6 Things I Don’t Want To Go Back to Normal
How the stillness of lockdown and quarantine has changed me
When most of the world went into a lockdown three months ago, I grieved the loss of normalcy.
I missed being able to walk into a cafe. I missed runs in the park. I missed eating out with friends at restaurants. (And I wrote about all the things I was longing for.)
The past two months have brought with them many unexpected things. But perhaps the one thing that hit home more than anything else was the lack of control I had over my external circumstances.
When I made the difficult decision to leave Finland and return back to Malaysia, it would take weeks of dealing with cancelled flights and call centers to finally get on a plane back home. When I arrived home, I was whisked off by a government-chartered bus to spend another two weeks in isolated quarantine.
From doing to being
As a doer by nature, I tried my best to make plans, speed things up, and move things forward. But I found myself coming back to the same place, again and again. A place of waiting. A place where things are just not in my control.
Waiting and uncertainty tends to drive impatient people like me crazy with restlessness and anxiety. But those very things can also lead to acceptance and surrender. To less doing and striving, and more being. Being present, being open, being adaptable, being resilient. Those things in itself lead to action eventually, but frenetic action in itself is not the main goal.
In the past few months, I found myself spending a lot of time in stillness and solitude. Having nowhere to go and fewer urgent things competing for my attention created the space to reflect on my life and re-examine what I believe to be true.
Our days have always been numbered from the moment we were born. But somehow it took a global pandemic to remind me of reality: I or the people I love could die at any time. The realization that life is fragile made me rethink my priorities in life.
We all have traits that are a double-edged sword. One of mine is curiosity. This curiosity has produced in me a thirst for constant growth, learning, and discovery. And I’m grateful for that. But the flip side of that is that it also leaves me feeling constantly restless; like what I have is never enough. For most of my life I’ve struggled with being present. My mind was always two steps ahead into the future, jumping ahead to the next thing. Or it was lingering in regrets from the past that came as a result of being too impatient and impulsive.
Distractions are a good way to avoid dealing with our fear
For some time now, I’ve wanted to go on a meditation retreat. I knew there would come a time in my life when I would need to pause and take stock. Deep down, I knew the relentless pace I was hurtling forward at was not healthy for my soul. Yet the idea of sitting with myself and doing nothing terrified me.
Which is why, as the pandemic hit, I found myself looking in all directions for some new project to work on, some new chapter to begin, some new distraction to throw myself into, to distract myself from the fear of just pressing pause.
But life forced me into the terror. Had the choice been left to me, I would not have signed myself up for a 14-day quarantine. But there was no other option. I had signed my contract to return to Malaysia to work. New government policies were being announced weekly. I was going to spend two weeks completely isolated from the world.
I could choose to resist it and suffer through it, or I could choose to embrace the fear and try to let this experience transform me. I chose the latter.
I won’t lie. There were many moments of temptation. Plenty of distractions. Netflix binges, food delivery binges, Tinder matches, mindless scrolling through Instagram. There were moments of weakness.
But as the days turned into weeks, and I continue to embrace the silence and stillness, I found myself changing.
Things I don’t want to go back to normal
Over the course of the lockdown and my two weeks in solo quarantine, I’ve developed new habits and learned new lessons that I want to keep with me even as the world reopens for business.
Some of the things I’m hoping I will never go back to include:
1. Monday to Fridays at the office
It amazes me that I can get my work done, cook dinner, and not feel exhausted at the end of the day, when hours of commuting in traffic are removed from the equation. As I began to return to the office for a few days a week, I’ve noticed a drastic difference in how tired I feel on the days I spend commuting to and fro, compared to the days I work from home.
I find it productive to work from the office from time to time, especially when having meetings or needing to collaborate with colleagues. But for solo, focused work, I’d much rather skip the commute.
2. Noisy workspaces
When I returned to Malaysia, I could have chosen to save some money by staying with family or even renting a room with a housemate. But after 10 years of working and sharing houses with people, I decided that at 30, it was time to experience living alone. I did not want to compromise on finding a space that was quiet, cozy, and conducive to work from.
I used to like novelty and variety so much, I would work from cafes as much as I could. This past week, I went to a cafe to work for the first time in months. Now that I’ve gotten used to working in silence, it hit me how noisy and distracting cafes and open offices are.
3. Not spending time on a daily basis to do nothing
Okay, I’ll confess. This one, I learned from my cats. I used to wonder how cats could spend hours staring out the window, watching the world go by. But sitting alone in a hotel room without leaving the room for two weeks, I learned that staring out the window is therapeutic. Just watching people walking on the street or peering down at them eating on a terrace made me feel connected to the outside world.
It also made me allowed me to appreciate the world from afar, without needing to be in the thick of activity. There’s a certain stillness that comes with taking the time out to watch the world go by.
Since leaving quarantine and renting an apartment in the city, I’ve continued this habit of spending at least 5 to 10 minutes a day just gazing out the window and being still.
4. Skipping nap time
Just like the rest of my life, my lunch hours have more often than not been busy, multipurpose working lunches. I remained glued to my phone throughout. Now that I’ve been working from home, I’ve discovered not only the simple pleasure of taking a 15-minute cat nap on the couch after lunchtime. I’ve also discovered how much more focused I can be for the rest of the afternoon after doing so.
5. Late dinners
When work days and commutes are long, dinnertime regularly happens at 8PM or later. This means the body doesn’t have enough time to digest your food before you head to bed. For me, this meant regular stomach discomfort and digestive issues.
At the quarantine center, dinner was usually ready from 6.45PM, a habit which I’ve continued to maintain as much as possible even post-quarantine. That, combined with eating healthier (and more plant-based) has felt so good after years of living with chronic digestive issues, that I’ve decided I agree with the statement: “Nothing tastes as good as healthy feels”.
6. A packed social schedule
One of the things I missed most during lockdown and quarantine was seeing people. Yet I also realized that I was able to scratch creative itches that have been lying on the back burner and make significant advances on learning courses when I wasn’t spending all my free time meeting people.
I still believe relationships are the most important thing in life and bring great meaning and fulfillment. But I am becoming increasingly selective about the people I choose to surround myself with, and I will no longer feel guilty about planning meet ups in advance and scheduling them into my calendar, instead of accepting any spontaneous invitation to hang out.
It’s taken almost three months to move from the denial, anger, depression, and bargaining stages of grieving the loss of normalcy, to the stages of acceptance and finally, meaning.
I’m grateful for the wake-up call to stop living life at breakneck speed, constantly chasing something, and to instead, embrace the present moment, find balance in everything I do, and trust that just as I do my part to be a better person, life has its plans lined up for me too, sometimes better than plans I made up by myself.