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.

Retreat, Day 12

  • I slept much better last night, which was a relief. I feel so different.
  • Of course, I still woke up at five, but I treated myself to a slow, slow morning. I didn’t turn the phone on until about 11am and feel much calmer for it.
  • The Small Batch near me is still closed, but I ordered some sachets of their ‘Stay at Home’ roast to get me through the next few weeks.
  • I’m feeling more settled in this strange and fragile new world. I am surprised at how little energy I have to make use of the new free time, but that’s OK.
  • I missed the daily briefing because I was watching The Platform on Netflix Party. The film was a little on-the-nose in the current situation.
  • I had a meeting online with Rosy Carrick, who gave me some feedback on my new writing project. It needs a lot of work, but there is something exciting there.
  • Now I’ve settled into this new world a little, I am going to switch the daily posts to a more occasional rhythm. But I am probably going to post more around the new writing project.

Retreat, Day 11

  • I’m settling into a rhythm now, starting the day with my walk. I visited the Co-op where social distancing was being well-enforced, so the messages seem to be getting through. It was officially a day off, but I dropped into work’s daily stand-up to give my update anyway. It was good to see people. I do miss my colleagues – finishing work was very sudden. I wish I’d thought to take longer over saying goodbye.
  • I’ve been avoiding the news. There’s a lot of it, and much of it is stressful, so I’ve stuck to the daily briefings. I have read some good longform articles which have turned up via my RSS feeds.
  • One I liked was from a reddit post from China about cooking under lockdown. It contains some interesting speculations on food history, as well as a useful hint: “Pickled vegetables seem to scratch the same itch fresh vegetables do.” If I can find the ingredients, I’m thinking of making some kimchi.
  • As it’s been a day off I watched Clive Barker’s 1990 film Nightbreed and caught up with some reading. I’ve also emptied out some long neglected cupboards which are filled with a mix of trash and treasure. Might as well do this while I have time.
  • We had our first family zoom call, which was good. But it’s also alarming how quickly such things have stopped seeming weird.
  • Adjusting to this all-virtual world has been strange. A lot of people seem to be finding their lives as busy as they were before, with lots of programmed activities. I’m finding I need to turn whatsapp off sometimes, to allow me to focus a little.
  • Via linkmachinego: A letter to the UK from Italy: this is what we know about your future. There is a lot in here I recognise. It’s also sobering to be reminded that the curve of infections in the UK is similar to Italy. I just hope that Neil Ferguson from Imperial College London is right when he says that the UK has enough intensive care units for coronavirus
  • Sleep continues to be a problem, and I need to figure out how to avoid waking so early. For the first ten days I’d not felt the lack of sleep, but today I’ve had a flicker of a headache most of the time.
  • No worthwhile planks today, but I’ve been doing more exercise generally.

Retreat, Day 10: A beautiful day

Another morning when I couldn’t sleep, so I went for my walk at dawn when only a few people were about. One passer-by pointed out how beautiful the day was, and they were right. The sea was still and at low tide, and I wished I’d had my swimming things. Of course, this is the calm before the storm, but knowing that makes this time feel all the more strange.

Lack of sleep has left me tired today, and my diet was been more carby than it should have been. I need to be more careful – it’s not as if I can walk it off. And I’d been eating so well up till now.

I have a day off tomorrow, and really need to settle into my routine. I’m also going to spend some time focussed on my creative project and get that rolling. I should also go out and buy some supplies too, but I’m not too eager to do that yet.

Today’s plank was an appalling 73 seconds. It’s been a slow, sleepy day. It’s quite an unexciting update too. I’m getting a little more used to this.

Retreat Day 9: Cosy Catastrophe

Last night, Brighton blogger wordridden posted A Journal of the Plague Week, where they wrote that it “feels like a bit of a ‘cozy catastrophe’ for us at the moment“. And that’s exactly how I feel: life is strange and isolated, but it is also cosy. I’m also aware that this is not everyone’s experience, particularly after talking to a friend who works in the NHS and is being retrained to work on ITU wards.

Today I slept in until 5am – a vast improvement – then set out for the morning walk. It’s been a beautiful day. While I worked on my writing, I paused my music to listen to the birdsong. Then I had work until the government briefing. In the evening I got together with some people to share some writing via Zoom. It was lovely to hear some poetry and have a chance to chat.

I have a day’s leave on Friday. Of course, a day off work is not the quite thing as it was a week ago. I’ll probably stay in touch with my colleagues and turn over some performance tests, while focussing on non-work things. I’m mostly settled, apart from a few missing supplies and a list of emergency activities for if things get difficult. I also want to spent some time focussing on my creative project.

The isolation does feel hard at points, and sometimes I want to see friends so desperately, but I’m mostly settled. There are serious things to worry about, like  my parents’ health, and the toll this is taking on some people close to me. I just pray that my experience of this catastrophe remains cosy.

Today’s plank was a painful 133 seconds – which breaks the two minute barrier. The juggling is going well and I am already seeing myself improve.