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.

Retreat, Day 23

Today started with a swim, and it left me feeling good for hours – I don’t know why I don’t do that more often. My vegbox arrived, and my laundry was picked up. After work, I fell asleep in my nest in the balcony room. I finished the day with a writing workshop, run by Naomi Wood via the Feminist Bookshop. Not quite up to Ice Cube’s standards, but it was a good day.

Here is something I wrote tonight:

There is a garden travelling back in time towards us, its plants stretching towards tomorrow’s sunshine, which is deep in their own past. People walk the paths, talking about what it will be like to meet us. The gardener pulls the weeds from the flowerbeds and apologises as they’re laid on the compost pile. Someone is building a signal fire that we will see from a distance. There are chairs waiting for us in the honeysuckle shade.

PS – I would do my own laundry, but the washing machine is broken.

Retreat, Days 21-22

  • Photos of the moon never come out anything as beautiful as they should be. This morning’s walk started with walking west towards a huge pink moon. These are terrible times, but the world seems so precious and vivid on my daily walks.
  • Yesterday was a tough day. I resented my confinement, and was stirred up by some discussions of how long this will last. I found myself irrationally annoyed by the joggers who ran too close to people, and by the way the regulations have stirred up a snoopy, judgemental attitude in people – including myself. Social distancing is hard, even for people who should find it easy. I feel better today though.
  • The only news source I’m following on coronavirus (via RSS) is Vice, which offered a positive sign in an article about Spain planning to start lifting  restrictions after about 6 weeks. While I don’t want to lift my hopes up, I feel happier to know there are possible exit strategies from this regime; but I’ve prepared myself for this to go on however long it needs to.
  • Someone forwarded a hoax Whatsapp virus alert onto the housing block group this afternoon. I hated the confrontation of having to (very politely) ask they not do this. Rumours spread faster than viruses, and Whatsapp is particularly pernicious. Social media rumours can be incredibly harmful.
  • Someone dropped a 5G conspiracy theory onto a local mailing list, which received a withering response: “One effect of the reduction in flights due to the Covid-19 lockdown is that conspiracy theorists are now no longer being microdosed with the drugs from chemtrails which had been keeping them docile.
  • The lack of planes is a subtle but strange aspect of this experience. This prompted me to listen to Bruce Springsteen’s song Empty Sky, about the last time planes were grounded on a large scale – but nothing like this. A very different situation, but the same powerful image.
  • I’m really appreciating the blog posts where people have described their experiences of social distancing. Wordridden’s post yesterday, A Journal of the Plague Week 3, included this beautiful passage about a hard week: “I got intense Fernweh and stared out the window for ages, looking at the same bland street I look at every single day, longing to be in Portugal or Greece or Singapore—but not the Portugal or Greece or Singapore of now, obviously. The Portugal or Greece or Singapore of before. The world of before.
  • I’m very aware that, after this crisis ends, we’ll be in a very different world. Forgive yet another link to a Vice article, but This Is Year Zero for Life in Britain was a bleak descripton of how things have changed: “Somewhere between the morning’s death graphs and my third instant coffee of the day, I made a list of things that no longer make any sense: capitalism, fashion, celebrities, burglars, “wild swimming”, supper clubs, Condé Nast Traveler, Tyler Brûlé, Tom Ford, aftershave, Tom Ford aftershave, being “fussy about design”, being “particular about coffee”, lunch at Shoreditch House, dinner at Pret, Talksport, Tripadvisor“. British complacency has been forever disrupted, to both good and ill effect.
  • Probably the bleakest headline I’ve ever read come’s from this week’s New Yorker: The Coronavirus Is the World’s Only Superpower
  • But I continue to find moments of personal joy. My cooking is improving as I tire of the dishes I usually cook, and crave fresh food and unprocessed flavours.
  • I’m also discovering the value of a good personal library, and having a range of books to flick through.
  • After work, I had a video call from my parents. They were drinking wine in the garden, their grandchildren playing at a safe distance nearby. I think they have it pretty good right now.
  • Monday I managed a 71 second plank. My initial confidence about reaching 5 minutes is looking shaky.
  • The sea was so still this morning, and the moon so beautiful.

Retreat, Days 18-20

As I approach three weeks of social distancing (and almost two full weeks of official lockdown), my strongest feeling is confusion. So much of what I understood about the world has been turned upside down. This feeling is even stronger than my feelings of fear and frustration.

So much that I’ve taken for granted has been turned upside down. As David Allen Greene pointed out, “the Regulations remove from everyone in England the fundamental rights of freedom of movement, freedom of assembly and freedom of worship, as well as severely limiting their right to conduct any business.” I believe that social distancing is absolutely the right thing to be doing; but these are monumental and unprecendented changes to society, restrictions beyond those in place during the Second World War. The world has changed very, very quickly.

