Friday 9 April 2021

Hindsight is 2020

By the end of 2020…

my mind was spaghetti. Shifting, unpredictable, slippery, chaotic spaghetti.

That’s why I found it so hard to pull a blog out of my arse all year. Well, that, and the fact that we were all watching the same volcano explode. To comment on it, or my feelings about it, felt irrelevant. The differences lie only in our proximity to the volcano; the risk, and the options, vary wildly depending on our geographical location. And even though each individual country often has a disaster it’s trying to deal with, this is the first time, in my lifetime, at least, that we’re all caught up in the same one.

To pull things back to the micro for a moment, in terms of my writing, I kept leaving it too long to put my thoughts into order, my ideas changed so frequently, that, over and over again, I lost the story. Without a story, without at the very least a theme, a blog is just a bunch of run-on sentences from someone else’s stream of consciousness, and that’s not interesting, is it?

Well, here’s hoping it might be a little bit.

Where was I? Oh yes, spaghetti.

It’s like that episode of Community (Basic RV Repair and Palmistry) when Abed tries to flashback to an explanation as to why they’re driving a giant hand cross-country. But he didn’t set up the flashback in the past so he can’t flashback to it in the present and is therefore left not knowing where to start the story.

Yeah, it felt like that.

Because a giant hand appearing out of nowhere is a good metaphor for 2020. We don’t know what to make of the hand, we don’t know why it’s there, and we don’t know what the hand is going to do to us.

All hail the hand. All fear the hand.

I didn’t know what to say about it… I still don’t know what to say about it. What’s the hand gonna do next? Fuck knows. And as part of the whole dumpster-fire, we’re having to live with the decisions our leaders are making in response to the goddamn hand.  The best that I, or, to my observation, anyone, has managed to do is try to keep living around the giant hand. But when you’re in that state, a survival state, you don’t have the bandwidth to reflect upon it. You’re just dealing with the… okay, I nearly went back to volcano metaphor, but I’m sticking with the hand (that’s what she said). Argh, I’m going to keep fighting my spaghetti brain, which is also all rusty in the ways of narrative as well as being as congruent as over-cooked pasta. So… surviving: we’ve all been there, right? Our lives are filled with cracks and edges and dark places by now. Part of my response was to stop looking for new stories and fall back into the arms of familiar ones. Stories that gave me comfort because they were about the world as it was before the hand. What was still the “REAL WORLD” to me. I wasn’t ready to accept the fact that this, whatever da fuck this is, is also the real world.  

That’s how I started the new year. Re-watching the X Files, with cats curled up on my lap, trying not to overthink how some of the storylines, particularly the one about a virus that’s hijacking people’s immune systems, seem completely prophetic now. Trying to only focus on how much I’d still like to lick David Duchovny.

But then 20:20, 03, 02, 2021 happened. What’s the significance of that date? Well, nothing. Less than nothing. I was tipsy and happened to look at my phone. I prefer 24 hour time on my clocks, and the time I glimpsed in that moment was 8.20pm (20:20). I shouted with glee about my timing, because my tiddled mind thought it was 20:20, 02, 02, 2020. Until my friend pointed out that it was actually the third, and it was also 2021. They went on to claim that I’d tried to announce a similar synchronicity around the same time last year. Was this true? There’s no earthly way of knowing. I was probably drunk then, too. But the point is that this was the first time in what felt like a million years, not one, that I had a sense of time passing again.

Last March I took a solo trip to Rotorua. My first proper solo trip that wasn’t for work purposes. All the decisions of what to do, the budgeting of them, and the logistics of them, were mine. It was awesome, it was also a bit lonely. It was all the emotions, as all adventures are. When I landed, there were no Ubers available from the airport, I had no cash for the bus, and there was no cash machine. I’d forgotten what it’s like outside of a main city in New Zealand. I began to walk the ten miles toward my hotel, carrying bags filled with an excessive amount of clothing for a four-day trip… and I wasn’t bothered at all.

