Now school is back, I quietly resume my quest for self | Life and style

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I’m typing today in a muffled pocket of unholy peace. Far below me there’s the clink of the washing machine spinning, a sound that always makes me shiver with superiority, and outside of course quiet sirens and birds, but in this room only the thick sound of nobody here.

Since school started again I have been padding through the rooms of my house in a sort of terrified wonder. I find myself touching things lightly, and naming them in my head as though meeting for the first time – light switch, photograph, soap dish, cat. When I sit down I feel nauseous, as if beginning to digest a very large meal that’s been stretched out over a year – tripe appetisers, rare pork, fear, many underdone potatoes. It will take some time, I think, to get used to this new little freedom.

And even now – now that I’m no longer swimming badly through Key Stage 2 and its many cheeky ways to make me feel terrible, from exposing my still-absent maths to revealing my limited abilities as a mother – I think often of teachers, whose skills and patience I was suddenly and violently aware of over lockdown. Every day they do it. Every day they stand in a room plastered with pictures of apples and Mars and calmly manipulate 30 children into learning something new. Me, I got bogged down by the scenarios suggested. Looking up from an endless minute of my daughter’s online division video, my eyes would be fogged with tears that the five children pictured must survive on only this paltry basket of apples. For how long? And the question of splitting them “fairly”, well. There are 15 apples – are all the children equally hungry? I was thrown. As were books.

While my boyfriend and I might previously have celebrated a rare day alone by taking each other out for lunch, somewhere with nice bread and a small glass of wine, this week we treated ourselves to a walk to pick up some Covid tests. Why not spice it up, we said, why not add some purpose to our single permitted daily walk? Excitement has a new, worse meaning these days. We walked through the mizzle to a recreation ground which rose gently to a hill where a public toilet had been repurposed as a testing centre. Perhaps eventually I will stop being shocked by the brutal dystopia of our new lives, but not today. Not today.

They had run out of takeaway tests, so invited us to do one there, behind a Perspex window. From behind their masks, they counted to 10 as we rotated the sticks in two orifi, and the experience, we settled on later, walking back past an estate that had clearly been shipped in from an ailing seaside town, was similar to that of ordering a meal kit from a fancy restaurant. A professional provides the instructions and the kit, then stands back to give you ample opportunity to really humiliate yourself, the end result being a feeling of bloated failure – both experiences left a sour taste in the mouth.

Back home once more in this uncanny stillness, in among the dishwashing and deadlines, the project now school has returned is: to work out who I am. In these past months, where all whisperings of an inner voice were smothered by the louder ones outside, asking for biscuits, telly or time, my self, the bit that is me, has been put away for a while, like winter clothes in spring. Only with some time alone can I luxuriate once again in the bath of my head. And I find that I am different. No doubt it will take a while for everybody to understand all the small ways the pandemic has changed us, brushing ourselves off in slow motion, feeling for bruises.

Part of what I find there is pleasing, like a new, hungry love for books and paintings; part is disappointing, a sad new bitchiness which I must work to contain; and part is educational – I find that I need time alone like I need dark-green vegetables or milk. I need sustained heavy time with only my body, to try to crawl back into its limbs, its limericks, to return its memories to their correct boxes. And I find also that hearing about people who live alone and have had the opposite pandemic experience to me makes me instantly emotional – too little touch, too few bodies in bed with them. The impact of their lack sounds oddly similar to the impact of my abundancy – a disoriented struggle for self.

I find a long ribbon of confusion tied in bows around my bones, that constant surprise at the now faded signs in the park, at mistakes made, the shock that this thing is all still real.

So I pad through the house, tripping over emotions in a rush to catch up with myself, and in the dust light of a window I will find a clue. Or at the bottom of a cup of tea, or in the scent of the laundry softener. But just as I begin to join the dots again, to draw a clear picture of the person I am without a thousand children, guilts and squabbles hanging sorely from my wrists, it’s three o’clock and school is over, and tomorrow I must start again. The sun is setting later, but the days are getting shorter.

Email Eva at e.wiseman@observer.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @EvaWiseman

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Now school is back, I quietly resume my quest for self | Life and style

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