Retreat, Day 8: The New Normal

Today is the first day of the official lockdown. I had another early morning, waking about 4:15am. A little after 5 I went for my legally-permitted daily walk doing about 10,000 steps. I wasn’t sure if that was greedy, or too many? On the way home I stopped at a shop and bought some fresh food. The shopkeeper reckoned there were riots coming, but things seem fairly calm.

Today has been a gentle day. I did some good writing before work, settling into the new project. The job was fun, and filled out the time. The evening has catching up with people, planning the next few weeks, and cooking a delicious curry: I wish you were here to share it. So strange, not knowing when next I will cook for someone else.

It’s weird to have such as relaxed day amidst what, for many people, will be a horrific and distressing time. In the daily briefing it was announced that 250,000 volunteers were needed for the NHS. I gave my details, and was glad that I have a current DBS. Hopefully I can make myself useful, rather than just relaxing in my flat for weeks.

Today is the first day of the official distancing rules; and the start of my first full week in retreat. I’ve spoken to Rosy on the phone, messaged a few people, but only been in the presence of one other person. Strange days.

There is much to say and think about what’s happening, but I’ve enjoyed today. Sure, it would have been better if I could have walked further, sat with a friend, or read in a cafe. But I am grateful for this day.

Today’s plank was a painful 113 seconds.

Retreat Day 7: Signs of a Crisis

Day 7 of my retreat brings a drawing-in. I’d already decided to be stricter about my social distancing before the lockdown came in. My routine is now settling. Waking early (4:45am today), physio, walking to the pier then back through town. Home, breakfast, writing, work.

Of course, I have it fairly easy. There are many people in cramped or dangerous domestic situations. My mood is good, but not as resilient as I would like. I’m working on that, paying attention to how I’m feeling. Hopefully, once I am more settled-in, I can look for ways to volunteer and do something to help.

I’ve mostly ignored the news today. The constant updates were getting wearing. Obviously, this won’t work for everyone, but the situation seems dangerous yet relatively slow-moving. It’s getting too easy to make myself anxious about things.

Life is surprisingly busy, even if we have to be sociable behind screens. I’m loving the voice calls and the chats, but also wary of not making time to relax and contemplate. There’s also the danger that this initial burst of energy/activity might fade, so I am keeping an eye on that.

I’m also trying to settle into this slowly. There are lots of things I could do, but I don’t want to commit myself to anything just yet. The structure is building slowly, little routines, and new habits. I like having a candle burning, sometimes even when I am working at the job. There is no need to hurry here.

Today, workmen started next door. It was a little frustrating to have my day disturbed by chainsaws. I guess i’m one of the few people’s whose life will be improved by a full lockdown.

My biggest problem is sleep. I am waking up very early but not feeling tired. My appetite is also not as good as usual, and I’m having to force myself to finish meals. I’m keeping an eye on my weight in case it starts falling too fast.

It feels like we have fallen into a Douglas Coupland novel. That’s OK.

I’ve been practising juggling, and practising the first ball of Mill’s Mess. The thing I’d forgotten about juggling: it’s not the catch, it’s the throw. All the skill is in the throwing.

The news about the lockdown came in while I was on a zoom call with some friends. That’s something I will think about tomorrow though. One day at a time.

Today’s plank was a disappointing 87 seconds (20 off my best). My body is still wrecked from the hike – and I think I’m losing a toenail.


Retreat, Day 6: The Happening

There is a stunning sequence in the middle of M. Night Shyamalan’s otherwise disappointing film, The Happening. A family are fleeing an horrific end-of-the-world scenario and seek shelter at a remote farmhouse. The owner says she is happy to offer hospitality, but refuses to be told anything about what is taking place. It’s strange and disturbing to see the urgency of the film paused by the interlude, and this has stuck with me ever since.

Last night, I stayed in a remote shepherd’s hut. I’d told the hosts I was social distancing, which they were fine with, and I have avoided being too close to anyone while hiking. I’ve skipped the news, and will catch up on Monday night (although I asked a friend to tell me if there was anything I needed to know). It’s been good to have this interlude.

My walk home was lovely, and far more relaxed than yesterday’s stomp across the downs. Walking on the promenade, it seemed like a normal summer’s day, lots of people out strolling. I guess a lot of people are not so into social distancing.

