In 2018 I published a novel about a young woman in New York City who doesn’t leave her apartment. It was an interesting premise to me at the time, Manhattan being a place where daily living has much to do with going out and mixing with people, witnessing and being witnessed, taking part in the collective excitement of being alive.
I wondered just how jaded, depressed, antisocial, irreverent and irritable one must be to want to hide from life to such an extreme. I figured this character must be suffering deeply, so I built her backstory to include a cold, drunk, critical mother and a sterile, unfeeling father. And then I killed them, just to make my protagonist even worse off. She doesn’t want to feel the resulting grief of being orphaned in her 20s, so she tries to bypass it by sleeping. She theorises that if she spends long enough asleep, her cells will regenerate the number of times necessary for them to forget the memory of trauma they’ve stored inside. If grief were an illness, sleep is the cure.
To be asleep is to retire into a space of interiority, to allow the body to rest and recuperate, to let the subconscious work out the kinks of life lived on the outside. Sleep is necessarily private. We don’t communicate or move much (usually). Sleep requires little effort. I think that’s why it made for such an appealing method by which my protagonist could heal.
In dreams, we mine ourselves for wisdom that we can’t access with our conscious mind. And there is something ineffable about that wisdom. We can attempt to recount our dreams narratively upon awakening, but it’s nearly impossible to do it accurately. Dreams are more poems than short stories, but I think they have a fabulist, parabolic quality that makes them feel like allegory, even though the who-what-where of them might seem random to anyone but the dreamer: we each dream in a language peculiar to our own lives. Equally, sleep is a universe of self.
It was obvious that the protagonist in my novel would need to self-isolate in order to achieve her goal of self-renewal. She elects to go into isolation for personal reasons, not in a response to social distress, a terrorist attack or a plague. She is in control. At any moment she could wake up and decide to go to the movies, or to get drunk at a bar, or to go to a museum or a restaurant or a casino. She simply doesn’t want to.
Her isolation is very different from that in which we find ourselves in the middle of this Covid-19 pandemic. We are isolating ourselves away from illness. My protagonist is isolating herself towards wellness.
Thinking of this novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, I am experiencing a bit of whiplash – my creative and professional life jerking back at me like a prophecy gone very wrong. On the one hand, the coronavirus has given me the greatest excuse to indulge in my biggest personality defect: I’m an isolator. Outside of my professional responsibilities, I tend to disengage from society. A lot. As a writer, yes, and as a person, I thrive at home by myself. A meeting or public event, or even a coffee date with a friend, can inspire resentment in me for having to break up the quietude and steadfast immersion into my own mind with some real-life experience. Of course, it’s the real-life experience that largely influences my personal development and my creative writing. One can’t exist in a vacuum. Except, actually, you can – provided with enough food, water and toilet paper – if you’re lucky.
Until the shutdown, I had agency in deciding to what degree I wanted to isolate. Now I am just thrust into it, full stop. I haven’t driven my car in six weeks. I haven’t seen anyone but my husband and a few distant neighbours. I’m taking advantage of this time for sure – finishing up projects, starting a new one. And without the outside world to inspire me, I’m focused on my immediate surroundings and my inner world. Of course, all those coffee dates with friends, cancelled at the last minute because I was “busy at home”, are haunting me now.
“Doing time” is what we call a sentence in a penal institution. I like to recall what a former prison inmate told me when I asked him what it was like living in solitary confinement: go into your bathroom and lock the door and don’t leave. I tried it. About six minutes in, I started to panic. If I was any good at meditation, maybe I could have actually left my body. I told myself to imagine sun-kissed beaches, puppies, my living room, my mother’s hands, a field of flowers. But the entrapment laced every thought with menace. I got dark inside. Even as someone who has made a career out of her “dark” imagination, I didn’t like it in there. I lasted 10 minutes. And I left, angry with myself that I wasn’t better at thinking nice thoughts.
One day this pandemic will be in the past tense. We will look at this time with distance, and sadness, and relief. We will suffer from other things then. And we will try to piece out how the experience of self-isolation changed us. Did we take advantage of it? Were we even able to? Did we enjoy being with our families, or did we want to hide even from them? Did we actually unplug, or did we plug in harder? Did a break from society free us from a system that holds us captive, slaves to commerce and media? Or did time outside of the system paralyse us? Are our minds really free?
My dreams these days are about my husband falling out of love with me. I wake up desperate and shaky, imploring him to confirm that he has not abandoned me while I’ve been asleep. “I love you,” I say. “Do you still love me?” I understand that this is my mind resting on the only real thing it knows outside of itself: love. Without it, life is just “doing time”.