Sleep. I’ve almost forgotten what that is.
My sleep pattern this week has changed, again. The world feels like it’s changed, again. Tilted a little further on its axis, away from true north. My sleep pattern currently is to nod off watching TV late in the evening, for about half an hour. I head to bed around 11 and read until my eyes won’t stay open. Then the fun starts. Added to the restlessness I’ve had since lockdown was a couple of weeks old, I now have vivid dreams about people I trust in the waking world getting one over on me in dream world. The dreams are about loss of control, feeling as though people who don’t know what they’re doing or aren’t qualified to do what they’re doing are in charge. There are no prizes for guessing why. Read a paper. Turn on the news. It’s a disaster out there.
After the dreams, I wake up at around 4am, full of adrenaline, wanting to get out of the house and run. Fortunately, with my past experience of insomnia and anxiety, I know what to do to calm my reptilian brain down. There’s a little bit of yoga corpse pose, a little bit of focusing on my breathing, until I fall asleep again. Then I toss and turn until my alarm goes off.
I read Jonathan Coe’s book The House of Sleep years ago. It’s about sleep disruption and what it does to the brain. William Boyd’s Armadillo also features an insomniac who struggles to function. Both books are funny. Usually, eventually, when I’m daytime awake, I find my crazy dreams funny. Not when I’m nighttime awake, though. Then, I just want to sleep.
During my last serious bout of insomnia, three years ago, I became an ouroboros of anxiety, unable to go to sleep at all because of fear of being unable to go to sleep. This time is different. When I’m awake, I’m tired and in a bit of a fog, but I don’t care. My mindset is reasonably calm about it all. Nobody is functioning anywhere close to normally in the current situation. Things get done when they get done. There’s no such thing as a deadline. I get through the day and any work I manage to do is an achievement. The only thing I find actually tiresome is having to join a meeting online. Being too tired to function effectively doesn’t matter.
My watch stopped working the other night. I put it on the next morning without noticing that it was stopped at 2.20am. I put a picture on my Instagram and a good friend encouraged me to embrace the chaos. My response, to that and to all of this, is that I wish there was some chaos. To me, though, life feels like a long summer Sunday in 1985. One of those that involves having to talk to the elderly relative your parents feel beholden to invite to spend the day with the family, in order to assuage their guilt for neglecting them in the week. The sort of day when you want to put your Walkman on and zone out.
Since we last met here, I’ve been itching to travel. I don’t mean a 40 minute jaunt around the local scenery while trying to maintain adequate distance from strangers. That’s not cutting it for me any more. I’m yearning for hills, forests, the sea. Not enough to actually break out of my immediate local area, but enough to flick wistfully through photos of past holidays on my phone. Enough to sigh with envy at those friends I have who live at the coast or in the countryside and put up beautiful pictures on social media.
Anxiety induced sleep issues aside, I’ve been thinking about how naturally suited I am to the current situation. I’m instinctively socially distant – I prefer to socialise in small groups and don’t like being anywhere too busy, and my personal space has a border that stretches a radius of at least a metre from my body. You need to be able to fall towards me like a felled tree and still not touch me. In case you were wondering. I know how to cope when that space is invaded, I’ve developed strategies over years of commuting by bus and working and socialising among extroverts who can’t help but get up close in other people’s spaces because of all that delicious energy they need to share and feed off.
I’ve also been thinking about how our usually busy suburb of this usually frantically busy city is becoming more village-like in its relative quietness. Going out for a stroll is similar to walks we’ve taken in off-season villages when on holiday. I find that I like it. I feel calmer than I have for a long time, because my interactions with people feel more like choices and less like impositions to be endured. Although the last week, since the government confused us with ‘Stay Alert’ and stay at home but go to work but don’t use public transport and go out more but only meet one other person, I’ve noticed that there are more people out and about. Some of them behave as though everyone else is covered in magnets of the opposite pole to their magnet, drifting towards instead of away as trajectories cross. Some of them are a gaggle, an entire family, filling up the world with buggies and scooters and bikes. Some of them are gangs of teenagers who, we all know and remember, operate to a different set of social conventions to everyone else. We are a 2-person household. I can only imagine the intensity of being in a large family cooped up at home. Of course you’d go out as soon as you could.
