Mark and I have a thing where we speak of the present from an imaginary future. We say, remember when…? followed by whatever we’re doing at the time as a way of focusing in on some pleasure that might otherwise have been a transient moment. Remember when we ate Christophe’s homemade foie gras? Remember when the smiling dog kept jumping into the lake to chase the ducks? Lately the phrase has become one of incredulity: remember when we accidentally moved to Montpellier? Because here we are, for an unknown duration. The confinement has been extended for at least 2 more weeks. No one thinks it will end then; we have extended our stay in this apartment by a month. The future not only feels unknowable but erased. In January I sketched out the upcoming year. In pencil, I’ve long felt one should not offend the fates by using pen. But that was audacious enough, here is what that hopeful calendar looks like now:
That’s not how reality has ever worked, but we forget that. In life there is no certainty, only suggestions. Things change all the time. But the world doesn’t usually come to a screeching halt like it just did (to put it mildly), so we forget, get excited and audacious and look to the future anyway, forgetting its impermanent nature.
With plans unthinkable, the present moment now has a sort of density. There’s no fleeing to the next big moment. It feels like summer when you were a kid, without the going out to play part. You didn’t make plans when you were a kid, you just got up in the morning and had a day. And just like there’s no fleeing the present moment into thoughts of the future, there’s no escaping our immediate surroundings. In the pre-pandemic era, I would have had the luxury to be dismissive of our current neighborhood and would have eagerly escaped it to something more worthy of being looked at. We’re surrounded by the mind-numbing architecture of our suburban Chicago teenage years. It might as well be Schaumburg. When we booked this place, our aim was off. We wanted to try a neighborhood just outside of the old city walls. We landed a bit further north than that. We also wanted to be close to the friendly driving school where Mark had arranged to take the practical part of his driver’s test. Oh such plans! Like everyone else, we had plans!
We are allowed out for an hour a day to walk and we must stay in a 1 km radius of the apartment. There’s no escaping to a more interesting place. And lo and behold, I’ve come to appreciate our neighborhood and the little gems we find. It’s quiet, but then I hear Paris is even quiet now. There are trees. People have gardens. It’s largely empty of passersby. An utterly unphotogenic strip of weeds along a culvert has become a favorite spot as it’s one of the few green spaces we can walk through since all the parks have been closed. There’s a market street with everything we could need. The medieval center where we were staying until a little over 2 weeks ago feels like it might as well exist in the middle ages, it’s that inaccessible.
I find shrubbery to be unreasonably entertaining.
Ok, it’s not totally Schaumburgian.
There’s time now, lots of time for things I’ve long paid mere lip service to being important, especially since I’ve started taking substantial breaks from the chattering mind of the online world. Long meditations, watching the magpies building a nest. Watching the trees leaf out and rooting for them to hurry up and block the view of the apartment building next door. Reading my 1000 page book about a tuberculosis sanitarium with its underlying theme (among other things) of the nature of time. (Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, in case you’re wondering.) I might have thought that I’d be drawn to travelogues in such a situation, but instead I’m reading tales of quarantine, like Voyage Autour de ma Chambre (Journey Around my Room) written in the late 1700s by a man who was under house arrest for 42 days following a duel. I guess that counts as a quarantine travelogue, the only book in that category to my knowledge.
View from the balcony. Go trees, go!
The day is punctuated by grateful applause at 8pm for the medical workers, but it seems to me we’re also applauding for ourselves. Not for our heroism or bravery, but simply saying to each other that we are here, together, doing our part by staying apart. It’s our Horton Hears a Who moment. We come out of our apartment worlds onto balconies and say to each other: we are here, we are here, we are here, we are here.
Flowers, coming soon to a spring near you