How will we come to terms with the lost time of 2020, collectively and individually? For many of us, the disruption of Covid has halted our plans, professionally and personally. At some point after the fact, we will have to come to terms with how it altered our lives and recalibrated our timelines. This question has made me reflect on other occasions in my life where plans dropped out from under my feet.
These moments are often sad ones – bereavements or illnesses. I recognise distinct periods where some incapacitation has suspended everyday life and work. They may be brief, but they are times of change regardless, after which life is altered.
The all-encompassing disruption of Covid has led me to think about the time I broke my arm – the elbow to be precise – two years ago, and fondly I recall that time, in much the same way memories become sepia tinted. It has become my mental model for making the most of time suspended.
I had been walking down one of the steep pavements near Glasgow Uni after visiting the bookshop there, thinking about a driving lesson ahead of me, when I slipped. Falling backwards with a hand extended is a classic bone-breaker, but the ordinariness doesn’t make for a particularly good injury story. No sharks, no car chases, just a freak everyday occurrence. But this is often the case. Change arrives unexpectedly, often freakishly, with little forewarning.
That afternoon some kind students stopped to ask me if I was ok, and in shock I dismissed them, still sitting on the ground, insisting that although I couldn’t move my arm, I was fine. But they waited until I did get up and called a taxi to A&E, seeing more clearly than I could in that moment that my day wasn’t going to continue as expected. It took a few weeks of Covid for the significance of the change to our lifestyles to really sink in, acceptance coming after the activity of panic buying and sense of occasion subsided.
But despite the pain, and inconvenience of sleeping propped up in a sling with a bruised back to boot, I felt deeply peaceful. Suddenly everything in my diary had a line scored through it; I had a lot on at work, but all meetings, trips, and conference calls were immediately cancelled. Instead, all I could do was enjoy the warmth of springtime as it bloomed into summer, the most optimistic of seasons, while I recuperated.
I was relieved of my horrible commute, which was an hour and a quarter each way, dreaded each and every day. I was at the mercy of delays and cancellations across the hat-trick of subway, train, and bus with bursts of walking in between, having to dodge lorries rattling down long, bleak, industrial estate roads. Instead of the bureacratic hum of an office environment little more comfortable than the journey to get there, I lay in bed and read whatever I wanted to, with the windows open to a warm blue sky. It felt like colour had returned to my world. It was like permission to rest had been granted, and I gave in wholeheartedly.
When work resumed, I was straight on a flight, still slung up and cringing every time a fellow passenger veered too close to my vulnerable arm. Responsibilities came back with full force. The holiday was over and I missed it. The painkillers had made me feel happy, dreamy and weightless and it had been as much a mental rest as a physical one.
But now, I have a job I greatly enjoy, and I work from home. I didn’t want to take a break from it. In the arts, events are often key. This is true of books and publishing too, where, particularly for indie presses, book festivals are an important promotional tool and speaking gigs a source of income for authors.
Grand plans have fallen by the wayside, and despite the efforts of festival programmers coming up with digital alternatives, it’s never quite the same. The first events planned for my own book Exit, out in September, are no longer in my diary.
At times, it felt like locking down and downing tools, as grim as it all was, might offer some of the same pleasures of other enforced down times. As a nation we leaned into domestic projects – clearing out junk and baking banana bread. In establishing a new routine, I exercised more than I had before, with a shiny red pair of skipping ropes and dedicated walking, determined to make the most of my one outing a day. There were other phases and fads I can date to particular weeks of the lockdown. The learning Gaelic phase. The gin phase. Hearing the strain in the voices of friends with young children, under the pressure of home-schooling while working from home, made me deeply appreciate the extra time I now had, with no dependents to keep busy each day.
But still, despite all of this, that holiday feeling never arrived, not even briefly. There have been few times I’ve felt truly relaxed and focused on whichever pasttime filled my days, endlessly pottering around the house. I suspect it’s because no end was in sight. Even the moments in my life which have been acutely terrible, such as the loss of loved ones, I look back at the bubble of grief and intimacy, shared with others, with a kind of comfort. In such moments, even making a cup of tea is a small meditation between feeling wretched. Zoning out is a defence mechanism.
In contrast, lockdown has been like an itch that can’t be scratched. Who knows when we will properly express grief for all that has happened and feel a sense of catharsis. I suspect that, if we are fortunate enough to look back on it, these months of nothingness will have impacted the course of our lives in ways we are yet to discover.
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