Tomorrow, France will begin to ease its lockdown, very tentatively and in varying degrees according to the local rate of infection. Most people have been confined to their homes for almost 60 days, during which 138,854 cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed and 26,310 people have died. No one thinks this is over and my impression is that people will return to their previous occupations with care and caution, where they are allowed to. I know some who are frightened at the idea of leaving what has come to seem a place of safety, and I can understand why. We want to resume ordinary life but, after discovering what a fragile thing that is, we take nothing for granted.
When I say ‘my impression’, I’m acknowledging that my idea of what’s happening in the world is even less secure than usual. It draws on three sources. In two months, I’ve spoken to a handful of people face-to-face (or, as I’m getting used to thinking, mask-to-mask) and we all live in the same remote place. I’ve had conversations with family members, friends and professional colleagues, dispersed across a dozen countries, in many walks of life. And, like most people, I’ve spent more time than usual online, reading about current events and watching news programmes. It’s a limited range of references: there are many popular media sources I never look at, and I speak disproportionately to people who work in culture because that’s my profession. In recent years, this has come to be dismissed as ‘living in a bubble’, but that phrase is merely a condescending way to dismiss other people’s experience without respect or engagement. We all live in bubbles of one kind or another, and never more so than now. That should make us cautious about generalisation, but it doesn’t invalidate our experience or the sense we make of it.
This is a strange time but it’s not without parallels. I’ve lived through other interruptions to everyday life, some joyous, others almost unbearable. Some events are so important that they crowd out everything else. A birth or a death are the most obvious, but moving home, starting a new job or course, the break-up of a relationship – all these things can destabilise your sense of what matters. In my experience, such crises stretch time out of its accustomed shape as the present becomes intensely vivid. Afterwards, it’s not always easy to recall what I’ve been through – not the events, which leave their traces, but the living of them. Dreams have a similar, but more transitory effect. So intense in the moment, they become hard to recall and almost impossible to relate. Today, on the threshold of release, I feel wary about what’s to come and wonder what I will retain of these eight weeks. Have I changed, perhaps learnt something about myself? It’s natural to want hardship rewarded in such ways, but I have no idea.
What makes the pandemic and the lockdown different from our personal crises is that they have affected everyone. One of the things that distinguishes history from mere events is the recognition of shared experience. The commemoration of VE Day this week is the defining example of my life: a common memory for millions of people. But in truth, that memory is much more diffuse and varied than public narratives acknowledge. The Second World War means many things. In my own small circle, I have friends whose parents fought on opposite sides, who were in school or in prison, who came home and who went into exile. None of those complex realities are reflected in the triumphant patriotism to which some newspapers and politicians resort so easily. Simple narratives are spun to strengthen dominant groups at the expense of others. Some experiences are validated, others erased. Separating the righteous from the unworthy, they seek to divide and conquer.
Across the world, people’s thoughts are turning to release, to the life after this strange dreamtime. What comes next will define how we make sense of the present. Isolated in our bubbles, we are especially vulnerable to being told the story of what we have been through. We will not be left to interpret our dreams alone. There will be a political and ideological struggle in the months and years to come over the meaning of these events – indeed, it’s been happening around us for weeks already. I can’t do anything about that, but I do want to remember what this has meant to me and all I care for, which is one reason I’ve spent so much time writing about it here. And I do want to remember that my experience is one among billions. A myriad aspects of personal circumstance have shaped how people have lived these months and that diverse reality must be respected. Teenagers, care workers, long-distance lorry drivers, students, elderly people living alone, big families, journalists, people with disabilities, toddlers, local politicians, bus drivers, food bank volunteers, farmers – you get the picture. For everyone who will remember lockdown as the time when they learned to bake bread or played board games with the children, there will be others who remember it as the time when they waited endlessly for an empty train to work, or lived with someone who frightened them.
Everyone will come through this with their own unique experience of gains and losses – perhaps especially losses. It’s almost impossible to explain a dream to another person: you had to be there, you had to feel it. However large and porous our bubble, it can never encompass all those lived realities. But we can remember, always, that other people’s dreamtime will have been different and allow them the dignity of make sense of it on their own terms.