There is no After

17.31, Wednesday 6 May 2020

I like how Nat Buckley, in their weeknotes, casually refers to the Before and the After. For example, According to my watch I burn slightly more calories than on most days in the Before.

And it got me chatting on Twitter about what do we call the bit in the middle?

  • The Now, or the During
  • The quarantine
  • The lockdown (that’s what we call it, here at home)

And keeping in mind that during this period, many people have and will still die, and many people are suffering. And it’s super fucking brutal.

So I don’t mean to brush over that reality, I want to acknowledge that it’s there, and that one of the characteristics of this period is the mental logjam of struggling with finding bread flour (for example) while also knowing that others are struggling in a much more significant sense.

Anyway, I wondered what, in the future when we’re looking back, we’ll call the “and” between the Before and the After.

Punctuated equilibrium

Back in 2003 I asked: What do you call the bits between the equilibria in punctuated equilibrium?

(Punctuated equilibrium is a model of evolution which says that a new species appears all in a rush and a muddle, but once it does appear it then becomes stable.)

In the course of collecting suggestions I started thinking about habit-breaking days… I have routines not just because I’m set in my way, but because everyone else is set in their ways too. Changing up routines is hard for that reason.

But when everyone changes up their routines around you, changing your own routines becomes easier.

Which led me to think that perhaps there are periods when we all change our habits together.

Like now.

Oh yes, some of the suggestions:

  • liminal (like, being halfway through a doorway)
  • phase shifts
  • little bangs
  • the punctuation

So I guess I’ve been thinking about these intermediate periods for some time, and that’s why I’ve been fixating on it recently.

Habits in the Before and the After

We used to have a regular big shop at the supermarket, and also pop in frequently pick up ingredients etc to fill out a particular meal.

Now we get our groceries from a small set of local shops do delivery. It’s a rewarding way to do be connected to our changed community. The supermarket is for whatever they don’t carry. Meals are planned around available ingredients. Food waste, which was always a concern, is now a priority… and almost zero. I hope that continues.

I used to travel into town for meetings. I used to drink coffee on the train.

I can’t see myself going back to travelling in the After. I’ve got back 2 hours a day and I won’t want to give that up.

And for everything from how I hang out with friends and family, to how I win work, to how I make time for creative projects, there was what I did in the Before, and there’s what I anticipate doing in the After…

…and there’s how I’m muddling along today.

The Before, the After, and the muddle?

How it feels

Kim Stanley Robinson, who writes incredible sci-fi utopias about Mars and future Californias and also post-climate-catastrophe Earth, had a piece in the New Yorker the other day: The Coronavirus Is Rewriting Our Imaginations.

I mean, read the entire thing, but I wanted to quote this bit because KSR is some kind of word-smith magician and his sentences and rhythm are transcendent. I’ll give you the lead-in first, but maybe if you’re in a place where you can, speak the second para out loud because it really really works.

Memento mori: remember that you must die. Older people are sometimes better at keeping this in mind than younger people. Still, we’re all prone to forgetting death. It never seems quite real until the end, and even then it’s hard to believe. The reality of death is another thing we know about but don’t feel.

(This is the bit to read out loud. Give the words some room to breathe. Vary the speed and the sustain.)

So this epidemic brings with it a sense of panic: we’re all going to die, yes, always true, but now perhaps this month! That’s different. Sometimes, when hiking in the Sierra, my friends and I get caught in a lightning storm, and, completely exposed to it, we hurry over the rocky highlands, watching lightning bolts crack out of nowhere and connect nearby, thunder exploding less than a second later. That gets your attention: death, all too possible! But to have that feeling in your ordinary, daily life, at home, stretched out over weeks – that’s too strange to hold on to. You partly get used to it, but not entirely. This mixture of dread and apprehension and normality is the sensation of plague on the loose.

So good.

Anyway, what KSR puts his finger on is a couple of things,

  • that this pandemic is the prototype for a century of crises: water shortages, food scares, a heat wave hot enough to kill anyone not in an air-conditioned space, etc,
  • and that our shift into a new way of feeling about the world has now happened. We won’t and can’t return to our old habit of knowing-but-not-acting.

Possibly, in a few months, we’ll return to some version of the old normal. But this spring won’t be forgotten. When later shocks strike global civilization, we’ll remember how we behaved this time, and how it worked. It’s not that the coronavirus is a dress rehearsal – it’s too deadly for that. But it is the first of many calamities that will likely unfold throughout this century. Now, when they come, we’ll be familiar with how they feel.


When this is all over…

I’ve been thinking a lot about the After…

  • when I can go see cricket the cricket again (crowds)
  • when I can browse the supermarket again (food security)
  • when I can visit family (the risk of accidentally infecting older parents)
  • when I can fly for holiday again (national borders as pandemic firebreaks)

and thinking to myself, well, once we get through this…

But what KSR unlocked for me with that word familiar is that the feeling of the lockdown is now becoming familiar. Familiar means habitual. Habits don’t change, not without another crisis on the same scale.

We’ve got our childcare routine, and our way of working from home. Our masks have arrived, we know when to wash our hands.

And what occurred to me, then, is that I’ve been thinking about this all wrong. There isn’t a Before, a lockdown, and an After. There’s only the Before, and the lockdown, and the lockdown will last forever.

There is no After

Yes there will be some loosening of restrictions. We’ll be able to return to school and work, at least for a bit until there’s a risk of a second peak and then the lockdown will tighten again for a while.

We’ll be able to visit parents, or go to events, but with masks, and maybe not in Covid season or something like that. We’ll carry immunity passports. We’ll have to pay attention to whether the cache of dried goods in the back of the cupboard is still in date, because we take food supply chains for granted any longer. The contact tracking apps will never be turned off, governments will say that it isn’t worth the risk, and we’ll all agree.

National borders will close periodically, like the Thames Barrier – you’ll never go on holiday or travel for work without thinking of the 1% chance that you’ll be stranded for the duration. It may never come, and let’s hope it doesn’t, but we’ll always be watching out for that second peak, it will always be a few months in the future, shaping our present.

I think about 9/11, almost 20 years ago. That emergency never ended either.

The lockdown itself will reduce in intensity somewhat, but the instruments of the lockdown will stay, and the psychic lockdown - the feeling of all of this - will stay too. It will feel familiar.

There’s a bit in Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson (him again) where the West Antarctic ice sheet collapses, and sea levels the world over rise dramatically.

“How fast is it?” Nadia said. “Is it a tidal wave?”

“No. More like a very high tide. That will never go away.”

And that’s how I think about the lockdown now. A high tide that won’t go out. It’ll come and go, a bit, but really this period is just an extreme phase in what we’ll find is the new normal.


I’m coming to this realisation late, I know, others have been talking about the new normal for ages.

It’s helping me to think like this, because instead of waiting around - life on pause - thinking about how to pick things up when things return to how they were, or keeping my powder dry because things might be different again in the After, or saying oh I’ll do that later when thing have settled down, I can start adjusting right now instead.

I can focus on finding new habits, and building my life and my practice in new ways. I’ll work on discovering new ways to make new routines easier, and joyful too, and as time goes on there will be opportunities to find new ways to enjoy family too, and even cricket somehow, but they won’t be the same as they were in the Before. And I’m going to start figuring these things out now, because there’s no point holding out to see what it’ll be like when this is over, because it won’t be over, there’s only the lockdown, the high tide isn’t going to go out, and there is no After.

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