A Report from the After Times

Normal is never coming back. We’ve got to be gentle with each other.

Photo by David Boarder Giles.

This is a dispatch from another planet.

For millions of people, for the rest of this mad, sad year, the world will return in pieces. Instead of remembering lasts we will start counting firsts. The first day the kids went to school. The first time you went to a bar. The first time you went to a bar and it felt normal, as if normal were a thing you could lose and get back.

Normal is never coming back. Not ever. But the aftertimes are coming. Almost everywhere, for almost everyone who has lived through the last year in Europe or South America or the United States or anywhere else where lockdowns have been loaded on top of mass death and natural disaster and civil unrest — something its ending. Which means, of course, that something else is beginning.

As people stagger out into whatever consensus reality comes next, the transition is going to be gradual. Most of us will only be able to assess the damage when we get there. Normal will grow back slow and strange, like plant life after a nuclear blast .

Except for me.

For me, the after times came all at once. I’m one of a small number of people who got to step from one reality right into the other. Two weeks ago, after a year of lockdown in one of the most infected cities in the world, after a year of wildfires and civil collapse and police riots, I got out of quarantine in Australia. I came here to re-unite with my partner. I’m now in Melbourne, where there’s no COVID at all. For me, there was a specific hour, a specific second, when the after times began.

Here’s what that was like.

On my first day in the After Times, I trotted out into the world wanting to see everything, to go in everywhere. The department store! The supermarket! The library! I found somewhere to get a haircut after a year of auto-topiary that left me looking like an extra in a 1960s musical about Victorian orphans. I went to a cafe with my partner, and sat drinking socially sanctioned stimulants in the swell of humanity blithely breathing raw, just like in the Before Times, except that here there haven’t been during times, not really, not in the same way.

In Australia, COVID has been almost entirely eliminated. In Victoria, where I am, there are no cases at all. It’s not that the country has been untouched — Melbourne had a hundred-day lockdown last year, which meant jobs lost, businesses closing, communities struggling, families fractured, the special hell of homeschooling for some and the grueling routine of isolation for others. That’s bad enough by itself. Believe me, I know. I spent months hanging on to the small, pathetically precious possibility of one day going to a coffee shop again. And now, here I was.

And something was wrong.

I’ve haunted coffee shops my entire itinerant adult life. Coffee shops have always been my safe place, so much so that during the worst months of quarantine isolation, when I felt myself untethered and drifting away from reality, I found an audio track of ambient coffee shop sounds and played it on my headphones to block out the sound of ambulance sirens blaring all night. But in this cafe, I suddenly realized. I was quite likely the only person who it had happened to.

And then the delayed horror of a whole year of COVID-normal hit me like a piano.

They didn’t know. The people around me didn’t know how it feels to watch the government collapse while a deadly pandemic rages outside and the literal air is on fire. They didn’t know the special sort of helpless overwhelmed fury where you want to immediately overthrow the white supremacist police state, and also you want to immediately devote your life to serving others, and also you want to nap and be small and also you want to stand on your cramped balcony in the smoky air and scream at god, and you can’t do any of it so you end up doing none of it and just sit scrolling uselessly through Twitter. I didn’t know how to explain to people who never went through this what it’s like to suddenly watch the ordinary workings of everyday life betray you, like they do in a nightmare where you’re walking through your own flat but somehow you know it’s full of hidden horrors.

But at the same time I had to explain. For the first few days I was choked up with a deep, weird urge to warnpeople that had nothing to do with the feeling you get when you’ve something important to say with your words. This was a compulsion, a reflex to try and articulate this awful, enormous thing that touched everyone and stopped us all from touching. Everything about modern life in late capitalist nightmare white supremacist patriarchy that was just about survivable for just about enough of us suddenly became deadly. The omnipresence of insecure, low-waged work. The fact that nobody can rely on savings or social security. The barbaric healthcare system and the broken housing system, the sudden brutal choice between the risk of homelessness and the risk of death. The understanding that if you are one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to make that choice, the things that keep you safe iarekilling others. The realization, dawning like the morning of a war, that to live in late capitalism is to be complicit in a system that requires human sacrifice, and no matter how well you wash your hands you can never really be clean.

And I didn’t have to live it. I only had to live in the middle of it. Let me be extremely clear: I know how much worse it could have been. All the time I was longing to be back with my my family in England, Britain was going through its own hell. In the UK alone, millions of people have lost loved ones to COVID, without even being able to say goodbye, and have struggled with their grief through year of isolation, of homeschooling, watching the feckless mediocrities in power make a mockery of their loss. Tens of thousands of medical staff worked endless grueling shifts in sweltering full-body protective gear, trying to save people, holding up screens so children could tell their dying parents they loved them, risking infection every day. Parents have been trying to keep their families sane and safe and educated without losing their jobs. People with physical and learning disabilities have been shielding in almost total isolation for a year while their governments made it clear just how little their lives were apparently worth. I was able to isolate in a temporary apartment and work a meaningful job that paid me well. I didn’t get the disease. I didn’t have to choose between risking my life and losing my home. What I have personally been through is the absolute baseline, minimum amount of trauma a relatively young, relatively healthy person can possibly have gone through in a year like this.

And — it sucked.

And I’m furious.

I’m furious because it didn’t have to be like this. None of it was necessary. Every horrendous, inhuman choice over decades of political consensus that prioritized profit over people, every failure to protect healthcare and welfare and human rights and Black lives, and all of it was deadly, for someone, somewhere. For millions of people who might have coped with a crisis like COVID if they hadn’t already hanging on to bare life by their fingernails.

