In the patterns of my normal life, isolation refers to the act in which I voluntarily engage as often as possible in order to write, the achievement of which is something I celebrate. That is, until January 2020.
Prior to January, my writing life involved the ins and outs of necessary and often welcomed interruptions.
My husband leaving for and returning from his two-day-a-week job; on weekends, the irregular visits of adult children and my siblings and friends; and one day a week my own joy of going out for a session of Tai Chi with the added bonus of conversations and coffee with my fellow-Qi Gong participants. In my private role as a lifelong but often clandestine writer/researcher as well as a mother/wife and career woman, sequestrations have consistently been sought-after prizes. The ability to withdraw into my other world of imaginary creation has been for me, and will always be, a privilege and, if pressed, I might even admit a pleasure.
In March, however, the world changed. Almost overnight, the word isolation took on new meanings.
Week one of isolation brings the annoyances of change. These are the barely discernible signs of things not happening as usual, bringing with them breaks in routine that should not have affected me but did. My husband is not showering as he usually does, not readying himself for one of his jobs that take him outside of home. Instead, he’s working in his office, the one next to mine. This is the office he normally works in the three days out of five he doesn’t leave home, so what’s the deal? In reality, nothing is different except this is not one of those three stay-at-home days. To be fair, there are no scrapings of files or slamming of drawers and not even the soft woosh of the printer. Nothing to interject my immersion into my writing world. For me, next door, the only disrupting factor is the knowledge of his presence, a silent and, in truth, unobtrusive physicality that I do not seem to be able to ignore. This awareness makes me restless and I move out of my private space, filled with a sense of wrongness. I head to the kitchen. My husband is already there. He’s got a glass in his hand and is moving towards the filtered water tap, something he does often during any normal pre-covid-19 stay-at-home day. We skirt around each other, trying not to move into the other’s space, even though we have been sharing all the metres and centimetres of this reasonably-sized house for nearly four decades, prior to this ‘unprecedented’ era of change.
Week two brings a vexing issue. We have not yet worked ourselves into an acceptable pattern of behavior. Our daughter won’t visit because she’s a teacher and is ‘exposed’. My siblings won’t visit because we are in ‘that’ age group.
e hear from our doctor.
The ‘flu vaccine stocks are in and this requires a trip to his surgery. Do we need to wear masks, we question each other, fully aware we do not have any to wear and acquisition of them at this point in the panic is impossible. The doctor’s receptionist sounds weary. Perhaps she’s heard this question too often. Wait in the car until we call is the instruction she provides, in a tone that displays no lilting or lifting of voice, making me feel like I am a child again and being reprimanded. I don’t think she meant it like that. My husband and I obediently follow her directions. We arrive in the car park and sit like dutiful children side by side in the front seats, hands in laps or resting on the steering wheel, depending on who is sitting where. We both stare out through the windscreen. Cars come to and leave the nearby shopping centre car park across the street. Is it just the strangeness of our situation that makes me aware of how most drivers and passengers hesitate as they leave their vehicles, as if this might be the last time they will see their Toyota or Mazda or Suzuki, and each one’s head is swinging left to right? Perhaps scanning the area for other shoppers, I decide. Watching for risk and potential contamination. Distancing. In other times, prior to March 2020, we have been here in the surgery car park, the view as it is today in front of us, as we wait for the surgery or the pathologist’s rooms to open, or for one of us to return. I can’t recall ever noting in so much fine detail the broader periphery of the tarmac and its vehicular occupants. I am watching as I would a movie where the events and the soundtrack have led me to anticipate something threatening is about to happen and I need to keep my eyes peeled for any small change. I can tell my husband is caught in the same strange world across the road but it’s not his way to see beyond the reality of shoppers coming and going as I do. We are still waiting. As husband and wife, sharing our vehicle is so common the oddness of being compelled to do so makes any ordinary commentary seem somehow wrong or illegitimate. Then the call comes and now we walk, one leading, the other a distance behind. Is it 1.5 metres, or am I too close? Neither of us have seen another human being for more than fourteen days so does the distancing still apply? The well-advertised distancing regulation makes us feel awkward, we who have been married fifty-five years, so we bow our heads and look down at the footpath below and watch the space passing beneath our feet. Without any lapse, we are ushered toward the nurse’s room. The narrow passageway we must travel along to get to the hallowed room means we must struggle to maintain our distance, and it is with guilty relief that I almost fall into the larger but still small space of the nurse’s sanctuary. I rush for one of two chairs, relieved, and temporarily feeling safe, separated from my husband but not the nurse by at least two metres.
By week three, we are accustomed to online grocery shopping and can acknowledge a sense of sanctuary within our home. We even go as far as complimenting ourselves on our good fortune to have several rooms in which to move in order to separate ourselves and in which to find other activities to keep ourselves busy. One sunny shared lunch on the verandah prompts my husband to say ‘I rather like this way of life’, and this is the man who was afraid to retire. There are some pluses coming out of the changed world.
It’s changed again and it’s now filled with ambiguous messages about the relaxing of rules so we can get the economy moving but, remember, it’s still not safe. I find myself agreeing with my husband. I too like this way of life, this enforced but now comfortable isolation and the freedom to sit on a sunny verandah and be assured of safety. But at what cost?
As I keep my head buried in what I do each and every day, apparent is the knowledge that not only the word isolation but other words and phrases, the tools of a writer, have taken on new understandings so rapidly that already we are abbreviating them or creating ways to incorporate them into our social conversation so as to lessen their impact on our world.
Novel – fresh, different, new, or my current work of fiction.
Coronavirus – something that’s been around for decades but, like it’s current version, novel coronavirus, manages to remain not completely knowable or recognisable.
Self – personality, nature, identity, solitary being.
Distancing – unfriendliness, hostility, detaching, untouchable.
Together these translate for some translate to mean a hotel room with food delivered for fourteen days. In a novel post-coronavirus world are we losing our identity as the humans we were only a month or two ago in our need to remain detached. Our human existence depends on someone else. More than one, such as families, communities, tribes, nations, and every other human. Interactions and relationships, comparison and connections. Nothing has meaning without finding a place within and without others. So much of our culture and arts practice has until recently depended on human responses and interactions, but already they are being reborn and transformed in novel ways. There’s symphony orchestras playing ‘Revel’, with each member isolated at home, and now are finding themselves possibly reaching a larger audience than former performances in concert halls. Art being created on screen and thus accessible to anyone with a computer and the will to search, too, is available to more and more. There’s online readings and conversations with writers. Social distancing that is creatively being modified. Still otherly, still disenfranchised, but simultaneously more public, less privileged, than art of 2019 and prior.
We have a long distance to travel before we rediscover ourselves as social beings in this new and precarious environment, in these immeasurably unprecedented times. A good time for writing, for its through writing we learn to understand the complexities of living. But can we find the words to describe the sense of simultaneous liberation and soul-wrenching sadness of separation?