I love reading about pandemic brain fog because it gives me an excuse for my current stupidity. It is pleasant to think that my inability to recall the dog’s name or what I did for the past hour are symptoms of a global malaise, rather than of my mental decline. That is not to say that I am not getting stupider – I definitely am – but it’s nice to pretend something else is at work.
The most recent piece I read emphasised the impact of the lack of new experiences. We have “evolved to stop paying attention when nothing changes” and the sameness of pandemic days is unhelpful for “pattern separation”, one of the key processes in encoding memories.
Surely, then, the past week should have kickstarted us back on the road to intellectual rigour? Seeing people, going places and doing new things should be making our synapses crackle.
I, for one, have had an extremely novel week. I would go as far as to say that right now, almost everything is new because we have moved house. First, there was the moving process, which consisted of some friendly anarchists putting our stuff in boxes without a labelling system. This means each one we open brings fresh surprises: a tin of peaches, my sons’ primary school photographs and a saw! Sunscreen, three volumes of essays on the Enlightenment and clingfilm! My 2019/2020 tax documents turned up at the bottom of a hessian sack, either a commentary on the illegitimacy of the state or, well, not.
Then there is the new house, with its mystery keys, temperamental boiler and microclimate, 8C colder than anywhere else within a five-mile radius. Outside offers the intimidating new experience of a compost heap – as high-maintenance as any pet, apparently – and a tree in which magpies are building a nest. It is fascinatingly inefficient: I’m watching one now, stuck in the branches and about to drop its stick yet again. The seagulls in our old place stuck to chimneys lined with KFC wrappers.
If my mind were not already blown, the neighbourhood has finished me off. We have moved to the suburbs, a first for me, and it is so quiet I can hear cows mooing outside the multiplex cinema up the road. The gardens are a wonderland of strangeness, going from nail-scissor-neat lawns to piles of mattresses and car parts in a single street. One has tulips planted in multiple Henry vacuum cleaners and toilets; in another, a life-sized stone lion guards a postwar semi. I am only just starting to explore the people and pets: a man came to the door with a gigantic red macaw on his shoulder; a woman walked past with an Afghan hound wearing an actual headscarf like the queen – the dog, not the woman.
But despite all these new experiences, I am as confused as ever. Actually, I am worse. I cannot retain the gas meter reading for long enough to write it down or remember packing anything (unfortunately, as it might help me locate my washbag). I wander from room to room in an open-mouthed stupor, followed by the equally vacant dog, whatever his name is. Yesterday, my husband came into the bathroom to find me taking a (shallow) bath wearing a jumper: I had decided this was an appropriate way to deal with the cold.
Without my well-worn routines – my morning walk, dishwasher cycle and coffee shop – I don’t really know who I am, or how to behave. I may be an extreme and atypical example (I haven’t even been to the pub yet), but friends also report a sense of overwhelm at the new world. Suddenly there are choices and possibilities: shopping, restaurant, gym, or beach trip? Then there’s the delicate dance of interacting with friends and family in the flesh again, all of us as tender, strange and vulnerable as hermit crabs prised from their shells. There is still fog, I think, but it is a different kind of fog: less soporific, more colourful and scented. That is actually quite exciting. I’m going to try and enjoy it until (please God) it dissipates.