As a write this, I am looking out over the clearest azure Aegean Sea. A warm early evening breeze rustles the foliage around the patio. A lizard scurries up a stone wall. Yet despite the wonders around me, I am aware of my breathing. My breathing feels so calm. The air feels so pure. I feel so alive.
I have just started reading a book recommended by Chris Evans. A book about breathing. Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor. 2020 has in so many ways become synonymous with breathing. Given the defining feature of this year is Covid-19, that is unsurprising. A virus which attacks the lungs. A pandemic where coughing, sneezing and even talking can cause alarm. A world in which our breathing has become filtered by a whole myriad of face coverings. In an era where covering our noses and mouths is the the proper etiquette it feels like my own senses have now become more heightened. Nothing has confirmed that more than having the opportunity to travel again.
Travel in 2020 has become a lottery. For many, plans have been disrupted by cancellations. Overseas trips to see family deferred, once in a lifetime experiences put on hold, dreams dashed. When the pandemic arrived, we never believed that our long planned summer trip to the Big Apple would be consumed by Coronavirus. Like many before us, we have become used to disappointments and learning to appreciate what we have. We gambled on a last minute trip to Crete but never raised our hopes as the second wave started to sweep across Europe. As the flight drew closer we avidly watched the cases in Greece gradually rise and breathed a sigh of relief as Greece escaped the quarantine list each Thursday evening.
That doesn’t mean we weren’t apprehensive. Cocooned in our own little bubble, in a city with relatively few cases, we felt safe. Here we were about to step foot into one of the world’s busiest airports. We were about to spend four hours in the close confines of strangers. Even with a mask, this was a risk. Were we being reckless for the sake of a family holiday?
The airport was eerily quiet. This was Heathrow unlike we had ever seen Heathrow. This felt like we were extras in a 28 Days Later sequel. When we passed through security to go to departures, there were 5 other people. If we were ever unsure of the impact of Coronavirus on international travel, here was the evidence.
The airport passed the test and felt safe but what about the airplane? Our first surprise was that strangers were not separated. The logic seemed bizarre. The airline chose to leave empty rows but seated strangers next to each other. Forget 2 metres. Forget 1 metre plus. This was one inch plus. Passengers separated by the width of an arm rest. This was economics versus virus. The empty rows felt like empty gestures. Fire breakers against an invisible virus. Yet, despite this, the flight felt relatively safe. Everyone wore a mask to a degree. Many had missed the memo that the mask is supposed to cover mouth and nose. However, most people remained in their seats. Even four hours breathing in your own stale mask air wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated. I was grateful I had chosen fruit for breakfast and no tea or coffee! I did notice how heightened my senses were though. I wasn’t quite at the level of Jeff Goldblum in The Fly but my hearing picked out the quietest cough. My eyes were kestrel-like in picking out the exposed noses. Other than wearing a mask, the arrival airport felt no different to usual. Or maybe we are simply used to the world as it now is.
Having been in Crete for 4 days, it is clear everywhere has changed. I have yet to see the complete faces of any of the people who work in the hotel or in any bars, shops or restaurants we have been to. Face coverings are also mandatory in the streets here. It appears Greece, and the Greek population, is taking the virus much more seriously than the UK is. Everything feels very safe. All this means that human interaction is changing. Whereas before we relied on facial gestures, now our senses are adjusting. Making eye contact is so much more important. So is intonation of the voice. As someone who has a dour Northern voice I need to adapt to this changed world and add some lilt to my speaking!
What this trip has highlighted is how all my senses are absorbing every aspect of this trip. This is not just the normal voluntary gratitude I feel from being lucky enough to enjoy a holiday after months of lockdown. This is involuntary. This is my senses going into overdrive and fully experiencing the interaction with the world. Did the sensation of swimming in a warm clear sea ever feel this good? Are skies normally this shade of blue? Were sunsets always painted with such a deep hue of orange? Has the chirruping of katydids always been so relaxing? How have I never before smelled the earthy herbal notes of Dittany on a warm evening breeze? I honestly feel like a child encountering the world for the first time. The richness of Greek tomatoes, the saltiness of local cheese, the natural sweetness of local honey, the herby explosion of lamb souvlaki. The beauty of summer flowers and the sweet smells and sounds as twilight descends. Even the gentle breeze dances upon your skin.
