Retreat Day 68: Happiness in Lockdown

This morning, on my daily walk, I saw an origami heart on a lamp-post:

I’ve been feeling very happy this week. Obviously, the world around me is not ideal – but that was true before the lockdown too. I’d have preferred to be in a world where I lived in a nice house in the country, with a couple of dogs and some water flowing through my garden.

Part of this happiness comes from having some time off drinking and live news. Last weekend, I felt quite despondent and ended up drinking too much whiskey. This week I’ve been focussing on my immediate environment a lot more; and trying to live the best I can given the constraints. It’s been an obscene amount of time without physical contact with anyone, far too long since sharing food with another human.

But I am finding ways to live. I’m enjoying meeting new people through things like Not for the Faint-Hearted and Slow Yoga Club. I have managed to get everything I need without queueing at supermarkets. I’ve even obtained frivolous luxuries, like new Muji pens and my favourite breakfast cereal.

My life is quieter and smaller, which I like. I’m being very protective of my time, turning down a lot of zoom calls and opportunities to meet up for distanced walks. My writing continues and my current project is tighter than anything I’ve worked on before (in part due to having more time to focus). And I’ve been reading some amazing books, including Emily St John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel.

I know I am very lucky to have a safe and stable situation. I hope that we can all get back to normal soon. But, in the meantime, I’m doing my best to be happy.

And the post continues to bring interesting things.

Retreat, Day 61: False Summit?

A false summit is when you’re climbing a hill, only to reach the top and see a larger hill was hidden behind it. As wikipedia puts it, they “can have significant effects on climbers’ psychological states by inducing feelings of dashed hopes or even failure“. There’s one at Beachy Head that’s caught me out a couple of times. I’ve walked to the top, glad I’m almost done, only to see I have a little further to go.

The Government announcement on Sunday seemed full of confusion. While the five tests for leaving lockdown weren’t yet met, the restrictions are being eased. People can meet for socially distanced activities, although the parks and promenade are already too busy. Garden centers are re-opening, but there is only the most basic dental care available, extractions for everything. And this, despite the cases being higher than they were pre-lockdown, and the disease being very close to spreading again.

The Daily Mirror has been trumpeting a paper claiming that 29% of people on the UK might already have the virus, and other claims say that London might have achieved herd immunity. I hope that is the case, and that I am worrying over nothing. But, just to be safe, I am going to continue my lockdown as before and see what happens. I can understand that business needs to start moving, but maybe the time since lockdown could have been spent coming up with better plans for this inevitable moment.

(To say nothing of the fact that the government has only just started hiring the teams of tracers needed if we are to return to normal life. A long period of continued disruption, and maybe even a second peak lie ahead of us).

But I’m comfortable enough in lockdown, despite the background of doom and deteriorating hairstyles. Today was the first day I managed to sleep past 5:30am since this started. Small Batch continue to supply me with coffee. And I am loving Emily St. John Mandel’s new book, the Glass Hotel. The slow, melancholy mood of the book suits these times.

Tomorrow, I am off for my first hike in some time, walking a segment of the South Downs Way. It will be good to get out of town for a while.

Retreat, Day 55

It’s coming towards the end of my seventh week of social distance, and I’m feeling positive. I’m settling into this new lifestyle, and trying to enjoy life under the circumstances (acknowledging that I’m in a much better situation than a lot of people). And I’ve actually had some very good days, reading, relaxing and working on my writing. It’s a quiet life – I’m actually socialising less than near the start – but not unpleasant.

Part of this is getting used to the fact that things will be strange for a long time. Matt Webb wrote a blog post about this, There is No After, which did a good job of expressing some of the things I’d been feeling.

I’m coming to this realisation late, I know, others have been talking about the new normal for ages. It’s helping me to think like this, because instead of waiting around – life on pause – thinking about how to pick things up when things return to how they were, or keeping my powder dry because things might be different again in the After, or saying oh I’ll do that later when thing have settled down, I can start adjusting right now instead.

It’s a bleakly realistic piece but a good one. Despite a feeling of well-being, I’m a little confused by the mixed messaging from the government. We’re a long way from the five tests set for lifting lockdown, but there are headlines about it ending, VE day parties shown on the TV, and the government expressing surprise that drive-in restaurants had shut (despite this being obviously against the letter and spirit of the regulations). These messages are very different from the crisis implied by the government graphs – but maybe it’s a strategy of slowly lifting things to see what happens? Who knows. But it feels strange – and such feelings aren’t helped by naval vessels lurking off the shore!

