On Sunday my daughter and I sat in her bedroom and read quietly together for five minutes. It’s the happiest I’ve been all week. I say “read”: she can make out some letters but the only word she recognises is her own name. She was looking at the pictures in the Royal Horticultural Society’s Good Plant Guide. It was bliss. I got through four or five pages of the new Hilary Mantel before she climbed up my back, or bounced on my head, or whatever.
It’s obvious how this lockdown is challenging for extroverts starved of society. But now that we’re all locked in the house together 24/7, it becomes equally clear that introverts starved of time truly alone must also find themselves clawing the walls. Yesterday I unaccountably woke up at 4am and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I got up, made coffee, and read for two hours before anyone else came down. The relief of this sudden breathing space massively outweighed the sleep loss. This morning I set my alarm for 5am. I’d be feeling great if I hadn’t hit my head on a door frame during a weights routine.
Whenever those quizzes claiming to determine whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert come up on Facebook, I break them. Plenty of people, perhaps most, are both. We all need society and we all need solitude, and the ways we each get those has been entirely upended. That’s far from being the main difficulty of this extraordinary situation, but still. Everyone’s struggle with this is unique to them.
Given that the internet is the only visible outlet, the surge among some theatre-makers towards online activity seems totally understandable. Others have sounded an equally valid note of caution: no-one should feel pressured into suddenly generating a whole new means of creation from a standing start, when they’re still coming to terms with the situation. I have sympathy for those still reeling, and for those casting around for something to do because their sense of self or their ability to pay the rent depends on it. Everyone’s struggle with this is unique. Be kind.
I had the dubious advantage of having spent the past month telling everyone who’d listen that this would happen, so emotionally at least I’ve been able to adapt relatively quickly. Only three weeks ago I was in a big job interview, along with a potential job share partner, and of course we were asked the inevitable question about the main challenges facing theatres in the years ahead. I said coronavirus was going to shut a lot of theatres, and my partner basically told me to shut up, so we moved on to talking about Brexit instead. But this has been in the post for a while and I’ve had my teeth gritted for the moment it landed on the doormat.
So in the first day or two after the theatres closed I’d already put up a couple of old shows online. At the time this just seemed like the decent thing to do, rather than having any sort of intent to generate anything in particular. But within another day I’d set up a Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/danielbye) and committed to creating material online. If you look at the small print, though, I’m simply promising to release writing to subscribers - the kind of writing I already do - rather than trying to master a whole new art form. I have nothing but admiration for those whose creativity immediately found its way through the cracks in the current situation. Fortunately I’m in rehearsal (albeit in a weird telescoped process taking place over Skype and Zoom), so I’m exempted from having to think of anything new.
Unless you want to commission me, in which case, I just lost all my work, yes please whatever it is I’ll do it yes.
I am, though, gently exploring a book idea. Everyone else takes one step forward into the 21st century; I take two steps back from it. What is this situation but an opportunity to move more slowly?
Like everyone else, I’ve started baking bread, boiling up peelings for stock and taking an interest in the garden. We’ve started getting a veg box and cooking with whatever seasonal luck brings into our pot. I’m planning raised beds and a woodshed and tonight I’ll bake my first pie in a year. All of these are things that, in my self-image, I do regularly, like shaving. All of these are things I never do. It’s daft to talk about silver linings in a situation like this but if I don’t die of asthma-heightened Covid-induced pneumonia, then I hope to emerge into a world with which we’ve all changed our relationship a little.
This without even beginning to think about the obvious ways in which our current socio-economic system is utterly unfitted for taking care of its citizens. The right have thankfully conceded that some of the normal rules of their hegemonic system don’t apply in this situation. But how much better would it be if the system placed value in people’s wellbeing in the first place. With a universal basic income and systems of healthcare and essential services whose purpose was to deliver healthcare and essential services, rather than financial gain, imagine how much better the state would be to cope with this crisis. Any system that has to be totally upended in the face of a crisis is no system at all. I can only hope that some on the right will recognise that many citizens have already been in a state of permanent crisis for a full decade, and help to build a system that works for everyone.
But it’s too early to think about what happens afterwards. Like the rush to find new methods of creation, people are rushing towards prognostication about the new world we’ll emerge into. This is going to get worse before it gets better and we will be in the present situation, on and off, until well into next year. No one really knows how they’ll be changed by profound loss, deep pain, or prolonged uncertainty. But we all will be.
What I do know is that it’s spring at the moment, and next year it will be spring again, and the year after that. I think my daughter will be reading for real when we come through this. But what a pleasure that will be.
Ahem. Another nudge for that patreon. Desperate times. https://www.patreon.com/danielbye
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will