Cognitive dissonance is now the substance of day-to-day living. On the one hand, I muse on how wonderful it would be to pause the world for a brief and organised spell every year. Days are peaceful. I’m adoring the blue skies and bright sun outside, luxuriating in the stillness of nights, no longer living life against a constant burble of traffic, while both humans and wildlife alike are realising that the erasure of cars improves life.
Socially speaking, isolation has proven to be the opposite in that the thousand functional communications that made up most days have been whittled away – begone distractions! Likewise, at the expense of those who, in retrospect, should never have taken up so much bandwidth, I can now see my core people more clearly and have ever more space to share with them, the conversational times I want to have rather than those I had to have.
In terms of movement, the robotic motion of the daily commute is suspended, manufactured distractions and interruptions have dissipated, to leave the building is now a choice. Blessed with a green city, with space to ramble without troubling anyone with close proximity, I’ve discovered places close to my home I had never seen before: paths running along the river, a hill looking over the town, a shaded wood-arched walkway.
I feel blessed – a strong word but a true one – being in lockdown with a partner who makes it a pleasure. Waking up is a more languid process with time to hug and say the soft words that warm a day. This morning she opened her eyes and caught me watching her sleep. I fell back and later opened my eyes to find her watching me too. We exercise, cook, clean, bathe, walk, sit, talk together. It feels like a gift being given this absence of distraction and this uninterrupted time in her company.
It reminds me that humanity has always had an imbalanced view of freedom and restriction, positing one as an absolute good and the other a perfidious imposition. I’m reminded of George Perec, whose writers’ block reached crippled extremes in the 1960s because there were too many possibilities and potentials, too many options that could be pursued in theory and no way to choose.
He discovered that creating frames and structures he had to write around or within – a book with no letter ‘e’, a chapter structure modeled on the path taken by a chessboard knight if it is to touch every square on the board once and without repetition – created a problem he needed to solve and thus unlocked his ingenuity and allowing his words to flow. I’ve found myself evolving the structures I need to make today matter, finding the activities that give that time meaning, accepting that removing the ability to walk out the door and find distraction has put the onus back on me to make my day.
On the other hand, of course, every moment of happiness comes woven with a grey lining – that’s the dissonance kicking in. To feel contented looking out at one’s personal day-to-day is laced with reminders that it’s a matter of incredible luck to feel that way. Out there, substantial numbers of people are suffering directly, some unto death, and those who survive COVID-19 don’t yet know if they will experience ongoing health issues and vulnerabilities as a consequence.
Homes and livelihoods built with love and enthusiasm are being pulled apart as the economic fabric of nations frays. Efforts to aid the homeless and less fortunate are grinding to a halt, exacerbating existing affronts to dignity and common humanity. The future looks uncertain even for many currently in stable work, there’s a keen awareness of the debts and costs accrued simply by living as we are expected to.
There are people now confined with those who don’t have their best interests at heart; people who have discovered that whatever brought them together has been eroded; others who simply aren’t suited to be confined for a long period in another’s company. In addition to the spike in domestic disturbances and violence, I fear the absence of reporting too. Out there are people who now suffer unobserved because there’s no casual contact letting others know something is wrong.
Amid talk of businesses going back to work, I also feel saddened knowing that my greatest desire is to see the return of culture as a lived experience – and it’s that aspect that’s least likely to reappear soon. I’ve long been keenly aware that most music shows, the night by night amateurs and ‘on the way up’ collectives, are attended by maybe 20-100 people, that it’s not the norm. All the music venues, theater spaces, bars with performance areas, pubs open to live entertainment, — none of that’s coming back soon. I don’t feel any of it can be reproduced through a screen or over a web connection because it relies on the buzz of energy that comes from bodies in a room.
The ambiguity of this moment is poignant. It’s my heartfelt belief that making each day a good one, or at least worthwhile, is a duty to oneself. But I’m glad my mind strays to what might be less than perfect because I hope it keeps me humble and ensures I don’t lose empathy. At the same time, I have to fight to ensure I don’t let that awareness of a darker world colour mine to the point that I cannot feel the good moments.
I often feel humanity likes the simplicity of either/or answers, simply binaries that dictate something is all one thing or another. Instead, over and again, life lends itself to and/more type answers where there is nothing that cannot morph into other forms. COVID-19 has been a dark event, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t sparked light too.