There was a good article in the Guardian about how lockdown affects our sense of time, and how important it is to have noteable days to break up the routine. Zoom continues to be omnipresent, and a vice article contained the observation: “When a video call ends, there’s a moment of silence when you’re even lonelier than before.

The birds continue to be noticeable with their loud song. Thursday, I had a work conference call livened up by a blue-tit flying through the house. And, one morning, I was delighted to see a jay:

Via BLDGBLOG, a haunting story about stranded cruise ships, “maritime ruins in an age of COVID-19… a network of ships ‘spread out loosely in three groups spanning some 30 miles’

Image: EO Browser, Sinergise Ltd/Attribution 4.0 International CC by 4.0), via The War Zone.

It’s a strange world.

‘The New Normal’

I’m coming up to the end of my sixth week of distancing, and this weekend has been the first time I’ve found things difficult. A combination of not sleeping, isolation and general anxiety have taken their toll – not helped by a hangover from the cherry brandy and Cokes I was drinking last night.

When lockdown started, I very much approached it as a temporary thing. I was aware of the Stockdale paradox, so I didn’t start promising myself that the restrictions would be lifted at the first review, or even the second. But I went into this assuming Boris Johnson’s upbeat prognosis of 12 weeks to have this beaten would set a rough timescale.

It’s become obvious recently that it could be some time before restrictions are eased in any form. It’s no longer a case of briskly carrying-on as best as I can. I’m now asking myself what a sustainable and positive normal life now means. I tried to make lockdown a positive experience, but I’d not really considered what it would require over the long term.

There have been good things: it’s been an opportunity to look at how I approach the things I do; to give cooking the attention it needs; I’ve found a domestic contentment and enjoyed having few plans for the future; it’s been good to have this time to pause and look back at my life so far; and it’s a chance to grow out my buzzcut.

But I have been treating it as a novelty (part of which is blogging about this so much). I actually have it pretty good right now (and I can’t imagine how difficult this must be for a lot of other people). I need to accept what is happening, turn down the volume on the news. To find new routes to exercise that won’t be crowded. To get better at sourcing groceries.

The good news is, I have a new zine at the printers, part of a longer project. I’ve got the opportunity to really work on this, with fewer distractions than usual. And, over the next few weeks, I’m going to try to blog more about that project than the experiences and frustrations of confinement.

It’s been a tricky weekend, but nothing a good night’s sleep won’t help.

Retreat, Days 35-37: Retrospective

This week, a friend has been sick with covid-19. Fortunately, they did not need to go to hospital, but it was a close thing. It’s been horrible seeing them suffer their ordeal alone. One of the worst things about this pandemic is the many ways in which it isolates us. I’m feeling a lot more nervous now about getting ill myself.

I’m now into my fifth week of retreat. At the start I tried to prepare myself for an extended period of restrictions, and it’s become obvious that the old world is not coming back any time soon, if at all. We are a long way from enjoying a pint at the pub. This seems a good time to review how I’m feeling about the lockdown:

  • I made a lot of preparations for activities to stop me getting bored. This has not been a problem. Most of my energy has been needed for work, and reading is a satisfying way to fill the rest of the time. I’ve abandoned a lot of the daily activities I started doing (including juggling and learning Hindi on duolingo). Watching TV has not proved a good use of my time – I find it hard to concentrate on most shows.
  • I’ve been cooking for myself since this started, since that feels safer. I’m enjoying this, although I’m still not comfortable with the best way to get food. I’ve avoided large supermarkets, but the problem with this is needing to make more trips. Hopefully delivery services will become easier to access. I’m still a little shaken by the empty shelves when this started.
  • I really miss having visitors, and popping over to other people’s houses. Socialising by zoom is actually quite tiring compared to hanging out with people in the real world, and I’ve been trying not to spend too much time online (particularly given that work requires me to be in front of a screen).
  • A few days, I’ve left the curtains closed, and that has made me feel lethargic. So, I am making a conscious effort to keep things as bright as possible during the daylight hours.
  • My walks are to a fairly regular routine. It’s easier to get the energy to go out about 6am, and things are fairly quiet. When I have taken walks later in the day, social distancing has proved difficult. There is just not enough open space to walk in Brighton and Hove for a densely packed population.
  • I’m trying not to plan my days too much, and the looser schedule is much more comfortable. I feel a lot less anxious than normal about the things I need to do.
  • I’ve not done any volunteering on the NHS app. I am not sure about going outside any more than my daily walks, and don’t feel comfortable driving – most of the time I am too tired, as I’m not sleeping.
  • Generally, I’m finding the situation very oppressive – both the horror of the disease, and the effect it’s having on people’s lives and finances. I am quite safe and comfortable, but even so I still find it hard to sleep.
  • I feel I have quite a stable basis for however many months this goes on for. Take it slow and gentle, appreciate the distraction of my job, and focus on my writing. This is an opportunity for focussed deep work, and to reflect on my life. I’d certainly never choose this as a lifestyle, but I still feel I can make a positive experience from it.

