It had been five long years since I’d been ‘home’ to visit Amma, my sister and my nieces who live in Australia. After several months of continuous travel and work, a couple of weeks opened up in March, so I made travel arrangements for Down Under. Twenty-seven hours across air space would be exhausting, but I was looking forward to seeing my mum.
During the first layover at the Abu Dhabi airport, I had a glimpse of the fervour slowly gripping the world: many people were wearing face masks, and streaming announcements reminded passengers to wash their hands diligently. I was confused but remained unperturbed. Fourteen hours and a layover in Kuala Lumpur later, things had become ominous: a novel virus was wreaking havoc, and we the travellers were giving it a free ticket around the world.
Suddenly everyone was forced to develop new skills: an obsessive awareness of not bumping into one another, and scrupulous avoidance of touching surfaces. With little information and much panic, many flights were being cancelled. Mine, luckily, was still on. By the time I got to Australia, I’d forgotten which day it was. However, there’s nothing like clear skies and sunshine to clear jet-lag. With little irony, life coasted along blissfully as I caught up with family and friends.
Despite the brief encounter with chaos at the airports, the pandemic still seemed distant to me.
A week in, it suddenly seemed as though someone had switched on the apocalypse: the new disease had the world in a vice grip, and people were dying in the thousands. An e-mail announced the cancellation of one of my return flights. With no option to rebook, and not wanting to risk being stranded across the world, I was forced to purchase a one-way ticket with a different airline. This dent in the wallet made me anxious and irritable, marring the last couple of days with my family. Thankfully, I got back to Belgium just as the world closed in.
As a freelancer, I get a fair amount of downtime; I’m usually at home, catching up on rest, and looking forward to the next projects. The first few days of lockdown didn’t feel dissimilar. Use the time to be creative, I thought. Read those piles of books, listen to the gigabytes of music, make notes for that new choreographic idea, write that essay.
When the world seems wretched—for the daily news tolling deaths across the world is terrifying—what can individuals do to remain conscionable? To take personal responsibility seems the only advice, along with disinfectant, that is freely dispensed. But when one feels helpless, good advice doesn’t seem like it could manifest in any meaningful way.
Politicians are politicking, the scientists and economists are at odds, and healthcare systems are giving way at the seams, all while lay-people soothe their nerves by alternately washing or clapping their hands. Without being able to visit anyone, the highlight of each week is the single, big grocery shop. It’s about as much excitement as I can muster. And so I remain wondering if this crisis has revealed to me who I truly am.
Do I attempt passing the time peaceably, or do I give in to looming anxiety watching the evening news with self-pity for company? Am I too prideful to join the revelry online? Too disdainful to join the clapping outdoors? Do I admire the courage of frontline and essential workers who risk their lives to save ours? Do I despair at inefficient systems that leave these very same people inequitably remunerated?
Do I still wake up, turn right out of bed, and remember my grandmother before beginning my day, keen for it to be full and fulfilling? Or do I give in to the cynic, close my eyes to my fears, and damn it all to a vulgar end? I don’t know if this is the time to be philosophising. But, having had some time to breathe, there are some truths I must acknowledge.
Spring has mightily sprung, and our pear tree is heavy with blossom. Crossing the street to avoid a neighbour is actually a cause for smiling. People are leaving teddies in their windows so that children can go on bear-spotting trips. The city, quiet though her streets, is suffused, gaudy with the green of trees and the peal of church bells. And when I’m home from these walks, it is time to wash my hands with the artisanal soap.
I’ve dragged my feet for a few weeks, but I’m learning to make peace with my demons. I’m sharing an online yoga session with friends, and I might be learning a new language.
As Belgium comes out of total lockdown over the next few weeks, the government has chosen to honour all contracts that would’ve happened over the last month and is paying artists for jobs they’d lost. Even this little bit will help tide things over. When will I next see my family? I don’t know. Will there be a new world order when this is over? That’s naive and presumptive; I know before I’ve finished asking. Am I many times confused and angry through the day? Certainly.
For now, I’ll strive to switch my self-governance back on. While I might not be performing, I’ll take comfort in knowing that to be in the employ of meaning-making and beauty, however they may be witnessed, is indeed a calling.
This much clarity, handful though it may be, is enough for now