Who wants normal? Not me

I’m starting to grieve the idea of going back to normal.

Not that I think ‘normal’—meaning the way things were—is achievable, ever again. We won’t come out of this and return to what we had, ever. But some things will return, for sure. Some I’m happy about. Others I’m not looking forward to at all.

I like the roads the way they are, for one thing. I hate the traffic, and I’m not alone in that. But I also hate joining the traffic in order to get … anywhere. I hate driving on the motorway, or Lincoln Road, or Eden Terrace, or finding a parking space in Morningside. The complete absence of a need to do so over the past month has been wonderful.

I’ve discovered I don’t mind waiting outside a shop—because it means there is more space once you’re in there. I’m not looking forward to shopping among crowds again, whenever that happens.

I’ve also enjoyed the feeling that we’re all in this together, particularly where the economy is concerned—that we have a shared sense of crisis, a common anxiety, that money worries aren’t mine alone. I’ve found it comforting that all of us are worried about our jobs. Accompanying that has been a sense of relief from the burden of competition—not with anyone in particular, but with everyone. I wasn’t even aware of it before but I realise now that I was keeping up with the Joneses. The absence of competition, or FOMO, or the pressure to improve upon the last thing, has brought not an insignificant amount of relaxation. I’m not looking forward to those things returning.

I’ve enjoyed the absence of other people’s expectations. For the most part everyone has been too concerned about their own bubble (not just the one they’re living, but also their bubble of work commitments and businesses and pressures) to worry too much about mine. So I have this sense that the hordes have backed off (even if, in reality, there weren’t any hordes). ‘They’ don’t have faces or names, as such, they represent more a hidden crowd watching over what I do, casting judgment or having an opinion, or waiting for me to write something, or even wondering how they can profit from what I produce. That burden I carried, which is probably of my own making, has also abated—I really dread its return.
Because I qualified for the government subsidy there has been less pressure to find work in a market where it’s just not available. And because the government has said they won’t be hunting down tax payments, there’s a sense that even the IRD has backed off. I’m enjoying that space too. It has given me room to write the novel I’ve been struggling with for five years—the room to examine it afresh, to turn it over, comtemplate its story arcs, the character developments, all without a sense of urgency, of the need to make it a money-spinner this week or next. I’ve relished that space.

On the global stage I’ve appreciated the sense of an equalising crisis, the levelling of the board in terms of global power dynamics and trade disputes and incursions of the Russians into European politics or US elections, and yes, the daily drawing back of the curtain on Trump’s failings, which those of us who do not come under his spell have seen for years. I don’t for an instant think Trumpians will abandon him, even as thousands die because of his ineptitude, but still, I no longer feel we have to protest as loudly as we once did, because events have overrun him. If only that could have occurred without such grotesquely needless deaths (of anyone, Trump supporter or not).

Most of all I have appreciated the pause, the halt. It’s been like the spinning wheel on the screen of my laptop indicating something is wrong with the operating system and we may need to reboot. Those of us who watch the shifting sands of time closely have been expecting this for years. We saw it, we felt it, we knew the system was overloading and that something had to give. How is that related to a naturally occurring virus that caused a pandemic? Because crisis events around the globe had been accumulating for a long time. Because the rise of extreme right hate groups indicated the mistakes of the past were fading from memory. Because the disintegration of a global pact on climate change indicated we weren’t even able to read the signs right in front of our faces. Because the proliferation of real fake news (not the actual news that Trump calls fake) and right wing conspiracies was proof that truth no longer made much difference. Because the inability of the Christian church to articulate any kind of good news any more, but to rely on pseudo-religious quackery and the latest self-help philosophies was proof that even our oldest and most trusted institutions were crumbling. We could say, for example, that the UK faltered in its response to COVID-19 because of Boris, who is a result of Brexit, which has been revving the engine too high in Europe for years. You could say the US response under Trump was directly related to the hatred and xenophobia and arrogance that put him on the throne—specifically the racial hatred for Obama that led to such a whiplash response.

You could also point to the trade wars between the US and China that have been going on for years now, as perhaps underlying the unwillingness of China to be dishonest about what was occurring in Wuhan. You could definitely point to the actions of the Trump administration in dismantling cooperative mechanisms that Obama put in place precisely to head off a pandemic like the one that is occurring now.

But closer to home, what does it say that in the face of a recession, even a depression, it feels better, at least for some of us, than what we had before? We’re hearing more often from opinion writers in NZ that it would be better to open up the economy and risk some lives so that the wheels of the economy can be turned over sooner rather than later. Well, fuck them. I can’t think of anything worse. I don’t think one life is worth that risk. But apart from that, I hate—let me emphasise that word, HATE—the mouse wheel of our economic output dictating how we do our humanity. It’s been the wrong way round for a long time. The economy has been driving us. The system has been driving us. Greed has been driving us. These systems were built for our benefit, but they have not proven to be for our collective benefit—they have been millstones around our necks.
We all have to work, we all have to eat, we all need to pay for a roof over our heads—but what we’ve come to see over the past four weeks of lockdown is that the system we serve isn’t about these things. It’s about consumption and accumulation and greed. And most of us have been living as if trapped between the gears. I don’t look forward to that returning.

Which brings me to another area I haven’t been missing—the compulsion to spend money, whether on comforts or entertainment or consumption or addictions. I can’t be the only one surprised every time I open up my Westpac app to discover nothing has been taken out since the last time I opened it. I don’t want to go back to the days of seeing that balance fritter away on … nothing.

I also don’t miss the bullshit of people. I’m not referring to the serious issues that weigh people down and necessitate some community or relational support. I’m talking about the bullshit that doesn’t matter. The gossip. The judgmentalism. The fabricated dramas. I have loved being able to concentrate only on the things that matter to my household, things which, it turns out, are not very major at all.
I live in a constant start of concern for my daughters—I have come to realise that over the past few weeks as well. But for the period of lockdown I haven’t worried at all. Three of the four are here, with us, under our watch. The fourth is with her boyfriend on the family farm up north and is painting and rediscovering her centre and bathing in nature. It’s about the most content I’ve felt as a father since they all lived under our roof. I don’t ever want to lose that sense of contentment and security again.

I needed this. On a personal, artistic and professional level—I needed this. But the global needed it too. The revs have been too high for too long. I’d say 20 years, at least, from just before 9/11—the globe has been spinning too fast and we needed a pause before we all got thrown off.

I hate that thousands have died to make this reset happen—but I hope and pray their sacrifice one day proves to be worthwhile (while also knowing that it can never be).

Most of all, I hope that we NEVER go back to normal.