2020: Extracts of a life unspooled

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Towards the start of 2020, as the first lockdown loomed on the horizon, my mind did its usual thing and melded into a wad of worry. It was heavy, saturated and impossible to wring out while my overlapping responsibilities piled higher and higher.

It was at this moment that I started a journal to document the the very early days of COVID-19 reaching our shores and capture the moment our lives instantly swivelled.

The journal is still a work in progress, but one day I’ll get it printed and give it to my children. For now, here are some edited extracts, and some reflections on the year as a whole.

It’s January 2020 and I’m coughing. I’ve been coughing for the last few weeks. So has my husband, and so have my children.

I make an appointment to see a doctor.

“It just feels so…‘creaky’ in my chest. It’s not like any cough I’ve had before.”

She presses a stethoscope between my shoulder blades and asks me to cough into the unventilated room. I oblige.

“It sounds fine. It’s probably just a lingering cold. Come back in a few weeks if it hasn’t cleared.”

It’s February 2020 and I’m still coughing.

I make my weekly trip into London on the train. I cough.

I sit next to people in the office. I cough.

I go to a work conference. I cough.

I go to a gig. I cough.

I go to a restaurant to meet a pregnant friend. I cough.

My train home is cancelled so I get as far as I can on an alternative line and get a taxi the rest of the way. I cough.

The taxi driver is keen to talk.

“This stuff in China. They’re burning all the bodies, you know. It’s much worse than they’re making out. There are videos — you should watch them.”

“Where have you seen this?” I ask.

“YouTube.”

It’s March 2020 and I’m on the floor, lying among the tangled, unspooled tape of our lives.

Tape which has been unceremoniously expelled from its ever-rotating reel without warning.

The mess is everywhere and I don’t know where to start to make it right again.

I spend the next couple of weeks repeatedly trying to straighten it out and wind it all back on to the spool. But, with shaking hands and an unpredictable gale running riot through our home, no progress is ever made.

The daily deluge of information continues to be poured onto us from above.

All my brain wants — needs — to do is shutdown and sleep. But it can’t. I have to keep going.

I have to keep caring for our kids. I have to hide my fear from them (and the grab and go bags I insisted we packed late one night). I have to keep working from home. I have to keep us fed. I have to keep us — and those we love — safe.

I feel like I’m failing and falling.

Ads targeting me with messages about how much “spare time” I must now be in possession of feel like a punch to the face.

Eventually I accept that — for the time being, at least — our lives, and my mind, are going to have to adapt rather than reboot.

The mess remains — an ever-present reminder of what’s changed, and what’s gone.

It’s April 2020 and it’s my son’s 5th birthday.

His birthday plans had been cancelled weeks ago. Despite showing little outward interest in the pandemic, the news of his party’s demise struck him hard. He absorbs everything and experiences feelings deeply and silently until something prompts them to erupt — I’m starting to see that now.

We have a party in our kitchen, just the four of us. Grandparents, uncles and aunties Zoom in. Video messages from friends are played. Candles are extinguished, cake is eaten.

My son sleeps clutching a photo of his classmates. He’s the biggest extrovert I’ve ever known. He needs noise, movement and constant stimulation in order to thrive. I need the opposite.

It’s impossible for him to cut me and his dad any slack. But his relentlessness is saving us every day.

It’s May 2020 and I’m watching a livestream of my mum and dad’s Click and Collect slot from their local Asda supermarket.

I happened to video call them as they swung into the collection bay and I figured I might as well stay on the line. Small slices of random amusement like this need to be grabbed with both hands.

Getting out of bed feels easier than it did last month.

At 7am I log on to my laptop, ready to squeeze in my three hours of daily work before my husband’s work day commences at 10.

The children are handed back and forth between us, like relay batons.

Home-schooling is going terribly.

We get an email from our son’s school:

Do you intend to send your child to school on 1 June?

1. Yes

2. No

We have no idea how to answer.

It’s June 2020 and I’m staring at my computer screen, aghast as autocratic mania grips the USA.

While my baby naps in the next room, armed police officers clad in black fire tear gas into crowds of peaceful protestors for the sake of a photograph.

A man called George Floyd has been murdered by a White police officer. And a woman called Amy Cooper weaponised her Whiteness.

