Remember being a kid, the night before the start of the new school year? Fear grips your churning stomach – a new class, a new teacher, a new label as a ‘big girl’.
At the same time, excitement radiating from every pore at the idea of seeing friends, sharing (and embellishing) your summer holiday adventures and the ultimate joy of getting away from your older/younger brother/sister.
I’ve been vacillating between this ‘churning’ and ‘excited’ feeling throughout the summer. Now the whole ‘back to school’ slogan flooding the news is just making this feeling increase tenfold. After nesting in my safety bubble during lockdown for months on end, the official go-ahead from the government for the great escape began, but it was in stages.
First, I was given permission to venture to the hairdressers to have my mop reshaped by someone dressed in what looked like a dentist’s uniform. Then concession was granted to visit the dentist who was dressed as a welder. Then – finally – dispensation and active encouragement for eating out. I sat at the restaurant table laid with cutlery, salt, pepper and hand sanitiser, as the waiter mumbled incomprehensibly behind his thick mask.
This wasn’t how it was last year, or the year before. It’s not familiar and reassuring. Instead it’s a skewwhiff, warped reality, like living in the twilight zone. Every time I am officially permitted to do something ‘new’, a bead of sweat trickles from my temples as butterflies perform the Cancan in my stomach. Now we are at the final stages of our ‘new normal’, and after having dipped my toe into icy cold water, this requires the full monty. Back to the commute. Back to work in person. ‘Back to school’.
My first commute was a nerve-wracking experience. Precariously perched on a train seat, imagining all surfaces will kill me, my hot breath seeps from my mask and steams my glasses, temporarily blinding me with every breath. I am walking around like a mule, over-burdened with ‘stuff’ from my usual yoga mat and water bottle to the more bizarre: mobile phone wipes, toilet cleaner and a tupperware filled with neat bleach. I sense my own absurdity. The fear that I’ll get sick from the train, but that I am fine to go to the supermarket, the hairdressers and the restaurant, is frankly illogical. I appreciate that I am not entirely to blame, the messages from the powers that be have been ‘mixed’ to say the least, but I feel the need to ask myself whether covid is the real reason for my discomfort – or if there is something deeper.
Digging for the truth
My new world has shown me I don’t much like my old one. But I’m not crazy about the new one, either. How is wasting hours on end travelling, a positive change from the recent experience of lockdown with no commute? (Unless the journey from the bedroom to the kitchen is considered a commute.) Home-made lunch from and in the garden, versus grabbing a floppy, expensive sandwich eaten on the run. Traipsing across town from venue to venue, versus a restorative zoom yoga class from the comfort of my bed, or an online power yoga class from the living room. But it’s not as clear cut as that…
During lockdown, the question was what do you do when you can’t do what you normally do? Now the question is, do I want to do all the things I would normally do? Putting reality to one side and waving a magic wand, what kind of a life would I create for myself? Who do I want to connect with? And just in case there aren’t enough unanswered questions let’s also ask: What is my purpose? It’s too easy to fall back to what I know and stay in my comfort zone, but that would be missing the point.
A new label
The ‘big girl’ label has long been replaced with another, equally frightening, label of a ‘grown up’.
The grown-up aka ‘adult’ is a dreadful affliction which affects all of us, some earlier than others, but no living person is immune.
Gone are the 8 hour days where you romp in a field, invent fantastical adventures, laugh until you pee your pants and then sulk when you have to go home. As a grown-up you become responsible, serious, you must progress and achieve things.
In amongst the fear and stress of lockdown, there were moments of utter delight and abandon. I was forced to get creative. Not only to earn a living, but to rediscover things to do when I was bored, often involving giggling until my jaw hurt. I took more time to speak to family and friends. I also reconfirmed the inescapable fact that I am a terrible chef. But now it’s ‘back to school’ and back to the grind.
When did this joyous playfulness become something childish? When did it become wrong to run behind someone, touch them shouting ‘You’re It’ and then run away? Of course in covid times you would have to change the rules of tag to respect the 2 metre rule. But why can’t we play ‘Grandmother’s footsteps’ on the concourse at Waterloo station? ‘Leapfrog’ on the Piccadilly line? ‘Simon Says’ on the escalator? All before you’ve even got to the office.
Global midlife crisis
Many of us have changed our lives from one day to the next, whether voluntarily or not. Moving countries, changing jobs/partners/habits, but in essence there has always been a through line, an understanding of what civilised life is like in your part of the world.
I wonder whether this fundamental baseline is up for grabs. Can we step away from old labels, and explore the surroundings with a childlike inquiring mind, without attachment and bias? A sense of open-minded curiosity… Can we create a better life? A better world? Only time will tell, but the future is in our hands.