Isolation and culture at first seem antithetical terms. Culture demands exposure, audience, large spheres of collective experience. Isolation appears to be a retreat into smaller spaces of experience: isolation and limitation seem more synonymous. Yet there are many ways by which culture might thrive under the new conditions we find ourselves in. Isolation allows us a stronger engagement with the culture closer to us – a culture that is often overshadowed by the busyness of normal life. For me, isolation means that time at home is now not always ‘downtime’ spent asleep or scrolling meaninglessly through social media. Staving off boredom means turning to literature, film, family. And through it, I’m reconnecting with old interests and growing new ones. With everyone in the same boat, more and more people are sharing their recommendations, asking for new ones: my list of things to read and watch has never been longer, and at home with more people to fight over the TV I’m watching things I never usually would or turning to activities I’d previously lost interest in. Who would have thought my GCSE Fine Art paints would ever make a reappearance just to avoid watching my brother’s choice of television? Isolation can hopefully be a time of focus and discovery – even if at first I dismissed the notion.
Initially, the pandemic seemed to be one of disappointment and panic rather than disease; watching plans in the following months dissipate in the face of uncertainty and cancellation. To begin with I oscillated between waves of panic and a bitterness over my exam-free summer starting to look a lot quieter than anticipated.
Of course, I didn’t recognise the absolute privilege in the fact that my initial worries were cancelled 21st birthday parties. As someone who feels excited about their week when it’s busy, going home and restricting social contact for an undefined amount of time was a prospect I dreaded. I hate spending a whole day alone: I’ll leave my room even if it’s just to spend an entire day in the library. Even hangovers are never in solitude, as my flatmates and I all gather in duvets to watch episodes of ‘How I Met Your Mother’. Isolation and I are not friends.
But there are people I love who are vulnerable: aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends with underlying health issues. Of course we all want to protect the people we care for. Our age means we are unlikely to contract a serious case of the virus, but now our actions are imbued with a significance even beyond our immediate sphere of familiarity. Previous generations have made far greater sacrifices in order to protect the wider community. If I have to watch all nine seasons of ‘How I Met Your Mother’ for the third time to limit my time in public spaces, then I have to accept there are worse things I could be doing.
A lot of people are worried about their mental health in the coming months. I certainly share in these concerns. I like being busy. I like my freedom, my independence. But it might be productive to recognise that there is a different kind of freedom and independence to be found closer to home. When have I had the freedom of so much time? When have I had the luxury of really having space to learn the skill of being in my own company? I’ve found myself – an English undergraduate – reading for fun again. I’m re-reading my old favourite books, no longer only focusing on reading-list priorities. With warmer spring weather I can sit in the garden and spend the whole afternoon leafing through books I’ve always wanted to open but never had time for. Before it felt over-indulgent or unwise when I had so many other distractions and impending deadlines.
Self-isolation is definitely encouraging me to engage with things I might usually push to the background or limit because I feel ‘too busy’. I am discovering that the kind of TV my parents watch is not all that bad. These last few days I have spent a lot of time with Netflix (research, of course) – and I would recommend series such as The Stranger, which is as compelling as it is bizarre, or Liar, which airs on ITV every Monday. I’ve been surprised by how much I have loved watching period dramas with my mum – running through BBC adaptations such as Pride and Prejudice and North and South (I never cry at television but I absolutely wept throughout this re-imagining of Elizabeth Gaskell’s bleak but beautiful 19th century novel). I also have to confess plans to watch the entire Twilight Saga. So far we have made it to Breaking Dawn: Part 1 and I have had the terrible realisation that I am now team-Jacob – which thirteen year old me would consider a staunch betrayal. The rest of the family remains firmly in Robert Pattinson’s camp. I’ve even noticed my mum downloading Pattinson’s biography on her kindle. Once I’m finished with The Secret History by Donna Tartt, I might actually re-read the books and re-live my teenage interest in (obsession with) the saga.
We typically feel guilty when our lives are not ‘productive’ – when we spend days indoors without keeping busy. Now staying inside is one of the best things we can do to demonstrate our care for others. We can take it as an opportunity to rest, and to not feel guilty about making a sizable dent in all 236 episodes of Friends. In fact, by doing so you’re helping contain the spread of the virus.
Isolation doesn’t have to equate to loneliness. It can be a time of discovery and re-discovery – whether that be getting to know loved ones even better, allowing yourself time for things that usually seem unnecessary (Self! Care!), or re-igniting your own (and your mother’s) absorption in all matters Edward Cullen.
In the meantime, both China and Northern Italy have recorded significant falls in nitrogen dioxide (a serious air pollutant), most likely due to reduced industrial activity and car travel. Due to reduced boat traffic, which usually brings sediment to the water’s surface, canals in Venice are beautifully clear. We should keep in mind that for many, isolation might mean busier times, caring for relatives or taking responsibility for young children now no longer in school. As much as you can, look after yourself, and remember that this will not last forever and that the world we will reenter may even be more clean and beautiful.
Self-isolation need not be damaging to our culture. I’ve expanded my interests out of necessity, and although I’m not joining my mother for yoga in the garden quite yet, I have a nascent but powerful interest in Scandinavian crime dramas, more completed books than I have in a long time, and a poor imitation of Monet’s waterlilies in the back of a GCSE art portfolio long left to gather dust. In the weeks ahead, I have decided I can only improve.