Where’s Your Place in the World?

I don’t suppose there are many people in the country who currently feel grounded, confident they know how their lives will unfold and happy with that trajectory. At the moment, uncertainty seems the name of the game, responsibilities multiply and jobs – assuming you still have one – are changing radically. Not so long ago, wfh was an acronym that would have conveyed nothing and Zoom more usually meant camera shots than staring at a computer screen.

In lockdown, it would be nice to think I would have more time to read – think of all those journeys I’m not making, the cycle rides to the station and endless crowded tube trains. However, the reality is the day job does not cease. Rather, it seems on the contrary to be more intense and more difficult. However, I am finding a little time to dip into the book Clarissa Farr wrote when she stepped down as High Mistress of St Paul’s Girls’ School, The Making of Her.

Her book ostensibly follows the school calendar, and so it starts with a chapter about starting the new academic year, specifically as a newbie. Of this period she remarks

‘a [more] fundamental and lifelong human need: to feel ourselves located, grounded, placed in relation to the world around us. To lack that – and sometimes in life if we are untethered from our moorings and face periods of confusion or loss – produces a feeling very like the homesickness we might recall from childhood.’

I don’t know how many of us feel homesick, it isn’t how I’d describe myself, but that feeling of being untethered is perhaps a more apt analogy, as each of us has to cope with new and unexpected circumstances. There is a loneliness in making difficult decisions with only a disembodied colleague on the screen to confer with; a loneliness of never meeting anyone beyond your household, which might consist of you and no one else; a loneliness from not being able to hug grandparents or, in my case, grandchildren. We are social creatures however much scientists may also – at times – work single-mindedly in a bubble of lengthy and isolated late-night lab sessions or hunched over pen and paper searching for the hypothesis that joins the data dots metaphorically together. All of us value company, friendship and a lightening of spirit through conversation and jokes.

What is our place in this brand-new world, and will things evolve back to where they were? I suspect most of us appreciate only too well that the ‘new normal’ in a post-COVID world (assuming we emerge into one any time soon) will not be BAU (an acronym it took me some time to work out meant business as usual, as opposed to the German for building when working my way through planning briefs). As an appropriately academic example, let me turn to the traditional Cambridge way of conferring degrees, with a clasping of hands of each individual graduand. This is not something it is easy to imagine being re-instated in the foreseeable future, if ever, however much the other parts of a ceremony in the Senate House may return in due course, once social distancing has become such a distant memory that a full cohort of students can process along the Cambridge streets and stand shoulder to shoulder in that building.

That is, in one sense, a trivial example, affecting such a tiny minority, but it is illustrative of how small, familiar and reassuring actions may vanish. Will the traditional ‘how-do-you-do’ shake of the hand of English society, already fading fast, ever reappear? Given that it has already tended to be replaced by hugs and air kisses, even in relatively austere circles, we will have to think of new ways of greeting: the elbow knocking that briefly became de rigeur in early March perhaps. We are without a social script going forward, adding to the sense of being untethered that Farr mentions in her book. Only here we are all newbies, fresh to the COVID world where there are none of us who knows the rules any more.

So, homesickness may not describe us, but perhaps nostalgia for a sort of lost innocence before every contact became suspect, including through the very air between us as we go about our daily business. Our lives are at risk in a way I, as an English native, have never had to fear before and the consequences for our mental health are significant. Anxiety dreams may be common to many of us, whatever illogical form they take, but the waking reality can be at least as disquieting, if more logical.

As businesses, universities included, work up their plans to come out of lockdown the tension between safety and ‘getting on with it’ is worryingly present. We each have personal responsibility to think of others as well as ourselves, whatever some highly placed people may choose to think, and many decisions cannot be taken unilaterally. I will not digress into a political diatribe, tempting though it may be, but every member of a community – as a Cambridge college would happily describe itself – will need to be aware of how their actions impact on everyone else around them. We need to find ways of instilling this new sense of shared responsibility into the community without the introduction of draconian measures.

How a lab can reopen requires one set of underlying principles, which will determine how many of any given research team can set foot in the lab at any time – and how all surfaces will thereafter be cleaned before another shift arrives. I am old enough to remember the days when library books had notices inside them about what to do if someone in the household who’d borrowed the book fell ill with a communicable disease (mainly measles and mumps, I suspect back then, as polio and smallpox were certainly on their final way out). As research gets going again, how will books be quarantined for researchers wanting to use a library when a digital version is not available? How will colleges provide catering for returning students without infringing social distancing for anyone? The questions are many. In my own university – as no doubt in all around the world – these questions are being urgently worked up; solutions are not always going to be obvious.

So, if my blogposts are comparatively infrequent, you can assume my brain is not only trying to adjust to whatever our new normal is, but also it is engaged in virtual meeting after virtual meeting, wrestling with some of these very problems. Simultaneously, I need to try to ensure that the general feeling of ‘knackeredness’ that my colleagues and I are getting more comfortable admitting to (that phrase seems now to be in common parlance, at least locally) does not get overwhelmed by anxiety levels high enough to disrupt my sleep. The challenges for all of us getting through these grim weeks is immense. I wish my readers success in finding ways to remain, as Farr put it, ‘located, grounded, placed in relation to the world around us’, and if that feels as yet impossible, at least to see some way back to your moorings in the not too distant future, with the help of some virtual friends Zooming away.

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