Letting The Days Go: Nostalgia In The Time Of Coronavirus

As the UK relaxes its Coronavirus lockdown, Eleanor Morgan asks what prompted the nationwide frenzy of organising CDs, records and bookshelves of these recent strange months of confinement

I’ve pondered CD cases more than I would have anticipated during a global pandemic. Rewinding back to December, my things were packed to move house. The precarity of London renting meant I was doing this for the 15th time in 17 years. During the last few moves, as I’ve slid a giant sports holdall bulging with CDs into the back of another van, I’ve thought: never again. They’ve been heaved around for sentimental reasons, obviously; the dusty, crunchy-cased relics quickly became redundant once Napster, then Spotify, came along. But despite not having touched a CD for over a decade, that awful jumble of plastic spoke of a purer time; when teenage me, armed with new intel from NME and The Face, would spend my waitressing money in Bishops Stortford’s Our Price on a Saturday morning. 


My relationship with music was terribly serious then, you understand. Melodies, middle-eights and baselines spoke to me. I’m being facetious, but it is true. Organising my CD ‘library’ – strictly alphabetically – was part of it all. Most of them lived in my tiny bedroom at my dad’s house; the place I felt most relaxed and, importantly, where I got to spend time alone. Slotting Belle & Sebastian’s Tigermilk in beside Beck’s Midnight Vultures was satisfying; a tiny act of feeling a bit sorted when, outside of that house, family life made me feel anything but.  


I’ve only organised belongings in this way a few times since, usually when navigating strong emotions after a break-up, the loss of a job or in bereavement. Who hasn’t, in times of crisis, felt the need to pull everything off the shelves and put their contents – and, in a blunt way, ourselves – back together again? During lockdown, I’ve been acutely aware of my mental weather. I’m resilient, and largely okay, but the shit days have been… shit. I live alone and fear that, if it weren’t for my silly dog, the loneliness may have done a number on me. At the start, all that rumination time made it hard to resist the psychic quicksand of why-wasn’t-I-good-enough in the wake of a break-up at the start of the year. Time has taken on such an elastic quality, it’s hard to keep track of the days. At several points, that urge to organise my environment has surfaced – as it seems to have for many of us. 


Social media feeds have brimmed with satisfying pictures of people’s newly colour, alphabetically or genre-coded book or record collections. J. K. Rowling caused a stir with her vast, re-organised shelves, while other writers claim to have changed their lives by organising their books in lockdown. The obvious armchair psychologist theory is that we may feel compelled to create order in our immediate surroundings when the world outside feels dangerous and chaotic. From a behavioural perspective, we would think about the function of the action. An obvious drive is boredom – with so much time on our hands, the brain craves stimulation. We may also be avoiding difficult thoughts and feelings by looking for a sense of satisfaction in a task that has a clear beginning, middle and end – characteristics this virus does not hold. We are stuck in a perpetual state of Alan Partridge shrug regarding how, or when, this ends. 


Visual clutter can be emotionally-draining for some people at the best of times, not least during a crisis. The days my mind has felt stormy have been the ones when I’ve tidied the most; my furniture, kitchen and tchotchkes are in magnificent order, as are my Mac desktop folders. It is soothing. I’ve sharpened knives, scrubbed grouting and tenderly wiped the leaves of my monstera plant, while also trying to ‘sit with’ my thought and feelings as much as possible. I am aware that having the time to get stuck into these prosaic tasks may seem luxurious to parents, carers, full-time key-workers, and so on – people for whom time alone is at an absolute premium right now. 


I have been surprised by my hunger for nostalgia in lockdown, given how bittersweet the feeling can be. I’ve listened to very little music made post-2000 and largely, it seems, what my parents would play when my siblings and I were young. Treading a thin line between thrill and embarrassment for us, they would blast their music so loud that we could hear it when playing in the surrounding fields. I’ve been drawn to the big, plaintive, synth-y stuff I associate with that time; The Eurythmics (‘You Have Placed a Chill in My Heart’ has become my lockdown anthem), Yazoo and Erasure. I’ve found myself craving childhood meals, too; this week, I recreated a boil-in-the-bag fish in parsley sauce we used to love. My adult version, a bowl of frozen hake dredged in wine-heavy parsley sauce, was a lovely, brief portal back to after-school dinners with the patio doors open.


