Lockdown library

How is everyone?

It’s been a bit of a time hasn’t it? I keep feeling like someone took the snow globe of my life and gave it a good shake. Things have settled now but nothing is quite how it was before.

Confession time, though: I haven’t really minded lockdown. Of course I’m immensely privileged to be able to say that, but after the initial few weeks of crippling anxiety, I’ve been ok. Now we can see friends again, I’m quite enjoying the slower pace of life. It certainly suits my body more – something to think about in the future, I suppose.

That being said, the past four months seem to have spanned a few years. Thinking of the things I watched or read in those early weeks feels like remembering the distant past. I think time has taken on a strange detached quality, but I’m more content than usual to just let it pass, to observe rather than try to harness it.

Maybe it’s because I’ve filled the time with enough books for several years. I’ve read and and and read There have been some novels – An American Marriage was exquisite and hauntingly suited to the moment – but mostly I’ve been reading nonfiction. Malcolm Gladwell featured strongly, and Matt Haig’s books on mental health really resonated with me. I keep lending them to people with a ridiculous urgency, but they feel so important to me.

If not now then when will I read the tomes I’ve long eyed? So I finally read Sapiens (it’s not great, really, is it?) and I’m finally tackling a shameful gaping hole in my knowledge with a hefty book on the history of Africa since independence, which is fascinating and horrifying in equal measure. On the To Read pile is another about the Middle East and one about the Troubles – other cheerier subjects also feature – so at least I’ll come out of lockdown more informed than I went in.

Books, both in the reading and the buying, have been my singular joy in these disturbing times. I have become a person who reads the book section of the Saturday paper (incidentally, please buy the paper) and who has a list of books I want to order. Sometimes I feel guilty that I am adding to the pile much quicker than I am getting through it, but why feel guilty about the little things that bring you happiness when the world feels big and scary.

A day with a book leaves me much less anxious than a day in front of the telly, even though in the midst of a panic attack telly is often the only thing that can help. Reading makes the good part of my brain, the part excited by information and not by feelings of doom, light up and push aside the part that feels like a spinning top.

With my job being literally, as friends like to say, to do the news, there have been a few times during the pandemic when I’ve half considered packing it all in to become a librarian. I wouldn’t really, but I hope that as things return to a new kind of normal, I remember that solace can always be found in a book.

In the meantime, I can be found at Foyles, building my lockdown library.

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.