COVID-19 has finally laid bare the structure of modern society: on the one hand, the 1% of those who can live off their art; on the other, all the rest who have been forced to turn to welfare support. Nick Cave was able to air a concert from an empty stage and charge viewers wanting to watch him over the internet £16. The remaining 99% are less famous and can only play at illegal parties, hoping to survive the virus.
We writers in small nations are always compelled to have a reserve career. This is why in Slovenia we were in principle better prepared for the COVID catastrophe. In all my foolishness of youth, one wise decision was to study computing and never get particularly excited about it. It allowed me a certain distance, and this is the key to success. If there is one kind of person you don’t want on a project, it’s a fanatical optimist who loses interest at the first sign of trouble and moves on to something else.
Last week, I spoke to a female colleague who beside writing also worked as a waitress and a tourist guide – all three sectors have had it particularly hard with COVID. More fortunate is a writer who began reading the future from tarot cards during isolation and has so much work she will soon be waving at me from a limousine.
It is particularly unfortunate that in Slovenia the virus and the right-wing government arrived at about the same time. The current government is mostly made up of people who consider culture as something so superfluous that they brag about their hatred of it and on account of this even pick up votes. Such a government of course immediately began to review allocation and sources of funding and started carrying out evictions and exerting similar pressures on cultural organizations. A special case was the Foreign Minister, who, to much astonishment, visited the National Gallery. But it soon emerged that he did so while waiting for the results of his COVID test. It was positive. So the government is also fighting against the arts with biological weapons.
For myself, the first lockdown in March found me in what must be the most depressing situation for a writer – I had just finished a novel and had no clue what I would start on next. On a personal front, I was also in the period just after ending a relationship, which again did not contribute to a bright outlook on the world.
Whenever acquaintances asked me how I was, I told them the truth: not good. I didn’t go into details and most of them didn’t even expect me to. Everyone, though, instantly came up with a miraculous solution. Reiki! Feng shui! Ayahuasca! Fortune telling! Tarot! Firewalking! Icy water! 10-day meditation!
Everyone kept offering me their miracle cure. I thanked them, despite my misgivings. What surprised me was how everyone had some card up their sleeve, while I was clearly in a short-sleeved T-shirt.
Walking for exercise was allowed and a friend and I had arranged for a trip up a mountain near Ljubljana. As, just below the summit, I was wringing out my sweaty shirt, she said I wasn’t looking too good.
A few sentences later she came up with her own piece of advice: “The Camino, the Pilgrimage of Compostela! You should go and walk the Camino!”
“Do you think so?”
“Yes! I went on it and came back a different person.”
“In what way?”
She hesitated, even yelped a little, as if she had got herself in a corner she could no longer back out of.
I waited, not without bewilderment – had she just blushed slightly?
“Well, I came back engaged,” she said.
In a long-winded explanation, she told me how you walk until mid-afternoon each day, meeting numerous people on the way, making contacts, followed by a party and discussion in the evening. With her new man, they had thus spent an entire night talking about each other without realizing how quickly it had passed.
I muttered something and nodded, I would need to think about it. The Camino during a pandemic can hardly be very popular, but a little company would certainly cheer me up.
The following morning, I said to myself: All this advice… What if I didn’t just take up any one piece of it, but all of it? And I could make notes as to what helps and what doesn’t.
Although: all of it?
Feng shui: I move my LP record collection against another wall and put the banjo in a different corner. I don’t know whether this will at all affect my frame of mind.
And reiki? It had already once got me into an embarrassing situation. I had attended a script-writing workshop in Potsdam and, at two o’ clock in the morning, was the last person in the hotel foyer still correcting my script. A retro-hippy-looking English guy from the course, colourful shirt and long hair included, came out of the lift, and as soon as he saw me began waving at me: “Miha, help, I need your help! Please, come with me up to my room and convince my girlfriend that I haven’t done anything bad.”
“We went to bed, she was sleepy, I wasn’t, so I said to myself, what if I did a little more work? You see, I’m a reiki healer, so I began calling my clients and transferring energy to them. Then, all of a sudden my girlfriend – I really did think she was asleep – went berserk. She began hitting me with the pillow! How dare I give energy to other women while in bed with her! Indeed, they did all happen to be women, most of my clients are. I cannot get it through to her that this is just work. Nothing personal, plain old home office.”
“Bed office, you mean?”
“Well, that. Please, can you come with me and talk to her?”
He had me in a dilemma. If I don’t believe in this energy, he really didn’t do anything wrong. But by not believing so, I would offend him, accusing him of quackery. If I do believe in it, I am on the girl’s side – it really is not nice if in bed energies flow towards other women.
I wrote out a long list of all the suggestions I had been given. When I was completing my doctorate, I studied the human brain a great deal. Now I said to myself I would go only through the things that I thought might have some kind of demonstrable effect. Certainly meditation, also the Camino, without doubt also psychedelic drugs, I added walking on embers without really knowing why, and after much hesitation also put dunking in ice-cold water on the list, adding a few other techniques that are basically similar to hypnosis, and of course left it open-ended so I could add anything else that might appear as I went along.
And I would write a book about it all. Suddenly, I was a man with a plan and a writer with a project.
The following week, I went walking up another hill with the friend who had got engaged on the Camino. Hesitantly, I told her what I was thinking about. She stared at me. “Hang on? But you’re a scientist! A rational person! A sceptic! And you would put yourself through all this alternative stuff?”
She paused a little before adding: “You are a man.”
“Nobody’s perfect,” I nodded.
She kept looking at me for a long time before bursting into laughter. “Great, please do it and write about it. This could be a really hilarious book!”
That’s how it is – failed love stories cause sadness to all those involved, amusement to everyone else.
I completed the Camino this October, just in time before the borders began closing and the new lockdown emerged. This way, I was able to work my way to the end of the list. Certain experiences shook me, others calmed me, but by giving me something to do, they helped me through these uncertain times.
Life is like tossing a coin. We are the ones who throw it, but cannot influence how it will fall. The secret is to never stop trying.
Translated from the Slovenian by Gregor Timothy Čeh
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