The thinning veneer

I got invited to a Zoom party last night. It’s scheduled for next Friday night when a bunch of us in our homes spread around Melbourne will join online through the application to share drinks remotely, and banter and conversation and all the rest of it. It’s a thing now.

I think most people expect to be in this situation for a while, depending on how successfully we manage to control the coronavirus. I think most people have been sensible, but there’s still enough playing up that it remains a risk for all of us. The best-case scenario, I would think, is 4-6 weeks. The worst is months. And those numbers take no account of if you or I get sick with this thing – a fair chance – in which case numbers don’t matter.

Earlier I was wondering what we learn from this, but then it seemed premature. What can we learn until the lesson has been delivered in full?

So, then, what happens from here? What if we become virtual prisoners of our home for months to come?

Right now it’s new, and there’s a touch of unwelcome novelty about it. Zoom parties tap into that. I read how families are returning to simple pleasures like reading and playing board games. I myself took a couple of hours off yesterday to watch an old movie from the seventies, Heaven Can Wait.

As this continues, I figure the general sense and experience will develop and change. I imagine a lot of people will endure cabin fever, especially if a lockdown becomes official. And I imagine those of us participating in this will experience something like the five stages of grief as it goes on.

Not all of this is a bad thing. Not in my eyes, anyway. Lifestyle and habit obscure reality and most are happy for that. There’s barely any interruption to it and so rarely cause to question it. Our lives are made up of routine and ritual. We catch the train to work each day and return on the same train at the end of it. We buy our coffee from the same cafe at the same time every morning and exchange the same meaningless banter with the barista. Our work, more or less progresses, down predictable lines. We go to the same meetings, nod to the same people, lunch at the same place. At night we return home to the ritual of family time. We eat together and share our stories and perhaps this is the time it becomes most real – though even then, mostly, it hardly varies from the program. We do it in the same ways.

At night we settle down to watch our favourite programs, the lifestyle and reality shows, the blockbuster series. These will inform conversation we share with others, a common ground of shared experience. Come the weekend there’s shopping and kids sports and leisure. Maybe dinner out, or catch up with friends to blow off steam, but how often does the conversation become intimate? That great regulator of time, sport, comes up on TV, as regular as clockwork. We know that if we turn on the TV at any time, we’ll see a variety of contests available as we flick through the channels. In the winter it’s footy, a great and well-embraced opiate of time and sensation. Tick, tick, tick, there it is, and next week too, and the week after, and all the industry about it, and the conversation it leads to Monday morning, fodder for interaction.

What we have now is a situation where hardly any of that continues. All routines have been disrupted. Rituals are called into question. Habits no longer apply. Real-life has hit us full in the face.

What does it mean now then with those great life patterns in the rubbish? Separated from our routines, who do we become? Not yet, but soon, the real texture of living will become apparent as the veneer we’ve applied to it wears off. We’ve been spoilt. We’ve had it good and easy and who would turn it down given the choice? We have a life that has taken us away from the basic meaning of existence. We live in a buffer zone where miracles are taken for granted. Now the buffer is being stripped bare. For many, that will mean abject hardship. For the rest of us, the sense of entitlement we’ve felt our birthright very likely will be proved a sham.

Maybe I’m getting too far ahead. Maybe it’ll blow over. Maybe I’m getting too philosophical, or perhaps too negative.

Time will tell, and the rest is perspective. What seems negative to others to me looks like a necessary correction. I hope we’re better and more authentic after this, and closer to life. A crucial part of that is humility. We’ve lost that as a society.

I’m in a different situation to most. I have no family to concern me. I live in a small home with a small yard with a big dog. It’s never felt so stark as it does now. I have friends within walking distance I may not see again for months.I’m fortunate by temperament. I’m an introvert with the skills of an extrovert. I can self-sustain, though I’ll miss people. Self-sufficient by inclination and independent by nature, I’ll find ways to keep going. I’ve been through the mill before.

I’m safe in the short term with work because – for now – I have a critical role. I have some seniority now too, as well as about eight weeks of leave up my sleeve. None of that guarantees tenure. Should this go on more than six weeks I’m sure my role will be subject to review also. Before that, I’m sure many others will already have been stood down – and I don’t know if enough, understand the full gravity of the situation. I work with people who blithely expect to continue working regardless, forgetting that if there’s no money in the door then nothing to pay their wage.

In times like these, I expect us, over time, to revert to something of our essential self. That won’t be pretty in many instances. Inhibitions will dissolve. Peer group pressures won’t exist.

For many, it will be good to get back to the person they believed in when they were young and expectant. For me, I expect, I’ll go back to my books, and will find in them meaning, as well as diversion. For others, it may be as simple as re-connecting with the family – though I think in times like this we need to find something for ourself, as well.

I prognosticate. Perhaps I am getting too far ahead of myself. I can do that. It’s only been a few weeks, after all. I have no crystal ball. I think things will be different after this, and I hope what we have experienced is a form of enlightenment.

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