Reality and fiction are starting to merge. Had I started reading Lionel Shriver’s ‘The Mandibles’ a few months ago it would have just been another novel set in an alternate future reality; an interesting idea but with little plausible basis. Starting it six weeks into lockdown, however, puts a whole new perspective on things. Remembering what is our ‘new normal’ and what is a plotline in the book I’m reading is becoming quite challenging. Every now and then I panic about needing to hand in all my gold jewellery to the government. Then I remember that a) I don’t have any gold jewellery and b) that’s in ‘The Mandibles’, not real life.
Real life is the one where I have to stay two metres away from everyone who doesn’t live in my house. Real life is the one where there are no restaurants, no bars, no cinemas, no sports events, no concerts, no theatre, no parties, no coffees with friends and no travel. There are a lot of things that ‘aren’t’ any more.
A few new things have appeared. Distance. Facemasks. Clearer horizons (literal, not metaphorical ones). Fear, anxiety and unease. And enough banana bread recipes to last us to the end of time.
I don’t think I’m unusual in saying I absolutely did not see this one coming. My blog post at the end of February, There’s Another Storm Coming was not a prescient and insightful warning about what was about to happen, just a reflection on the fact that things happen. I hadn’t even realised countries had/were supposed to have plans for exactly this scenario. And I wouldn’t have believed life could have changed so significantly, so wholly, so quickly and so finally in the course of a few months. China’s lockdown seemed like the response of an authoritarian state: not something we would ever see. And yet here we are. Essentially living in a novel set in the near future where the unimaginable has happened and we all need to get used to our ‘new normal’. A sea change to end all sea changes.
I haven’t used my time in lockdown to learn a new language: I haven’t even managed to brush up on the ones I already know. I haven’t started a company: lack of ideas/entrepreneurial spirit to blame there. I haven’t written a novel: definitely no excuse for that. I even missed out on the initial ‘tidy all your cupboards’ phase as I was ill for the first few weeks. Then I think lockdown apathy and a slow recovery kicked in so I felt like I had ‘wasted’ all my potential lockdown productivity. Which led to more apathy. And other lockdown clichés, mainly involving wine and sleeping in.
Instead I’ve started and deleted numerous blog posts. I do more yoga than I’ve ever done before, on Zoom, an app that no one had ever heard of before. I still do circuits, coffees, craft, book club and drinks, just online now. I’ve been baking for myself again instead of for orders. I’ve barely driven and I’ve only been to one shop in the last six weeks. I’ve even been for bike rides.
My life is very different but it’s also very much the same. I’m still at home virtually (and I use the word in its non-technological sense) all the time. I still exercise and run and walk in the park, where I rarely saw anyone and now have to dodge the hoards that have driven there. I still bake. I still read. I still only just manage to get all the cleaning, cooking, gardening and washing done. I don’t understand where all the extra time I should have acquired is going, although it may well have something to do with the wine and sleeping in…
And now we are about to enter a new phase as lockdown starts to ease and will discover what our lives are going to look like now. I think about how different my childhood was to how my children’s lives are. How different pre COVID-19 life is compared to post COVID-19. How ‘normal’ is just what you are used to and how everything changes anyway.
As for reality and fiction, I am only a quarter of the way through ‘The Mandibles’ and I’d love to say I think it’s all going to turn out fine. Unfortunately I have a horrible feeling life in the book is only going to get worse. I’m sincerely hoping this is where reality and fiction part ways and our normal is one we can get used to without needing the ‘new’ or a hashtag to describe it because it’s too much to contemplate without.
I’m hoping for a normal that takes all the positive things to come out of this crisis and focuses on them. A new normal that we can live with without constantly comparing it to the old normal. Just a normal normal. Like a bridge in summer or winter, not necessarily better or worse, simply different due to the circumstances.