It feels very strange to be in a situation where these regulations are neccessary, and the scale of the problem is oppressive. Every morning I wake up feeling dislocated, like I’ve lurched into the wrong parallel universe.

  • One of the best articles I’ve read recently is from Vice: What to Expect After a Month of Lockdown, According to People in Italy and Spain. Basically, we’ll get used to it, but there will also be a slackening off in the level of social interaction.
  • Another good piece from Vice, on whether it’s OK to use Zoom despite their security issues.
  • I came in from my walk about 9am yesterday, and wondered if I should have a G+T. Of course I didn’t (morning drinking is for Christmas Day and before a flight only), but the thing was, it took me a second to summon up an argument against it. Everything feels abnormal.
  • Word of the week via Warren Ellis: doomscrolling
  • One of the bright spots over the last few weeks has been the pets channels in the work slack. Although there was some drama when someone posted a cat picture in one of the dog channels.
  • The company I’ve worked for has declared there will be no layoffs in 2020, which is a great relief.
  • I’ve not ordered a takeout or delivery meal since I started my retreat. My cooking is improving rapidly. I’ve got bored of my range of dishes and am moving to buying ingredients and figuring out meals for them. I’ve also ordered a veg box (my first) which I am very excited about.
  • While my cooking has improved, last night’s risotto was a disappointment.

Retreat, Day 17

  • It was Blaise Pascal who said that all the troubles of humanity came about because of the difficulty men had in simply being happy to sit alone in their rooms.” – Nicholas Lezard
  • Back to the morning walks today. Setting out at dawn, the world is much quieter. Given the strange situation, I seem much more aware of the world. Today, I was shocked by a scent of some flowers (Google lens tells me that they were Berberis Darwinii). The sea was calm and I regretted not going out with swimming gear. Despite the ongoing horror, the world seems so beautiful right now.
  • My retreat deepens as I continue to avoid the news. I do read longform articles about the crisis when they turn up on RSS, appreciating the calmer analysis, away from liveblogs and suggested articles.
  • I’d been thinking about moving away to the country when this is over, but I guess a lot of people are thinking the same, as Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett’s says in her article Coronavirus has tainted city life. I had the option of heading to the countryside for lockdown, but I still think I made the right choice to see this out at home. I’d just rather my home was surrounded by a garden where I could walk freely.
  • CJ Stone wrote a nice piece on choosing retreat over lockdown: “I’m not, however, in lockdown. I’m meditating. I’m on retreat. I’ve become a hermit in my own home… We’re being made to look inwards. And the really interesting thing about this is that, when you look inside yourself, you find everyone else there too.
  • I’ve also appreciated the thoughtful posts and podcast interviews by Gordon White from Rune Soup. I disagree with a lot of what he writes about coronavirus, but it’s good to see other views. His recent post A Better World is No Longer Optional talked about the economic effects, as well as how Amazon is pushing out smaller, localised companies.
  • Talking with my friend Helen, we discussed the need not to touch our noses while outdoors. I have the perfect thing to help this: my clown nose!

Retreat, Days 13-16

  • I feel a little guilty at how comfortable I am at the moment. I have the routine of work, and lots of fun activities to keep me occupied. My parents seem to be safe in isolation, so I’m making the most of the solitude, while being aware of how quickly things could shift.
  • I’ve not watched or read news in the last 24 hours. There is going to be little of comfort there, and it’s not going to change my behaviour, so there’s no point.
  • One thing that shocked some people was the announcement in Monday’s daily briefing that it could be six months before life gets back to normal. This was an unhelpful statement, as it did not provide details. I’d be surprised if we were on full lockdown between now and the end of September – even Wuhan was only under strict measures for about two months. But, if it’s to be six months, then so be it.
  • The weekend was mostly good. It was nice to have a break from work, and the job provides structure during the week – although it does tire me out. I’ve not had the energy spare for volunteering yet, but will try to do something next weekend.
  • Despite not being able to go out, not needing to commute etc, I don’t know of anyone who’s feeling a time dividend right now. Life sometimes feels just as busy as it did before, which is a useful lesson.
  • My sleep is settling down now. I still wake early, but I’m managing to get back to sleep again. Life feels a lot easier with enough sleep.
  • It’s also useful to be paying so much attention to how I work. I’m finding that it’s too easy to be half-hearted and distracted with mutli-tasking. Sitting down and focussing on writing for an hour this morning was joyful and exciting. Given the choice between deep work and multi-screening, the deep work feels much richer.
  • Zoom still doesn’t function as a proper social life, but it was good to catch up with some friends at an Open House. It would be even better to see them in real life.
  • I took an evening walk today, having slept in, and it was almost oppressively busy, with the joggers paying no attention to social distancing. Still, one advantage was bumping into Emily and Sooxanne. In each case we stopped and chatted at a two meter distance. Strange times, but so lovely to see them.