I arrived home, had a bath, and have been relaxing otherwise. I followed Ben Graham’s recommendation and watched the first couple of episodes of Britannia. I’ve done some writing, and mostly been disconnected from the networks. I now have a good list of activities planned, including learning Mill’s Mess. I originally took up juggling 26 years ago so I could do that trick, but never got round to it.

It’s been good not to think too much about events, but there are still shocks when I think of the enormity of what’s happening. I guess the coronavirus is one of Timothy Morton’s hyperobjects, impossible to hold in mind in its entirety. As overwhelming as this is, I want to maintain focus on my life, and to make that as rich as possible.

Today was, of course, Mother’s Day, and it’s been bittersweer. We’d originally planned to take my Mum for a pub lunch. This was downgraded to a dinner at my sister’s. On Monday, I asked my sister if she thought I should cancel given the current situation, but we decided to hold off a decision. By Tuesday it was obvious that my parents are in strict isolation for the foreseeable future. They’re taking their seclusion very well, but it must be difficult. Sorry I couldn’t be there today, Mum.

No plank today, again, because I walked 90,000 steps this weekend. Back to planks tomorrow though.

Distancing Retreat, Day 5

Today is the first non-work day on retreat. What does weekend mean now? How does that affect the schedule?

My plan for today was Walking. I picked a route that allowed me to maintain responsible social distance, avoiding any groups of people. I also thought it would be good to get out of the flat and think about strategy. Yes, I’ll be a project manager at heart until the bitter fucking end.

The walk itself was a bit of a trudge. I picked too long a route, and found some stretches boring. I’m discovering that I’m not a huge fan of rewalking rural areas (although the world has found a brilliant solution for me, right?). The bizarre thing was passing by a couple of stalls (at Hove Park and Ditchling Beacon) and seeing people queueing close together. The messages are not getting through.

I’m hoping the current restrictions are in place for a short time. But the pub closures are going to be “reviewed on a monthly basis“, which suggests disruption could go on for a while. The question I’m asking myself is how I would cope with an indefinite distancing. (By indefinite, I just mean we have no idea how long this will continue – and better to plan for a long time and not need those plans, right?)

The main thing I’ve realised is that I’ve not set up enough frivolous activities. I’ve thought of a few other things to do, such as practising juggling. I also need much less screen time. And maybe I should be writing more letters.

I suspect we’re still in a stage of shock at the scale of the current problem. I’m hoping that, over time, new solutions will emerge. Some of these might involve previously unthinkable compromises with civil liberties. I also wonder how society if going to change in other ways. Brighton has a lot of people who live alone. Previously, this was envied – now that has become a challenge. Are we going to see changes in the types of living arrangements people want? But, as this becomes the new normal, people will devise solutions.

One initial response to distancing is for people to be very social remotely. I’ve reached out to a lot of other independent people, making sure the communication lines are open. There have been a lot of phone calls. I’m loving zoom (and the virtual pubs). But I’m also aware this needs to be balanced with time to relax. So far, I’m staying off social media, which I find too stressful.

(While I’m focussing on my own problems, I’m also aware that a lot of people have it far worse. Beyond the people who are sick and the front-line staff treating them, there are large families living in very close quarters now, to say nothing of vulnerable people who cannot escape difficult or dangerous domestic environments).

And life is about finding new ways to Connect. Walking the seafront last night, I phoned a friend as I passed near her flat. She’s been in self-isolation for over a week now and, while we’ve spoken a fair bit, I’ve not seen her. She came out onto her balcony and we waved at each other.

The government’s shutdown of the pubs and restaurants had an immediate effect. By 9pm, Hove was Christmas-Eve-quiet. I popped by a couple of shops, cobbling together items from a shopping list for Rosy. It took three places and some flexibility to get everything, but I managed. Then, another doorstep conversation, keeping our distance. I can’t wait for this to end.

No plank today, because I walked 60,000 steps.

Distancing Retreat, Day 4

I’m feeling much better today. I slept well, then entered the routine. Physio exercises, walk, work. Trying to focus on how I am going to spend this period of time, and make the most of it.

I was surprised how emotional I felt yesterday. I’ve given talks on the POW experience and read countless accounts of solitary; yet I felt myself overwhelmed with grief and horror about even this mild captivity.

The problem at the moment is uncertainty. I’d originally prepared myself for a 21-day social distancing period. The Prime Minister said 12 weeks yesterday. And reports via the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies are talking about longer. But however long it is, if it keeps people alive, then we must do it.