Previously swimming in a warm sea was something you did on holiday. Now I notice the glimmer of sunlight on the water and the dancing patterns on the sand beneath. The texture of the sand under my feet. The tint of blue in the water. The small shoals of fish playfully chasing along the shoreline. The taste of salt on my lips. Moments we had taken for granted feel so special. I am breathing in every moment. Treasuring every memory.
Is this what the pandemic has given us? A reset of the senses. An increased appreciation of the world. We may be slaves to our masks but it feels like our senses have been liberated. As a pandemic still rages around us, each experience feels all the more special. I take another deep breath of the warm evening air and savour it.
Increasingly, 2020 is starting to feel like I am living through an episode of Dark, my new Netflix obsession. At some point I must have passed the discarded sofa, stumbled through the caves and appeared in 1986.
2020 felt like the 21st century for a short time. In fact, for a brief time it felt like we were living in the future as apocalyptic events started unfolding in China and then Italy. News reports of patients being taken to hospitals by hazmat clad health workers, quarantined cruise ships and bodies filling vast graves in the Middle East could only come from some futuristic novel. It didn’t seem real.
In March, the virus hit our shores and the events of the movie Outbreak were suddenly playing out before our own eyes. Yet something else happened. I cannot recall if the change was accompanied with a flashing of lights and electricity outage. The virus brought with it something else. Nostalgia.
In a blaze of neon, leg warmers and a thumping disco beat, Dua Lipa brought us Future Nostalgia and the soundtrack to my personal lockdown was set. I had never really listened Dua Lipa’s music but this album transported me from the grey dystopian palette of a 2020 pandemic to the day-glow colours of a 1980s MTV video. With nods to Olivia Newton-John, Prince, Gloria Gaynor and a sample of INXS on ‘Break my Heart’ this really was a Marty Mcfly moment for me. With a war waging outside our front door I was swept away on a rainbow cloud of synth beats and the memories of school parties. The pandemic had opened the portal back to my youth and I didn’t need any persuading to go through it.
If Dua Lipa provided to the soundtrack to this nostalgia trip then TV provided the visuals. The early signs of incoming nostalgia had already been teased by Netflix. The garish visuals of the Star Court Mall in the brilliant Stranger Things had already set the scene. The 80s references led me to exclaim multiple “ahhs” and set triggers of reminiscence. The equally brilliant Sex Education added to the feeling. Despite not being set in a particular time zone, the clothing, the soundtrack and imagery all pressed the nostalgia button. By the time the lockdown was only a few weeks old, my Delorean was already programmed to take me back to 1985.
I didn’t need to wait long before the wave of nostalgia became the emotional tsunami of Normal People. I have already devoted plenty of ink to Normal People in a previous blog entry Will life ever be the same again? The book and show are set in 2008 onwards. Rocket lollies aside, they don’t evoke the same feelings of childhood innocence and 80s fashion that the other shows brought. What Normal People does incredibly well is bring back the timeless reminiscences of past love and university days. Times when love, searching out missed lecture notes, mosh pits, beer and playing football were all that mattered. Not some silent killer.
The sights and sounds of a pandemic-free-time are all there driving my parallel 2020. The attack on my senses doesn’t end there. 2020 smells like my past. The smell of summer of those warm summer days from childhood. Did it ever rain when we were children? The parched lawns, the scent associated with warm summer evening walks, families spending time together all feels like a bygone era. As foreign holidays are cancelled, day trips to the beach have become more common. The smell and taste of fish and chips, whist sitting on a beachside wall, send a slide show of memories cascading through my brain. I half expect my cousins to ask to race me to the sea shore or my nan to ask me to pass her the vinegar for her chips. Oh, she liked her vinegar.
