These long pandemic hours have made me realize life’s too short for pretending. Here’s what I’ve learned during the quarantine.
It’s another sunny weekend in Cairo and I’m filing my nails on my balcony. I step inside to fetch some peach nail polish from my desk – and the tiny bottle takes me back to the afternoon I bought it.
Mohandessin, a Cairo suburb jammed with concrete skyscrapers and chain coffee shops. I just cashed my first paycheck from my new job and I’m browsing a small boutique with designer perfumes and rainbows of OPI bottles.
I choose the least offensive one – a neutral, sheer color that will be perfect for my new office, where the women dress in designer blouses and take vacations in Thailand. I’ve got high hopes: my social media savvy will translate their dry statistics and financial graphics into lively content to attract a wide online audience.
Except I’m trying to fit into a world I don’t belong in, though I don’t know it yet. At the time it feels like moving up, refining my rough edges and trading in my stained boots for some ballet flats.
Back on the balcony in the present, my nails have dried and – although it seems a trivial thing, just a nail polish color – I have an epiphany. I ask myself how could I have possibly ever worn this color?
I’d been so eager to fit in, be accepted and gain praise. Now I know it was because I didn’t value my individuality or believe in my worth.
I get the nail polish remover and scrub off the peachy mess. I once loved wearing blue nail polish but now I must dig into a dusty box to find it. Where had I hidden it?
The pandemic and looking in
I always imagined long reflections on life choices and nail polish would come in my old age on some front porch with a rocking chair. But the pandemic has me looking back now, reflecting more and noticing patterns.
Because just like with old age I’m no longer able to do certain things. I’m not travelling or seeing friends. And I sit on the balcony and I have time to look back on why I bought that horrendous shade.
I once loved wearing bright nail polish in crazy shades from neon yellow to sparkling orange to black.
Later I told myself I was too old for it. Fun became childish. Being age-appropriate meant not offending the male gaze by wearing skirts past your thirties.
At some point I stopped being myself.
In my twenties I wore black and listened to The Cure. I read Victorian novels all afternoon in the backyard and experimented with watercolors in a tiny East Bay apartment.
Then growing up took over. I pursued careers, read to educate myself, watched more TV and spent hours online. The things I loved doing in my twenties that seemed so effortless became rare weekend pleasures. I was busy with more important things and too tired otherwise.
I told myself sometimes that I should read more or take up watercolors again.
The quarantine and being myself
But weekends were for zoning out, shopping and cleaning. The spontaneity of youth turned into the practicality of middle age, and I can’t even pinpoint when exactly it happened.
But one day I found myself unable to remember when I last listened to music. When I danced in the dark. When I painted without thinking how it would look in an Instagram story.
Then the pandemic came and I wondered like a retiree in her rocking chair: what do I really want to do with my time?
We’re told the peach nail polish is more professional because being colorful and whimsical means being irresponsible? Feminine? We’re told to “age with grace” because loud colors draw too much attention to what’s no longer considered young and attractive.
The years go by and it’s harder to remember who we once were, before the corporate life, the career and the obligations made us conform. Because individuality is always dangerous.
And so in these pandemic days I find myself going back to my twenties and the person I was back then. I wasn’t perfect or wise, but I was more in tune with life’s pleasures and pursued them without worrying about practicality or outcome.
And so I’ve been listening to the Cocteau Twins on my earphones in the evening with iced coffee, writing badly and enjoying it. I’ve been reading Evelina with its sweeping chapters on minor lovers’ misunderstandings. And I’ve been lingering over the working-class tragedies of Emile Zola. I’ve been savouring the prose without waiting for that well-turned phrase, that quotable lesson or the punchline.
And I’ve been more like my twenty-year old self. I even have some ballet classes downloaded on YouTube and watercolour tutorials I’m looking through.