Ive been thinking about Nora Ephrons lists, not because Im dying, but because normal life has, for now, died for all of us
Ive been reading a lot of Nora Ephron recently because, well, who needs a reason? Although in this case, there is one. I miss spending time with my friends in person, that is, as opposed to through a screen. My friends are, in the vast main, funny and smart women, and in the absence of meeting up with them in the pub or park, I get into bed every night with Ephron, the smartest, funniest and most female writer of all, who wrote just as brilliantly about feminist politics as she did about her frustration that her breasts werent bigger. (Honestly, Nora, the breast thing? Its overrated.)
When Ephron died in 2012, obituarists were spoiled for choice about which of her writings to quote: a pithy line from Heartburn, her novel about her divorce, or an irresistible bit from When Harry Met Sally, which is every single line of that film. (A Sheldon can do your taxes. If you need a root canal, Sheldons your man. But humping and pumping is not Sheldons strong suit. I have a condition that makes it physically impossible for me to mention WHMS without quoting it.)
Yet every journalist who covered her death quoted from the then little-known lists about what she would and wouldnt miss after she died, from her final book, I Remember Nothing, which she wrote when she and almost no one else knew she was dying. What made those lists so affecting was that they were mainly small things, both specific and entirely relatable, like all of Ephrons writing. Bras, polls and panels on Women in Film are not currently being missed by Ephron; but dinner with friends, fireworks and pie are.
Ive been thinking about those lists, not because Im dying, but because normal life has, for now, died for all of us. I have gone through the five stages of grief: shock that I am living through a global plague; fear for those I love; sadness about all the cancelled plans; irritation with the lack of online delivery slots; delusion that Ill spend the next three months reading Proust instead of staring at my phone. (A mix of existential terror and petty flouncing sums up my feelings during All This.)
I am lucky: no one in my family is sick (yet), but I miss normal life, when I didnt leap in terror any time someone near me coughed, like a Victorian maiden. And yet, without wishing to seek out a nonexistent silver lining, there have also been things I dont miss. They are all small things, but its only by focusing on the details that life feels manageable right now. Once I start thinking about the macro (my parents, my kids) instead of the micro (cancelled holidays, postponed cinema dates), hello, 3am insomnia.
Yoga classes have become much more Zen. Instead of having to schlep to a studio, internally grumping if my favourite spot in the room (front right corner) is taken and then hating the person on the next mat for being so much better, I do online lessons alone in my bedroom. I always get the best spot and I am definitely the best in the room. So much time and internalised fuming saved!
When I was pregnant with my twins during a heatwave, I resented the impediments to my physical freedom. But then I realised the upside: no one could give me any grief for having an elective C-section or hiring six gold-painted men to carry me around on a plinth, should I so desire. Self-isolation has, weirdly, brought a similar release. No longer do I have to feel guilty for not going to this or that play, as I chronically do, even though I hate the theatre because I can never figure out when to eat dinner (Sondheim musicals are the exception). Now I have all the time in the world for dinner. There is a freedom in imprisonment: the essentials take root, the flotsam floats away.
Speaking of the essentials, I can exclusively confirm that it is not easy to work with three children under five running around the house. In my lower moments, I have looked at the comparative freedom of my childfree friends with the same envy with which they now look at my garden. But it is lovely to eat three meals a day with my kids, and to see how much they love it, too. Self-isolating with their parents is, I have realised, a small childs fantasy come to life. (This is possibly less true of teenagers. Turns out my decision to wait to have kids until I was 102 really worked out for the best.)
Here, then, is the official list of things I do and do not miss.
What I miss The first sip of a cool drink in a dark bar; bumping into a friend; getting a late cab home and listening to Magic FM; booking holidays, especially with friends; ice-cream in a cone.
What I dont Small talk; feeling guilty about not having people over for dinner; cold afternoons in the playground; ready-made sandwiches.
Yes, small things. But Harry realised he loved Sally when he loved that it took her an hour and a half to order a sandwich. As Ephron understood better than anyone, when life feels overwhelming, its the insignificant details that are the most revealing.