On the excess of fear and shortages of hope that become more severe in the latter part of the year, counterbalanced with mostly optimistic observations.
Which day of the illness was it? The 12th, or maybe 14th. The illness whose name we don’t want to say aloud despite it being everywhere around us. Even calling a friend becomes scary, everyone keeps talking about the same thing. Or about politics, and it’s hard to tell which is worse.
So, it might have been day 14, if not 16 – an advanced stage anyway – in which I already knew how to react to my internal tugs of desperation. I learned to treat them with gentleness. My everyday life had been drastically reduced, making me appreciate little joys: a warm bath, a walk to the living room, or – like that day – staring through the window.
I played a song I hadn’t heard for a year, propped my chin on the window sill and stared at the tiny world beneath my flat up high. Late afternoon in a residential estate in Warsaw, murky daylight. The hustle and bustle, so typical for that time of day, was somewhat dimmed: there was no line of cars bringing back children from after-school classes, the entrance to our housing community was not clogged. But the chain grocery store – one of the last permitted strongholds of the old normalcy – was busy. People putting out their cigarettes, fixing face masks, pulling heavy doors, entering and exiting with bags full of food-like products, their flavour and looks chemically improved. A mother waiting for a girl peeking through the fence. A South Asian man with a thermal backpack trying to type in a door code. He was being yapped at by one of those tiny dogs who always spew their squeaky menace at the world while bouncing on a path paved with Bauma tiles, obviously.
Speaking of which, who is this Mr Bauma? Does he exist at all? I would love to meet him and tell him how I feel about his stupid invention that makes our daily paths bulge and swell in a country that is not easy to live in, to begin with.
I was watching this little life in a big city, and even though the cranes were working at the building site nearby, flat windows were brightly lit on the other side of a still-busy street, silhouettes flashing in kitchens and living rooms, TV screens casting vivid halos – despite it all, I felt that a lot has changed. If I were to describe it in one sentence, I’d say we are suddenly all out of the future. We have lost the chance of reaching the top, where a beautiful view would make up for our efforts.
A deficit of possibility for change is hanging in the air. And that’s what the future is, after all: the promise of improvement and happy endings. It’s there in our – somewhat cocky, perhaps, but also exciting – right to make New Year’s plans in April. To save money and books for the holidays. To plan something other than what we already know. This option has been cut down clean. Many of us realize that the future does not exist, it might be castles in the air at best, and yet, without it, our grocery bags seem heavier, the path to the gate stretches longer, and the choice between granola and chocolate bar by the till becomes harder than ever, because let’s be honest, what does it matter?
Surprisingly, all the coughing, water-drinking, temperature-checking, watching TV series, trying to read blurry letters in books and fixing pillows leaves plenty of time for thinking. I managed to visit all the circles of meditative hell. The general atmosphere was far from helpful. While I was coughing away, hospitals were facing a shortage of respirators, the streets of Poland were teeming with protesters clashing with police, and streams of bad news, embellished in blunt words and garish colours, were pouring out of every screen. My friends kept calling to tell me it was going to be OK. That they would bring over everything I might need. And they did: lovely lecsó, delicious soups and pies, shopping bags with handmade cards from their kids and our favourite childhood sweets to make me feel better. We waved to each other through the eyehole or exchanged a few masked words through the threshold, but our moods remained low despite so many tender gestures and oceans of sympathy on both sides of the door.
Over that time, I noted one strong panic attack and the constant presence of anxiety, heavy like a brick on my chest. At first, it was hard to differentiate it from real breathlessness, but I had enough time for everything, including learning how to separate physiological symptoms from psychological ones. Autumn stretches everything out; the shorter the days, the larger the field for anxieties and resignation. As we all know, Poland in November is the darkest of all places, as is the night just before dawn.
All the relatively easy escape routes have been cut off. We can no longer go to warm climes or even to the Polish seaside, no chance to breathe some iodine-dense air, nor to hide away in a health spa. According to my doctor, I will have to wait until spring until I can sweat my sorrows out on a bicycle or float through my depression in a swimming pool. I will not go to see a play or an opera to get immersed in a grand antique tragedy to forget my own mundane problems. I will not block out the uncertainty of tomorrow with the ecstasy of a buying spree in a blindingly-lit shopping mall. I will not dance my sadness away at a party. I tried to organize an online gathering with my friends. There are some upsides to this arrangement: everyone brings a bottle and nobody has to call a cab home. So why did we spend most of the evening depressing each other with conversations about the virus, counting our losses and uncertainties? It’s stronger than us. We wanted to have a laugh and it ended up the way it did.
So now, for the first time in my life, I travel deep into the past, discovering the healing power of memories. Before, I was always running to things that didn’t happen yet and to places I was yet to visit. I was busy dreaming and planning. I had heard of the consolation brought by thinking of the things we have already experienced and learned, but I was saving this state of mind for retirement. Never before have I perceived myself as a repository of memories of wonderful meetings and travels, moving conversations and beautiful books. Nowadays, filled with fresh wonder, I’m beginning to understand what those memories are for. At the end of a terrible day (and, let’s be honest, a pretty terrible year), we have ourselves and everything inside us. The whole universe of our private events, an ocean of personal history.
Our horizons, shrunken with fear, don’t allow us to dream, the uncertain reality evades planning and buying. But it turns out that perspective can also be directed in an opposite, non-futurist way. We can reach to past experiences and find a hefty stash of optimism and hope awaiting us right there. Back in the day, history was considered the greatest of all sciences, and the one we should turn to when building any strategies for tomorrow – but this kind of storytelling became little more than obsolete debris of the past once the religion of the future and new technologies took over our world. I have learned to think that everything already lived-through was null and void; that the new is always better. Like everyone around me, I soaked up experiences, not caring about their safekeeping or long-term value. Moving forward was the only thing that mattered. No wonder that the pandemic, with its new doctrine of life grinding to a halt, shocked us – we have been brutally chased out of our favourite sandbox, always full of new toys. There is nothing to keep us busy, to console or numb us.
Can illness teach us anything? To me, it offered a lesson in humility. I am not taking this class with enthusiasm because it’s never easy to slow down, take it easy, accept one’s fragility. But that’s just one side of the coin. The other is finding one’s own strength, becoming one’s own source of support. When the world is faltering and all its pillars begin to crumble, we still have our lives and everything we can make out of them.
Translated from the Polish by Aga Zano
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