Retreat, Days 31-34: The Waiting Room

Most of last week, it was hard to settle and I felt overwhelmed by uncertainty. From the start of the restrictions, I’d prepared myself for a long period of social distancing; but the lack of a clear exit strategy was getting to me. I don’t think I’d truly accepted how far away normal life might be.

But I’m relatively lucky. I have thick walls and ceilings, a decent library, and a stable job. And I’m also a long way from the front-lines, which are horrifically portrayed in a New York Times article by Helen Ouyong I’m an E.R. Doctor in New York. None of Us Will Ever Be the Same. Sometimes, at the home front, it’s easy to forget the seriousness of the situation.

I’m sleeping a little better. I’m still waking up very early, but going to bed very early seems to compensate. I’ve had a surprising number of dreams where I meet Warren Ellis – I’m not sure if this is a weird campaign for the new season of Castlevania on Netflix.

I’ve taken things slowly this weekend. I’ve had Whatsapp off for a lot of it, and have been reading. I ran a Not for the Faint-Hearted session which seemed to go very well. I’ve made sure to keep the curtains open during the day, and cut down on the amount of TV I’ve been watching. I was relieved to pick up some new supplies of hand sanitiser. I’m lucky to have a certain peace much of the time under lockdown. Oliver Burkemann wrote a thoughtful piece on his experience of time during social distancing. While acknowledging that his situation is one of privilege compared to many, he notes a lesson in the heart of this experience:

It’s dawning on me that much of what I called busyness, before coronavirus, was really scatteredness – a focus on too many things, including some I unconsciously knew were a waste of time… For now, there’s the oddly peaceful sense of days being spent as they ought to be.

The postal system is the closest thing I have to human contact these days, and I had a flurry of interesting things arriving, which did a little to counteract the creeping loneliness. I also had the new issue of Fortean Times, and some materials for the new zine, which should be off to the printers within the next few days.

Retreat, Days 27-30: The Longest Bank Holiday Ever

The four day bank holiday weekend seemed to go on for a very long time. I felt run down on Saturday, so took things easy. I made sure to eat properly, and also settled down to read a novel for fun (Real Tigers, the third of Mick Herron’s excellent spy novel series about Slough House). I’m finally feeling back to normal today.

I also finished reading EM Forster’s 1909 science fiction story, The Machine Stops, which describes a future where people live in tiny but luxurious cells, rarely interacting physically with others. Elements like the airships have dated badly, but the vision of networked people sharing strange obsessions is very apt. “The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred from their rooms.” There are machines for everything, and one of the signs of the system succumbing to entropy is “the defective rhymes that the poetry machine had taken to emit.”

Last night brought a poetry performance by Rosy, reading Vladimir Mayakovsky’s A Cloud in Trousers, as part of her new translation project. Watching a livestream is not the same as being in a venue, the audience around you, but it’s better than nothing.

I also loved Kate St Shields and DJ Killer Jules new mix Is that all there is to a (solo) disco. The editing is perfect, and makes it sound like they’re recording together. Kate & Jules’ upcoming events are cancelled, but I can’t wait to be able to dance at their night again.

As I settle into my second month of lockdown, certain questions arise. Like, should I buy more deodorant? It’s not like I’ll be building up a sweat anytime soon, and a very faint body odour will be undetectable at two meters. I also have a hefty and ungroomed quarantine beard, which may not see a barber for some time. The fastidious part of me wants to shave off my hair and beard; but another part of me thinks this is the perfect time to grow out my buzzcut and see what I look like with a monstrous beard.

One good thing about the long bank holiday is that I’ve finally moved this blog from the slightly dodgy hosting company it was previously with. Lots of much-delayed tasks are being finished, while others are being abandoned on the basis that, if I can’t do them on lockdown, they are never getting done.

I’ve also finished a draft for a new story zine about the South Downs Way. All being well, that should be ready to go out next week.

