The air is filled with birdsong now. It was always there, we just couldn't hear it
The crisis has us asking deep questions. Why weren't we taking care of each other? Who are my neighbours?
We’re all connected, we think, from two metres away. Touch is how we know our boundaries. Photograph: Alan Betson
Suddenly apart, together. We’ve gone indoors, we’ve changed the dimensions of our lives, we’ve slowed down the weeks and agitated the days. It isn’t only the economy or the work day that’s changed since the virus: space feels different, time feels different.
Time inside and time outside aren’t lined up. Time might drag on indoors, and yet the landscape and news beyond the threshold could change, the way it does in winter, when you look out the window to discover the ground covered in white, the snow still coming down, surprising us in the quiet.
“When we think of the world’s future, we always mean the destination it will reach if it keeps going in the direction we can see it going in now; it does not occur to us that its path is not a straight line but a curve, constantly changing direction,” wrote the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Now that our visions of the future have gone crooked, we can sympathise with him. He lived for time on the curve of Killary Harbour, and probably could not have predicted that we’d one day treat lines and curves, to chart and flatten, as the fortune tellers of the world. Like the creases on our palms, we stare into them to understand what’s next. Old ways of knowing the world overlap aesthetically with new ones. We say, “It’s in our hands.”
Bills and illness
Questions about the future rise up in a panic. How will I pay the bills? What will happen if I get sick? How can I keep up everything? How will I pay rent? And we notice that for many of us, these future-thoughts weren’t actually posed to us by the virus. They were there all along. But now we can’t feed the relentless forward motion that keeps them hidden. Everything has stopped abruptly, and the contents of our minds have been thrown forward, in front of us.
New questions show up. Why weren’t we taking care of each other? Why weren’t we prepared? Why did we have to scramble every day in service of that offensive phrase, “making a living”? Who are my neighbours?
We begin to understand – or to remember– the ways we’re all entangled. The entire planet, full of people just like us, dealing with these same changes, comes into view. Like when the first picture of the Earth was taken from space, on the Moon, we can see something that was so close to us all along from a new perspective.
We’re all connected. In solitude, our thoughts chant it, even as we’re severed from others, behind closed doors.
We’re all connected, we think, from two metres away. Touch is how we know our boundaries, it’s a way of exploring space. It’s how we know the edge of ourselves. When I touch something, whether it’s a table or my shoes or a wall or you, I know, instantly, this is not me. Touch is the sense of separation. But there’s a paradox there. Touch is also how we show connection and warmth. Whenever we hold a child or hug a friend or kiss, we are saying, “We’re separate” and also, “we’re together”.
Now, inside, or at the prescribed distance from each other, we’re missing an essential warmth. But we’re also missing the old sense of separation. We’re all connected. It’s like a mantra on the news, with every statistic.
And who is afraid to be touched and to touch is based on a new way of thinking about time, too. Youth and old age have inverted. We carried the anxiety of climate change in our tense shoulders; the young would face the terrible consequences of the actions of the old. Now the anxiety is redistributed; the younger among us feel a sort of temporal safety. The old are inside, they are called the “most vulnerable”.
And death – the time when time utterly ends for each of us – feels closer in space. Death often feels near on this island, I think. In history, in stories, in jokes. But now, it’s just a bit closer. At the far end of the pub, if the pubs were open, we’ve caught its eye. And its closeness might remind us of the people whose space has become very, very small: people trapped in houses with abusive partners, addicts who can’t go to meetings, gay and trans children of parents they can’t talk to; the boundaries of space must feel like giant walls now for so many. Claustrophobic, casting shadows.
On the other hand, some boundaries seem distantly located in the past. Absurd. The “border”, the invisible marker in space, has been revealed as a falsehood. The virus is teaching us what low regard we should hold it in. There’s a grand reshuffling in order now, noticed by all things great and small.
At the park, the animals look confused. They must have measured time this way: April is when the people come to feed us, to scare us away from the paths, when the children rush at us in our flocks. Now there’s so few of them. They don’t gather. They quietly watch us. Are they planning something? The time to patiently watch a swan clean itself has returned to me; to sit and do nothing but attend to a magpie, pulling muddy grass up from a pond’s edge.
The air is densely filled with birdsong – was it always? Maybe we didn’t hear it. Sound-space was filled in with the hum of traffic. That hum is known to be a vasoconstrictor, it makes our veins tighten and become smaller. In other words, our inner space was made smaller by that sound-space we used to feed and thrive on.
Now that it’s dimmed, we might hear what Irish mystic John Moriarty called the “Énflaith”, the birdreign, a future state in which we live in unity with all the other living beings. It’s a world that finds itself in new harmony. Maybe there’s passage now, a narrow but finally open space towards a different way of living in time.