“I don’t want your hope. I want you to panic, and act as if the house was on fire.” greta thunberg
some time last autumn in between lockdowns i went to the local cinema to meet some friends. there is plenty of outdoor space and seating in the cinema’s garden, and it is a good place to get together in a socially distanced way. the federer fan drops me off at the front entrance and i make my usual slow, halting way, flower-decorated walking stick in hand, towards the building. an intense looking young woman is standing close to the main door, apparently waiting for her friends to join her. this young woman is eyeing me in a disconcertingly direct fashion. she seems to be lost in her own thoughts, yet is simultaneously locking her gaze with mine. i have the sense that she is familiar, so i wonder whether perhaps we two know each other and i’m acting unfriendly, rude even, by not waving or smiling. i try out a hesitant smile, which has no noticeable effect; still the person holds my gaze, and by now i’m beginning to feel properly discomfited, increasingly certain that i must be in her bad books for some unknown reason. my snail-like progress means i have longer to consider these strange circumstances than a non-disabled human would. it is only when i am within spitting distance of my mysterious observer that i see that she is in fact a weirdly lifelike and true scale model of greta thunberg who is there to advertise the new documentary about greta which is currently showing at the cinema. i enjoy the idea that this human who is so charismatic and impressive in actual life has succeeded in getting me to question my sense of reality simply through the presence of an artificial representative of herself. what power!
i am not comfortable discussing my individual experience of the pandemic and how it has impacted on my life without pointing out that i strive to keep in my awareness all of the ways in which it has affected everyone else in the world. a lot of the time i don’t feel entitled to say anything: nobody i love died from covid; i was spared the agony of friends or family being hospitalised for weeks or months; those i know who had covid seem to have recovered. when i talk about my personal experience of the past year and a bit, i am not forgetting that many people have died and many are grieving the loss of loved ones, friends, and family members. others have long covid, and some of these patients will join the ranks of people like me who don’t recover. i am endeavouring to be as mindful as i can regarding the suffering and trauma of every human. i have felt connected to a profound sense of universal sorrow and loss in the past sixteen months. while this is an uncomfortable and at times overwhelming emotional space, there is solace in it. i met someone new the other day, a friend of my friend the zen master, and she described having been in exactly the same space herself. it was remarkable to explore such deep emotional territory with a stranger – talk about cutting out the small talk! – and i suspect that this mutual openness could be partly a consequence of what we have all been through together and apart.
additionally, recently i’ve become conscious of ways in which i and those around me have been affected and which are only just beginning to declare themselves; hairline cracks in our infrastructure leading to wider fissures hidden away beneath our floorboards, furniture, and rugs, aka a “tsunami” of mental health problems.
the first lockdown was adhered to religiously in my neck of the woods. apart from ghost buses floating past regularly, there truly was no traffic. i learnt to notice sounds i’d not heard before; details of nature i hadn’t seen before; architectural minutiae which had always been visible, but without lockdown the very air was too crowded with traffic noise and people and their presence and their voices for me to glimpse a view. some friends were astonished to discover that i prefer the world emptier. “but you are so gregarious, you love people!” they exclaimed. and i do, i really do. but mostly i love the company of one person at a time, or at most a large handful. when i look back on this episode it feels like a dream in which time stretched out and became more giving and flexible. the humans we did see weren’t in a hurry, and almost all of them were inclined to share a friendly greeting. i met people who i must have passed by before, but thanks to lockdowns i now actually know them. there was kind-hearted acceptance in the air. in hindsight i see this period as a mirage when something close to utopia visited my little part of the world. i felt so tender towards life and my fellow humans. i am certain that this space which was right in front of us, close enough to touch, will never visit again. even if another pandemic comes soon, or a terrifyingly contagious and vaccine-proof variant of our current virus arises, and even if governments make the same decisions about keeping folk inside their homes, i cannot imagine that brief taste of paradise returning. you don’t get a chance for mass redemption more than once in a century, surely?
as i was saying, in these lockdown times i found this unexpected peace and air. it wasn’t only that the world slowed down to a pace more akin to my own, though that was certainly part of it. it was also not just that for the first time since i became disabled i did not feel like an outsider on account of what i cannot do. and on top of not being reminded on a daily basis of how different my life is, and of all the things “normal” people are rushing around doing which i am not, it became clear that these able-bodied, well, busy, people to varying degrees managed without their foreign holidays; they managed to attend meetings and conferences without flying halfway across the world. here was convincing evidence that a simpler, slower, and more sustainable way of life was possible. and idealistic idiots like me and a few of my not sufficiently cynical friends started to talk about the dream of far fewer aeroplanes and cars being an achievable reality for the future. here was the perfect opportunity to make radical and lasting change to the way we do things. a global catastrophe was taking place and we could use its consequences to create something beautiful. the world had ground to a halt in all kinds of ways; this moment could be our jumping off point. rather than being hell-bent on getting back to “normal” as soon as possible, where normal means tweaking details of how people move around the planet, or produce and transport food, or run businesses, and aiming to achieve zero carbon by 2050, we could transform the way we live from now on. we listened to brian eno and yanis varoufakis discussing these political hopes. and our hearts soared. we were among fellow visionaries who weren’t acting like we were crazy to contemplate a more intelligent, intuitive, connected way of being.
it is hard to convey how beautifully promising this newly-spied potential path looked to those of us who liked the idea of it. and it is hard to describe, from where I’m sitting now, how foolhardy-dangerous it feels to have allowed our hearts to soar like that. for it turns out we were crazy to dare to imagine human life behaving more intelligently on its own beautiful, intelligent, generously forgiving planet.
so the dream shattered, and our hearts quaked. they sank a little lower inside our chests. and that’s where they will have to live from now on.
regarding the aforementioned tsunami, i want to thank reece shearsmith and steve pemberton for drawing attention to the preposterous new craze for describing “mental illness” as “mental health”, as per episode 4 of series 6 of the brilliantly original and endlessly inventive tv show “inside no. 9”. as a natural pedant nothing gives me greater pleasure than another pedant pointing out one of my current linguistic anomaly preoccupations. thanks chaps!