Stumbling towards the new normal, we need to watch our steps

In some ways, I feel like I coped with the earlier days of lockdown much better than I am coping now. In part because I was (and am) very lucky: I have a strong support network, family nearby, a decent sized home that means I have a separate office space and enough cupboards to have more than a week’s worth of supplies in – none of which was really true when I lived in Brighton. (No disrespect to my lovely friends there, but a few people aside, everyone I knew was in London). I’m used to living and working alone, and the cost of living in Gateshead is less than half that it was in Brighton, so I didn’t constantly feel like I was living on a knife edge of financial precariousness. And if anyone could see out a couple of months of isolation, it was me – hell, I’ve been in training for this for years!

And, a few wobbles aside, I did cope pretty well. Obviously, my aunt’s death rocked me, though I was glad that I could be near my cousins in their grief. And while work dropped off a cliff for me – in April my sum total income was £400, and £100 of that was an unexpected surge in Ko-fi donations off the back of a couple of blog posts and articles – I at least was coming out of a busy period, so had a buffer of a good couple of months to keep me afloat. Not all of my coping strategies might have been healthy – far more wine and chocolate than is healthy, and an awful lot of naps – but I was, in the main, coping.

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So why does it somehow feel worse now? In some ways, it’s so much better. Although my theatre writing is on indefinite hiatus (and I miss it SO SO MUCH) I’ve had some bits of work in in May and June and I got the Government support grant – so my financial status is a little more settled, at least for now.

The easing of lockdown has meant that I have actually seen a few friends IN REAL LIFE, albeit at a distance. I’ve had socially distanced beers in the garden with my cousins, and on Thursday a friend drove over and we had a stroll around the local cemetery, (2 metres apart, obvs – none of this ‘one metre plus’ bollocks: she’s a scientist), sitting on an old tombstone and chatting in the sun (all we needed was a bottle of white cider, some Smiths songs and a book of Keats poetry for maximum pretentiousness and then I’d be properly reliving my youth). I have a Support Bubble friend now, and last night had a glorious evening at her place: though the rain scuppered my hopes of an afternoon in the garden, I did get a delicious homecooked meal, and best of all, a night of relaxed chat, as we sat and drank fizz and watched an old DVD of Almost Human, having the same ‘it’s a shame this was cancelled!’ conversations we have every time we watch it, which is probably more often than is strictly normal. I spent a whole night outside my own house, people! And it was marvellous.

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And I’m not saying those things don’t make me feel better, because they do. Enormously. More than I can ever express. The one defining strand of my corona experience has been kindness and community: friends sending me cards and gifts or picking up shopping, Zoom chats, even with all their stilted twitchiness, friends and strangers buying me Ko-fi, buying my books, sending me nice messages about my writing. And I have tried, where I can, to reciprocate: donating even small amounts to good causes, making sure isolated friends get Zoom calls and WhatsApp messages, using my social media platforms to elevate other’s voices where I can, whether it’s Black Lives Matter initiatives or fellow creatives’ work. Hell, I even wrote to my MP!

But I’m realising that, as for so many people, the reality that life won’t be snapping back to normal any time soon has been a sobering and somewhat depressing realisation. I have in part been (deliberately) insulated from this knowledge – my neighbourhood is quiet and not near any social hubs, I’ve been limiting my time on social media – but even I can’t put my head in the sand forever. (Nor can I keep up my chocolate-wine-naps coping strategies indefinitely, or corona won’t be the health concern that gets me!)

I had my first trip to the Quayside this weekend and though it made my heart sing to see the Tyne Bridge, it also broke it a little to see the carnage that has been wrought on local businesses. Several of my favourite spaces seem to be closed, others gutted to try and make social distancing easier. Plenty are struggling with balancing economic imperatives with moral and social responsibilities (several Ouseburn bars have said they won’t be opening on July 4th, fearing it’ll be ‘carnage’ and they won’t be able to guarantee the safety of their staff – and I have to say I don’t blame them). I bought a bottle of water and some coffee beans from Backyard Bike Shop (support small businesses!), which is open for takeaways (and plans to put tables outside), but felt a little desolate stripped of its usual cosiness.

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All around me friends are worried for their jobs, anxious how they’ll cope with home schooling with many kids being off till September, terrified about money, or just starting to feel the emotional toll of loneliness, stress and uncertainty. What seemed manageable in the short(ish)-term now too often feels overwhelming, as even with the easing of lockdown – whatever the advisability of that – no return to life as we knew it seems remotely on the cards. As my string of cancelled plays and trips and holidays rolls further into the year, I see my arts sector friends wear themselves out worrying that the venues and companies we love won’t weather the storm, and that many have closed, never to reopen, and by the time we’re allowed to see gigs and plays and movies, there won’t be anywhere left to do so. And meanwhile we seem to be led by a bunch of incompetents, who expect us just to be happy because they’ve agreed to open the pubs.

I veer between despair and optimism. At my most hopeful, I like to think this crisis (and although strictly unrelated, the current anti-racism movement that somehow feels tied into it, in part because COVID-19 has exposed white privilege even more) will be a catalyst for much-needed and long-overdue change. That we can use this moment to reassess what we value, what matters and who gets to decide that (and which voices have been too often side-lined from such discussions) and emerge with a clarity and vision for a kinder, fairer, more just world. Other times I fear that the small progresses we have made in recent years will be abandoned and old inequalities will resurface, more virulently than ever, with those already in power just consolidating their positions, while everyone else is so busy trying to stay afloat in rough waters that they just get swept along.

I’ve said before that I think we feel better by doing better – by being kind to friends and strangers (and ourselves), and by advocating for and supporting causes and people and changes we believe in – and I think this matters more than ever now. But I also think that maybe we (and as ever, when I say we, I mainly mean me) need to realise that it’s not going to be a cure-all for the coronavirus blues. That sadness, loneliness, hopelessness, frustration, futility, fear and anger are all side effects that can’t be avoided, and they are not going anywhere anytime soon.

But maybe accepting that – instead of feeling like a guilty, ineffectual failure because you’re not ‘coping’ as well as everyone else seems to be (emphasis on seems) – is the key to getting through this. And maybe, just maybe, if we take whatever positive actions we can take, wherever we can take them, we can not just survive this present reality, but make the future better.

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Newcastle-based rom-com with a dash of Northern charm: The Bridesmaid Blues

Paranormal adventure with snark and sexiness: Dark Dates: Cassandra Bick Chronicles: Volume 1

If you want to read something a bit darker, I just re-released by earlier novel Doll and my short stories No Love is This. 

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