I don’t get all this talk of returning to normal. The excitement, the anticipation, the clear expectations other seem to have: where do they come from? Where did they get the time and the space and the hope to feel these feelings?
There are things that I am looking forward to, of course. Teaching all day without needing a mask is one. Having the option of different ways to exhaust our children’s energy and enthusiasm – trampoline parks, museums, occupied play areas – is another. Seeing new places, where they speak new languages, eat interesting food and reliably have sun, is definitely a third. But these things, tempting though they are, are not enough to make me feel ready for an open and unrestricted return to the world.
I can’t remember Life Before. I know that sounds overly dramatic, and of course it’s not entirely, literally, true, but it is an emotional truth. Every drop of my essence in what feels like forever has been focused purely on survival. Not surviving The Plague – that, weird though it probably seems, hasn’t touched my nerve centres. If we get it we get it and we deal with it then; and so far, praise God, we haven’t had to face it. So what has drained me of my memory, my energy? What have I been surviving? The endless monotony of everything being required with no remission and no relief. Knowing that if it is not done by me it will not be done at all, and knowing that It Not Happening will harm all those around me more than I am willing to risk. Knowing there is no respite at home; no comprehension at work; and no stopping in sight. I try to list specifics for those not in this boat. They smile faintly and nod: they are in this storm with me, after all, and don’t I know how lucky, how privileged I am, to have a home, and a job, and physical contact with those I love? So I add guilt to my list of everything I am surviving, because I do know these things, and I do recognise my privilege, and that just makes it more impossible to put into words why this has been So Damn Hard.
Lockdown, locking in our minds as well as our bodies, has become so familiar it feels gloriously safe. It reduces the number of decisions that need to be made to the extent that even my brain-fogged mind can handle them. It gives an easy answer to every request I don’t agree with: another plastic toy, you say? Sorry, no non-essential shopping. Hug from an acquaintance, from a student, from someone who seems to think personal space just doesn’t apply to them? Not a chance. (Oh, the inexpressible relief of finally having my rejection of these cultural intimacies understood and accepted with a single look.) Feeling lonely, swamped by awareness of how little we see others outside our nuclear family; or colleagues, in work time? Everyone else is noticing the same, so we get to feel more unified with our Facebook connections in our mutual isolation than we ever did in free life.
Beyond my immediate, introverted concerns lies a world that feels no more ready than I do for the restarting that will be required. I have heard mutterings recently that this is the ideal time for a comprehensive overhauling of our social and educational system, refocusing on the skills needed in the 21st century, not on rote recitation of facts needed in the 19th. Why did schools not act on this when they returned in March? goes the cry. And my heart screams in fury – do they really need to ask why? Do they not see, these faceless criticisers, just how much creative energy would be needed to pull hope and joy back into our curricula? How much optimism and faith are needed to make the world again from scratch?
I am not ready, nor am I willing, to return to a world where the main impetus of all our joint creativity and passion is focused on getting back to where we left off as fast as we can. There was too much wrong with that system. It was based on inequality; on exploitation; on the assumption that there are some people who deserve good things and others who don’t, and that’s just the way the world works, so don’t waste your energy trying to change it. That system is broken. It has been broken morally since the start, and it has been broken practically by a pandemic that shattered everything and everyone it touched.
But what can replace it? Big dreams need big hearts; big minds; big imaginations. They cannot be served by hearts that have been surrounded by walls to keep them safe and spaces that are now too filled with the jagged emptiness of fear and uncertainty to easily cross again. They cannot be created by minds that are hollow with an overload of minute details, choices made day after day after day after day that became, overnight, a possible cause of life and death. They cannot be seen in imaginations that have been reduced by such long habit to the size of these four walls, by the sound of these four voices. They cannot be spun from nothingness, and that is all I have right now.
I am not ready. I need a break. Just for a minute, for a breath, for a chance, just one, tiny, break. Give me some time when the sun is shining and there is no fear, no racing motion, no dramatic need. Then I will come back stronger, steel and resilience forged in isolation having a chance to expand into the armour of change. Then, maybe, just maybe, I will be ready. But I am not ready yet.