The train ambles past a small graveyard in the middle of a field lined by pastures. Its half-crumbling stonework rises in a column at the center, a lonely fortress standing watch over the interred. With the return of a misty Irish rain, drought-browned grass is just a memory of the past month as the island reawakens from a pause. I breathe in the sensation of moving through the world in ways that are unfamiliar.
Masks hide the faces of half the passengers in our carriage, separating the gamblers — those who place trust in low community transmission rates and luck — from the socially-minded and anxiety-prone. All of us long for some kind of normal, but some pretend harder than others that the worst has passed. It’s human nature to seek out comfort and equilibrium, after all.
Being close to so many people puts me on edge. Countless introvert memes joke about the “comforts” of the lockdown and isolation, but even I’ve missed casual contact with other human beings. Still, each time a person passes down the aisle, I find myself unconsciously holding my breath, as though that’s going to provide more protection than my mask.
The coronavirus grants allowances for anxiety, I suppose, but I fear the pandemic is just the latest excuse for the sour feeling in my stomach. Worrying about worrying is the final level of mastery for the anxious.
The rhythms and hum of the train create their own kind of comfort. Three months have passed since the last time I traveled so far from our apartment, and the sudden return of what was once a daily trip feels odd, like starting awake suddenly.
While I’ve found distraction in new routines established during one of the stranger years of my life, eventually I’ll have to squeeze those habits into a pattern built around an external schedule again. Hitting pause has a way of highlighting the absurdity of our own daily lives and the artificial structures of society in ways that largely apply only to those with the privilege to dodge precarity. It’s too easy to see the situation as a funny little shift from normal if you’re not hurting for the money to survive.
What does it mean to treat a global pandemic as a time for personal growth? It’s like telling someone with a chronic disease to “find a new hobby” and get over it. Worse yet are the productivity gurus marketing the new normal as the time for entrepreneurial spirit to flourish. Designer masks and subtly perfumed hand sanitizer are the next investment trend alongside video conferencing platforms.
Will the pandemic lead to more compassion toward individuals living on the margins? Will our priorities as a society embrace greater empathy and understanding? Imagining anything that breaks the self-destructive cycle of late-stage capitalism feels like wishful thinking.
Start Something New
As the train pulls into the station and everyone lumbers awkwardly to the exits while keeping their distance, I think about the chronic disease underlying it all. Its symptoms are wasting and spending and borrowing in the pursuit of getting all that we’re supposed to want: belongings, money, fame, the illusion of security in an increasingly unstable world. I’m trapped in that perspective just the same as everyone jostling onto the platform.
My feet move on autopilot, reminding me that while I think that I’ve escaped the routines of the past, my body has done anything but. The path over the footbridge is etched into my muscles, and what was so momentarily novel becomes mundane. I see the swans with their fledglings gliding across the canal. Children swarm a nearby playground, suddenly able to shrug off the weight of home isolation.
Another pang of anxiety strikes. I worry that it’s all too soon, but I also worry too much. In a month, we’ll know whether we were overeager to recapture the ordinary. In the meantime, life goes on.
How long will it take before seeing large groups of people together becomes normal? Even here, standing at the fringe of park, I admit there’s a strange comfort to the crowds, even if I have to enjoy it with half a football pitch separating me from them.
I distract myself by looking at my phone to check the time, which I instantly forget. I’m amazed at how easy it was to adapt to these new patterns. Carrying a mask in a pocket or backpack. Planning entire weeks worth of groceries — a longtime goal always just out of reach. Resisting the urge to step closer than 2 meters in conversation with neighbors during a fire alarm. None of it feels particularly strenuous on its own.
But the whole pattern of small shifts and disruptions is overwhelming in those rare moments where it all coalesces. It’s easy to slip into the mindset of “why did this happen?” I can even understand why some people so desperately seek something — anything — to blame. And yet, this is life. Stability shattered by crises that are novel for their scale rather than their uniqueness through history.
The swans and children enjoy the moment without the burden of fear. They swim and play under the same sky they’ve always known — cloudy with patches of bright blue. And the rest of us pretend that any day we’ll be able to look back at this period as a quirk of the past. A quirk with a horrifying number of deaths.
Torn and Frayed
The social fabric of our lives reveals itself to be both stronger and more illusory than we could have ever imagined. The pandemic lays bare rituals like work, travel, and idly chatting with strangers on a train. The superficialities reveal themselves as the clothes of civilization, easily discarded. But the structures beneath cling tenaciously to the muscles and bones of our society. There’s no hiding the painful scars beneath, and they’ve been with us far longer than the virus.
The specters of debt and exploitation fly unchecked before our eyes. Housing insecurity — a disgusting euphemism for the effects of an uncaring wealthy class manipulating the systems of employment and economic production — threatens millions of now even-more-vulnerable humans. Systemic biases become harder for the comfortable to ignore when the minutiae of everyday life have been abandoned.
There’s no time like a pandemic to see how ill-prepared and uncaring so many of our government bodies have proven to be. The fracturing of society reveals its illusions, equality and immanent value chief among them.
And so I feel sick to my stomach when I ache for the return to something normal. Because normal has always been a construct. It’s always been an excuse for avoiding the hard work of self-reflection. Normal lets us ignore the fragility of all the systems we assume will benefit and protect us. It shields us from witnessing the horrible and casual cruelty dealt by societies we pretend are enlightened.
Maybe we’ll look back and see the pandemic as the catalyst for the change we so painfully need. Or maybe that’s another lie we tell ourselves to feel better about the present moment.
The walk through the not-normal park makes reality feel that much sharper. I notice little details, like the gum bins on top of the trash cans. I see a gravel path leading down alongside the road that I never knew existed. I see the people I would so easily ignore if I was simply walking to work. It’s a kind of clarity that can only exist in the forced regularity of this brief moment — the relaxation of restrictions. Even now, the new normal of silently holding my breath whenever I pass another person feels like a habit rather than an anxious response. For better or worse.
The breaking of routine can open us to recognizing new things. I think that maybe this could be the start of something different.
The children shout in joy. The swans glide through the canal.