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The Pandemic, One Year On: 6: The guilty, blessed relief of lockdown

When you cast your mind back to the beginning of the global pandemic in the northern hemisphere spring of 2020, what are the things you remember?

Fear seems to have no real place in memory. We do not easily remember the fears of the past. If we are to remember fear, we must bring it to the surface again and feel it in the present. Even if the object of our fears is invisible to others, we see it and feel it and our bodies hold that fear in the here and now.

When it comes to the fears we felt in the past for a future unknown, when that future has faded into the past they tend to disappear, like water vapours on a warm day.

If we are prone to anxiety, the old anxieties give way to new ones, but when we reflect on the things we were anxious about in the past, we forget that many of those things never came to pass, and the ones that did, they were either not as unbearable as we thought they would be, or we were not as weak in confronting them as we feared we might be.

The fears of the early weeks of the pandemic brought empty supermarket shelves, and aisle fights over trays of toilet roll, and the opportunists, sniffing a quick buck, buying and hoarding hand sanitizer to resell, their own invisible fears gnawing them to the bone and manifesting outwardly in something that looks like greed.

Those early weeks brought a rapid response from governments, who quickly dispensed with stimulus cheques and social welfare payments to make up some of the shortfall of an economy placed on instant life support.

What I remember, more than anything, after the panic of the early weeks subsided, is the peace and the stillness.

I recognise the good fortune and the privilege, that I and everyone close to me escaped the worst of the virus, and I am grateful for that, but there is shame and guilt too in the feeling of relief that swept over me in those still, calm weeks.

For a month or so, the sun shone. The phone stayed silent. Nobody sent emails or expected to receive them. The roads were quiet as all the cars stopped, there being suddenly nowhere to go.

“Fan sa bhaile” read the permanent watermark on the corner of the RTE TV stations. “Stay home”.

We wandered the lanes near our home, and we read books rescued from boxes in the garage, and we finally had the strength and space to sort out the spare room that had become a sort of no-go area, a dumping ground for the overflow of the darker years when we turned our gaze away from everything that was too heavy for us to hold.

I was reunited with a little book I had cherished more than a decade before, and forgotten about for years, and read it again and found that it spoke to me on a new level.

(It’s a quality that good books mysteriously hold. They accompany us throughout life, offering themselves from time to time to our palms and our minds, and we find in their pages, in the words transplanted there and delivered here by some unimaginable alchemy of mind and machine, some wisdom that we knew but had forgotten and needed more than anything to rediscover here, today.)

The world did not stop spinning but almost everything stopped, almost overnight, and within that stoppage there was the most profound stress and fear and anxiety that comes inevitably when everything we once held as normal is suddenly no longer possible.

Within that stoppage too there was a glimpse of beauty, a small opening of a door to show a different world on the other side.

That world was slower, quieter. Despite the closeness of death and illness, it was somehow more peaceful too, as if all our jollity and perpetual motion in the before times had been a cloak to keep from view the things we feared the most.

More than a year on, the pandemic is still here and the motion has steadily returned. It is perhaps not yet at the relentless pace we once thought was normal, but it is here nonetheless, our need to come and go much greater, it seems, than our need to keep still.

Maybe all the stillness of last spring was, in some ways, too much to bear. Maybe the quiet and the solitude that could nourish us also threatened us, revealing for a moment a few of the big questions about our lives.

We can console ourselves that that stillness, and those questions, are available to us at every moment, ready for us to rest a while and ponder, once in a while, the unbearable beauty of being.

This is part of a series of 30 short essays to make the Covid-19 pandemic, one year on. Sign up below to receive these pieces by email each day for 30 days.