I hadn't intended to give another letter over to talking about the virus but, with no true end in sight even if the UK is past the peak, this is our current reality. The UK Government's chief scientific adviser has warned that some form of social restrictions are likely to remain until the end of the year so "normal" is a long way off yet.
I've seen a couple of people linking to, and taking different quotes from, this piece on Wired about why life seems so surreal during the pandemic.
Routine, or rather the lack of it.
As much as we hate to admit it, the routine of our lives, the mundane day-to-day, is what holds it all together.
As humans we thrive off routines and our minds are built to recognise patterns, it is vital for our growth and survival. As children we learn our way in the world using pattern recognition, we take current stimuli and compare them against previous experience - if we find enough of a match then we behave in a certain way. Without a match, for a situation where we have no prior experience, we look to those around us and tend to act as they do assuming it is correct, this then becomes a memory, an experience to reference in future; it's like social proof
The more we experience something and act accordingly the more it reinforces our routine, be that getting ready before we leave the house, sitting on the same seat on the train, taking lunch at the same time, walking the same routes.
"Our routines have been taken from us, the old normal - no matter how strange - stolen by an unseen enemy" - me
When the things that define who were are on this day-to-day basis, that form the basic structure of our lives, are removed we start to feel confused, all at sea. Our usual cues and triggers are absent so have to start making new rules and responding in different ways - if something works we log it for future reference; the only problem being, in lockdown or isolation, we don't have the benefit of those all important social cues, of being able to follow the behaviour of others. We're all making it up as we go along, some more successfully than others.
The Wired piece includes quotes from child psychiatrist Fredrick Matzner such as:
"The surreal part, I think, comes when you're thrown into a situation that you've never been in before. It's extremely disorienting"
"My wife actually said this to me just a couple of days ago: 'It's like there's no future'"
Because there isn't a solid, defined future you can plan for, no end date for all of this that we can count on, it's incredibly disconcerting. As I wrote in the second letter: "The problem is we don't know when that future is going to be."
The words of Patrick Rhone come back to me when he wrote about embracing the uncertainty, you have to accept that things are different and take each day as it comes. Those who cling to the old norms, who crave the certainty, are those who are dealing with this the worst.
It's the not knowing that gets us: not knowing when we can go out, not knowing if somewhere is safe, not knowing if anyone around us has it - so we treat everyone as though they do which is a horrible way to live. We don't know if we're going to have to cancel that holiday we booked before all this started or when we'll next be able to go on holiday at all.
Sometimes we don't even know what day it is, they blur into each other, become almost identical. One of my colleagues asked in a work chat "anybody else starting to feel like they are living Groundhog day?"
Yes, again and again.
It's funny how we complain about our commutes, about the throngs of people we have to jostle with, about the "boring" routine but would welcome at least some of it back in a heartbeat. It tells us where we are and what is happening even if we don't like or enjoy it. Being confined to one's home means this is absent; work and non-work days lose their definition and the weekend no longer serves as the great delimiter.
Still, it'll be just as hard to readjust to whatever comes after as it certainly won't be the same as what came before.
To break things up I read the book "Art Matters" by Neil Gaiman, a short collection of pieces including his well known "Make Good Art" commencement speech. I wrote a bit about it here.
I also finally got round to finishing "Reality Hunger" by David shields. I mentioned it in the first letter and wanted to say more now I'm done with it.
I'm going to talk about something specific here so if you plan to read it and don't want to know I'll say goodbye now, wish you well and see you in the next letter.
Okay, let's crack on...
In the first letter I said "you're never entirely sure what you're reading", the truth is that actually you're never entirely sure who you're reading. The book is divided up into topics with numbered sections but what you don't know is that the vast majority of those sections are actually quotes from other people.
It's a bit of a conundrum.
There is very little of the author in the book but there is everything of him in it. The careful, considerate, consistent cultivation of quotations builds a picture of his ideas while perfectly illustrating the whole concept behind the book: art is theft. That's why Austin Kleon recommends it.
It's not theft in order to pass something off as one's own but to take inspiration from everything around you, culture, life, experience, and make something new from it - think remixes, sampling or collage on a massive scale.
The time it must have taken to plan and prepare is unfathomable.
I was a complete newcomer to the book and hadn't read any reviews so was unaware of its little secret. I found out about three quarters of the way through when I noticed an appendix and started reading it's preamble. Shields writes that he wanted the sources of each quote to be kept a mystery but the publishers insisted (for legal purposes) that references be given. He even instructs you to cut out those pages along the dotted line printed on them to read the book in the way it was intended.
Knowing this gave the whole project an entirely new meaning and completely changed my perception knowing how it was put together. Never knowing (apart from a couple of sections where it is all Shields) where the words originate but, because they are so well curated, being able to read them all as the thoughts of one person is an intriguing and profound experience.
They may not be his words but they are definitely his thoughts that just happen to have been articulated by others, in some cases over a hundred years ago. I tried to respect his wishes but just couldn't resist checking where certain passages originated.
And that's it...
We're done for another letter. As always, thanks for reading and I look forward to anything you might want to contribute.