I was supposed to have all my shit figured out by now!
I don’t know about you, but when I finally processed the idea that a COVID vaccine was in the offing, a thought began to cast a shadow over my mind. It was the horribly familiar feeling that it was the night before deadline and my assignment wasn’t done. What do you mean, lockdown is ending? I haven’t finished self-actualising yet!
To be clear, I’d quite like less people to die and to take the burden off everyone who’s been having a terrible time in isolation. I want to go outside without feeling nervous and see my family in Australia and my friends again and sing with my choir and socialise indoors. I want my life back! But also, do I?
Before March 2020 my life was mostly about enjoying the fact that I lived in a major city, with all the theatre tickets and overpriced dinners that that entails. I was determined to show my suburb-loathing teenage self that we made it and we could do anything! It was amazing how often “anything” turned out to mean “buy a £14 cocktail”. I lived the London stereotype, right down to harbouring a vague sense that something was missing from my life but always being too busy to bother finding out what.
I’ve been privileged and/or lucky enough that 2020 for me has mostly been a year of quiet, solitary walks in the park and long phone calls. I live with a partner I get along with, we have no kids to put through Zoom school, I’m in good health and have a secure income from a job I can do remotely. Like a lot of us, the main things I’ve had to battle have been internal demons, which were all that remained once all the others were locked outside. Some people dealt with this by getting a dog or doing Couch to 5K; I chose option C, go to therapy. This was it: my one chance to fix everything! Finally I would banish my inability to focus, find out what I really wanted in life and stop being someone who cries because my friends are busy or it’s winter.
Except, of course, I’d gained the same extra unpaid full-time job of “living through a pandemic” as everyone else. All the energy I’d usually spend on commuting and Doing Stuff has been repurposed to keep me sane. Not that therapy hasn’t been useful. In between trying to make my therapist laugh at my jokes, I’ve learned a lot – for example, did you know that if I feel lonely, I’m allowed to ask my friends to talk to me and they will usually oblige?
I kept hearing Gandalf in my head saying, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us”. Except lockdown isn’t some kind of gift and thinking of it that way is just about the most privileged take possible. Good things have come out of it, sure, like some of us have spent more time with our families and I’ve gotten to know all the species of birds in my local park like the incurable anorak I am. But it’s heartbreaking on so many levels and at any given moment, either you or someone you love is having a horrible time and it didn’t have to be this way. Aside from the fact that we have nothing to do but navel-gaze, choosing now to embark on a self-improvement journey seems pretty masochistic.
Probably part of it is that some people are doing brilliantly in 2020. I’ve seen friends and friends of friends start dating, find partners, move in with said partners, get fabulous new jobs, move to Amsterdam and generally live their best lives this year. I’m very happy they’ve managed to buck the trend but just because everything’s on fire doesn’t mean my natural tendency towards envy has been solved – like I said, I haven’t finished therapy yet.
The other thing I’ve been trying to work on is that I’m a chronic procrastinator. I can usually never get anything done until I’ve realised it’s too late to do it properly and then the panic propels me into action, which is neither comfortable nor sustainable, but I don’t seem to know any other way to be. Changing it requires doing something and that requires a deadline, but so far none of my teachers or bosses have thought to set me a deadline for fixing my whole approach to life. So, when I say I panicked at the news that we might soon be heading back to the way things were, that’s not a bad thing. It meant I could finally focus on asking myself what I was missing in the Before Times.
I used to be so busy that even though I saw my friends every week at various things, I regularly got a case of the lonelies and had to pin people down for an uninterrupted conversation. I have a small gang of people who I need like air, but I wouldn’t exactly say I’m outgoing. I donate to food banks and racial justice organisations but to this day I haven’t signed into the NHS volunteer responder app because I’m scared that a justifiably angry immunocompromised person will yell at me over the phone.
It put things in perspective a bit to watch my mum cry on the livestream of my Nanna’s funeral in Australia while my fellow millennials sheltered at their parents’ houses. What I want is family, or community; a way to give back, or failing that, more excuses to cook dinner with my friends, help each other move, swap writing feedback and houseplant advice. My main source of this since I moved to London has been my community choir, Sing Tower Hamlets, where I’ve met some of my favourite people and where I’ve been the person who makes the coffee for years – they think this means I’m very committed but really it’s a sneaky way to make myself turn up each week no matter how tired I am, because singing is like turning a light on in my soul. We do pub singalongs and perform at community festivals and our concerts raise money for a homeless shelter; it’s all sickeningly wholesome. Choir is a Zoom affair at the moment, but when it eventually isn’t, I don’t want it to go back to being the only thing of its kind in my life. I want to make a habit of showing up every week and making metaphorical coffee for everybody.
I still don’t know where I see myself in five years or what to do with my hair or any of the weighty stuff I hadn’t answered at the start of this year, because I’m too busy trying to navigate living in a global crisis. If I can come out of it alive and without having infected anyone, that would be enough. If it must be some kind of growth opportunity, then what I want to have learned is this: how do I make sure whatever I’m doing with my time feels worthwhile? No pressure, just the question everyone spends a lifetime trying to answer.
It’s entirely possible that when it’s safe to do things again I’ll realise that what I truly want is to get tanked five nights a week and never go home, which will be healthy and valid. But I’m turning 30 at the end of this year and I may as well embrace it now. I’ve joined some community garden Facebook groups and I’m drafting in friends to cook found-family dinners in my kitchen. When we’ve all got our jabs, I’ll be ready with a trowel and a casserole dish.