One year on – March 2021

When this journal was launched, in March 2020, it was an impulsive response to the closing of borders, most of us locked down into the minutiae of our lives.  I didn’t know if people would write in at all — when they did, my wildest hope was that they might keep doing so for a year.

Here we still are. To mark the specific moment of a year’s passage, we wrote to every past contributor and invited any who wished to share something from their daily lives now — perhaps a small ritual of life in the pandemic that has come to feel quite normal, perhaps something else that still does not. The responses we received were eclectic — some people zeroed in on a particular quirk of life, some took us for a walk outside, others shared how they were feeling more generally — not the stuff of a neat anniversary edition.  But more fitting perhaps to how we are all weathering this pandemic as we can, making of it what we can, even those of us low-down the hierarchy of weariness.

This story isn’t over, the journal stays open, please keep writing in.

The Editor

*

Most nights, I go on a long walk around the neighborhood, after dark. At some point in the summer, my children started joining me. Sometimes both come along, or just one, depending on whether they have moved their bodies at all that day. We have shorthand names for our various routes: ‘Up Down and Around,’ ‘Double Round Valley,’ ‘Loop Around the School,’ and if they’re both with me the choice must be carefully negotiated as we step out the door. We bring the dog, but she isn’t really the point. As we walk in the dark, the children spill the details of their days lived online with an ease they never exhibit at the dinner table. Sometimes my daughter asks challenging questions, or my son goes off on an improvisational riff, sometimes they just monologue about video games. We walk the empty streets, stretching our legs and filling our lungs with the night air, grateful for our still-functioning bodies and our acute senses of smell, grateful that we’ve survived another day.

Ruth McKee, Los Angeles, California, USA

*

One thing I keep noticing is how changed the soundscape is. I don’t get used to the absence of noise, reflecting the emptiness of the streets, cafes and bars that used to animate our neighbourhood. We live in what is referred to as ‘the hypercentre’, suggesting a dense hub of human activity.  Many students live around here; Friday and Saturday nights often meant partying into the early hours. I used to dread noisy nights and long for uninterrupted sleep. 

The sound of silence was most uncomfortable during complete lockdown. I would get tense at night, lying in bed, hearing a helicopter flying to the hospital, while no other sign of life could be heard. These days you can tell the time by just listening out. After curfew (which now starts at 7pm), only mopeds can be heard, driven by underpaid workers delivering fast food.

There are three schools around us, one in our block, one in each neighbouring block. Now that a new lockdown has been announced, I know I will miss the sound of children bursting into play during breaks or chattering on the way home. 

Blandine Chambost, Nantes, France

*

The regular Zoom calls didn’t stick. The garden workouts, the extra-curricular learning/ courses/activities didn’t stick. Nor commitments to new languages, TV shows, or the sourdough starter (which may have made a comeback, this remains to be seen). A year later and community has stuck. Actually, community, as I understand it now, was developed and learned. Possibly through daily meals, chats, debates, laughter. Or maybe something subtler than that, something intangible, demonstrated through notes left on the fridge, shared shopping lists and space to rant and vent when necessary. The constant has been the people found within these four walls, our semi-regular walks through our overly familiar area in the evenings – when the light is just perfect for peering into other people’s lives. Am I being over-sentimental? That wasn’t my intention.

Leah Kenny, London, UK

*

Can we please agree that the term ‘new normal’ is now passé? It is not new anymore.

Walking on the street, when two or more people approach, I don’t now have to squeeze past them on the pavement. I now can legitimately be antisocial and cross the street or stop and let them pass by. In the olden days, this would have been rude. I would have had to fake a smile or something.

I have not been to a social gathering – dressed up – for a year. And I do not miss it. I am not sure how it will be when I need to wear non-casual clothes again. This thought is causing me some anxiety.

Heshani Sothiraj Eddleston, Edinburgh, UK

*

I stand in front of my closet. I have long given up fashion but I still have so many clothes for so many different occasions, most of them donated by friends and family when they were clearing out their own closets. My work moved home in lockdown – all those jackets and trousers and silky shirts not needed anymore. My work shoes dry rotted. Dress-up clothes mildewed in the heavy rain of November 2020. Jeans weren’t able to keep up with the expanding and contracting waistline. What have I worn for a year? Three sleeping shirts. Underwear. One street outfit. One jumpsuit for seeing socially distanced, masked up friends. Three Zoom shirts, so people wouldn’t think I had only one. Exercise clothes. Very little to wash and take care of or, for that matter, care about. A reduced impact on workers and the ocean. Clothes for comfort and coverage alone. I find myself hoping a nearly empty clothes closet will remain part of my future.        