Both incidents were captured on camera, like countless incidents before. But, for the first time, they captured White attention. Including mine.

Why was I only watching and listening now? I realised it was because I was no longer being distracted by the frenetic pace of my pre-COVID life.

I looked around me and I realised that those distractions were still strewn all around my home. So I gathered them up and, for the first time, examined each frame.

I could finally see that my very pleasant life — while it had never been handed to me on a plate — had still come at a cost to others.

My son sees That Photo of Donald Trump stood outside the church and asks who he is. He’s the President of America, I tell him, and he’s a Bad Guy.

I tell him that, a few years ago, there’d been an election, just like in The Election Badge episode of Hey Duggee. And that people ended up choosing the bad guy, though they didn’t realise quite how bad he was at the time.

“Will the police catch him?”

“This Bad Guy is in charge of the police. So he’s telling them what to do. It’s up to people like us to speak out so that, hopefully, people don’t vote for him again in the future.”

I vow to speak out.

It’s July 2020 and we’re swabbing ourselves — and our children — at Chessington World of Adventures.

All thanks to a cough I developed in the last day or so.

The last time we were here our son was three and we’d taken him there as a treat for being such a great big brother to his newborn sister. It’d been a wonderful day.

Never did I think that the next time we pulled into the car park it would be to get tested for a deadly virus that had brought the world to a standstill.

Even stranger still, the theme park is currently open for business as of last week.

I can barely get my head around how, in the same plot of land, half the humans on it are there for fun and half are there to make themselves gag with an elongated cotton bud.

But this world of contrasts — of polarised views and experiences — is something that’s making itself increasingly visible as the pandemic months build up. People are seeing opposite realities, opposite truths, opposite information.

Some people seem unable to comprehend that others’ experiences, fears and problems may be completely different to their own. That, while some people whizz around on sanitised rollercoasters with their children, others are still separated from theirs while they work on the frontline.

The tests come back negative within 24 hours.

It’s August 2020 and our baby isn’t a baby anymore. She’s a two-year-old chatterbox who believes that naps are beneath her.

That’s about 20 hours of alone time lost per week.

Unlike her older brother, she’s truly thriving this year. A textbook introvert, she’s living her ultimate life, her family constantly on hand for cuddles and snacks.

Home is her comfort zone. I can relate to that.

We travel to London for the first time in months to visit the Natural History Museum. We’ve never been before — the crowds and queues always put me off.

But crowds no longer exist.

It’s September 2020 and things feel kind of…normal?

Our son is back at school, and our daughter has started to go to a childminder up the road for a couple of days a week.

I’d forgotten how hard it is to get two small children out of the house with everything they need each day, but we quickly find a new rhythm.

I’ve started gardening and I’m writing for pleasure more than ever. I’m really enjoying my job.

I feel more fulfilled than I have done in years.

It’s October 2020 and I’m wailing on the kitchen floor.

“Are you sad, Mummy?” my two-year-old asks.

I don’t even know what I am.

I feel like I’m constantly lurching between clarity and confusion, joy and sorrow, gain and loss, rainbows and storms.

I want someone to come and lift me out of this situation, place me in a soft bed and only allow me to emerge once I’m ready to look after myself, let alone others.

But I’m the mother. The shock absorber.

My daughter got sick last week. Miserable and feverish, I ferried her over to Chessington to get her tested again. While we were waiting for the results, we got the dreaded notification from my son’s school that his bubble had burst and that he’d need to isolate for the next couple of weeks.

And today, this cloudy Sunday — a few days after new regional restrictions have been imposed all over England— it all got too much.

The prospect of having to work, care for the children and (attempt to) home-educate again overwhelmed my brain and I sank to the ground.

I feel like I’m letting my children down. I’m so determined to get them through this as unscathed as possible that I’m putting an unsustainable amount of pressure on myself.

What I keep coming back to is how this crisis could’ve provided an opportunity for the country to unite against a common enemy: the virus.

Instead, by imposing local restrictions — with different regions (mainly northern ones) faring worse than others — we’re somehow in a situation where our country is more divided than ever.

Local leaders are battling against each other in order to fight for the rights of their citizens, creating tension and anxiety up and down the country.

And I realise that the pandemic has been politicised.