What am I chasing here? The notion of being small and the grown-ups taking care of everything? Really, that existential freedom is something we only begin to conceptualise once we become the grown-up and have the ability to look back. Nostalgia is often a yearning for something imprecise. Perhaps it’s that implicit sense of safety I’m after, or, at least, a reminder of it while looking down the barrel of a global pandemic alone. Last weekend, I accidentally-on-purpose listened to the whole of Annie Lennox’s Diva album in the bath and realised it was reminding me of being in the back of my mum’s Volvo, my legs sticking to the leather. I was hit like a train by Blur’s ‘The Universal’ when it came on shuffle while I was cutting carrots for dinner a few weeks ago. The song’s clarion call – "When the days they seem to fall through you, well just let them go" – made my eyes fill up when the image of being 17 and bombing round a Hertfordshire country lane in my best friend’s car flashed into my head. I’ve hardly thought of Blur for years. Then again, it’s been years since I’ve been so aware of needing to try and let the days go. Maybe I’ve never been so aware. 


Both professionally and personally, I feel increasingly at odds with the medical model of mental health, and it just doesn’t seem right to attach a label to how I’ve been feeling in lockdown. I agree with the psychologists and psychiatrists who have publicly stressed how normal it is to feel off-kilter at this moment of crisis. Solo lockdown has been a fantastic exercise in self-inquiry and observing how, like the weather, moods are largely fleeting; feeling churned up one day is not a prophecy for feeling churned up the next. I have felt ‘depressed’ in a very literal sense; squashed by the uncertainty of all this, the loneliness and some of the thoughts that have surfaced about who I am, what I’m going to do with my life and with whom. Will I have children? Will I be loved again? Small shit, really. I’ve been so grateful to have friends that really know me and how, rather than endless ‘checking in’ FaceTime chats, I need a lot of silliness to whet the appetite for self-disclosure.  


The frequent drive to organise in lockdown – almost certainly to distract myself from the grand, anxious thinking – has made me consider that bag of CDs and how delicious it would be to get at them. But they’re finally gone now. I used to think that, if I got rid of them, I’d get to a ripe age and weep with regret, but rationality cut the nostalgia in two ahead of this move. A lovely man from Manchester came and collected three-quarters of the lot to sell on; the rest went to Oxfam. It was the right decision. What else, then, could I put in order? 


I tried my books. No good: vast variations in size (big photography books are not good shelf-mates to little Penguin Originals) and limited display space put the kibosh on that one. I had a go at my wardrobe, which brought about the humbling realisation that, yes, I really do have a problem with buying stripey tops. A few weeks ago, I stopped looking for organisation projects because, as an easily-distracted procrastinator, constantly looking for something to tidy was not helping me get any work done. Instead, I have tried to stick to a routine of one daily, mid-morning clean. The itch is scratched just enough.  


In a more general sense, could it be that we unconsciously seek symmetry and order in our surroundings to reflect how organised our bodily systems are? In order to stay upright, alive and well, thousands of neurochemical and biological systems work in strictly-regimented harmony under our skin. If you remember homeostasis from biology lessons, you’ll know that our cells work very hard to keep different levels of things (oxygen, sugar, temperature, fluid balance, etc.) balanced, because otherwise our bodies lose the plot. We are a product of schedules and rhythms that we’re rarely consciously aware of. Disturbing some of those rhythms can really throw us off-kilter. (I have written about how disturbances to the circadian cycle in lockdown have wreaked havoc with some people’s sleep.)


There is comfort in considering all the atomic business that goes on without us knowing. Our bodies remain intelligent as hell, even when we’re having one of those lying-prone-on-the-sofa-staring-out-the-window days. (For me, the opening lines to Father John Misty’s ‘Bored in the USA’ – ‘How many people rise and say, "My brain’s so awfully glad to be here for yet another mindless day?" – skewer them perfectly.) On such days, I may find gently pushing a bruise and watching the skin blanch and flush with my pulse oddly soothing. It extends to the dog, too; she invites my gaze to go completely macro. I can find myself absolutely rapt watching the rise and fall of her ribcage; a rhythm that just carries on. 


Looking for activities to ground us at such a bewildering time makes perfect sense. Given that so few of us have a reference point for what is happening, however, it also makes sense to try where possible to allow for moments of quiet contemplation – even whole days – without feeling like we have to fill all our time with Stuff to Do. If we worry about what will happen if we’re still, all the more reason to see what comes up if we allow ourselves to be. 


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