Diana McCaulay, Kingston, Jamaica

*

Though we feel like we are living in an era of great social transformation (which we seemingly are), most of our days in the past year were spent quietly indoors, seated or lying down in front of our screens. So much of our lives today happens while sitting down. There is not much else to do but talk or be entertained. 

Nazmi Anver, Colombo, Sri Lanka

*

The way we measure time is less in raw numbers and more in terms of what happened in that time. You think back on the year you’ve had and you think, ‘Yes, this happened in December, and that happened in June. And the thing that happened in December feels more recent and is more fresh in my mind than the thing that happened in June.’

But with 2020, it’s just been one event.

Sahir Avik D’Souza, Mumbai, India

*

I find myself watching more television than usual. One thing I can’t shake (maybe for the rest of my life) is the full-body cringe I experience when watching a movie where teens are sharing a drink or even a kiss. I want to shake them and yell, “GERMS!” Any scene with large crowds, causes me to shudder. A subway car and unmasked people shoved up against each other? Outrageous!

Lisa Owens, Weatherford, Texas, USA

*

Now that it’s been a year, we’ve all had one of those lockdown birthdays. My daughter is always more excited about my birthday than I am. Her one highlight each year is counting out the candles to put on a cake, lighting them one by one (with some adult help from my partner), and then making the room dark while she walks in holding the cake and singing “happy birthday,” the louder and the better!

My salted caramel cake this year had A LOT of candles, but as usual, I stood beside her as she gently lowered her head with me and we both let out a joint long puff, extinguishing all the candles at once. We then cut the cake, and each had a piece!


Birthdays, especially children’s birthdays, will never be the same. Standing so close to one another, singing together, throwing your breath out to douse candles on a cake, all carry such high risk of spreading COVID that I lament for our collective future, candle-less birthday celebrations, with singing replaced by Spotify.

Revati Chawla, Brighton, UK

*

I miss those spontaneous kisses and hugs with which we friends and relatives greeted each other.  I miss reaching out and touching people who need comforting.  I miss happy smiles.  I can no longer tell what people are feeling unless I’m ‘close’ enough to peer into their eyes.  I don’t want to have to say happy birthday in a muffled voice reaching out to signal that hug I so want to give with my arms.  I don’t want to have to stop myself from patting that gurgling baby or chatting with an excited little child eager to express themselves. I want to be able to shake my students’ hands and congratulate them.  I fear I might see someone I’ve been yearning to meet and pass them by on the street.

Neloma Wijesinghe, Mount Lavinia, Sri Lanka

*

Here we are a year on – still in lockdown. Staying at home, protecting the NHS, saving lives. Stuck in a perpetual cycle of hope and despair.

While nothing has changed, everything is different. Our world has become smaller. What were normal, sometimes daily, habits feel strange and unfamiliar. Venturing out anywhere away from home creates a strange mix of excitement and anxiety.

I worry for my three year old daughter. What will be the long-term impact of a year in isolation, away from peers and new experiences? She has adapted amazingly but I feel sad that this shrunken, less colourful version of her life is now normal to her.

I miss my family. I miss spontaneous trips to see them. I miss hugging them. I miss all of us being able to get together. I feel robbed of precious time with my elderly parents. I’m upset that they are missing out on seeing their granddaughter change and grow.

I hope the next time I write that things have moved on. But I am cautiously skeptical. Although the vaccine has given us a much-needed lifeline, it still feels like we are constantly on a knife edge. I don’t even want to return to normal anymore. That seems impossible. Just somewhere near will do for now.

Rachel Smyth, Worcestershire, UK

*

Today our two children go back to school and I can’t help but feeling nervous. Not only are schools re-opening  but also many of the kids’ activities such as outdoor soccer practice, face-to-face piano lessons and after-school day care are re-starting all at once, not to mention the various shops that are allowed to re-open.  As much as we have all been longing for our normal routines, I am surprised by how uncomfortable I feel now that the transition is actually happening. There is of course the discomfort and worry caused by rising infection numbers and the fear that we are transitioning out of shutdown too early. But I realise that something else is bothering me on a more personal level: I am struggling with the constant need of having to adapt to changing realities – and that very quickly. The short notice announcement of schools closing and schools re-opening that have become common in our continued COVID reality are tiring me. It feels like the moment we have adapted to new routines as a family, we face yet another change and need to adapt all over again. However, I also realise that we can adapt to new circumstances quickly and moreover, be content in scenarios deemed unimaginable before.