I’m focussing on making the most of the quiet time, but I am also preparing myself for something that is, initially, open ended. I remember reading about the imprisonment of James Stockwell in Vietnam. The challenges we face are far less than what Stockwell faced, but he came out of his horrific experiences saying:

I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.

Stockwell also spoke about the dangers of baseless optimism, giving rise to what is known as the Stockwell Paradox:

You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be

We could be here for a while. The pubs are closing tonight, and it will be some time before they open again. But there are simple choices to be made here. There are things to be created. There is joy, sadness and isolation to share. There are friends to be made via the Internet who we can look forward to seeing.

(I recently started reading Katie West’s Better than IRL, a collection of accounts of Internet friendship and community, and it’s an inspiration for these times).

I do hate a lot about this. The empty supermarket shelves drive fear and panic into my heart. I am scared of not being able to buy hand-sanitiser or paracetamol. The current reality might be unfair and brutal, but we will get out. And I’d like to look back on this as a postive experience.

I was talking to Rosy last night about the use of war metaphors for this epidemic. Naturally, we’re both suspicious of them, but I am inspired by the idea of the world coming together for a common cause. The sacrifices we have to make to save lives are relatively cheap. Let’s beat this, then get on with the climate crisis.

Meanwhile, I will cut down on the news updates I read to focus on the official briefings and a single daily news update. The problem with the news cycles is that stories change quickly, unleashing a range of emotions before the facts settle down. Things will be much clearer soon.

I’m not sure how long I’m going to keep up a daily post, but I want something to document how I feel about this period. Writing it as a blog allows me to share it with the world (well, with my small number of followers), and makes it more real.

My plank today was up to 103 seconds. I was originally reckoning I could get 5 minutes by the time the crisis ends. Reckon I can make 10 before the pubs reopen.

Lockdown Retreat, Day 3

  • This morning, I really felt the scale of what is coming. I woke up, got dressed and went for my walk. It was a beautiful misty day, but as I walked on the pebbles I felt overwhelmed and emotional about everything.
  • The biggest problem is probably that I’ve not slept well, and I am overtired. I’ve also not focussed on preparation for lockdown, or developed a routine. This morning was a warning to pay attention to those things.
  • And, as sad and horrible as this is, it’s not as bad as prison, or even house arrest. We have the Internet to help us stay in touch. Even under a lockdown, we are likely to be able to leave our houses for exercise.
  • I’m also uplifted by the idea that staying-in is saving lives. That makes it feel less like the time is being wasted.
  • One weird thing is how much of this already feels like a cliche. Such an intense experience, but also mundane. I also suspect that the 2021 Brighton Fringe will be filled with terrible shows writing during and about the lockdown.
  • I’ve been thinking about Kurt Vonnegut’s final novel, Timequake. It’s not a great book, but the main idea has stuck in my head: the world re-experiences a ten-year period of time, forced to repeat everything they did before. Like in Timequake, we’re living this isolated experience together. It’s a weird thing to have so many people facing loneliness at the same time.
  • Walter Benjamin once referred to “that terrible drug—ourselves—which we take in solitude“.
  • At 5:15, we all stop for the daily briefing. It’s rare for me to find the government so reassuring, but the advice is clear and simple. It’s good to know that if social distancing is widely adopted, then this can be beaten – although the timescale of “12 weeks to turn the tide” is a sobering thought. That takes me beyond my birthday and into the summer. But let’s do this.
  • It strange to drop off food to self-isolating friends, chatting on the doorstep at three meters distance. I won’t miss that. But it’s nice to see them and say hello.
  • At 8pm, Luke Wright did the first of his evening gigs, broadcasting live from self-isolation. It’s good to have entertainment, even if we can’t be in a theatre. There was something lovely and intimate about Luke reciting into a webcam, while projected on my wall, larger than life. Luke compared the gig to a festival one, as he could see people wandering in and out of the stream.
  • Today has been a grim little day mood wise. Tomorrow will be better. I am still determined to make this a positive experience.
  • There is a world after this virus. We need to prepare for this new world, and make sure it is a better world.
  • Today’s plank was up to 87 seconds.

