Lucy Kellaway: Is it OK to be happy in lockdown?
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An uncomfortable thought occurred to me last Tuesday as I sat in my sunny garden having lunch with two of my adult children and listening to birdsong not drowned out by traffic: I am loving lockdown.
Am I allowed to say that? Thousands of people all over the world are fighting for their lives. Makeshift mortuaries are being built to house the dead. Closer to home, some of my students are incarcerated five to a room. Some can’t do the work we are setting because they don’t have enough data on their phones and there is no family laptop. The school my daughter teaches in has turned into an impromptu food bank.
It’s not pretty out there. But here is the question: from the bubble of my privileged house with its private garden where the tulip bulbs get fatter every day in the spring sunshine, is it acceptable to feel happy?
David Hockney seems to think it is. Last week he posted online 10 joyous pictures of daffodils and blossom in his much more gorgeous garden in Normandy, under the title: “Do Remember They Can’t Cancel the Spring”. With them he offered this nugget to happiness in a time of Covid-19: “The only real things in life are food and love in that order.”
I like the brevity of his list, but it doesn’t begin to cover the real things that are making me happy in this odd time.
Food matters, obviously. If we don’t have enough, we die. And if we do have enough food, as well as excess time on our hands now there is so little to do, we might as well cook. As I write this I’m eating a superior banana muffin just whisked out of the oven by my daughter.
Love matters too, though I don’t think coronavirus has much to do with it. The people I love were just as dear to me before this odd time as they will be when it’s over. Covid-19 is teaching me less about the supremacy of love than the importance of not being too annoying. The two children who are living with me are stuck here, and so we are trying hard not to get on each other’s nerves.
My second daughter is bivouacking with her father and reports that though he’s delightful company in many ways, he grunts loudly when he exercises and is doggedly trying to teach himself to play “We’ll Meet Again” on the piano. She’s had to email the people in the flat below to apologise.
Up there with food and love, the third real thing is work. Not only does it give us something to do, a sense of worth, money and security, it distracts us from mass deaths and impending recession. Hockney, judging from his output, has been working his socks off, and I bet that has made him happy too.
Unlike half the people I know, I am in a secure job and I have things to be getting on with — setting work for students online, writing a book and attempting to rustle up interest among older people to retrain as teachers with my charity Now Teach.
Teaching always looks attractive in a recession, and now the world has decided teachers are “key workers” (I used to despise the word “key” when used for anything that does not open a lock, but now am embracing it fully) the floodgates may be about to open. I hope they do.
The next big real thing in my life is routine. I insist on a morning briefing chaired by one or other of us to decide who will cook, and what our work timetables are for that day. My son works as a data scientist with sewer companies and so his work goes on, coronavirus or no, via endless video conferences. We start work at 9am. Coffee break at 10.30, lunch from 1 to 2, and then knock off work altogether at 5pm.
So long as I don’t look at the news (I’ve rationed myself to three immersions a day), my stress levels are as low as I can remember.
My fifth big thing is my garden, which I’ve never been more grateful for or tended more minutely. I wish the grass would grow faster so I could cut it every three days rather than every seven. I glance up from my writing and watch a cat chase the squirrels along a wall covered in ivy. I decide to peel the ivy off and repaint the wall, but resist as it’s a weekday and my routine says no. I’ll do it over the Easter weekend. I can’t wait.
Almost as joyful as gardening is DIY. I’m particularly fortunate in having a house that leaks like a sieve, so there is no danger of my running out of things to do. At the weekends I prowl around with wood filler, wood hardener, silicone and protective wood stain.
In my absorption I forget the world outside and concentrate on the heady pleasure of seeing a crack filled. Can this simple pleasure be so wrong? I know it’s at loggerheads with the global mood and I know it’s due both to my privilege and to my skill at burying my head in the sand, and this troubles me slightly. But I’m even more troubled by the fact that Amazon is being so slow delivering the expanding foam.
The Queen, in her otherwise excellent address to the nation last weekend, advised us to slow down and reflect. I am only slowing down in that I go to bed at 9pm, don’t have to get up so early to go to school, and sleep more (which also makes me happier), but I’m not doing much reflecting. These times are so peculiar that what I feel now is a rotten guide to how I will feel when it’s over. I don’t think any of us has a clue what the world will be like when it creaks back into action. My ex-colleague Martin Wolf says there will be lots of parties, as in the 1920s. I haven’t been to a party or been in a meeting of more than two of non-family members for weeks. The nearest I’ve got to a party was playing a six-way game of Psych! on Zoom, which did not make me nostalgic. I am reminded that, at core, I’m profoundly antisocial.
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I have peace, and spring, and family and siliconing. I don’t need any more excitement than that. I love the simplicity of my life. Sometimes I speak to my friends on the phone; the broadband is so feeble in the house that I am saved from the wretched video calls that everyone else seems to think are suddenly a good idea. In general people are being nice, apart from on Twitter, where they are being angry or hysterical or priggish. But that’s easy: I don’t go on Twitter.
As the Queen said, this will end. I deadhead a daffodil and make a conscious decision. It is absolutely fine to be happy and to love these enforced weeks of isolation, because in no time at all the hard business will begin of trying to put the world back together again.
Lucy Kellaway is an FT contributing editor and co-founder of Now Teach, an organisation that helps experienced professionals retrain as teachers
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Letters in response to this column:
At last I can work and sleep in peace and silence / From Graziella Dei Giudice, Rome, Italy
Is there another element to Lucy’s happiness? / From Robin White, London, UK
Surely no lawn can be worth all that energy / From Paul Drexler, Seattle, WA, US