As the lockdown starts to ease and the warm summer evenings start to fade I worry that my portal to the past will start to close. I don’t want to be trapped in either dimension but the virus of nostalgia that this pandemic has brought has reminded us of what we have lost. I don’t miss perms or leg warmers or the A Team. The music and TV shows are marketing tricks to feed off our nostalgia. Families spending more time together and the simplicity of day trips are something I don’t want the cave to swallow again.
As I finish this, the radio crackles into life with the disco sound of Miley Cyrus’ brand new ‘Midnight Sky’. For a moment it feels like I am listening to Debbie Harry. Once again this Nostalgia Virus is transporting me back.
Like most humans, I would generally regard myself as a social animal. I thrive in the company of people, especially in small groups of people I know. I enjoy being in the spot light in those small groups. Equally, I can wrap myself in the stories told by others and the warmth of a group bonded by friendship. Yet, sometimes, I nearly don’t make those gatherings. Whether apathy, or the anxiety of what the evening might bring, or how many people I will know I get cold feet. Many times it has taken a nudge from someone or a text asking where I am for me to push myself to go and ultimately have fun.
Right now, life feels a little like the feeling I sometimes get before a social event. I have been working from home for so many months. Locked down in the comfort of my own house. My apathy seems to have increased and my self confidence in my own social skills has wained. I desperately miss the company of family and friends. Of people in general. Yet, like the proverbial warm slippers, it just feels easier to stay at home.
For months there was the virus and the queues.
Now there is the mask.
Batman was always my favourite super hero. This was partly because of the mystery of the mask. I am not sure how warm, Gotham City is but having tried a number of different face coverings, I think if I had been Bruce Wayne I would have abandoned the anonymity for the comfort! Steven Magee said ‘Being a hero is not necessarily wearing a mask and cape and saving the world, it can be as simple as doing the right thing’. I agree with this. In this instance, doing the right thing means wearing a face covering so that we can keep each other safe. We need to keep the mystical R number down. That doesn’t mean having half your face covered is enjoyable. Putting on a mask doesn’t turn you into Stanley Ipkiss and make you yell ’S-s-s-s-s-s-mokin!’ as you tango around Jack Wills or Tesco. In the time before Covid-19, soon to just be known as The Time Before, I used to enjoy browsing in shops. No longer. The dilemma is that the high streets need me (well not me personally but people like me) and my mask to survive. Right now the mask is the opposite of my nudge to go out, it acts as a reason to stay home. It feels churlish to complain when our health workers wear at least 2 masks and a perspex visor, whilst operating in high stress environments but being in enclosed public space is no longer fun. You are in your cocooned little world trying to understand what people are saying. At the same time you are thinking ‘do I really need a new shirt this much?’. Fighting this is the guilt that you need to support the shops.
In The Time Before, I used to enjoy eating out. I also had a particular fondness for rich spiced foods. No longer. Who wants to go for a meal and then don a mask to breathe in stale warm garlic scented air? Maybe that’s why you never saw Bruce Wayne in an Indian restaurant.
Speaking of meals, that’s an experience that feels closer to preparing for a trip to Mars than a sociable evening with friends. Over the past few weeks we have eaten out several times to try and support our beleaguered local restaurants. With the exception of a national pizza chain, where hand gel seemed to be their only contribution to the fight against Covid-19, customer safety does seem to be highly considered. However, one way systems, servers clad in masks and visors, half empty rooms and restricted selections are not my menu of choice. It’s impossible to forget that there is a virus out there or even in here. Whilst trying to enjoy conversation, your mind is wandering. How many people handled the cutlery before it arrived at the table? Have those preparing the food sanitised their hands? Why did the server just lean close to me not wearing a mask? Going to a restaurant shouldn’t feel like a dentist or hospital appointment but it does.