Do you know how many times I was lost and alone in Saigon? I’ve no idea.

It was almost every other day. I always had a new job, a new opportunity, a new thing to do that took me to a previously unexplored part of the city. But I had the Saigon bus network, Googlemaps (when my Mobistar phone wasn’t either dead or simply erratic), the freedom to move, and myself. It’s made me very self-reliant. Although, if I’m being honest, I think I’ve always been self-reliant, I just wasn’t really aware of it until then.    

No matter what’s going on in my life, no matter how bad things are, I’ve always had two things on my side: the ability to move, and myself. It’s easier to have agency when you have freedom of movement, it makes you feel like you have control. But when I got back from Rotorua last year, the same thing happened to me that happened to all of us, my freedom was taken away. And for me, that loss of agency was more terrifying than any other situation I’ve faced in my life. Because I was trapped, and there was nothing I could do about it, nothing. Trapped alone, 11,500 miles away from home, during a fucking pandemic.



Before I go any further, I think it’s necessary for context to explain NZ’s alert system for the pandemic. This system hasn’t changed since the beginning of the crisis.

Level 4 – everything closed except hospitals, supermarkets, and pharmacies. Allowed out once per day for exercise. Limits on movement when outside. No interaction with anyone outside of your household. If you’re alone this means you see no one, no support bubbles allowed.

Level 3 – as above. Restaurants allowed to open for take away only. A support bubble is allowed (i.e. you can interact with one household outside of your own). Some industry allowed to re-open. 

Level 2 – everything open but with increased contact tracing, mask wearing on public transport, social distancing, and limits on gatherings.

Level 1 – everything open but borders closed to all but citizens and residents (if you’re here on a work visa and you leave the country, you’re not allowed to return). Strict border control and government quarantine (masks on public transport and contact tracing recently added to this level).

I’ll add the obvious and important caveat right now - I know how lucky I am to be in New Zealand during this period of history. The government’s response to the pandemic, which is essentially turning the island into a giant terrarium, has meant that for the majority of the last year, we’ve been free to move around and live relatively normal lives within the country without risk from the virus. Which I suppose could be considered a near ideal situation if everyone you love is inside the terrarium with you, something that is definitely not the case for me.

I’m not sure how I’d feel if I was still in a full Lockdown right now… I probably would’ve had a complete mental breakdown… or maybe I’d be fine, or maybe I’ve had a breakdown regardless, I’m not really certain.

It all happened so fast, didn’t it?

The UK shut-down happened a few days before ours. When that happened, with cases rapidly rising here, I figured we’d have a fortnight or so before this government would do the same thing, but I was wrong, it was a few days. Before Level 4 was enforced, we had 48 hours to get ready.

My employer asked us to prepare to work from home for a few days, and I responded by taking everything, even my office chair, because I knew that it wasn’t going to be a few days, not even close. I didn’t ask permission to do this, but it was only a few hours before our bosses told everyone to take everything they could.

On the 25th March, every smart phone in the country received a message from the government, not a text, but this weird hijacking announcement that made the phone buzz and ring like a mother fucker. I still have a screenshot of it. It said that the country was in a state of emergency, and that from 11.59pm that evening, everyone was to stay home. Specifically, it said, ‘where you stay tonight is where YOU MUST stay from now on. You must only be in physical contact with those you are living with.’ And of course, if you lived alone, this meant alone.

I went to the supermarket that night. I’d been waiting on payday. The air was thick with barely concealed panic. People grabbed everything they could. This country that had become a place of healing for me suddenly felt hostile. I belong to no-one here, and no-one belongs to me. It took all my strength not to fall apart in the aisles. From the stroke midnight that day, we were trapped. I was trapped.

In the days that followed it felt like the whole world went away… Walking over the motorway bridge, no cars, just wind and bird calls. Empty pavements, traffic lights blinking on and off to indicate nothing.

