Scribbling on the reverse side of a printed sheet, I make a list. Pencil lines that cut through my day, carving it into manageable pieces. Two hours blocked for writing. Another half hour is marked pranayama. Mid-morning, I have 15 minutes devoted to ‘faffing.’ This entails calling all friends and family I can’t see except in the form of pixelated boxes.
The day goes on in this manner. Each scheduled task a building block till I construct a Jenga tower. One that topples easily if more than a few pieces are pulled out of the stack.
In the days before this regimented list, at around 3pm, there would occur a cyclic shift. Optimistic mornings, sluggish afternoons and then the witching hour. I would feel like I had stumbled, face first, into a patch of beaver-tail cactus. And worse, it felt easier to just lay there till dinner time and rely on sleep as a reset button.
Then a new day would begin. The Groundhog Day version of time, where I didn’t have Bill Murray’s relentless cheerfulness but with some recent hair fall, I felt I would end up with the same receded hairline.
It was not like late afternoons had been kind to me in the past. This was the time when my brain would pull the shutters down. I would wander out of my cabin to catch up with the team. A coffee break, an exchange of amusing titbits and with the mind lubricated with a sense of camaraderie, I would return to my desk.
Did I ever think I would miss the chatter drifting into my office when I plugged in headphones to drown out the noise? Or the crackling sound of a packet of soya chips being ripped open, fingers dipping in and out as it was passed around?
I am an introvert. But if I am struggling with the isolation and lockdowns then I wonder what is happening to all the extroverts out there, those who find the best versions of themselves reflected in the gaze of another.
In the past, I now realise, I led a squirrel-like existence. I would emerge from my burrow to forage — bits of shiny laughter, an idiosyncratic tale or two, a litany of tragic stories. Collect and carry back. Preferring the takeaway version of life than the sit-down dinner. I enjoyed inspecting my nuggets at leisure. Turning things around, using a magnifying glass to see details. Endless tasks to keep my mind occupied. My solitude a refuge, and not a prison.
In a year followed by another that seems to be heading on the same path, my hoard felt depleted. Sitting at my desk was becoming a chore rather than a joy. What would I report except a deafening silence? A writer’s job is to listen. I found myself unable to sit down and transcribe the solitary beating of a sluggish heart.
As the mind began drying up, procrastination became the tool of choice to ignore the decline. It only made me more inert.
The idea of a list took root after I read an essay where psychologist Rachel Goldman stated, ‘When people don’t have a routine it can cause increased stress and anxiety.’ She also suggested structuring the day to make the most of the natural flow of energy levels.
And so it began, a time-blocked schedule to make sense of the day. A new blueprint, now that the original — with gym commutes, office meetings, coffee catch-ups had disappeared.
I cannot say I thrived once I had my list in place, but I managed to force my neural network to get off the couch. This was essential because unlike Tom Hanks I was not alone with a decorated coconut but isolating with my eight-year-old. Our stay on this marooned island increasing in length as we encountered one infected person after another.
One afternoon she cried and insisted on seeing her best friend, ‘I want Ishika.’
In different circumstances I would have joked, ‘And I want Brad Pitt, but you can’t always get what you want.’
Instead, I felt a rage. I walked into the bathroom and threw the sneakers I was carrying onto the floor.
The frustration of all the things I could not control, spiralling on top of each other. An invincible virus. The spike in infections. Overburdened hospitals. Crematoriums overwhelmed by the dead.
It was also 3pm, that dreaded time of day, but the list said — Workout. I wanted to curl up in a corner. Instead, I pulled my sneakers on. After I finished a round of planks and crunches, she clambered into the room and we sat on two inflated exercise balls. We bounced. As high as we could go. In time with the thumping music. A wrestle with gravity. Whooping with delight as our bottoms floated in the air for a few moments before we came crashing down.
That night as we huddled in bed, I asked her, ‘Why were you throwing a tantrum today?’
‘I miss my friends, I feel lonely.’
‘I am lonely too.’
I tried to lighten her mood by talking about the hairbands she always has on and if she was going to wear them even when she was a bona fide grandmother.
‘You got them mama! You took me to that shop and tried so many hairbands on my head. If you had bought all of them then we would need,’ she struggled to find the right word, ‘a camper to put it all in.’
And off she went, recalling an ordinary day filled with shopping followed by a playdate. Mundane events that seemed special compared to what we had now. A series of todays. All the same. Leftover rainwater in a pothole. The future, a battered road that stretches as far as the eye can see. So, we sat, beguiling our heart by floating paper boats of the past across the stagnant puddles.
One day these schedules I have drawn up will also be relics of the past. Silence, a laboratory once again, with beakers of anecdotes and vials of chatter to decant and examine. I live within that fragile hope as I make another list in order to get through the next day.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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