A strange quiet settled over our house recently between phases of lockdown; for the first time in months, everyone except me was out. Around midday, I found one of our dogs lying beneath my partner’s desk pining like the legendary Greyfriars Bobby. Having family around is something I like about lockdown life, though I miss nights out with friends, the prospect of travel and, most of all, the mundane ease of life. In lockdown, my world contracts to the area of a small village; a brief shopping trip seems like an occasion. “What will I wear?” I tweeted one day. “A ball gown,” one friend suggested.
Home life is busier, it’s true, as the boundaries between Zoom meetings and classes and the domestic sphere blur. It’s months since I turned my desk to present a better backdrop (bookshelves rather than my shoe collection). But during the first lockdown, there was also the sense that people had some unexpected slack in their lives: the time, the space and social permission to experiment with other ways of living – a sort of existential stocktake. Perhaps we wanted to give this time some meaning and purpose. People explored alternative selves: gardener, baker, chef, artist, dancer, exercise fiend, sourdough enthusiast. It was as if we were in a speculative novel or a fascinating research experiment.
Like Kathy, the protagonist in novelist Olivia Laing’s Crudo, I mostly absorb the world’s terrors through a computer screen: ‘Shut it and the proximate peacefulness of trees and birds and street noise takes its place. … How can both be real?’ Inside the house, work and domesticity proceed, but from a distance comes news of deaths, spiking infection rates and supermarket altercations. It’s a disjunction, at once normal and unsettling, that continues to shape our lives. I watch wild animals sauntering city streets – a coyote in San Francisco, swans in London, a puma in Santiago – and wonder whether they are captivating because at some level they symbolise our loss of control, or because we feel a restoration of balance.
Lockdown throws both privilege and its opposite into sharp relief.
This time is like a breath that allows, too, for gestures of thoughtfulness and generosity – perhaps doing an elderly neighbour’s shopping or cooking meals for those experiencing hardship. People seem more aware of the incidental beauty of their worlds: the pleasure of gathering around a backyard fire, lorikeets fighting over ironbark flowers, patterns of light.
English screenwriter Dennis Potter, while dying of cancer, spoke of his intense experience of his final spring, and of “the blossomest blossom” he had ever seen. It’s hard to sustain that state of acute wonderment, though. The mundanity of life breaks through and makes demands of us. Everything has a dark side, people say. Lockdown throws both privilege and its opposite into relief. Families ride around our local parks, laughing and talking; the dog population appears to have increased by about a thousand percent. But there are also reports of increased incidents of family violence, relationship breakdown and acute financial distress. For some, existential anxiety has made racism and aggression excusable. More than ever, I feel the fragility of ‘civilisation’.
News of clusters, infections, hotspots (now familiar terms) remains an ominous background rumble in our lives, but we have become used to living in a pandemic. A future that might include the uncertainty of rolling lockdowns brings not so much shock as a sense of grind. We don’t know the end of this story – perhaps we never have – but we all feel it now. Will the comfortable certainties of our old ‘normal’ increasingly seem like a dream?
It makes me wonder what I will want to hold onto of lockdown life when it finally ends. I’ll miss what seemed like a gentler, more humane side of life. But for every person who feels half-nostalgic for the cocooning depths of extreme iso-life, there will no doubt be a parent who, at the news that schools are reopening, cries “Hurrah!” and buys a very big bottle of champagne.