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15 June 2022

After two years of strange isolation, I no longer know myself

Our new reality seems a little too normal to be normal. Are we all giving a convincing performance of coping?

By Hannah Rose Woods

So my book about nostalgia has been published. What began as a note I tapped into my phone as I walked home from my agent’s office in autumn 2019, and became my day job over two years, three house moves and as many lockdowns, is out in the world. Now what?

Part of me feels like I’ve joined a club. When will it feel normal to walk into a bookshop and see a book that I have written alongside other proper, undeniable books? I get a little thrill every time someone messages to say they’re reading it – or, better still, sends a surreptitious picture of a copy on a stranger’s table in a café.

It was wonderful, after the Zoom years, to have a week of proper, people-in-a-room events. My little tour ends at Charleston Festival, held in what was the Sussex hideaway of the Bloomsbury set. It is one of the loveliest places I have ever visited. Speakers are given a tour of the house before we take to the stage, and I am so mesmerised by its gentle perfection that I forget that I had been feeling anxious about these events, after so long out of practice. The next day, I wake early and walk around Lewes as the sun begins to burn away the dawn haze, thinking: I could get used to this.

And then I get home, and feel almost the worst I have ever felt in my life. You know those moments when you are floored by an anticlimax you really hadn’t been expecting? I always do better when there’s something specific to anticipate, a goal or deadline to make clear where and when to fit everything else in, and suddenly I am, it seems to me, completely directionless.

[See also: My friends and I once moved through life in sync. Now, they speed ahead]

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In truth, with the very notable exception of the book, it’s been an awful year. But even accounting for the circumstances, I can’t explain why I feel so blankly miserable. It’s not just that after the first lockdown I gave up on finding another house-share in London or Cambridge, and moved into a place of my own in a quiet Nottinghamshire town, away from my friends – and then was broken up with. (I have taken that loss, of someone with whom my world shrank to a conspiracy of two over the months of isolation, very badly.) Or that, now the novelty of hosting people for weekends is wearing off, I’m left wondering how you find a new community in the world of remote working. And it’s not just the feeling of occupying an uneasy summer, sandwiched between hellish pandemic times and what looks set to be the coldest and hungriest winter in most people’s memories. Though, to be sure, none of this is helping.

I begin to put a name to it when I spend a night with a friend, where I am introduced to her new flatmate, and we have the kind of evening I have missed terribly – drinking wine with people you love, and people you are pleased to meet, and finding reasons to agree with each other enthusiastically. I’m not sure I’ve come to terms with the new reality we find ourselves in. It seems a little too normal to be normal. I wonder if we are all giving a convincing performance of coping, more or less.

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It bubbles up slowly, behind the conversational chemistry: this feeling that Covid has knocked us all off the trajectories we had imagined for ourselves; that we have all been marked as individuals by the experience of the past few years, in ways we have not gathered up into shared understanding. Everything changed and nothing changed, and now where are the stories we tell to make sense of things? Where are the larger narratives to grip on to?

Maybe I haven’t processed it myself. I have changed, profoundly, in recent months, in ways I can’t fully articulate. I had thought I was a pretty self-aware person, someone who was in touch with their emotions, and now I realise that we are always outpacing our self-awareness – changing in ways that make us strange to ourselves – and catching up again. I think of the Derek Walcott poem, “Love After Love” – the you that greets you at your own door, and sits down to eat. “Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart to itself…”

So I resolve to get to know myself again. I start writing a diary.

Hannah Rose Woods is the author of “Rule, Nostalgia” (WH Allen). Tracey Thorn is on sabbatical

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This article appears in the 15 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Big Slow Down