Right now it feels are though we are trapped between the world we are in and the way we want it to be. They say people wear different masks when they are afraid of showing their true face. Right now it feels like the world is wearing its own mask. It cannot decide what it wants to be. In order to survive, restaurants and shops are trying to trying to use perspex and gel to mask coronavirus. They need to do so to make us feel safe. They want us to see that behind the masks the world hasn’t changed, but it has. Unfortunately, these places have become so sterile that they have eradicated the culture that made them fun in the first place. There is a quote by Matshona Dhliwayo which goes ‘ If you wear a mask for too long, there will come a time when you can not remove it without removing your face’. Unfortunately, it feels like that with coronavirus. When all this is over, will we remove the masks to find the face of the world changed beyond what we remember. Will our preferred forms of entertainment be changed forever so they are no longer that? Bruce Wayne needed the mask to become Batman but after a while whatever he wore he was forever the Dark Knight.
What this pandemic has highlighted for me is how beautiful the world is when seen without its mask in its most raw and beautiful form. Away from screens and coverings, nature thrives. Beaches and woods and fields are not only where you can see the naked face of nature but where you can see the smiles and laughter of family and friends. If we don’t wear masks and return to our cities, the consequences are too grave to contemplate. Maybe this pandemic and the world of masks is Earth’s way of telling us that it too needs to breathe.
“The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are. You trade in your reality for a role. You trade in your sense for an act. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask.” Jim Morrison
Last week, I popped into the office for the first time. Stepping into my own office I was reminded of all those dystopian shows and movies. A family calendar smiled back at me. The date frozen at March. Holiday photos reminders of a normality lost. A plant sat, brown and crispy, another victim of this pandemic. Ironically, my lighthearted mood calendar starkly displayed ‘neglected’. I half expected the refrains of Springsteen’s Roulette to start playing from a tinny transistor radio; We packed what we could into the car, No one here knows howit started, Suddenly everything was just so out of control, Now I want some answers, mister, I need to know.
Will life ever be the same again?
This room echoed with memories. Racing to meet deadlines, celebrating successes, office banter, the joy of pregnancy announcements and the sadness of resignations. This office had been a microcosm of life itself. Now it lay abandoned and silent, without even the hum of the air-conditioning unit. I thrive from the excitement of change yet like the safety net of routine and, above all, I mourn the past. It reminded me of how I feel when I walk across my old university campus. I was one of those people who chose to stay in the city where they studied. I often go for a walk around the campus grounds. For years this was hard. The ache of reminiscing. I would see ghosts of us playing football on those hot summer days after exams finished. I’d remember all those evenings in the bar and procrastinating in the university square. I feel the warm flutter of seeing my girlfriend make eye contact with me across the crowded bar, the touch of her hand as we walked the concrete jungle back to my room. The difference is that those memories belonged to a part of my life that I knew had a finite life. The ache was a painful part of growing older but also a reaffirmation that those days had touched the very part of my being. As I looked back at the office though, this felt different. This wasn’t supposed to change right now.
Will life ever be the same again?
It is incredible that it has taken a world wide pandemic to prompt me to write a personal blog. My inspiration was born from another blog, Isolation Diaries by @1stgirlinspace which I think brilliantly captures the mood of this moment in history. It has been so reassuring to read the emotions that another person is feeling and realise how close they are to my own It has been a pleasure to laugh out loud at the carefully observed references to day to day moments during the pandemic. Life pre Covid-19 was often a rush – life on speed – with barely time to breathe never mind appreciate moments. Life since March has been so slow, at times boring. Isolation Diaries captures the essence of time so perfectly, you can really sense the slow drip of a tap. I am so grateful for the author to being a virtual companion through these times and for that blog inspiring me to convey my own thoughts to paper.
Much has been spoken about mental health during these strange times, another overused expression. As busy as I have been with work, the feeling of isolation that lockdown has brought has allowed thoughts to go into overdrive. Covid-19 has led to a period of reflection. Given I am a person already prone to over analysis and worry I am not sure this has been a good thing. With the isolation it has been unavoidable. I started lockdown with such a sense of positivity. This was our civic duty. How could being at home be such a chore? After all, I was in the comfort of my own own home, spending more time with family. The sun was shining and I was blessed with a job that was so busy I felt needed. Yes, I had twinges of guilt for those who had been furloughed, deeply upset at the rising death toll and concerned for the waves of people needing food banks. The news only made me more grateful for what I had. Evening walks in the sunshine boosted my spirits further. It was a joy to see empty roads and nature healing itself. I even took photos of my first visit to a supermarket, the long line of people snaking out into the carpark, the shelves empty of pasta and toilet rolls. It felt like I was living through history and, in a perverse way, that felt exciting. It was a combination of factors led to the flutter of dark moths in the pit of my stomach. I was getting anxious.
