Isolation with Nora

It started with Heartburn. The novel, you understand, by Nora Ephron.

It had come my way as a recommendation from a friend, as a book perfect for These Times. And it was. For three glorious days I was transported out of myself and lockdown London and into the life of Rachel (Nora) and the 1970s on the East Coast.

I really did, for the first time, forget about The Situation.

I finished the book and moved on. I read other things. But nothing else compared, nothing had the wit and style and compulsive energy of Nora’s writing. I was hooked.

So I sought her out and, deep in a writerly love affair, ordered the full collection of her writings. I liked that it is called The Most – not the best – of Nora Ephron. It is a tome, and the description fits her: she writes effusively. The most, she is.

I’m aware that it would be more proper to refer to her, as one does with writers, by her last name. But her nonfiction – she was a journalist and essayist much more than a novelist – is intensely relatable. Reading her this week, she has kept me company, has been my friend. She isn’t Ephron, she’s Nora.

And here’s the thing: I’d quite like to be Nora, too. Minus the divorces.

She is smart, witty, pithy. She digresses from her point. She is acerbic. With a phrase, she has conjured an entire personality.

She is honest, wise. She does not shy away from the hard topics: divorce, feminism, family, death. On love, she is mercifully quiet.

Wouldn’t it be something, to be as gutsy as Nora? I thought she must have acquired wisdom with age, but many of the essays in the book date from the 70s, when she was in her 30s. I guess I have about a decade to learn to put it all out on the field. We’ll see.

She writes about journalism, and you can tell how she despises much of the news industry. But she loves it, too, perhaps even better for knowing its flaws. I don’t know a single journalist who doesn’t feel the same way.

Her description of a mid-century newsroom is enough to make me nostalgic for things I never knew. It’s also enough to make me very glad I missed it, too. But it reminds me of why I do what I do: the excitement of a break, the thrill of holding people to account. I have much to learn.

And then there’s New York. It’s the backdrop to her writing, seeping through all her stories. She is, unarguably, part of the Manhattan elite. She hangs out with New York Times food critics and artists from the Village. It’s glamorous and creative and gossipy.

No doubt it’s also unattainable. But Nora’s New York chimes with my long-harboured desire to disappear to the Big Apple – for, I don’t know, six months, a year – and just write and meet interesting people and in some way live outside myself. Just for a little bit, just to see.

Of course you cannot, in fact, live outside yourself. If I were to disappear as above, I would still be chronically anxious – and being several thousand miles away I would likely be acutely anxious too. And yet I can’t help but feel the shock would force me to write, and cope, and be more gutsy. To be a little more like Nora, but without her inexplicable antipathy towards the New Yorker, my one true love and another cause of my ridiculous obsession with the place.

Just as Nora can’t let go of the ideal of being married, I can’t get over the ideal of the city, or rather, myself in the city. She is, like I say, very relatable.

And like all writers, she writes about writing. We can’t help ourselves. It makes me like her even more.

I often worry that while writing comes naturally I don’t really have anything to say. It should, I fear, be the other way round.

So I am going to try to remember Nora’s maxim, learned from her mother, that ‘everything is copy’.

Everything is copy. Even, it seems for me, Nora herself.

Anxiety in the time of coronavirus

I don’t know when I am going to see my friends again.

For me, that is the worst part of this coronavirus induced isolation we all find ourselves in.

I can live quite happily without the pub, the shop, the theatre. As a disabled person, I am used to interminable days spent on the sofa, body in meltdown, but they are always broken up by my friends. They pop in bearing shove-in-the-oven pizza, chocolate and wine, and faces full of companionship. I will miss them.

And I will miss my colleagues, their quick wits and their kindness and the buzz of them all in the office. Thanks to WhatsApp and Zoom they are not so far away as they could be, but it is hard to share a meaningful look over Slack, however much you try.

I cannot decide if I am more scared of the virus or the effect this is all going to have on my mental health. I am lucky; I do not live alone, and the carers I currently share the flat with are some of the best I’ve ever had. They’ll notice when I’m anxious and they know how to help. And so many of my friends have called to check in that I am far from feeling alone or lonely. I am grateful.

Skype has made it possible to continue counselling, too, which is a relief. But I worry about such a dramatic change in routine, especially such a curtailing of socialising. Living without a partner or family, I rely on my friends for a hug and a pat on the back, and I know I will feel this lack acutely. If I were Ania or Laura, I would soon be fed up with my toddler-like demand for affection, but I trust them to bear with me, as ever.

It is a strange time to be a chronically anxious person. The news, which has for years given me a job and a sense of purpose, leaves my nerves feeling raw and ragged. On my days off, I limit my intake to one half-hour bulletin a day. On working days, I take lots of beta blockers and try not to drink too much coffee.

The vague existential dread that has hung over me for months, making me feel maddeningly irrational, seems now perfectly reasonable. Of course I’m anxious, I think, there’s a pandemic on. This makes it hard to determine which of the panic attacks and tears are a rational response to the circumstances and which are my brain playing its usual catastrophising tricks. I guess we’ll never know.

The past six months have at least taught me some coping mechanisms to be deployed in these interesting times. In a panic, TV is better than reading, at least for me; especially something familiar. Joy is in the little things: a nice meal, a bunch of flowers, a particularly fluffy pair of socks. Aromatherapy, the very idea of which I was sure to scoff at half a year ago, works wonders.

Oh, and I call my parents multiple times a day. Sorry, mum and dad.

In an uncharacteristic move, I am finding the silver linings. With all this free time I am tackling my vast and ever-expanding to-read pile. Books really are things of such immense pleasure. Having waffled on about it for years I am finally learning French. Duolingo is surprisingly good and an engaged mind is a less anxious one; I’ll be fluent by the time this is over.

And maybe with time to think and process, I’ll even get some writing done. Although as any writer will tell you, I’m not desperate enough for that just yet.