During the Covid-19 ‘lockdown’, you could say I have been content. I haven’t written much but I have also had no real demands on my time to concern myself with, other than freelance work, of course.
‘Content’ is not a word I usually associate with. Usually, I am aspiring, striving, impatient to move forward and get ahead. Covid-19 and its associated lockdown changed all that. It did not take long for me to extract pleasure from the freedom of enjoying a local walk in the sunshine, exalting in the incessant bird song and the continuous changes wrought by spring. I delighted in all things natural, the rapidly altering sky patterns, shifts in the hedgerows, the beauty of which grew increasingly magical, concentrated and focused. At home, my joy related primarily to reading. Knowledge acquisition is a thirst I cannot ever quite quench.
So, while some people quickly reached a point of stir-craziness, desperation for escape, movement and a change of scene, I (normally known for my stir-craziness) was quite happy doing nothing too much. I promised myself I would be organised, write for pleasure, clean the house, clear things out. The reality is I did none of those things at any serious level. Fortunately, I live within a rural area, close to the sea, with a magnificent coastline, away from housing estates and main roads, so could simply enjoy just being. For perhaps the first time ever, I felt ‘content’.
‘Content’. Isn’t that a bland word, asked a friend?
There has been much that is unpleasant about Covid. Reduced freedom, inability to see people I like, or even love. My father sick in his nursing home with no visitors allowed. Friendships, at times strained, all distant.
Yet, there has been no requirement to be making the most of life, to feel compelled to go places and do things, simply to fulfil the expectations of others, to make me appear more interesting to myself – and perhaps others. No excuses needed to avoid parties and social gatherings for this introvert. No explanations or justifications required for anything. Off I would wander with the dog and enjoy simply being.
There has also been no need to achieve anything other than an income to live on. This ‘we are all in it together’ mentality has been wonderful. None of us had any expectations of others, except for the occasional display of kindness, empathy and understanding.
As we leave lockdown, the old pressures to perform will be there, so I am wondering how to deal with that, as I have not missed external pressures at all.
In my older middle years, performance is measured differently. It is more about being seen to be alive, active, healthy, vigorous; making the most of the undoubtedly limited time I have left. It is a time when I should be allowed to be content but contentment is itself problematic, for contentment is perceived as low aspiration. Therefore, it becomes considered inactivity, rather than proactivity. Negative rather than positive. Contentment requires no action.
I’ve just finished reading a book called Square Haunting, the spellbinding debut of editor and biographer, Francesca Wade. Within one of its chapters, author Virginia Woolf finds herself and her husband suddenly ‘marooned’ in the countryside after the wartime bombing of London. Wade writes: “She found, to her pleasant surprise, that the enforced solitude suited her: she enjoyed gathering apples, bottling honey, and the simple routine of breakfast, writing, tea, bowls, reading, sweets, bed” … “She reflected that living in one place, cut off from outside distraction, made her feel paradoxically freer than before.”
Woolf herself wrote: “By shutting down the fine curtain, I find I can live in the moment; which is good; why yield a moment to regret or envy or worry?”
These fine words summarise my Covid lockdown experience rather precisely.
Woolf also explains what ‘a room of your own means’. It does not mean an empty room (though space and income to write is of paramount importance). She explained it as living in the presence of reality, “an invigorating life” rather than a happy or successful one. It must be remembered that Woolf was writing at a time when women’s lives were still very much constrained by domesticity, relationships and motherhood. For many that is still the case.
However, the pursuit of invigoration, not necessarily happiness or success, is perhaps the drive to expand our knowledge, to find reward in smaller things. Maybe it explains why I have moved on my walks to listening to literary and political podcasts. They re-energise my thinking, revitalise my brain, encourage me to consider new ideas, or simply ideas I have not previously encountered. Perhaps being outside in the fresh air, alone, is my new mindful, invigorating room of my own?
There is the key, I feel. What invigorates one person bores another. The room of one’s own is a self-creation; the modern parlance is maybe ‘whatever floats your boat’, an acceptance that we all need to know what works for us as individuals and not to allow ourselves to feel guilty/inadequate for somehow not fitting into the expectations of others – nor even wanting to.