It’s the lack of a future, isn’t it? The way the medium-term future has dissolved, an entire skyline razed. We know what we’ll do tomorrow – stay at home, or go to work if we have to. We have an idea of what we might do next year, When This Is All Over. In two weeks, a month, two months? Nobody knows.
I fucking hate uncertainty. I like routine, habits, plans. I like knowing they’re there for me to rail against when the mood takes me. I like knowing what’s going to happen; I like clear definitions and neat conclusions. I am far from alone in this, I know. Most of us struggle to thrive on uneven ground, to live within lines that are wobbly and constantly being scribbled out and redrawn.
I keep playing ‘The Waiting’ – originally by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, it chronicles the anxieties and uncertainties of being newly in love. You hear it and think, wow, even Tom Petty got left on read. But the version I can’t stop listening to is a live one, with lead vocals by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder. Something about Vedder’s voice suggests he’s two seconds away from bursting into tears, and it suits the yearning mood of the song almost unbearably well. And right now, it’s not a love song, it’s a mantra: “The waiting is the hardest part / Every day you get one more yard / You take it on faith, you take it to the heart / The waiting is the hardest part.”
And in the current situation, we have been thrown on to a learning curve we never would have chosen. We are having to adjust to huge changes in our daily lives – and we will adjust. No, we already are. I reckon that within a week or so, we’ll have adapted to our new normal, because as a species, that’s what we do. We adapt. I can claim no expertise here but my hunch is within the next 7-10 days, we’ll be used to our powered-down lives, and we’ll be OK for a few weeks. Not exactly thriving, sure, but less freaked out by the silent streets, darkened buildings and ghost towns. Then a second wave of frustration will hit. I’ve seen a few people on Twitter talking about The Big Cry – tears that have hit with force after just a few days of having to stay home. This is the first onslaught of grief, and all we can do is face it. A certain peace lies on the other side of it. Have The Big Cry. While I was going through the biggest break-up of my life and crying a lot (I mean, I cry a lot in general but in this particular instance at least I had a good reason), a friend said “the thing about tears is that once they’re out, they’re out.” You’re crossed some crying off your list, you’re a few sobs lighter than you were before. With every tear shed, you get one more yard.
But we are having to learn things, and learn them quickly. How to ask for help, and how to accept it when it’s offered. How to home-school children. How to go to the supermarket now it’s a tremendous source of stress rather than a thing you do in between more interesting things. How to maintain friendships and relationships when you can’t meet in person or can’t get the fuck away from each other. How to say “this is shit, I feel shit, and there is nothing any of us can do about it” – and how to hear that from someone you love and accept not being able to do anything about it. We had no preparation for this.
And I’ve lost count of the number of writers I’ve seen or heard saying, “I know I should write about this but I can’t, I just can’t. The words won’t come.” It feels trivial to give your account of things unless you’re working in the health service or are an actual politician, and more trivial still to complain about not being able to put together some sentences. But to feel unable to do the one thing that always saves you? To have the words stay stubbornly out of reach of your itchy typing fingers? It hurts, throbs at your temples, aches in your bones. I want to make sense of this, you think. Or rather: I want to make this make sense. I need to make this mean something. I need to give this an ending.
The only solace to be had, I think, is in the quotidian things. The horizon is out of sight; the things that were going to sculpt the terrain of the next few months – that wedding, that gig, that holiday – are pushed back. The small constancies are all we have for now. Noticing things when you do go outside – the comforting solidness of trees, the patterns of branches against the sky, the bite of cold spring wind, daffodils and pansies blooming regardless of what’s happening on the news. The friends who message you daily, just to check in. People doing lovely things for each other – I write this with a roast dinner warming in the oven, delivered in Pyrex by my friend S in a carefully choreographed doorstep drop. I left brownies and fizz for out for her, the least I could do. The daftness of pets, if you’re lucky enough to have them. The glorious silliness of social media.
Now is not the time to save anything for best – in fact, there is never a time to save anything for best. Light the expensive candle, use the spendy hand cream (my God, slather yourself in hand cream), open the good wine. Every day we stay home, sit tight and wait it out, we get one more yard. One yard closer to rebuilding that skyline, one yard nearer to the horizon shimmering back into view.
Look after yourselves and your loved ones as best you can. Stay at home. Wash your hands. And save yourself: don’t join Houseparty. That is one stressful app.