Most of us can, at any one time, hold conflicting thoughts in our heads; it’s the basic condition of getting anything done. Faced with even the most trivial task, my first response is almost always I don’t want to do it, followed by I do very much want it to be done. To move from one state to the other requires the kind of internal workout – think how good it will feel to be on the other side of this bump; imagine what will happen if I simply stopped doing things; what kind of person can’t deal with the dishes etc – that kicked in particularly viciously last week, with news of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine. Three oppositional thoughts flew to mind: the end of the pandemic is finally in sight; infection rates will, between now and then, continue to rise and many people will die; and, most confoundingly, I’m not sure I’m ready to go back to the world.
There is, almost certainly, a compound word in German for the anticipation of future nostalgia. One feels it keenly with children. I look at mine, now, hitting first milestones, and experience a spasm of what feels like loss: the certainty that, at some unspecified time in the future, this period will occupy enormous parts of my hard drive. I will feel sad for what has come and gone. The intensity of this period, so much of which flies by in the scramble just to hang on without falling, will, I know, look different at 10 or 20 years’ distance.
Such is the sensation brought on by looking forward to next year and the inevitable resumption of something like normal life. There are so many things to run towards gladly: being able to travel and see my family again; simple pleasures such as meeting friends for a drink without wondering if it’s an indulgence that will kill me; having my kids actually go to school; reading the news without keening at the death tolls and the image of people dying alone in Covid wards.
But then beneath all that, something else that feels vaguely like dread. There are, perhaps, people who spring out of bed every morning and dive cheerfully and headlong into their day. There are also those – the majority, surely – for whom any engagement with a to-do list requires an enormous primary negotiation around one’s lassitude. During the pandemic, the siren song of cancelled meetings, zero travel, endless opportunities to avoid people you mildly dislike and a daily alibi for not having a shower has been terrible, disorienting, depression-inducing and inclined to cause panic. But let’s face it: some aspect of it has also been the enactment and indulgence of our wildest dreams.
“I want to be around people who don’t want me to speak,” a friend wrote to me the other day by text – we don’t talk on the phone; it requires too much effort – and I understood precisely what she meant. A couple of days later, I had a Zoom meeting for work, a horrific imposition that required me to dig deep and recover my perky game face, while still permitting me to show up, hair unwashed. The other person on the call was less than five miles away, in Brooklyn, and the fact I didn’t have to get on the subway to see her felt like a small gift from God.
An aspect of this conflict – I want to go back to my old life; I don’t want to go back to my old life – is simple desocialisation. I watch TV shows and movies these days with a reflex horror at crowded bar scenes where no one’s wearing a mask. Living for a year under pain of contracting a deadly disease has contributed to an overall sense of vulnerability that has nothing to do with the pandemic. The idea, now, of getting on a five-hour flight to meet an obligation 3,000 miles away from my kids is unthinkable. What if the plane goes down? (I’ve always thought what if the plane goes down, but prior to the pandemic could work around it). How can I take risks, when the very idea of danger – that which we spend so much of our time rationalising away – has been fully realised and proved to be real?
All of this will pass. In a year or so, if we are lucky, most of us will be fully back to business as usual. This period will appear outlandish, absurd, and for that reason alone subject to enormous nostalgia – not because what has happened was good, but because it was singular. This past year has been horrible in so many ways, and yet, knowing as we do that it will mark us in time, a small part of me doesn’t want it to end.
• Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist