Like so many people tasked with entertaining children over Christmas, I have spent the last week watching an inordinate amount of Disney.
That is to be expected. What I did not expect was finding the ultimate lockdown song.
I am talking of the opening number from Tangled, the 2010 version of Rapunzel, entitled “When will my life begin?”
Rapunzel, locked away in a tower from birth by an evil witch she is led to believe has her best interests at heart, gazes wistfully at the outside world, before getting on with the list of things she does every day to keep busy — a list that feels eerily familiar after the past year.
She cleans, bakes, does yoga on her bedroom floor, practises guitar, focuses on hobbies like chess and knitting, reads and rereads every book she owns, brushes hair that is desperately in need of a trim, and stares despondently out of the window. It doesn’t matter how many things she has to entertain her or how comfortable her tower is, Rapunzel’s time is spent waiting for something to change so she can get on with her real life.
Tangled may have been made a decade before the first warnings of Covid-19, but Disney absolutely nails the lockdown experience. And as we conclude this horrendous year, with the hope of a vaccine and the threat of a new virus strain vying to dominate the opening months of the next, I can’t stop thinking about it.
Because what we have learnt from 2020 is something that fairytales knew all along: that, even in the very best of circumstances, being locked in our homes for days, weeks, months on end is not a pleasant experience.
Of course, millions of people have endured the pandemic in far from the best circumstances. They have been crammed into tiny flats and house-shares with less personal space than a prison cell. They have lost their jobs and seen what financial security they had evaporate. Some have been in near-total isolation for 10 months, others shut up inside with abusive partners.
Couples have been separated, parents have had to balance work with childcare and homeschooling, pregnant women have been forced to give birth or miscarry alone, students have at times been put under virtual house arrest, and key workers have faced unimaginable stress,
And throughout it all, over 72,000 people have died with Covid, with their loved ones often denied the chance to say goodbye or grieve properly.
Against that backdrop, those for whom the predominant theme of 2020 has been boredom should count themselves fortunate — but only comparatively.
It was a cliche pre-2020 to remark how nice it would be if life slowed down a bit, to long for more time for ourselves or with our families, to be free of the commute and office life and able focus on what we enjoyed. And perhaps for the initial few weeks of the first lockdown, that fantasy became a reality. But what we soon found, baking our sourdough and brushing up on our Italian, was that it comes at a cost: tedium, loneliness, and despondency. Seclusion and monotony do not make for a fulfilled existence.
Small wonder, then, that the nation now faces a mental health crisis on top of the pandemic. The Centre for Mental Health is forecasting that 10 million people will need new or additional support as a result of the Covid crisis, while the country’s leading psychiatrist warned this week of “the biggest hit to mental health since the Second World War”.
It’s a gloomy thought for New Year’s Eve, a time that is usually about constructive self-reflection and optimism. And as more and more of the country is plunged into stricter lockdown restrictions, to fight a virus that the Prime Minister said in March we could “turn the tide” on in 12 weeks and “return to normality” by Christmas, it is easy to feel despair.
But I have learnt something important and constructive this year. It is that “normal life” — the unreserved freedom to see friends and family, the spontaneity of a last-minute drink in a pub, the magic of live theatre, the energy of a night club, the miracle of long-distance air travel to exotic places, the first spark of in-person romance, and the ability to communicate face-to-face rather than over a screen — is a priceless and precious thing.
If it takes almost losing something to fully appreciate it, then count me appreciative: of hugs, of birthday parties, of gym classes, of overpriced cocktails, of the Tube, and of the buzzing ecosystem that makes it all work together.
So much of the discourse of this year has been about whether it is even desirable to go back to normal, or whether we should cut our losses and accept this new fragmented and remote form of living. With the roll-out of one vaccine underway and another approved just yesterday, that debate is over. We have lost a tremendous amount, we have the tools to regain it, and there is no excuse not to do so.
We can all learn lessons from the past year, about recognising what we have and making time for what matters most. But that is no reason to continue our isolation a moment longer than we need to. Having experienced life locked away in Rapunzel’s tower, I am more certain than ever that life is best lived outside and with people.
So if like me you’re done with baking, knitting, and gazing out of the window, how’s this for a New Year’s Resolution? Once the most vulnerable have been vaccinated, let’s make 2021 a year to remember, and put everything we have into learning to live again.
Main image credit: Getty