The pandemic is changing us in all sorts of ways, some obvious, others less so. It’s changing how I use this blog, inviting me – challenging me – to be more direct, more personal, in effect to communicate at a distance as I do face to face. Working with people, in groups and individually, is central to how I’ve approached community art, consultancy and research. Co-creation works when people sense and respond to a living situation in which they are all present. Its energy enables unforeseeable things – in my work, art, ideas and knowledge – to emerge from their interaction. Writing is a more conventional form of creativity, crafted by one person to communicate to others. Responses, if they come at all, come too late to change the work, though they might change how I think about it.
Still, in today’s enforced isolation, writing is a valuable resource, but how to use it well? Years ago, I realised that the advice I offered to friends or colleagues (something I’m much too quick to do) was usually advice I myself needed to hear. Similarly, writing appears to address an absent reader but it’s often most truthful when the writer is their own audience too. Most of what I’ve written here in recent days has involved me explaining what I think is happening to myself. Writing looks like an act of construction – look at this clever art I’ve made – but it’s really excavation, digging inside your own mind to discover what it’s thinking.
All of which is a longwinded way of saying that I’m writing here because it helps me live with what is happening. Sometimes, I’m the boy whistling in the dark, talking loudly to keep the monsters away. Sometimes, like now, I’m just trying to work out what I feel. If you’ve got this far, thank you for your patience. I’ll try to reward it by sharing what I’ve dug up most recently, which is that living through a crisis is exhausting. It makes an unending amount of work. For the past two weeks, I’ve felt like a character in a disaster movie, the ship is holed beneath the waterline and we’re all struggling to close watertight doors as the sea cascades over our heads and we shout orders at one another. Everything in my diary has vanished, but it has been replaced by a new series of videoconferences and calls, each of which generates further items for a to-do list that started – and ended – yesterday with 37 items on it. I’m one of those people who likes to keep their email inbox all but empty: that’s not happening any time soon.
The stresses on the paid side of my life are matched by those on the personal side, including the needs of family, friends and neighbours. Those stresses are different for everyone: to take the most obvious example, living through this with small children is not the same as living through it with frail dependent, or both. Being freelance right now is terrifying, but so to, I imagine, is being responsible for a theatre or a museum and the livelihoods of dozens of people: that’s leadership. Even my elderly mother is overwhelmed by the calls and emails from concerned people who don’t realise that each enquiry is both a pleasure and another demand on her limited energy.
Yesterday I hit a wall. It took me two hours to get up, and when I did, I didn’t even go to my desk. The 37 items on my to-do list stayed where they were, where many of them have been for days. I cancelled one video call and would have postponed another if I’d not been beaten to it by someone similarly overwhelmed. I answered the most urgent emails from the sofa, and sent a couple that said, in effect, I can’t help. I’ve never done that before, and there are still 22 emails in the inbox. I did some laundry, and made family phone calls that took three hours, I fed the birds and myself. I went to bed at 10pm and woke up at 2am to write this. It’s okay; it really is. I don’t mind feeling overwhelmed by the rising water because minding doesn’t make any difference. I’m better off than many. This is how things are now, and I just have to learn how to deal with them.
So, if you’re waiting for an answer to your email, or a text I’ve promised, or for me to finish correcting some proofs, I am sorry for the delay. I’m not learning a new language or how to bake sourdough bread; I’m not watching theatre from the NT or finally discovering what the fuss was about Peaky Blinders. Like everyone else, I’m doing my best and I will get back to you. It will just take longer than usual. But the truth is, you’re probably not waiting at all: you’ve got your own problems.