Here in Australia, I’m a traveller from another planet. It’s psychosocial jet-lag, where I got on a twenty-hour flight and woke up with a time difference of two years between me and everyone else I know. It is desperately strange, deeply uncomfortable, to walk down the street and be so misaligned with the mood of a city. A part of me wants to yell at people to put their masks on and stop touching things, because while my brain knows it’s safe, my body hasn’t yet absorbed that message. I’m a visitor from an emotional universe where everyone is grieving and the future seems to rush towards you like the tarmac six stories below.

The closest thing I have experienced to this was seven years ago, when my father died suddenly. I remember being baffled, in the weeks after it happened, watching train cars full of strangers just carrying on, because it hadn’t happened to them — and wondering who it had happened to, trying to scan the tired commuter faces to see work out who might be wearing the same hundred-pound chain-mail of grief under their work clothes, weighing you down and rubbing you raw and numbing you out. Back then, it hadn’t happened to most people my age. I would try to explain what it was like, this sudden ordinary appalling outrage that upended everything, and they would smile tightly and try to talk about the death of a grandparent or a childhood pet, or they’d ask with hungry eyes how I was, wanting to know how they would survive this thing that would surely come to all of us.

This year, it came to a lot of us. A lot of people lost their parents, in the worst way. I cannot conceive of what it can have been like, on top of everything else, to have to weather that savage primal loss.

Almost everyone I know who lived through this year in one of the worst-hit countries had a moment or many or more when ‘just about coping’ flipped over into ‘fuck no’. For me, it happened in early January, this year. I hadn’t slept because of the sirens screaming all night, and the air tasted foul, and my throat was raw with it. I checked to see if there was another wildfire. In fact, the city had temporarily suspended air quality rules so that the crematoria could deal with the backlog of COVID bodies.

That was what we were tasting, the same week that hundreds of white supremacists stormed the US capitol, on the same morning that my sister in England, who I hadn’t seen for a year, came down with COVID. That was when the entire concept of coping became ludicrous. And yet, I kept on answering those check-in texts I was lucky to be getting with the words I know how lucky I am. Because I did, and I do. It could have been worse. For most people, it was worse.

But it should have been better. It could have been better, if we hadn’t been so roundly betrayed by the systems of state and social care that some of us still had a shred of faith in. It didn’t have to go down like this. And I am so very done with being grateful.

Anger is a funny thing. When something awful and unfair happens and you can’t change it or escape it, it’s hard to access all your anger all the time. It’s not safe to feel constantly furious at the fucked-up machinery of power you have to live in side, just as it is not safe for an abused child to rage at the parents who are supposed to protect it.

The soul stores up that rage until it senses that the body is safe, which, for me, turned out to be in the middle of a reasonably-priced coffee shop in central Melbourne. I put down the cappuccino I had spent pathetic months dreaming of and told my partner I would like to go home now, right now, in exactly the same tone of voice you might use to tell someone with a large snake sliding up their arm to stay perfectly still.

My body reacted with animal panic to coming off Covid-normal cold turkey. I really didn’t expect that. I expected everything to be a bit overwhelming and too loud and too much, but I’m usually good with everything being overwhelming and too loud and too much. I’m a sensitive, physically puny non-neurotypical sort who leads an adventurous life on purpose, and that’s my secret, Cap: I’m always uncomfortable. I live my life on the basis that if everything is going to feel like too much anyway, I might as well travel the world and make trouble. But this was different. I would be hit without warning by sudden, objectively hilarious physical shutdowns. I did not have the spoons to be a tourist. I barely had the spoons to make tea.

Since then, I’ve had to take things annoyingly slowly. I’ve broken up daily excursions into the After Times by doing the same things I’ve been doing for months to cope with solo quarantine in Covid-normal. In the worst weeks of January, when 2020 was over and somehow we were not yet saved, I made myseelf get up early and work through my several day-jobs and do push ups and sit ups and fold things. I checked in with people who were struggling. I tried to be productive, and I was productive, even though trying to survive the cluster crises of capitalist collapse by being more productive is like trying to save a drowning person by throwing them a towel.

And I waited for the future to arrive. I didn’t anticipate the delayed horror that would wallop me in the solar plexus when it did.

We are going to have to be so careful with each other. So careful, and so patient, and so kind.

We won’t really be able to assess the damage until we’ve made it to something that feels like safety, if we can manage that at all. We will get there in stages, all of us who have lived through this awful extraordinary momentous thing that touched everyone and prevented us from touching. Everyone is grieving, in their own way — some, of course, more than others.

But it is still grief, this feeling. It’s a diffuse, distributed grief, and it encloses an awful primal understanding — that the fear you learned to forget as a child has come back. When I was a small and twitchy pre-prepubescent, finding out that there was a terrible doom approaching the world was a little like finding out that my parents would one day die. Except that you can’t make different choices that will stop you from one day losing a parent. Even though children build weird webs of superstition to try and grab some feeling of control with their baby hands, you can’t actually avoid it, not even if you carefully step around every single pavement crack. Species level doom by way of fire and flood and disease and despair can be avoided, could have been avoided, could still be avoided- but nobody, not even bajillionaires in their bunkers, can escape it by themselves.

It’s a question of collective choice. It always has beeen.

We could collectively make different choices, and we must, and that’s a quality of helpless rage we truly don’t have the collective psychic architecture to process yet. I suspect that this- the slow growth towards the after times- is where we start to build that collective emotional scaffolding, the kind we are going to need to survive the coming century, just like we all separately have to unlearn all the maladaptive tools we developed to survive our childhoods, because that is what growing up actually means.

And we don’t have to do it all at once. It’s quite important that we don’t try. Everyone is exhausted and traumatized right now. Everyone feels helpless. It’s going to take time.

And that’s okay. Because we’re not helpless. We just know now, in a whole new way, how much we need each other. And that’s fine.

Based on a true story. Author, journalist, screenwriter, social justice bard.

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