Susanne Wieners, Heddesheim, Germany

*

The sanitizer I carry is an arm sized bottle, and the label has almost peeled off. Seeing it on my desk, a colleague snarked that it looked like a water bottle, and knowing us, someone may drink from it. Would they know immediately and sputter, as you do when, accustomed to storing water in old booze bottles, you find yourself with a mouthful of vodka? Can someone die from drinking sanitizer? I have read a lot of forwards about hands catching fire when people used sanitizer and went near a gas flame to cook – but death by sanitizer? I quickly put the bottle inside my bag, and keep it handy.

Sruthi Krishnan, Bangalore, India

*

Mumbai is getting worse, struggling with night and weekend lockdowns. Bangalore citizens seem just a bit luckier. Almost everyone has started talking about the COVID vaccine. The option to take the vaccine has been thrown open to those above 45 (earlier it was 60 or below 60 if you had co-morbidities) and life revolves around deciding whether or not to take it, where it is to be taken, how it is to be taken, what are the after effects ? For one thing, one has to have the internet access and savvy to register oneself on an online portal.  Everybody who can has FOMO, no-one wants to miss out on something fundamentally important that others are experiencing.  Grandchildren are taking their grandparents for vaccination.

So do I take the vaccine or not? I do want to put a photograph with the nurse inoculating me on social media, like so many have already done, I do want to feel protected from COVID, to feel free, to travel wherever and whenever I please. Oh how I miss the good old days!

Priyan R Naik, Bangalore, India

*

On Sunday I took a walk. I met a friend at Waterloo and she and I walked on through St James’s Park and Green Park, into Hyde Park. We walked around the Serpentine and then made our way back. There was early Spring sunshine. Blossom is appearing and the daffodils were brilliantly yellow. Colours in abundance, much missed over the winter months, but what I noticed was something intangible. Mood. I cannot tell how many thousands of people I saw in three to four hours outside, but London felt busy. What I noticed, though, was not the numbers of people, unusual as that has become, but the fact that the most downbeat of them seemed to look satisfied, many looked contented, some looked really happy and several handfuls looked joyful. Some were happy couples, some were towing children on scooters and small bikes with stabilisers. Others were exercising and laughing as dogs jumped up playfully. We read the papers and scroll social media and watch some television and we think that everyone is polarised. We are in-groups and out-groups. Vaccines, masks, Brexit (still), something called wokeism, so-called ‘culture wars’. It is easy to think conflict is our constant, our perpetual state. All I saw was evidence to the contrary. A year on, spirits are sunnier than I expected, much like the March weather. It was quite a tonic. 

Ian Burns, London, UK

*

Our morning string hoppers are accompanied by a kiri hodi, our evening yellow rice with a dhal curry; all of which need half a teaspoon of turmeric. What to me is a household ingredient for cooking is for others also a perfume, a dye, a medicine and, most importantly in this pandemic, a disinfectant. My friends have started planting turmeric in their home gardens as its scarcity, in this time of COVID-19, has made it so costly. This golden spice now seems as valuable as gold itself.

Last weekend I visited the Good Market in Colombo, and spotted a few packets of turmeric. And at the McCurrie spice outlet, a few more. I was so happy to spot this basic spice. What had once been there in abundance on supermarket shelves, now seems so rare.  It made me happier still to pass on small packets to family and friends who had also been struggling to find turmeric and were as happy as I was to see it. It is now the simple things in life that matter.

Shalini Jayasinghe, Kohuwala, Sri Lanka

*

Lockdown has meant outdoor socialising in all seasons of the year.  As Londoners we are blessed with parks and heaths, reservoirs and canals, ponds and squares, streets and even woodlands; in all these I have walked and socialised, usually with just only one other person.  

In the depth of winter I eat dinner with a friend in the garden of a Highbury pub.  He is swaddled in a parka and other protective clothes so thoroughly that I hardly recognise him at first, both of us laughing to remember our spring and summer meetings in t-shirts and with beer and crisps and pork pies.  I shiver.  I blow on my fingers.  The cold means we do not stay late.  

Later, in spring and stricter lockdown, I walk with another friend from the brand-new Spurs stadium to Tottenham Marshes, blazing with blackthorn, then back into a street alongside a housing estate, with “Black Lives Matter” emblazoned on the pavement.  