Retreat Day 26:

On the surface, I’m coping well with the solitude: I’m not drinking much, no tears and I’m getting things done – but I can still feel a knot of panic inside me. I keep it under control, but it’s there. As the long Easter weekend unfurls, I’m also noticing signs of stress. My sleeping is growing erratic again; my appetite for food is fading and my weight dropping; and I’m not able to concentrate on reading.

This is a stressful situation for everyone, it just varies by degree. I’ve been very lucky with my experience of the situation so far, but that doesn’t make it easy. The pandemic is an example of what Timothy Morton described as a hyperobject, a thing “so massively distributed in time and space as to transcend localization”. It’s impossible to take in more than the smallest portion of this event at one time.

I’ve read a lot of accounts of POW camps, something I’ve given talks on in the past. Whether or not people made a serious attempt to escape or not, you could at least day-dream about it. With the whole world affected and threatened by this pandemic, freedom can only be found in the future, with no indication of how far we need to travel.

(And, if things feel this oppressive far from the front, how much worse must it be for those caught up in the front lines, whether as healer, patient, cleaner, relative etc?)

It’s the second day of the Easter Weekend, and it feels like we’re weeks into it. I am exhausted, but trying to be easy on myself. I’ll probably go back to work on Monday, get on with things. I’ll get an early night tonight and will feel better tomorrow.

(Re-reading this, it sounds a little down. I’m fine, just tired and stressed. Some days are going to be better than others – and I’ve kept in touch with people, those little messages that keep us connected at this time. Tomorrow is a new day and will be better. Some days demand rest, patience, and slowness)

Retreat, Day 25: Good Friday

  • Is this how dogs feel, when they only get one walk a day? I was up early today for a dip in the sea. Only a short one though – the tide was so far out that it took ages to reach any sort of depth. I’m still glad I went in.
  • Being confined to the house means there’s no space for big emotions. When I am stirred-up by things, I can’t just walk my problems out. Calm is the watchword.
  • This is also no time for hangovers, so I’m drinking very little (I get hangovers so easily). But I’m also taking the opportunity to work through the obscure bottles in the drinks cabinet. Last night I enjoyed a Swedish spirit that Lou Ice gave me – no idea what it actually was, though.
  • Living life with such a narrow focus continues to provide revelations, this time about cooking. I realised yesterday that I really don’t like pre-packaged stock. I mean it’s in so many recipes, but there must be better alternatives. I messaged my friend Emma, as she has co-written some incredible cookbooks, and she gave me some great alterntives. This sort of thing is probably obvious to everyone else, but having time to focus on cooking is really improving my skills.
  • The main activity for the long bank holiday weekend is working on a new story zine, about the South Downs Way. I’ve long been a fan of Cal Newport, particularly his ideas around Deep Work, and I’m really seeing the value of sustained focus.
  • I keep turning up forgotten things as I tidy out old cupboards. Today I unocvered the callsheets from a Netflix documentary about WW2 where I was an extra.
  • The weather has been remarkable since this started. On yesterday’s walk, I saw my friend Kate on her balcony. I waved until I got her attention, and was so happy to have seen her. It was only later on that morning I learned it wasn’t Kate, but her housemate, Kate.
  • I can’t believe it is 25 days already.

Retreat, Day 24

The pandemic is a weird time, where strange domestic situations are played out with a background of dread and appalling news. My world is very much turned inwards. This can be hard, but it also provides an opportunity for self-examination.

For years, I’ve complained about being too busy and too tired. If only things slowed down, I thought I might be able to catch up with myself. You need to be careful about what you wish for… I have so much more time now than a month ago, working from home, and restricted to one outing a day. Yet I still feel too busy and too tired. I even managed to somehow miss a friend’s birthday at the start of this month which is stunningly incompetent.

It turns out that having more time has solved nothing: it’s not lack of time that makes me feel too busy.

It’s common for people who went to boarding school to engage in ‘timetabling’, filling up all their time to try to make the best use of it. When I knew I was going to lockdown, I made sure to have a structure for it and goals.

But now I am going to try something different: to trust myself to do what I need to without putting pressure on myself. I’m going to focus on what’s most important right now: work, self-care, and my new creative project. After all, this Quiet Time is the perfect opportunity to experiment with being easier on myself.

A year ago, I had an apocalyptic story published, called A Disease of Books. In the biography, I wrote, “Despite obvious downsides, James looks forward to the apocalypse because of the resulting time off work“. Be careful what you wish for. I am currently very grateful to be here at the end of the world and still have a job.