‘It’s rough living alone during coronavirus lockdown’
Nightly video calls have become essential to stop me going out of my mind
All this ‘new normal’ will be over some day. And if I can help it, in the meantime, there won’t be a single dandelion in my garden. Photograph: iStock
It was the dandelions that nearly broke me. I had posted a tweet about going out to my garden once a day to “murder dandelions”.
My modest back garden has rose bushes, peonies, a lilac tree, various flowers and roughly one million dandelions on a small piece of grass.
Each morning, another cluster – will we ever hear that word again without shivering – of yellow-faced weeds pop into sight. I have been going out every day with a trowel and digging them up, in as far as anyone can dislodge the parsnip-like roots these weeds have.
My tweet provoked some scolding from people I don’t know, telling me I should leave the dandelions for “the bees”. It’s my sodding garden, people. Buzz off.
And by the way, are you really worrying about the hypothetical loss of future bees in one small city garden when half the world is currently in lockdown, and we don’t know how many people will be dead at the end of this pandemic?
I didn’t tweet back, telling people to sod off. Nor did I complain to the person I live with about people I don’t know complaining about my daily cull of dandelions, although I really wanted to.
That’s because I live on my own.
There are lots of us out there in the wider world, hunkered down alone in our homes while we obey Government orders to stay inside as much as possible.
Like all of us, I am far from living my usual life right now. Usually, during my working day, when not travelling around the country reporting, I’m in the office, bantering with colleagues and feeling in the midst of action.
I very much like both those ways of working: being on the road, and being in the office. They are both sociable in very different ways, and I get to talk to people in person during the day about work things.
Then in the evenings, I am often out socialising; meeting friends and having dinner, or doing things together. During those times, when I’m out with friends, we talk about different things, personal things. Between these social environments, a complex jigsaw of basic human needs for contact: for a necessary acknowledgment of self, and of one’s existence, is met on a daily basic.
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It’s rough, I’m finding, living alone on lockdown. But I know for certain I can’t be the only one living like this, and wondering what resources those of us who live alone can find to deal with such profound and unnatural isolation. We are all, to some extent, having to acknowledge the importance of paying attention to our mental health right now.
I once read an extraordinary book called Lighthouse, by Tony Parker. It was a beautiful and thoughtful series of interviews with lighthouse keepers (all men), back in the day when lighthouses around Britain were still manned. Parker talked to all the lighthouse keepers about the challenges of isolation that their jobs brought them.
They worked a month on, and a month off, away from their families in extremely remote areas, in an era long before mobiles and connectivity. They spoke frankly and movingly of having to earn their living by being geographically so far from home.
Most lighthouses had two men posted to them, but spending a month in a narrow sea-bound tower with someone who is either your boss or the person whom you are the boss of, carried its own challenges.
Parker also talked to these men’s wives. One woman’s husband was posted to an island within sight of their seaside home, She told Parker that on Sundays, she had herself rowed out near the island, and waved at her husband. It made her, she said, feel closer to him.
But in her husband’s interview, he told Parker he dreaded her ritual Sunday waves from this boat, because to him it was a tortuous reminder of the life he had temporarily left behind. The truth is, we all deal with our solitudes in very different ways, and there is no one fix for any one of us, because people themselves are so very different.
Unlike the lighthouse keepers of old, I have the solace of video WhatsApp and Zoom calls with friends and family to stop me going out of my mind with loneliness. I’d never bothered using the video facility before, but now I have it on all the time.
We clink virtual glasses and move around our kitchens and livingrooms, and there is the illusion of spending time together in the same physical space. It helps. It definitely helps. I am reminded of who I am during these calls.
Not an ascetic in a domestic cell, but a functioning member of a society that is no longer properly functioning.
There’s also the challenge of navigating other people’s togetherness. Nothing makes you feel lonelier than looking at social media posts of dealing with children now home from school, or good-natured banter about a spouse’s facility in the kitchen, or reading about the bread/cake/brownies another family member baked as a surprise.
Communality feels so taken for granted, as of course it should be in these situation; these are, I can’t help thinking, the true cocoons. Put it this way, you can’t be a cocoon of one.
A friend I was video calling with a few days ago pointed out that our justice system has deemed the harshest punishment for inmates is to be kept in solitary confinement. He also lives alone, and like me, usually has a lively social life, now completely on hold.
I was laughing as he made this observation: we are both fortunate enough to live in our own bright and spacious homes, with full freezers and Netflix, and books and our phones and doors to a garden. We’re not in cells. But, like prisoners, we are by ourselves. There are no visiting hours in solitary confinement in jail, nor during lockdown.
So I am trying, like all of us, my best to survive.
I like order, and my house is even more ferociously tidy and clean than usual. That tidiness and cleanliness helps me think more clearly and calmly. I am experimenting with recipes for the first time in ages, and taking pleasure in cooking and eating well, and using up the more exotic things scattered throughout my cupboards. I finally entered the 21st century last week and got wifi installed. Netflix is indeed the treasure chest I always imagined (and feared) it to be.
It helps to do what I do for a living: to write every day, even though my colleagues are scattered far and wide from an office none of us have been in for weeks. A deadline still focuses the mind like nothing else. Work does help.
But what is most useful of all in my enforced solitude are my nightly video WhatsApp and Zoom calls; I’d even say they are now essential. I honestly don’t care if some organisation is, or is not, surveilling me during these calls. It’s worth it for the virtual company I receive in exchange. My heart lifts each evening when my screen lights up with the face of someone I haven’t seen in actual real life for weeks.
All this “new normal” will be over some day. And if I can help it, in the meantime, there won’t be a single dandelion in my garden.
If you are living alone in lockdown, how are you coping? You can share your experience using the form above, anonymously if you wish - a selection of responses may be published on irishtimes.com