Groundhog Day, but Kinda Evil
There have been many strange and horrible things about these last eighteen months of pandemic uncertainty, but one of the strangest (for this fellow, anyway) has been the abject inability to plan anything further out than a few weeks or maybe a month or two at a stretch.
I remember last year (so long ago!), already in April (eons back), feeling like fall plans were a silly thing to consider. Certain friends bristled with outright anger at my pessimism. Another friend (more sensible, kind, brimming with emotional intelligence) and I had been planning a big walk in the Cotswolds with a crew of ten and, despite a certain amount of ugh-I-hope-so optimism, it looked as if things wouldn’t be clear by October. Maybe we could have done it with one or two folks, but a big group — seemed senselessly risky. So we pushed to Spring 2021 when, you know, everything would be fine. Ha ha!
In November 2020, amidst ever-growing election uncertainty and a creeping of COVID case numbers, I managed to head out on a month of walking the Tōkaidō. I’m glad I pushed through. It was uniquely barren, many shops were outright shut or closed early. The road was eerily desolate in most areas. But I think I would have gone mad if I were stationary for yet another month.
Meaning, the last eighteen months have been typified by a frustrating balancing act of risk vs. mental health. For Japan in November 2020, the risk was so low as to be almost non-existent. And the government was running a national travel campaign (GoTo Travel!). So I was able to do the big walk for less than two-thirds the normal cost. It felt like the winds were at my back. Walk I did, alone, quite joyfully in the unseasonably warm November and December weather, disconnected, in my little bubble of privileged safety, without an ear to the din of the horrible election chaos which, even pressing your eyes against a smartphone screen wouldn’t have effected one way or the other, but would have rendered you considerably demented (as observed in many a friend). Nobody along the road I walked seemed to care what was happening across the ocean, certainly not the farmers or construction workers in Aichi. It was grounding to witness a landscape where the US was barely a footnote.
Then spikes, more lockdowns, insurrections, vaccines hitting the scene. Big vax uptake in the US and UK amongst the sane, little uptake elsewhere due to lack of availability and approval or collective psychosis. Impatience in America. A rush to reopen. Vax hesitancy along dingdong lines, mutations, more efficient variants. As all that tomfoolery played out in the background, I went on another walk in May within the largely placid Japan. Japan has been in “lockdown” for 95% of 2021, which means the phrase no longer means anything. A word repeated until it’s but nonsensical noise. It felt slightly irresponsible to head out in May, but I did, and I’m glad I did.
Alone on the trails, walking in areas with almost no cases, the rhythm of the days probably saved me once again. I walked and wrote and photographed and tried to live with a certain rigor of life/day/hour that, looking back, was probably a response to the sense of ossification that seemed present elsewhere, the never ending cycles of the pandemic loop.
Now the variant(s) have descended, the US has regressed, Japan is seeing new peaks, Australia is once again under a country-wide house arrest, and I’m yet again thinking about what’s next. I try to plan the coming months and come up short. How can I make a plan for October when the end of August is so unknowable.
But I do — I am planning another walk, a differently shaped one. I remember in May thinking that this year’s fall walk would be a post-pandemic celebratory walk. A we-did-it-and-are-done, vaccinated, lick-the-subway-seats kinda walk. But, no. That seems unlikely. I’ve given up on guessing (thought vax numbers seem to indicate Japan and Australia should hit about 80% of total population covered by then …).
Will I do it? I don’t know. But all we can do is sketch plans, with equanimity, knowing the plans will most likely fall through, and to prepare for that, mentally, as to not be trapped by a perpetual revolution of disappointment.
I feel like I’ve done a good job at tempering my own expectations, keeping me (just) on the inside of the sanity line. As I listen to NPR some evenings, I hear reports from a country that is terrible at tempering anything, certainly expectations. Hope is important, but so is truth, and so is acting like an adult. One definition of being an adult might be: To divine hope from hard truths. The hard truth I’ve been operating under these last eighteen months has simply been: I don’t know, and neither does anyone else, really.
For me, this re-centering of life around the now is novel. Pre-pandemic I was always six to eighteen months out, rarely in the moment. But now the now is all we can depend on. It’s been sobering, and in some ways, a positive (or at least a reminder). I’m lucky enough to be able to hide from the world and do my work. My heart goes out to folks who are on the front lines and thought they were done a month or two ago, and have now been pulled back into an even more senseless (and possibly once, though no longer, avoidable) maelstrom. Or my friends with children in places with irrational policy, kept up at night by an entirely different risk calculus.
I believe we’ve all internalized a great and horrible trauma these past eighteen months. A decade from now we’ll look back on this time in disbelief. Heck, even now — still! almost daily — I poke my head up and have trouble accepting what’s going on, how dramatically the world has been transformed. An announcement comes on overhead about the virus and it sounds like a silly line from a bad film. The stickers on tables in cafes imploring mask usage have been there so long they’re starting to peel off. This is our world, and it is OK to feel upset.
We can’t really plan, but we can act with great deliberation in the moment. I try to renew that pledge every day — the deliberation, finishing a day with a set of well-used hours behind me. I fail, mostly, and these last few weeks have failed more than usual. I thrive on the balance of movement and stillness, and movement has been scrubbed from so much of day-to-day life. Now Japan is plagued by unseasonable and seemingly endless rain. A week of non-stop torrent. My entire kitchen for a blue sky summer afternoon bike ride along the coast. But these are our days: A rainy season when there shouldn’t be one, a second pandemic when the first has still yet to be solved. And so: Ambient stresses galore, I try to draw on the rigor of my walks and apply it to the stillness of these days. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, I’m glad the well is there to draw from.