I’m not a recluse. I like spending time with people. I’m good company. But I am an introvert and I do love quiet. I’m reminded in these quiet times of how my mum – a total extrovert – would be puzzled by my ability to enjoy her company without saying very much on the walks we took together. Her common refrain was, “Tell me what you’re thinking!” I would wind her up by saying that I wasn’t thinking anything. I was, of course. I’m never not thinking. Sometimes thoughts can’t be articulated verbally, though. Sometimes they don’t need to be shared. Sometimes it’s enough to just be with someone, without talking. The people I like best in the world are the people I can just be with and it not be uncomfortable that we’re not actively interacting.
I’ve been thinking about the books I love and the characters in them that I most sympathise with. Leaving aside his mania and descent into crime, Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment is completely understandable to me, with his need to spend time alone and the way he focuses his social self on a small group of friends and family.
The librarian Jan O’Deigh in Richard Powers’ The Gold Bug Variations is another of my favourite literary characters. I’ve talked about her in my Six Drinks of Separation post. She’s at her best when burrowing into the archives to resolve a mystery, and while she doesn’t need anyone else along for the ride, she’s not averse to sharing the thrill of the chase with a select few.
Pretty much all of the central characters in pretty much any novel by Haruki Murakami make me feel recognised as I read. Particularly the ones who like to hide down wells. Perhaps this is something to do with being an archivist. We’re often located in basements – despite basements being a poor choice for the keeping of documents, with their tendency towards damp – away from the rest of the world. My current role means that I spend less time than I used to in the actual archive, even when I’m in the museum, but I didn’t realise that I missed it until lockdown started and I remembered just how much I love that hush and lack of other people. Because, weird invasion of work into my home aside, I am loving the hush and lack of other people that comes with working from home full time. The daylight streaming through the window is all bonus.
My normal working pattern includes one day per week at home, which tempers the psychic pain of being in a large open plan office with over 100 other people of varying levels of personality intensity, but never quite fulfills my need for quiet. The current arrangement reminds me of the peaceful, sunny office I had to give up when we were moved over to the main office.
Two people commented on my last post about how worried they felt about the prospect of lockdown ending and being back in the world. It made me wonder whether I’m worried about it. It will be weird, getting back on a bus, being back in the office, interacting with the wider public again. I think I’m more bothered about a return to a social state of being that doesn’t really suit me than I am about the risk Covid-19 poses to my health, though. I know that the irritation I feel about online meetings is the cousin of the irritation I feel about working in an open plan office.
I’m more sanguine about the potential threat of a second wave of Covid-19 than many people I know. I’ve been sanguine about the pandemic all along. Although I don’t want to catch the virus and am doing everything I can to not catch it, within a set of bounds that enable me to still feel like a functioning person, there’s a part of me that knows I might still get it and will need to deal with that if it happens.
I read an article last autumn about how human beings are not evolved to think about our own deaths. We can’t think about our own demise because our evolution has been all about maximising our survival. To think about not existing is alien to us. For similar reasons, I can’t think too much about the possibility of catching the virus and it not going well. I’m not a determinist, I believe that we can and do make choices that influence our direction of travel through life. Things happen for reasons, but those reasons include the choices we make. I’ve thought about this recently because we watched Alex Garland’s DEVS which has quantum physics at its core and Everett’s Many Worlds theory as an explanation for the apparent randomness in the world. It also came up in His Bloody Project, with Roddy Macrae making a series of choices on the basis of having no choice, because the universe had already determined his fate.