Lockdown Retreat Day 2

Day 2 of the lockdown, and it’s a day of adjustment. A lot of events have been cancelled, including Glastonbury and the Brighton Fringe and Festival. Panic-buying continues, fuelled by disturbing social media rumours about draconian shutdowns.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to stick to a routine. I started with a long walk along the seafront. It seems quieter, with a lot of the personal training groups missing. I was happy to see the carousel being put out, one of the first signs of the spring. (In the past: 1, 23, 4)

It looks like my local Small Batch branch closes today. It was good to say hello to the staff, but also sad, not knowing when I will see them again. Then, I sat down to work. I’m used to remote working, but this is very different. Today, the bandwidth wouldn’t support video in the stand-ups, which was a shame. The working day ends as everyone stops for the daily press briefing. Latest announcements include the schools closing; but the possibility of an antibody test is a promising development.

I’ve done less creative work than planned so far on this retreat. Last night I called a lot of friends, checking that they were OK. There will be time for work though. On that point, I loved Robin Sloan’s newsletter yesterday. The whole thing is worth reading, but this section was particularly striking:

Toil in the shadow of calamity WILL have its day.

There’s a world waiting on the other side of this crisis, and that world wants your strange, personal video game; your cleverly-designed fanny pack; your email newslet—

Scratch that. There’s a world right here, right now, and THIS world wants those things! Even more, it wants, it NEEDS, signs of their production: the light in the (browser) window, the (digital) curl of smoke from the chimney.

My photo app reminded me that, a year ago today, it was the Passionate Machine gig at Brighton’s Old Market. I was lucky enough to have the support slot, performing to a sold-out audience. Now the theatres are closing. We’re in for the long haul, but it’s one day at a time. It will end, though, and the reunion parties will be incredible.

After work, I went for a walk with a friend. We dropped off some food to someone in self-isolation, then drank beer on the beach. Every farewell right now is difficult, not knowing how long it will be for.

Today, I increased my plank time to 81 seconds.

Lockdown Retreat

Last night, I felt a little overwhelmed by current events. The government’s advice against “unnecessary social contact of all kinds” means avoiding pubs, theatres and social events. My office shut yesterday and, if Britain follows France and Italy, I might be stuck at home alone for a few weeks, while the world outside is chaos.

It’s certainly a scary and unsettling time. I’m very lucky that I am healthy and have a relatively low risk; and that nobody I know has been hit by this virus. But the isolation and uncertainty feel very threatening. Particularly since we have no idea where social distancing ends – as one BBC update put it, describing the Imperial College report: “this approach comes with a major problem – there is no exit strategy … cases would soar as soon as measures are lifted… [measures] could need to be in place until a vaccine is available, which could take up to 18 months.

Whatever happens, we’re in for a good few weeks of lockdown and I’ll be spending a lot of time in my flat. I found myself thinking of Desmond from Lost, trapped in the bunker. And I decided, the only way to endure this is to focus on seeing it a positive experience. How many times have I wished for life to slow down so I could focus on things? And here I am with lots of time for quiet contemplation.

I will treat this as a retreat and try to make the best of it. The lack of events and gatherings means space to review my priorities, to make some time for the spiritual. I’m planning a routine, and figuring out some things to do while I am here. There’s no excuse not to do my physio exercises over the next few weeks.

It’s also good to have my job. I am lucky enough to be a full-time employee in a relatively unexposed business. I have a great team, and I’ve found myself really pleased to (virtually) see them today.

While I am restricting social contact, I did run some errands today. Early in the morning I dropped by my local branch of Small Batch. I’m not sure how long that will be open for, as they may concentrate on the larger branches, and I will miss the cafe if that does happen.

Tesco’s was a nightmare. I assume this is just people gathering stockpiles, and that it will calm down in a few days. It brought back memories of New York in 1999, when I went shopping before a hurricane. I went to the supermarket and bought beer, watching everyone else buying water, candles and the like. This time I am preparing better.

I also popped out in the evening to deliver some supplies to friends who are self-isolating. It seems a good way of doing my 10,000 steps. I’ve also put a note in the hall of my block, offering to help anyone self-isolating here, but nobody has needed me yet.

Meanwhile, I try to appreciate the strangeness of the times, finding myself in the sort of scenario that happens at the start of disaster novels. I think there will be long term effects to this, and the world is going to change. I remember Douglas Coupland’s Generation X describing international air travel as decadent. That’s just one thing I can see that changing as a result of what my German cousin referred to the the ‘swivet’ (apparently an obscure American word for “a fluster or panic“).

We have to retreat into smaller worlds for a time. I’m going to try to make the best of it, and hopefully come out of it well. And, if I really hate it, I’ll buy a games console (I’d love to try Death Stranding).

I can currently hold a plank for 67 seconds.