Finding Life in Lockdown.
A story from Oxford.
So far 2020 has lived up to a growing infamy for the capricious. After witnessing its spread around the world in the wake of COVID-19, on the 23 March the once-unthinkable notion of a quarantine of society finally hit UK shores. Along with the rest of the UK and the world, the city of Oxford I have called home for six years has changed and emptied; an unpopulated picture postcard of itself.
Many of us lost much of the comforting structure around our lives — of work, home and family routines, socialising, travel, or merely ambling on city streets and in parks without the weight of inadvertently breaking quarantine rules.
The bustle of an Oxford summer of punting along the Thames, pub garden beers, students in their exam sub-fusc bumping alongside clusters of tourists will not come this year, and I don’t know if or when we’ll see a city we would recognise again. The University’s summer term, Trinity, has effectively been cancelled, friends and peers have departed.
Though not to conflate with the tragedies of bereavement, illness, front-line work, job losses and financial strain facing many, there is a sorrow all its own in the small losses each of us have faced when asked to leave behind the lives we knew, not knowing if we can ever get them back. For now, mere facsimiles of our lives remain in the ever-changing new normal that each week brings, and so finding peace in lockdown has become a fluid endeavour.
Many of us missing human connection have turned to technology and the ubiquitous Zoom video call — dinners, pub quizzes, party games have all been requisitioned into the virtual space, in a hope to recapture the connections that we crave. When work brought yet more video calls, with each week my attendance has slacked; my enthusiasm drained by Zoom Fatigue, now a well-known phenomenon.
Of course, a locked-down world without video calls would likely be significantly worse — more socially isolating and economically devastating. But this doesn’t change the fact that the reliance of telepresence is contributing to my overall weariness, and maybe yours, too.
So much of the joy of human interaction is in non-verbal communication. Alighting our social senses involves body language, facial expressions, eye-contact, and that enthralling sense of alignment when bouncing off someone else. By video, I may be watching friends, family or colleagues, but also watching that little video of myself, compelled like Narcissus, unable to resist reflecting on how I look and how I am being seen by those I am trying to connect with.
When my day job (alongside writing up my Arctic Climate PhD) at a college of the university was furloughed, I feared the loss of purpose as yet more of the familiar was changed. But it has actually been a mercy, allowing me to breathe, rest from screens and Zoom, and face the job-hunt after my current role ends in October; a time that feels unknowable in this most unique of years.
Living alone has brought its own dilemma. Too much time alone with my own thoughts and fears have left me less able to shake the stress and mental health burden that lockdown has brought on many of us, yet bringing my social or professional self into my home space of reflection, comfort, loungewear and unfiltered emotions has also jarred. When ruminations bounce in unexpressed thoughts, amplified by the silent walls around me (bar the odd bit of hammering from the renovations downstairs), I have become more protective of a space to feel these, separate from the public facade that must face the world from within this same space.
The need for the sensory, the full palette of life beyond the screen takes me inexorably back to nature. There is something about being natural spaces that is a release, allows me to breathe more deeply, and feel and think more openly and outside of the depths of my own head. Seeing the benign inattention of the natural world continuing around us can give liberating perspective to my human-sized worries, even during a pandemic.
The lengthening days bringing us toward summer are pushing out the liminal, quiet, shadowed spaces of dusk and dawn that I treasure; a time when nature itself seems paused in beautiful contemplation. Daytime runs out to green spaces are soul-soothing, but there has been a growing mental load in getting this needed fresh air while dodging the physical threat of passers-by, or anxiously eyeing the police officers anxiously eyeing ourselves, as we try not to feel guilty for the small mercies of daily exercise or savouring the fresh air while queueing for groceries.
Whether by intent or serendipity, those quieter moments are precious. There has been sparks of joy in waking to the 5am sunrise, or walking along the Thames tow paths with evening light streaming through the drifting white clouds of cottony willow seeds. The bright May sun has though brought its own gifts — warming parks and outdoor spaces long into the evenings. Port Meadow in the later hours swells with families and dispersed young people, recreating pubs, sports grounds or swimming pools in the fields and river, offering some hope and levity; a respite from the current realities.
Life has certainly taught me over the years not to be sure of the planned-upon or wished-for, with an ever-fluctuating path something I have grown almost to need for its familiarity. When life changes course, it can sweep away the banal minutiae of life, at times in both terrible and freeing ways. Trying to swim with the current, and living life in the moment, the precious sensory present, evokes the vibrancy of the life in our hands, and can help us thrive in change. There is always more to experience and explore.
For now, I will be keeping up my doses of nature and keep missing Zoom appointments — finding those small measures of peace amongst the turbulent currents of our new reality.