Queuing at the supermarket. Socially distanced, in lines around an underground car park. For hours, sometimes. A man built like a rugby player overseeing the queue. He was dressed in the supermarket uniform, but I haven’t seen him working there since Level 3. It wasn’t explicitly stated, but it was clear he’d been brought in for crowd control. The tension in those lines was palpable, it was like the very fabric of social agreement was strained to breaking point. People would have breakdowns in the queue. All we could do was whisper soothing words from a two-metre distance. Telling them it would be okay, without really believing it ourselves. I spent so much money at the supermarket because I didn’t want to have to go back, and because it was the only thing I was allowed to spend money on.

Some days I didn’t want to go outside. When I did go outside, people crossed the road to avoid me, they glared at me fearfully as I passed. Everyone did it to everyone, I guess, but it was harder to bear alone. And I didn’t do it to anyone because I knew how it felt. I tried to smile at people. It hurts when you smile at people repeatedly and they don’t smile back. Your logical brain knows that this isn’t personal, but your lizard brain sends your nervous system into haywire because it feels like exclusion from the pack. It’s a primal fear.

I made a perfect loaf of bread despite never having baked before. I’ve never tried again because I actually don’t know how to bake. I assume this was a weird fluke of the universe and I’m determined to retire on a high.

I turned my living room into a giant bed, surrounding it with Christmas tree lights and every pretty and nice smelling thing in my house. I had to take it down after a few days, as it began to resemble a set off Trainspotting. But I left the lights up until the end of the Lockdown as a totem to this abnormal time: a vigil.

I tried to make an essential oil burner out of household items because I couldn’t buy incense or candles from anywhere. I nearly burned the house down, obviously.

Of course, there’s the inevitable behaviour that one falls into after a period of house arrest and perpetual isolation, which is, just constant, compulsive…


I don’t craft under normal circumstances. But one Sunday I spent 14 hours sewing a horrible snake draft-excluder that I’d been bought as a joke present. I used whatever threads I had, even if they didn’t match, I tore up an old pillow for the stuffing. I don’t own a sewing machine: it was all sewn by hand. Badly. I now have this thing sat on my sofa, its seams starting to bust, a missing eye that I can’t be fucked to sew back on - a constant reminder of the tenuous state of my mental congruity deep in Level 4.

I walked to the top of the Botanical gardens. I stood staring across at the harbour. Everything was silent. I closed my eyes, it felt like there was nothing between me and the sea, not a sound, not a vibration in the air, just calm and bright and dead. I was so agitated that I blasted Srillex and KnifeParty (I know, showing my age there) into my ears. Fuck the beauty and the birds and the peace, I needed noise, I needed life, I needed for this new world not to be real.

Two weeks into Lockdown my employer Zoom-ed himself into our living rooms to tell us that due to the border closure and lack of international students, which the universities here depend upon for survival, our jobs were now at risk. Whether this was an act of extreme pragmatism or a severe lack of empathy, is still the subject of lively debate. Regardless, in that moment, I realised that my job and everything I’d worked for could be taken away in a heartbeat. Because of course it could. I’d fallen into the fantasy mindset that anything outside of myself could be controlled by me. That working hard meant anything. I did my Strong exercise classes and imagined punching his face. Some days I imagined Jacinda’s face. Even though she may be the reason I’m alive right now, she was still the face of the measures that had trapped me.


Oh, the impotent rage!

But I wasn’t mad at either of them, not really. They were just reacting to the giant hand. It was the giant hand I was mad at. But you can’t punch a virus. As far as I know, anyway.


Back to normality… not

The morning we moved from Level 4 to 3 I woke up to the sounds of traffic on the motorway. The hum of traffic is a noise we never pay attention to, it fades into the background, like a ticking clock or the trilling of the cicadas during a New Zealand summer. It’s a sound you don’t notice or appreciate until it’s gone. I jumped out of bed like Scrooge on Christmas morning, ran downstairs, flung open the door and stood in the garden absorbing the rattle of lorries and farts of exhausts… and I started to happy-cry and whoop. Because those stupid, ugly, environment killing noises meant life was coming back, it meant this too shall pass, it meant I wouldn’t be alone anymore.  

