Maybe you can tell where I’m going with this. Many people are living in their own versions of Patti LuPone’s basement right now, though most versions are definitely not as delightful. The necessary response to the pandemic has, after all, intensified huge swaths of the population’s pre-pandemic situations. The economically and medically fragile are at new risk; the cloistered and privileged have only thickened the walls of their bubble. Single people feel extremely single. People in relationships are now super-duper in relationships. The home has become not a refuge from the world’s arena but rather the arena itself. It’s thus tempting to think of the crisis as a personal reckoning: This is the life you’ve been making all along. Now live it.
What it really is, however, is a rescaling of life on terms contrary to deeply ingrained directives, primal and cultural. Last fall, I moved from Boston to New York City, a transition that involved paying more rent for a third of the space of my previous apartment. The calculation was that I’d trade a relatively set and sleepy life, involving a small number of excellent friends and a finite-feeling menu of entertainment options, for a more bustling existence—more stuff to do, more people to see, less reason to play video games at home. It worked. My social circles were growing; my nights were busy; the couch became more foreign. Then the coronavirus came. I’ve cleaned up my laptop and found horrible unpublished essays from 2008. I’ve started playing tele-Scrabble with people I’d not spoken with since the Obama era. I’ve learned a lot about the paint on my ceiling. I’ve started to forget that I live in the biggest city in America.
Read: Pop music’s version of life doesn’t exist anymore
There are of course a huge number of people who don’t have the luxury of boredom right now. There are people who thrive on staying put. But for others, what’s trippy about isolation is not simply the loss of face-to-face contact and communal spaces. It’s the way it closes off a crucial psychic space and crowds us back onto terrain that may have been ignored, or only lightly tended to. I have realized that I’ve always thought of my life as a project under construction—something constantly becoming something else, through the playful work of meeting people and going places and scheming projects. But there are no new friends in a pandemic. No exciting plans to be made. There’s almost nowhere to go, psychologically, but backwards and inward.
That’s an uncomfortable thing in part because of how dramatically it inverts can-do cultural directives. Maybe there’s an upside in that, and in any case it is a mild price to pay in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. To the extent that there already was a documented loneliness epidemic, it surely had something to do with the way in which modern life encourages people to treat their personal pasts as museum pieces. You display what you’ve done and who you know—whether with framed photos in the basement or digital ones on Instagram—even if the people in those displays easily fall out of touch. The present, and its promise of a new future, distracts. So does the workplace—which America treats as simply an extension of personal life—that so many people are locked out of right now.