“Right, does everybody have their answers ready? Not yet? Come on, we’ve been waiting ages! Time is up!”
Sound familiar? If you’ve existed during a national lockdown and have access to the internet, then I’m guessing it does.
2020 was a dismal year for most but for video chatting services, business had never been better. Finally, Skype was being used for more than just meetings. They always knew they had it in their locker. And Zoom? This platform, once little known outside of the workplace, was suddenly catapulted into household recognition; last April they reported a monstrous jump from 10 million users to 300 million users, and in their latest quarter ending Jan 31st, their revenue had soared 78%. (How many quizzes need to be devised for 300 million people? That’s a math GCSE question if I’ve ever heard one.) House Party had its moment too and FaceTime never really dropped off, but regardless of your preferred platform, 2020 was the year of the ‘virtual visit’.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, there was little else to do. Where conversations would normally have spilled out over a pint of beer and bowl of chips, they were now conducted through the foggy lens of a computer camera, illuminating the many, smudgy fingerprints that had somehow found their way onto the screen (I never touch it, I swear! I don’t know how they get there!). Where once we would have embraced - big, bear arm cuddles, a bury-your-face-in-their-neck, quality cwtch - we were now bumping elbows or awkwardly imitating a hug from afar, verbally tussling to declare the cliché first: “not long now and it’ll all be over”.
Nearly a year on and two weeks into our third national lockdown, those much-repeated words of hope feel naive at best. Where Spring beckoned the promise of new beginnings, the sun tempering our anxieties with warm licks of encouragement, Winter brought darkness. Our shrunken lives, so much smaller and compact than they once were, struggling like seedlings to grow into the light. With seemingly so little goodness in the world and the undeniable lure of social media doomscrolling, you’d think that the virtual visits of 2020 would be as popular as ever, if not more so.
And yet if I tried, I’m sure I couldn’t muster even a germ of interesting conversation for the people I love most. If I were to revive my retired Zoom account, dust off the cobwebs from notepads thunderously filled with miscellaneous trivia (but only the first few pages), what would it be for other than performance?
I know my friends and I would each sit, chin in palm, relaying our tiredness, our growing apathy - our numbness. I know we at times strain to keep the group texts flowing, despite hitting the ‘send’ button with frequent force when all this began. I know that having reduced our existence to the the terrarium of our homes, when we’ve discussed work, TV and any strange bowel movements, our resources are depleted. What is there to say? On a revolving hamster-wheel of days, every morning is the same. Every afternoon. Every evening. Even the weekends provide little respite, owing to the fact that many of us now effectively live in our office.
The small moments in life are the things we’re encouraged to look forward to. Like getting dressed, receiving the food shop, or mixing an at-home cocktail which leaves much to be desired. To some, this a positive - we should appreciate the little things - but to that I say no. I want a big life. I want the little things to be little things because they pale in comparison to the hulking mass of my full, blooming existence. To be frank, the reality that the highlight of my day is walking around the same park for the 500th time is depressing. Birds, trees, dewdrops on grass: all of it beautiful, but the same burst of greenery is hardly a worthy tonic for endless weeks of ‘business as usual’.
And so I sit on it. I understand this is temporary (although how temporary remains to be seen), and I know that it is necessary. But that doesn’t make it easier, and it certainly doesn’t make me more social. In fact, the longer lockdown has proceeded, the more I’ve collapsed into myself as self-preservation. I channel all of my anxieties into a suitcase beneath me and I sit on it, holding it in, reminding myself to be patient, be patient, be patient. To spill out at this time would be disastrous.
The more you stretch an elastic band, the more it’s likely to break, and I believe the reason so many of us are shying away from the social blossoming of last Spring is that we’re concentrating all of our energy into holding it together. It’s difficult to be jovial when you feel anything but, and it seems in the grand scheme of plates we need to keep spinning, going above and beyond in the communication department is one of least priority. Which seems counterintuitive, given the isolation that lockdown requires of us, but then who said grappling with the weight of a life-threatening pandemic would make sense?
On top of this forced quiet, there’s also the digital exhaustion of doing everything online. Working, learning, shopping, talking, watching, listening: everything funnelled through a screen and a power outlet. We’ve had to reimagine our lives through a digital lens whilst reckoning with an age of disinformation, encouraging ourselves to ‘be there’ and ‘check in’ on friends who need us while simultaneously understanding that the platforms we operate through are profiting off of us, or worse, manipulating us. When the end of the day inevitably comes, how many of us truly want to log back in? Before there was novelty - the newness and mystery of it all - and now there is endless monotony. We need a degree of separation. It’s just unfortunate that that separation comes at the cost of conversation with our loved ones.
With that being said, there is a quiet hum of strength underpinning all of my close relationships right now. We don’t need to say it. Our love for each other is implicit in every exchange, no matter how small. Do you know how much weight a ‘sorry I haven’t text, hope you’re okay’ carries? A lot. It’s a veritable bodybuilder with the hugeness that it moves.
So sure, we aren’t draping ourselves in fancy dress, poring over the perfect 90’s pop questions to befuddle the gals with, but we’re still here. Quiet, yes, and shrunken somewhat, but still here. Still loving each other from afar, still holding space for one another in a world that feels simultaneously too big and too small. Even if we can’t muster the energy to revel in it.