Of course, I love peace and silence, and I hold moments of solitude and reflection dear to me, but only when it’s a choice. When it’s no longer a choice, when it’s no longer a beautiful juxtaposition to the chaos of life, then it’s a prison.

What we’re all experiencing in response to the hand is a tight conflict over a populace’s need for a balance between the Freedom To and Freedom From. My observation (from the outside) of the UK’s response was a lack of Freedom From at a moment where it could really have made a difference. A deadly hesitation, which, I feel, has contributed to a form of Lockdown that has persisted for over a year. Boris’s lack of care for protecting the British people from danger has led to a large-scale loss of life that could have potentially been avoided. Whereas here, the only focus of the government is Freedom From. This has led to very few deaths and low risk of contracting the virus, but it has come at the cost of our Freedom To.

I’m not going to go into a detailed observation of the situation here in NZ and the impact it has on us all daily. Because it’s all very contentious and from the outside I’m sure it looks perfect, especially when you’ve been struggling in a perpetual Lockdown. And as I said earlier, I’m grateful to have experienced the levels of normality that I have over the last year, and I’ll leave it at that, except to say: this is not my home. If you’d asked me years ago whether I’d be happy to live alone abroad, if we had known that a pandemic would trap me here away from my loved ones for an indefinite period, the answer most certainly wouldn’t have been fucking yes. But that’s life, right? Hindsight is… yeah, title drop.

Brave new world

I suppose the most interesting thing I have to share at the moment is a view what a post-Lockdown life might look like. Even though, the extended lockdowns in many countries will mean there are very different consequences to coming out of one for every country. For many, I would assume, there will be a large-scale shift away from physical workplaces. Which is… a damn shame, I think. We’ve adopted a more flexible approach to working practices here, working from home the odd day each week is pretty standard now, but the idea of working from home all of the time? I couldn’t imagine anything worse. And this may in turn impact which country I decide to live in going forward. I’m a social creature, and I don’t want a job that doesn’t allow me to interact with people in person.  

But even after only a couple of months of Lockdown, and perhaps, in part, because of the extreme nature of the NZ Lockdown, it took me a long while to work past the trauma and learn to live with the uncertainty. Because we can, and do, slip up and down alert levels at a moment’s notice. Everything can appear to be fine, and the next thing you know your phone buzzes and you’ve a few hours to prepare for an alert change. This whiplash has become so commonplace that one weekend I slept through the alert and didn’t even realise we’d had another outbreak until a government ad popped up during a YouTube video. I even thought – that’s an old ad, surely? Yeah, cos the government tends to run old ads regarding what state of emergency we’re in… ya fucking moron.  

It took time for me to get used to people not treating me like a walking hazard anymore. It took time to feel okay working from home occasionally without risking a panic attack at the thought of being trapped again. It took time to get used to living without any certainty over when things will be better, when I can see my family again, or when I can get back to that feeling of just my boots and my backpack and me, the only things I really trust, with autonomy of movement. 

What I’ve done is throw myself into living where I can. Living in the gaps, I call it. I don’t have the money to travel within NZ right now. By which I mean, I don’t have the money to pre-book trips, pre-pay for hotel rooms, and take the risk that alert levels change and I lose all of that money, or it happens while I’m away from Welly and I have to spend hundreds desperately trying to get back to my house with only hours to spare, or putting myself up indefinitely in a remote location if I can’t. I don’t have that kind of money, so I don't go far.

I sign up for all sorts of new things via the staff club at work, because I want to have different experiences, test myself, meet new people, have fun and grow as much as I can, especially when a whole world of experience, adventure and learning has been cut away from us. I try to enjoy relationships and experiences for what they are and try not to over-analyse every little thing - because none of us know what the hand will do next, so the idea of planning for the future is pretty laughable right now. I’ve thrown myself into endeavours that fulfil me as much as possible, making a positive difference where I can because these things have more value right now than they ever have. I’ve been surviving, but the realisation of the passage of time has allowed something new to creep in. I’ve noticed that being forced into a constant state of impotence has required me to sit with my trauma, to sit with my fears and hopes, and the results of that have proven quite surprising.


