Michele Kirsch, asthmatic isolator, mother of two, author, and furloughed chef, writes about her experiences of lockdown from a tower block in East London.
LOCKDOWN: Day something. I forget exactly. The Vicar.
My vicar is bellowing to me from safety across the road. He is trying to put social distancing into a spiritual context, but he has to almost shout for me to hear him, and he’s just not a shouty vicar. I get the giggles and drift off into fantasy, even though this is the first conversation I’ve had in days.
Vicar dream: In my mind’s eye I see him preaching to NO ONE at the church behind my block of flats. He does the sermon and then asks the invisible congregation to line up for communion. He realises there is no one there, so he eats all the wafers himself, and guzzles the wine. ‘This is my body, this is my blood. WHATEVER!’
Pissed and sated on communion wafers, he recites the Psalm that starts, ‘My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?’
But that’s just in my cabin fever imagination. I actually have the vicar here on the pavement outside the chip shop. The first human real-life voice, not counting the phone or Zoom meetings, in days. Have I already forgotten how to talk to people, even if the talking is nearly shouting, six feet away?
He says that isolation is not the same as solitude and that solitude can be a good thing, and can put us in conscious contact with God. I’m paraphrasing here. He references the movie Papillion, and then we both say, at the same time, ‘But he escaped!’ And usually, when you say the same thing at the same time, you shout ‘SNAP’ or ‘JINX’ but you know, we’re in a pandemic and I don’t want to jinx the vicar. I need all the help I can get. So far, this has been a high point of lockdown. That and getting four tins of plum tomatoes left outside my door on my birthday. Lockdown has made me SUCH a cheap date.
EARLY ON: Day something, when it still felt like a novelty. The study of Torpor.
I think I will take very well to isolation. I was agoraphobic for large, inconvenient chunks of my life, and being alone, in my own space, was a blessed relief from the gut-clenching anxiety prompted by being with other people in public spaces, far away from home. Back then, isolation was called avoidance behaviour, and I was told, repeatedly that avoiding the thing I feared most would feed the fear and make me more screwed up, which it did. It took time and coming through a raging pill and alcohol addiction, to let me undo all the damage I had done by NOT going out, not doing normal life. It’s not healthy, but I know how to do it.
So the thought of having to isolate for very legit reasons, the health of myself and other people, seems a cinch. It is JUSTIFIABLE AGORAPHOBIA, and I don’t have to let people down, the way I used to. The whole pantomime of ‘Sorry, something suddenly came up’ is no longer necessary. This is gonna be like pulling one long-ass sickie that’s actually for the common good, as well as my own. It reminds me of that New Yorker cartoon with the guy at a desk, on the phone, saying, ‘No, Tuesday’s no good. How about never? Is Never good for you?’
Not only can I stay home from work and meet-ups without the inconvenience of being ill, but I can do great, creative, mind-enhancing, body hardening things. I signed up for a free course at the Open University; Animals at The Extremes: Hibernation and Torpor. I love a course with the word Torpor in it. I am ALL ABOUT the Torpor. But to counter the inner sloth, I do workouts with Youtube, tattooed sensation Betty Rocker. I get over my aversion to Uber, tidy lady Marie Kondo, and tidy and order all my clothes in the Kondo style, even watching shirt folding tutorials to maximise my space in an aesthetically pleasing way. All this frantic productivity lasts until a friend sent me an article saying that you don’t have to be frantically productive in lockdown. So that’s a relief. I go from hyper-activity to TORPOR, in about a day. Doing nothing, is much easier than doing loads of things. Who knew?
A BIT LATER: Day something. I should probably get some food. And drugs.
The novelty of doing nothing is not exactly starting to wear off, except I do worry that I am getting awfully good, awfully fast, at doing very little. One thing I have not been paying attention to is my medication. I am running low on my blue and brown asthma inhalers, and my thyroid pills. I go down to Boots near Liverpool St station and the City is desolate, pin-drop quiet. Everybody has GONE. ‘Everybody is dead,’ I think, melodramatically, and then add ‘Or just at home watching telly.’
I am also running low on food. Food is becoming quite central to other people’s lockdowns. My Facebook timeline is filled with domestic Gods and Goddesses, all displaying that Sourdough bread, or that beautiful Persian meal, or ‘Locktails’ made of Ben and Jerrys, Crème de Menthe and some holiday liqueur. People are exchanging information about where to get eggs, where to get flour, and other now elusive staples.
