The New Normal

No one will have found 2020 to be an easy year. Everyone will have stories, some desperately tragic. We seek to express ourselves within our narrowed world. There have been times when I have had to resist the urge to let out my feelings in a blog post, but stopped myself. I shall not add to the misery of it by a personal commentary on pandemic or politics, other than to say that these two things are companions. They are cause and effect tied at the ankle. It is clear that the ‘three-legged race’ has not gone well in Britain. Here I shall leave a respectful and social distance for the sake of the mental health of my possible reader. And myself. I have to live with this woman, and it isn’t always easy.

How people have adapted to live in these difficult times is to be admired. It would be so easy to let it run you into the ground. I muse upon how life has changed in how our society works, how individuals are framing themselves within a society that is still out there, but has become less tangible. What is the ‘new normal’? As an attempt at categorisation, this term has a falseness. Isolation and separation is a highly personal experience. ‘Normal’ is a term that can only be applied within a context. We don’t have a broad context if our lives are constrained within our ‘bubble’. Communicaion, face to face, is limited to this reduced field. For the rest of our interactions, beyond our homes, we rely much more upon the electronic medium. We have the world mediated through news channels and social media. Some of this overlaps with our personal communications in ways that are not healthy. If the pandemic had happened a decade ago, its social effects would have played out very differently. Technology has been both boon and burden. I have had to pull back from the ever-present commentary, and the continual ‘breaking’ news. I find myself looking for the ‘truth’, for ‘reality’. It becomes harrowing – all this scouring of reliable(?) outlets, and Twitter. There is always something coming to light, some other piece of evidence for committing my mindset to dread.

On the boon side of the technology equation, I am grateful for the ability message people quickly, and to meet up with my family and friends virtually on video platforms. To see the faces of the people I love and care for is precious. Many gatherings and festivals are taking place on-line, and I have been able to take part in some from the comfort of my sofa. Of particular note were two ‘How The Light Gets In’ festivals, which were life affirming, particularly during lockdown. Speakers from all over the world joined the virtual forum from their domestic premises. This added a degree of humanity and sharing of our common pandemic experience. Even prominent people were working from home. Dogs barked, children played in adjoining rooms. Our local town had a music festival, ordinarily held in several venues in the town, but this year was held in the gardens and living rooms of the participants. It was wonderful to see people who are part of our community, but separated by invisible restrictions.

Home working has changed our public face. No longer constrained to business wear, people dress more for comfort. Zoom meetings bring their challenges. I have become aware of light and angles. It is easy to be self-conscious in the presence of my online self, who is a different person to the one I inhabit and project from in my internal realm. The face of the woman I see shows her years all too clearly, and the lockdown hair is definitely unkempt. I get the sense that – amongst women, at least – we are getting conscious of our framing, even if we are wearing scruffy garden trousers beneath camera line. Scarves seem to be popular. I wonder if neckwear is applied hastily over mundane domestic apparel when we are due in Zoom. Perhaps the sales of scarves have soared. In video meetings participants are cautioned to mute microphones unless speaking, and to keep as still as possible. For those of us who use our hands for gestures whilst speaking, and like to nod and make encouraging ‘hmm’ noises, it is very difficult. Some of us communicate more physically than others.

Going out in 2020 is like entering a strange world that is not habitable without protection. My front door is an airlock to the dangerous outside. If I go to the shops I cannot approach others within the 1-2 metre guideline nor exchange more than the briefest of courtesies, and only then from behind my face covering. Wary of touching potentially contaminated merchandise, I slather on hand sanitiser gel. How far can I trust others to maintain hygiene? I tell I say to the lady at the checkout – ‘Nice mask!’ I appreciate her wearing it all day, I really do. I have to wear a face covering only for a relatively short space of time and it takes some getting used to.

During lockdown I made cloth face coverings from old sheets and odd pieces of fabric. Earnest instructional videos sprung up, and close stitching and careful measurement became the mantra of the domestic mask-maker. (And some rude words from cack-handed seamstresses like myself!) New businesses dedicated to face coverings have sprung up since to take away ‘sewing angst’ and have provided jobs for skilled people. Other textile manufacturers have adapted their businesses to make all kinds of face coverings with various technical attributions. High-end designer wear manufacturers are making these essential accessories for the brave executive person-at-large. This would have been unthinkable only last year.

Gatherings with fellow humans are necessarily limited. The way that we engage with others has been re-codified. We are still developing protocols for the way we interact. Language has changed, not just in new nouns and verbs – face coverings, hand sanitisation, super-spreader, community transmission. Covid secure… That’s the jargon of the times. But we speak more formally to one-another, without the mediation of body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, as we switch to more distant forms of interaction. Written language is now more important, understanding precision and nuance is vital. It is too easy to deliver, or receive, the wrong message.

Social encounters with non-household members are conducted behind a layer of fabric and plastic fibre. We can no longer have a gathering of friends to share a meal or coffee. Coffee mornings and drinks parties have moved online. In our family setting, unable to meet with our family physically, we have played cards on a virtual table and made up quiz questions for get-togethers. In some ways we are more sociable, because we make a special point of gathering. We work on our being together, create a gestalt. On one occasion, we were having a lovely time quizzing and chatting over a glass of wine. I left the table to look at something cooking in the kitchen. On my return, the sight of the empty dining table was enough to bring tears to my eyes.

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