A day later, it’s time to meet another friend and walk from Camden in a big arc west and south.  It starts with canals, the Regents and the Grand Union.  We have to dodge cyclists.   Coots, moorhens, grebes and geese and brilliantly coloured mandarin ducks are our companions – and we glimpse vignettes of the lives of the people that live on narrowboats.  On one road bridge over the canal, a café, with its splendid view over the water, is sadly empty of punters but the lovely staff plies us with takeaway Americanos and focaccia sandwiches.  As the Grand Union winds westward we and the canal are about to be cut off between a vast cemetery and a vast railway sidings.  We escape to a huge green space but this is a common – Wormwood Scrubs – flanked in the distance by a huge Victorian prison.  Further on, in Notting Hill, people are clustered on the pavements drinking coffee, willing the day when once more they will be able to sit outside, or even in, cafes.   This then has been an era of ‘taking the air’ to be with friends; and quite beautiful, in many ways, it has been. 

Charles Haviland, London, UK

*

I’ve discovered that my parents care about me beyond the elemental—work, money, food and the like. They started asking me about how it was living alone in an apartment during the pandemic, if it was difficult. I was disconcerted before I was moved; it’s the kind of reaching out I always wanted; a personal question, something more than being quizzed about my salary. Coming so long after I was resigned to it never happening, it was unexpected. Perhaps they always cared and I was too belligerent to notice. Or perhaps the pandemic has softened their outlooks, to see me less as the sum of my material circumstances. Now they advise me to take walks and in return I describe my routes to them, taking care not to give away where I live (that is a bridge to cross on another day). They tell me what teledramas are good to watch, so that I can “take my mind off things” and we discuss the merits of the daily, ‘mega’ teledramas versus the twice-a-week art-house ones. Perhaps we can keep this going for a while.

Pasan Jayasinghe, Colombo, Sri Lanka

*

We’ve started wasting food again – this time last year I would not have dreamed of throwing out an old carrot or letting an extra cucumber go soft. In the original lockdown, as we think of it now, we took care to make plans for every leaf or sheath of onion.  We imagined shortages ahead that in fact never reached the privileged.

We dared I think to hope the world would change, become less voracious. I remember my husband and I agreeing that if the crisis lasted a year — we even thought it might not — we could hope for a little change. What the hell were we thinking?  Why didn’t we predict instead that across the planet, existing forms of power, inequality and cruelty would only be intensified?  A year later, I am as lucky as I was before, but disappointed — trying to imagine the future, a little short of money and a little short of hope.

Often we get to the end of a day and realise how long it’s been since we’ve left the house.  There is about an hour between the children waking up from naps and our needing to sort out dinner, less after we’ve gathered ourselves. So we just go for a drive in central Colombo, a most uninspiring place.  We mean to make ourselves feel better but routinely I feel worse. We are watching the world through a window and it doesn’t feel like much of a world. Where there used to be trees, there are more storefronts, their pointlessness only more evident when they are closed and deserted.  Still, some multi-storey clothes shops throng with people.  We wonder what it is they need clothes for?  

Only the ocean, if you look away from the Port-City land reclamation, brings a little solace. We make plans for another of our rituals to feel better: to go on a picnic out of the city and immerse ourselves in that water.  We have done our best to be whole in ourselves, glad of each other, but we long for the world.

Sunila Galappatti, Colombo, Sri Lanka

*

The thing I still can’t get used to is the idea that we should socialise over Zoom. I never even liked the telephone – in my mind the hierarchy of communication is: In person contact; letter; text; phone call; video call. So the idea that after a day of seeing people on screens I would want to see people on screens is just insane to me, and I reject it on almost all occasions, except when someone has organised some kind of really bizarre game that distracts you from the facts.

The thing that has become strangely normal is the shrunken world. The fact that this area now seems to be the whole world, and that the childcare bubble we share with two other families and our childminder is our entire social network of passing in corridors as we collect the children; our support network; our thing to lean on. So much so that for summer half term we seem to have organised a camping trip all together. At the exact point where we are free to see anyone, we somehow organised to go away with the only people we have been able to see for most of the year – and no one seemed to notice that was a strange choice. Which is heartening and moving, but also ridiculous.

Ivana MacKinnon, London, UK

*

Last week, I started crying while driving to work. “La Bamba” was playing on the radio. I used to take the train, before the pandemic.

Today the sun is shining brightly and the sky is a blue that seems to go on forever. Crocuses and snowdrops are blooming. The phlox and aquilegia are sending up new shoots. I used to resent our tiny garden. But last March, I started learning to weed, plant, and water. 

Katie Y, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA