpler, kinder and less for ourselves.” Betti Moser noted, “It’s about slowing down and weaning ourselves off our hyperconn-ectedness—and in the process also reconnecting with ourselves, our souls, our deeper layers.”

“Constantly, constantly hoping that the world does not go back to how it was, and that we all come to really understand the difference between want and need,” said Anita Holford. Nick Parker wrote that he had “also noticed a new feeling recently—a kind of pre-emptive nostalgia for all of this. The thought that we might just amble back into ’normal’ feels as uncanny and unsettling as everything else.”

If this is the most common and urgent desire to surface from the collective unconscious at this moment when everything hangs in the balance, how can we make it so that it becomes more than merely an existential ache? How can we give form to this longed-for new reality, how make it concrete, attainable, less elusive?

At the end of our workshop we asked everyone to commit to one thing they could do that would be different from what they did before. For me it will be to make myself less available, to say No more readily, to feel less responsible and be less responsive to everyone. A selfish resolution? Perhaps, but I figure that if I’m less busy and less stressed I can give more of myself to the really important people and things in my life, and that’s a better use of my time here. It’s a small thing but it makes that changed world seem real and possible.

What would you commit to?

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