So… what’s the lesson? Is there one?

The real problem with the Lockdown for me, at the start of the pandemic, when we didn’t know if we were all going to get ill and die, was the very real fear that I would die alone on the other side of the planet. Of course, that could happen at any time, but there was a period where that seemed less of a remote possibility and more like a complete inevitability. That’s a big thing to worry about, no wonder I’ve been so angry and frustrated and scared.

I spent New Year’s Eve with a dear friend of mine and her whole NZ-based family. It was awesome and fun and I love her very much so I was very happy to be included, but a few times I felt my eyes well up and I didn’t know where to look. Here I was, watching this big family and I myself have no such thing. Certainly not anywhere near me, anyway. When I was in bed on my own later I cried and cried and cried (although I’m sure all the whisky and just the general relief of 2020 ending were factors) wanting the universe to reassure me, somehow, that everything was going to be okay. The following morning, after waking up weirdly refreshed, I spent the day with my friend, and we talked about the anxieties that had bubbled up for me. She talked about hers, and I listened… and it clicked: the idea that having all that family makes any real difference to how you feel about yourself or your problems is kinda… bullshit. We all have the same fundamental fears and hopes, and having a lot of people around you can make you feel better, but in some ways it can make you feel worse. Like everything in life, it’s pros and cons, and they vary depending on your circumstances. Neither situation is objectively better. Or, at least, they’re not from my perspective.

In the three months or so since I had that epiphany, it’s began to settle into place. If I die alone on the other side of the world - then that’s just how it’s going to be, isn’t it? And I don’t mean that as some desperate cry for help or anything, I genuinely mean what I’m saying. Our choices are our choices and I’ve made some terrible ones and I’ve made some awesome ones, but I like who I am and what I’m about. Of course, there is SO much more I want to do and be and experience in life, I have the same wants and desires and needs and doubts as anyone, I need people, I need connection, I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t, but if all of it ends tomorrow and it’s just me facing the universe… then that’s okay. That really is okay.

I’m loved, I love, and that doesn’t change no matter where I am or what I’m doing. Plus, I’m pretty damn awesome company, I really am, so I’m okay being with me; and if I were in some life threatening situation that required action, there’s no one I would trust more to protect me or look after my best interests, than me.

Paradoxically, it’s the love and support of the people in my life that has helped me to realise that I’m perfectly alright just as I am. So, thank you, you all know who you are. I guess that’s what I’m trying to share here, we’ve been forced to deal with a situation that we’ve never encountered before, but what it’s given us all is the opportunity to learn how to be okay within ourselves no matter what happens. But with that in mind, I can’t tell you how wonderful it will feel to be sat on a plane again, booted up and suffering from what I like to call “travel madness” (you know, when your thoughts go all weird cos you’re so sleep deprived and hungry and fed up) heading toward the next adventure, or in the direction of someone, or someones, I adore.


Like Abed, I couldn’t flashback to anything last year, because last year was always going to be the moment I flashed back to. And like Abed, there is no meaning to be drawn from the giant hand other than the meaning we can infer from it. And oddly, the meaning that Abed applies to the hand could just as easily be applied to this situation, too. But the real meaning, is for you to infer for yourself. Just like the rest of the nonsensical, maddening, swirling vortex that is life.

‘A hand has two functions: to grip and to release. But without both of those powers, it’s useless. Like a new-born infant, we grab what comes near us, hoping to control it, taste it, jamb it into another’s eye, but the time we spend in control of one world is the time we spend letting go of others… grip one for too long and you lose so much that you’ve never held. This giant hand was sent to all of us, as an invitation to increase our mastery over the power to hold on, and to let go.’

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