I have to go to the shop and queue and socially distance and stand forlornly in front of the now-empty shelf that used to have some ingredient I fancied, like tinned tomatoes, or marrowfat peas, or baked beans. Highly processed, and a bit disgusting. I can’t believe I’m a cook. The foods I crave- beans on toast, peanut butter and jam sarnies – are childhood staples. Am I regressing, or is it just a craving for some earlier, innocent time when the kind of thing that’s going on now, this pandemic, was something from an episode of The Twilight Zone? Dystopia does funny things to the appetite. My friend Nick asks if whacking chilli sauce over sauerkraut counts as kimchee. Of course it does.
LATER: I actually know this day. 4th April. My birthday. Followed by Easter! Hurrah. Festive fun.
On my birthday I throw myself a surprise party. It’s great. I have party bags and Soul Classics on the stereo. I put on my best frock and shout ‘Surprise!’ to myself. I have no cake, but jazz up some digestive biscuits by sprinkling them with icing sugar. I give myself presents, which include a box of chocolates, and a sexy dress. But the thing is, I don’t like chocolate, and the sexy dress is already mine. I know it’s the thought that counts, but I don’t think a lot of thought went into these presents. While dancing to the Temptations and swigging Ribena undiluted straight from the bottle, I say to my cats, ‘This party kind of blows.’
On Easter, I read the bible, and sing ‘Lamb of God you take away, the sins of the world….’ in the style of a tone-deaf Mariah Carey, drawing out each syllable until I am totally out of breath. I do all this totally bare arse naked. Because I can. This kills about five minutes of festive fun. Then I make myself an Easter egg hunt, only I don’t have any eggs cos there are none at the shops. So I hide a box of Vegan egg replacer from myself. And find it again in two minutes. I am alarmed that it took me that long. I might be losing the plot.
LATER STILL: Day something. Ah, the interweb!
Spending much more time on social media, and little rituals emerge, which give me a sense of belonging. Each morning Nicholas does his interpretive dad dancing, on camera, with his dog in the background, looking at times, terrified and other times, bemused. Then Naureen takes the register, a la school mistress, and asks who is alive. It’s like a virtual game of schools, and our ‘class’ has gone from simple ‘Here, Miss!’ responses to depraved, ‘To Sir, With Love’ style naughtiness. Virtually we ‘throw’ things, light cigarettes, swig from whiskey bottles. We have gone from being eager, suck up kiddies to a kind of virtual lockdown Behavioural Unit for maladjusted isolators. My virtual friends have become my lifeline, entertaining me when I feel low and conspiring, with me, to be irreverent, no matter how awful the news is. And the news is totally shit, every day.
People are playing a lot of participatory games on Facebook. Here are all these famous people I met, but one of them is a lie. Here are 10 LPs that changed my life. Please describe me using a word starting with the letter L. Here are 15 jobs I had in my life and guess which one is a lie. These games, some of which I play myself, are like those games you played on long car journeys, vaguely diverting you from the slow build of car sicky queasiness. Thing is, none of us know when this journey is going to end, which EXIT we will take. I am starting to feel a little bit ill, the games and quizzes not quite diverting enough to stop asking; ‘Are we there yet, mum?’
FINALLY: Day something, before tomorrow, but after yesterday. It’s good to talk.
I have a brilliant idea, which is to ring two people a day, two people that I wouldn’t normally speak to because work, life, no time, yadda yadda. Well, I have a TON of time now. I ring ________, holed up in his penthouse over a whorehouse in a red light district far, far away. The prostitutes have scarpered but forgot to take the goldfish. My pal has a new focal point of the day, which is to feed the fish. He’s delighted he has found a purpose, a thing to do. And it’s all going so well until the caretaker comes back. The caretaker now oversees the fish feeding operation. He’s stolen _______’s job. And in fact, he’s stolen the joy that I get from asking him how the fish is doing.
Then there is ______ in NY. She lives two blocks from the totally overrun Elmhurst hospital in Queens, with refrigerated trucks for the dead bodies parked outside. She’s trying to figure out a way to get to Costco without passing the trucks, which are scary and depressing.
I am speaking to friends in Moldova and Bangkok. And Hull. People who are stone-broke, and people who will be able to ride this out, financially. People who are doing tons of things, and people who are doing nothing. I am finding that in isolation, I am more connected to other people than I have been in a long time.
Will I use this time productively? I doubt it. I’m certainly not going to write the great Pandemic novel. I’m gonna go grey. I’m gonna run out of savings. I’m probably not going to get fit. I’m gonna watch waaay too much Netflix, and play all my records and dance like no one is looking because NO ONE IS LOOKING. I’m not going to think about what the future has in store for me (or any of us) because I’ve come to the conclusion that the future is none of my damn business.
Michele Kirsch is the author of CLEAN: A Story of Addiction, Recovery, and the Removal of Stubborn Stains.