Will life ever be the same again?
For those who have never really experienced anxiety, it is a difficult concept to explain. I am sure it affects everyone in different ways. Most of us will have experienced the fight or flight adrenaline before a big event. I am lucky that my own anxiety is an infrequent visitor but, presents itself a little like that. The worst feeling is the unexplainable sense of dread and extreme feeling of loneliness. Your brain tries to tell your body that whatever you are imagining will not be a bad as you think. Your body and another part of your brain ignores that. You feel guilty because your life is so much better than many other people’s and that sense of guilt increases your anxiety. I started to reflect on where I was in my life. I hadn’t felt this way in half a lifetime. The pandemic contributed to a perfect storm.
I remember going to a pharmacy and being greeted by a person wearing gloves, a perspex visor and holding a temperature checking gun. This was a big step up from the queues at the supermarket. I was half expecting June Osborne entering in her red dress or Rick Grimes charging past on his white horse. This was serious. I now realised that the world really had changed. This wasn’t China or Italy or Spain. This was staring me in the face and wasn’t going away anytime soon.
Somewhat bizarrely, a TV show will be one of my strongest memories of that phase of lockdown. Many column inches have been devoted to Normal People and I could devote an entire blog to the subject. The lives of Marianne and Connell, portrayed so brilliantly by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, burrowed into my mind, ripped open my heart and sent a waves of memories cascading in front of my eyes. I missed my youth, I ached for the normality of friends sitting in a bar, I cried for lost relationships and past mistakes. My heart ached with what-if moments and I was just swept along in a torrent of longing for a life past that might never return. With the sheer beauty of the cinematography and how emotionally invested I became in Marianne and Connell’s life, I was left an emotional wreck. Those who thought I had an unhealthy obsession with the show didn’t understand that Normal People was the catalyst for releasing emotions that the pandemic had brought to the fore. I just needed someone to understand me. It took an online post from someone struggling to prepare themselves to watch the last two episodes of Normal People and the blog I mentioned earlier, to make me feel less alone. I needed to go through this to be cleansed and face the new reality, whatever that might be.
Lots of positives came from this period. My increased use of Twitter led me to a number of very interesting people. They opened my eyes to brilliant writing, raised my awareness of a number of important issues and re-challenged the sense of who I am. I am grateful to all of them. I have regained a spirit of creativeness and understanding that I had lost in the hustle and bustle of the pre Covid-19 world. I have also grown to really appreciate where I live, nature and outdoors. I built a pond and as Kevin Costner was told ‘Build it and they will come’ the dragonflies and frogs came. I am learning to play Ukulele and, thanks to the power of technology, my teacher is in California so I get the added bonus of chatting about our different lives. Even pastimes I already loved, like tennis have taken on greater importance. Had coronavirus never happened, holidays would have been spent exploring new places in Europe or the USA. Instead, I got to see my own city from a different perspective and find hidden wonders near my own door step.
Lockdown has brought tough moments for me and I still have a feeling of guilt about that. I feel unworthy of making that statement. I haven’t died, I haven’t been ill, I haven’t lost anyone close to me, I haven’t lost my job or been furloughed, I haven’t starved, I haven’t endured discrimination or harassment. I have felt a sense of loss of the world before Covid-19 and the freedoms that existed. I am anxious about what comes next. I yearn to be able to properly meet family and friends, to hug, to share food, see mask-free smiles and to travel again. Yet, I don’t want to lose everything we have gained. I enjoy seeing my children more often, seeing less traffic on the roads and the sense of togetherness. Now I ask, Does life need to be the same again? More importantly, I ask…