The government’s strategy is driven by their desire to retain power in the long-term, not to do good right now.

It’s November 2020 and I’m overwhelmed with relief.

Today it was formally projected that Donald Trump has lost the US election, which took place earlier this week. I should feel elated and overjoyed but, once again, I could just crawl into bed and sleep for days.

Joe Biden’s victory has proven that the Western world’s electoral systems are — just about — strong enough to withhold an absolute battering from far right factions. It makes me hopeful for the next UK election, although as it stands that’s still many years away.

Closer to home, England is now in Lockdown 2.0. Schools and childcare remain open, and we’ve been able to form a childcare bubble with my parents.

A ‘normal’ family Christmas is looking doubtful.

It’s December 2020 and I’m writing this.

The decorations are up but the spare room is empty. At least I don’t have to move the clothes horse.

I’m re-reading what I wrote this time last year about what the last decade had taught me. I expressed that I wanted to put my privileges to work, but in truth I didn’t know how.

2020 showed me what I needed to do.

2020 made me realise that I hold power, and that it’s my duty to try and extend it to others.

2020 made me realise that it’s more important to ‘speak out’ than ‘be kind’, but that you don’t have to choose between the two. Indeed, if you’re not on the direct receiving end of harmful words or actions, speaking out with kindness is infinitely more effective.

2020 made me realise that being a good parent isn’t about keeping your children happy all the time. It’s about recognising that they’ll never experience life in the same way as you because they aren’t you. Indeed, letting them feel all their emotions and helping them recognise where they come from is the best tool I can give them.

2020 made me realise that I, too, should make better use of this tool in terms of my own feelings and behaviours.

2020 showed me that ‘hope’ isn’t about looking into the future and seeing a utopian vision where everything is perfect. It’s about seeing exactly what’s in front of you, right now. It’s about trusting that everything will be OK, but knowing that you must play a part in making it so.

2020 made me realise that I have enough — I have so much — and that it’s time to stop striving for ourselves and make space for others, instead.

I spent so many years yearning for more. Not more stuff. But more fulfilment, more connections, more productivity. I think what 2020 has shown me is that, actually, the most radical thing that people like me can do is to start yearning for less.

It’s our insatiable appetites for achieving maximum human efficiency which has gotten the planet and its human population into this mess. We were always over-reaching and stretching the capacity of the Earth to its very limit. Now it has shown us that it can stretch no further.

Yes, it may have been a freak, singular moment that caused this particular virus to rear its head, but it’s the way that we occupy the planet and live our lives that resulted in its devastating and uncompromising spread across the globe.

The battery-style manufacturing processes, the ceaseless importing and exporting, the exponential profits and limitless heights of capitalism and wealth.

Our desire to travel, to consume, to taste and to experience something different every single day. Our instinctive rejection of the humdrum, the same, the familiar — conditioned into us by those at the very top of the heap who promise to fulfil our everchanging desires while hoarding all the truly important things. All of this created a perfect breeding ground for COVID-19.

We were endlessly moving but we were lying in wait.

And this is the result. We wanted something new and we got it. This is the planet’s way of saying: enough. Please, change. Please, slow down. Please, expect less of me.

As we approach the end of this year, the expelled tape of our pre-plague lives has yet to be rewound back onto the reel.

Our days are no longer full of endlessly-moving, interconnecting parts. Instead, it feels like we’ve snipped out the important bits of tape and arranged them in a grid so we can shift them around at a moment’s notice, according to each of our needs and the inescapable circumstances within which we find ourselves each day.

Unlike a continuous roll of tape, no section is reliant on another in order to function. Of course, sudden gusts of wind — like the Tier 4 curveball — can still scatter everything into the air again. But little pieces of tape are much easier to pick up and rearrange than perfectly-edited reels.

And there, at the centre of the grid, is our home.

Our home worked so hard for us this year. It feels weird to say this, but I’m proud of it.

I keep thinking of that famous (kind of) quote from Mother Teresa that various Instagrammers proudly display in their homes:

If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.

More than anything, 2020 showed me what a huge privilege going home — and being able to stay there — is. I’ll never take that for granted again.

Mother, writer, overthinker. I write about all sorts of things and I’m usually tired. She / her.

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