During my week off work, I relaxed more than I do when we go away. I got up when I wanted to, read for as long as I wanted to, took a state sanctioned stroll if I wanted to. I had no plans, because there are no plans. It made me realise that I over plan for our holidays, because I’m conscious that we have limited time away and there are things I want to do while we’re away, because otherwise we might as well stay at home. What’s the point in visiting a place and not seeing anything of it? It’s an area where my husband and I are noticeably different. He is far more laid back, happy to simply be away from home with no requirement to do anything, visiting a few places as the mood takes him, and there I am, pecking away with my need to get up and get out. In the recent series of Race Across the World, I saw myself in one of the participants, Jen, and did not like what I saw.
While I was off work, my husband carried on working on the project he’s been thinking about for years but that paid work has stopped him doing. Lockdown has given him the opportunity. He’s using his creativity and learning new skills. It’s a joy to watch. I noticed that, for the first couple of days, I felt guilty about reading in bed while he was up, and then guilty about sitting in the garden reading instead of doing something active, like housework. He didn’t make me feel guilty. It came from inside me. I think it’s a by product of my upbringing. My mum always needed to be doing something, being out somewhere, having a chat with someone. I can’t not do things at work, either. The first thing I did when lockdown started was fill my Outlook calendar with tasks, portioning up my day with activities. Planning without there being any plans. This inability to be still and see what happens is one of the things that causes stress and anxiety to build in me, particularly at work. By the middle of my week off, I’d relaxed into not feeling that I had to do something, but instead doing what I felt like doing. I wondered whether I’d be able to apply the same relaxed approach to work, instead of inventing deadlines for myself.
The other thing I enjoyed about my week off was sitting in my house with no tv on, no radio, just the ticking of the clock and the breathing of the snoozing cat the backdrop to my reading. I rarely sit in our front room in the daytime. If I’m working from home, I’m staring at my laptop screen. At the weekend we laze the morning away in bed, and in the afternoon I’m usually running the errands I don’t get to in the week. I never sit and notice the light that falls through the front window. Our front room is a tranquil space when I let it be. My week off reminded me of who I am, somehow. I’d lost sight of myself in recent years. Lockdown is good for something, then.
After that week off, I had a mini ‘getting back to work’. I sat down at my dining table work station and logged back in. In my absence, the work laptop had leaked away 48% of its charge, doing nothing. Despite only being away for a week, I’d switched off from work so completely that it took a few beats to recall my password. I’d gone to bed the previous night telling myself that I would maintain my non-pressured demeanour and not try to deal with everything waiting for me in my inbox immediately. It was difficult.
As my week progressed, holding onto that feeling of having some perspective leaked away like the charge from the laptop battery. Questions of how we provide a digital offer while we’re closed to the public mingled with questions of how and when we will start to get the museum open again, followed by the unexpected gatecrashing of the party by furloughing. Should we extend it? Will we?
I thought about whether I wanted to be furloughed. I thought it might be a relief. Although not as bad as it seemed just before I had my week off, that lack of separation between work and home is still a daily weirdness. I’ve seen on social media the reaction of colleagues at other museums – there’s been a touch of ‘school’s out’ about their glee. I’ve also had conversations with my immediate colleagues and we all feel a mix of frustration, because we want to be useful, and acceptance, because this is a strange time that requires strange responses.
Immediately after the suggestion that furlough might be extended to more of us, including me, I felt bad tempered. That’s when my poor sleep and vivid dreams started up.
I’m not being furloughed, it turns out, but my direct reports are. Another change to get used to. Conversations in meetings are now all about remobilising the workforce, getting the museum ready to reopen, but nobody talks about when. All I can do is wait.
We’re now watching the rest of Parks and Recreation, which is a tonic. Grayson’s Art Club is also joyous. I still have the online theatre performance of A Small Gathering to watch and I’ve booked a ticket to a film quiz run by the arts organisation I’m a member of. I missed two episodes of The Beauty of Maps and only caught part of the last episode of The Beauty of Books. There are ways out of this weirdness.
Channel 4 News put out this video compilation of conversations with children about lockdown recently. It’s good stuff.
I hope you’re doing okay and have plenty of distractions from the longest Sunday of our lives. Well done for making it to the end of this almost 3000 words.