Looking forward to looking forward: Where to next in the time of Covid?

How do we make sense of last year – and the most of this year? Kim Knight would like a crystal ball.

She was standing under a pōhutukawa carrying a plate of asparagus rolls. Summer, in a purple gingham dress and a face mask, waiting for a gap in the traffic.

If I had to summarise past-present-future New Zealand, it might be that woman trying to cross Auckland’s Symonds St, two weeks before Christmas. Being kind. Being generous. And approaching with caution.

Remember when we made New Year’s resolutions with certainty? We would say “this is my year”. We would promise to upgrade, evolve, invest. And now the planet has spun past another midnight of stops and starts. Did anybody bother? If we learned anything in 2020, it’s just how arbitrary a date can be. Today I will quit smoking, tomorrow I will google instructions for making a face mask from two rubber bands and an old sock. (Experts used to recommend running cigarettes under cold water. Now, the smart money says put them in the garage in the box marked “apocalypse”).

Januaries are for looking forward. To summer, to cheap corn on the cob, to the future. But this year it’s like you got off the bus and so did the creepy guy sitting behind you. He’s actually been there for months. Two steps forward, one nervous glance backwards.

In these circumstances, I like to phone a friend.

“Hi Grandma,” I said. She is in her 93rd year and remembers a few other times the world nearly ended but didn’t. These calls confirm for me that I must be growing up because once, my grandma couldn’t tell me a thing I didn’t already know.

We talk a little politics and a lot of food. From my grandmother, for example, I learn that “isinglass” was a preservative made from the dried swim bladders of fish. Also, that a possible means of solving the housing crisis might be to consider the post-war policy that allowed my forebears to build in 1952: “State Advances loan, no more than 1000 square feet, no reticulation, artesian water, no flush toilet – night soil collection – 20 per cent deposit. It was considered more important to get a roof over people’s heads than to provide the niceties of life.”

We debate the merits of smart televisions and she explains why it’s easier for her to text in ALL CAPS. When something doesn’t work, she says “oh phooey”. I ask her how to go forward when you are also a little afraid of the recent past.

“The only thing I know for sure,” Grandma replies. “Is that things change.”

Once, you couldn’t buy eggs year-round and so people learned how to preserve them in a substance made from the dried swim bladder of a fish. Once, the Government of New Zealand closed our borders and we all stayed home from the world.

Lockdown was a dream and a nightmare. Some people had export-quality crayfish delivered to their homes and some people died. Gandhi said the future depends on what you do today, but in 2020, not everybody had the same “today”. If you think about that too hard, from the safety of the job you kept, or the deck you built with the money you saved by not summering in Rome, the survivor guilt is overwhelming. Better perhaps to do as my grandma says and (this is a direct quote) “consider the whole of life an adventure”.

“Every day unfolds with new delights and challenges,” she emails, and I fear I have turned her into a greeting card or an astrology column. “Enjoy it, whatever path you choose.” (She is, relentlessly and cheerfully, an Aries).

Holiday deadlines mean I am writing this piece with my fingers crossed, filing just as Sydney’s northern beaches experienced a surge of community transmitted Covid; just as the United Kingdom discovered a new, virulent strain of the virus. If you’re reading this, it probably means we’re still crossing our fingers – but at least we were allowed to get together and share ham-turkey-vegan nut loaf.

Remember December? We were all fraying a bit at the edges. When I asked people what they were looking forward to most about 2021, they looked confused. January-February-March-December. Last year took forever and no time at all. Ten days out from Christmas, Government announced its intention to Make Summer Unstoppable, deploying the kind of urgent-but-cool typeface favoured by music festival poster-makers. Dr Ashley Bloomfield opened the gig. He seemed lovely, but he was no Dave Dobbyn.

“This is our first summer with Covid-19 in our lives,” said the Director-General of Health. Slip, slop, slap and scan. It is inconceivable to me that, one day, my niece or nephews’ children might ring their great aunt and ask: What was it like in the time of Covid? There are 7.8 billion of us on the planet and this is our collective 15 minutes. In the future, everybody will have been famous because we were there, right then, when the global pandemic hit.

Everybody put something on hold last year. I was supposed to get married in May. Friends and family were coming from Utah, New York, Melbourne and Greymouth. The date on the wedding rings and the embroidery my little sister made is wrong now. Numbers, stamped and stitched, to commemorate something that didn’t happen. How arbitrary is a date? We have not yet made new plans because planning is pointless. We live on fault lines now and build sandcastles in tsunami zones. Caution: Future Ahead.

I’ve always been happiest when my life is well-ordered. Do this, to achieve that, and repeat as necessary. Covid-19 made a fool of me. It is an invisible, deadly disruptor that doesn’t care whether it’s settling on a rubbish bin lid or the White House. Wear a mask, wash your hands and hope. I am so grateful that, as a country, we sat down together and ate our Brussels sprouts so that we could go outside and play.

The new normal is, of course, not normal. The thing I’ve finally started to understand is that, from now on, I must make the best of everything, all the time – just in case. Don’t leave this world wondering what it might have tasted like. (Also, if it tasted like iceberg lettuce with condensed milk mayonnaise and you have really become more accustomed to endive with blue cheese dressing, then it is definitely time to get over yourself. Once, you were grateful just to have flour.)

All going to plan (ha!), my future sister-in-law will be reading this story from a managed isolation quarantine hotel. In the country where she lives, the right to do-be-say whatever you want contributed to the death of more than a quarter of a million people. “Freedom” at a terrible cost. The week we went into lockdown, her small western US state had recorded just 346 cases of Covid-19. In November, it was tipping 4000 new notifications a day. The international numbers are too big to comprehend. It’s via Twitter that I’ve come to understand the ceaseless awfulness of Covid-dominated daily life in other places.

This, from @mccanner: “I want to amble from shop to shop and touch a dozen silly fancy things I don’t need and stumble upon a new favorite shirt, maybe buy the expensive candle, go see an Oscar-bait movie while eating tater tots and meet my boyfriend at a bar afterward to read books over cocktails.”

And this, from @bennettleigh: “I miss my friends’ friends. People I only see 3-4 times a year at parties. Would love a run-in with an ACQUAINTANCE.”

New Zealanders hugged and kissed their way into summer. We bought tickets to Crowded House concerts and we wore purple gingham party frocks. The past is a foreign country, but so is the rest of the world’s present. On Twitter, @fontsensitive wrote: “I put earbuds in to listen to a cathedral advent service from 2019 in England and within moments I was sobbing because of the sound of a large crowd rumbling and then going quiet, and a small chair squeak.”

The vaccines are coming. All going to plan (ha!) we are at the beginning of the end. One day, Covid will be a blip. Nothing more than the year we didn’t get married, or our school ball was cancelled or we finally redid the kitchen. But it was also the year a single Auckland distribution centre for Christmas food parcels logged 42,000 calls in just one December day. That kind of demand doesn’t go away because the clock has struck midnight. Pivot. Reset. Remember. Not everybody made it out alive.

My friend talks about a kind of collective amnesia. Already, we can’t recall whether lockdown lasted six weeks or seven weeks. Already, we’ve forgotten the Zoom calls with HR and the “closed” signs on shops. We drink champagne, eat Medjool dates and say “we are so lucky”. And mostly we are. But I’ve also noticed that when you ask people what they are looking forward to about 2021, nobody really knows what to say. We are standing by the front door, blinking in the sun, and wondering: what now?

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