The recommendations are posted over and over and over again every day in all social media channels: wear a mask, maintain distance from other people, wash/disinfect your hands after touching anything, avoid crowds. Stay at home. Be constantly on guard. Be suspicious of everyone.
Since I started walking up to the village to do my own shopping again in June, I have a consistent ritual. After emptying the trash I have carried up in my trolley, I sit down on a bench at the edge of the village, put disinfectant on my hands, smoke a cigarette, then put on my mask and continue up the hill to the shops. In the village everyone wears a mask and keeps a distance, and it feels right, it feels respectful. People only enter the tobacco/hardware shop one at a time, while the rest of us spread out in a long line down the street, waiting and wearing our masks. Maintaining a distance inside the tiny supermarket is a bit tricky, but we have all been practicing and we are getting better at staying out of one another’s way.
Well-meaning people post daily on social media that this is how it works now, that we have to get used to it, that this is the “new normal”.
There is nothing remotely “normal” about this, and even though there is no end in sight, everything in me rebels against normalizing this situation. It is no more normal than increasingly rising temperatures or more and more extreme weather phenomena or the extreme imbalances in the distribution of wealth and consumption of resources. Nothing is normal, nothing is right, and pretending that it is in order to “save the economy” will only lead to more of the same. Every reasonable person knows this, but now we are all busy following the recommendations: wear a mask, maintain distance from other people, wash/disinfect your hands after touching anything, avoid crowds. Stay at home. Be constantly on guard. Be suspicious of everyone. It feels like such hard work, how can we even think about anything else? This constant vigilance is exhausting. Yet meanwhile the whole world is falling apart all around us. It is the middle of August and it seems we are in the midst of an apocalypse that was on nobody’s film list.
All the European governments that were so eager to open up their borders to allow tourists to come in to “save the economy” are now busy blaming one another for not having the virus sufficiently under control, imposing new restrictions and regulations every day that no one can keep up with, especially not if they are already traveling. Business or holidays are not the only reasons why people travel, but when do we reach the point of being able to stop focusing all of our attention on daily new restrictions to start questioning the destructiveness of the tourism industry? When do we reach the tipping point of insisting that whole national economies cannot be dependent on this destructive industry and there have to be alternatives?
Trying to at least marginally keep up with current developments, one thing that seriously concerns me is that everything I have read about the long-term aftereffects of the virus for people who have “recovered” reminds me strongly of Christopher’s experiences with Mollarets Meningitis. The thought of thousands and thousands of people all over the world struggling like that sets off all kinds of alarms ringing in my head. That cannot be an individual struggle. What kinds of changes have to be made in societies around the world to accommodate the needs of all these people? How do we have to change our ideas of what “work” means? What kinds of health services need to be prioritized? And who can raise these kinds of demands and insist on these changes, when we are all just busy fiddling with our masks, washing our hands, and staying away from other people?
Earlier this year I had planned to visit Linz the last two weeks of May, taking a ferry from Barcelona to Italy, then a night train from Italy up to Austria to be in Linz for AMRO and staying a week longer to go to the amazing concert that was planned to celebrate Christopher’s thirtieth birthday. None of that happened, of course. Nobody was going anywhere in May.
Now I want to visit Austria in September, but traveling by ferry and train that far seems so daunting at this time that I have resigned myself to flying. I had decided to avoid flying at least within Europe several years ago, not only for ecological reasons, but also because I found myself increasingly suspicious of the way the whole security circus of airports trains us to meekly follow arcane instructions and to view other people as being potentially dangerous. This is not getting better now. Yet how can we distinguish at this point between what keeps us (relatively) safe and what just keeps us busy? And this too is exhausting.
When quarantine started in March and everything shut down, a friend remarked that maintaining distance must be easier for me, because I am naturally more reserved and accustomed to more distanced forms of social interaction in Austria. I admitted that I found the more effusive and affectionate forms of social interaction here quite challenging and confusing when I first came to Calafou, but I was just beginning to learn to enjoy it when we suddenly had to stop, and that just felt unfair. It is a relief that we no longer have to be quite so careful within the community now, but sometimes that just seems to highlight how unnatural and uncomfortable social interaction has become everywhere outside Calafou. And that makes me feel very, very reluctant to go anywhere outside Calafou, even though I recognize that I really, really need to go out.
But why would I want to go out, to go anywhere else other than where I am now? Everything outside feels wrong, but here inside I am content in my four little rooms that feel like me – not the me enmeshed in and weighed down by a long shared history that is gone now, but the me that has been shaped by that history and is just me now.
And during the hot weeks of August I have learned something else from the women of Calafou. Since I was a teenager, I have always worn loose-fitting clothes to try to hide my square bony shoulders and my scrawny, freakishly long arms. It was such a deeply ingrained habit that I was no longer even conscious of it, until I started following the example of the women here and started wearing sleeveless t-shirts, uninhibitedly displaying my shoulders and arms. With that, I finally realized that I actually feel more comfortable now in my scarred and wrinkled aging body than I have ever felt in my life. Of course that fits perfectly with my experience that being an old woman is far more enjoyable than being a younger woman ever was. It is tempting to think that I would like to go back and tell my younger self that at the age of sixty-two I would finally get to experience what it feels like to actually enjoy my own physical presence, but that would imply regret, and I don’t want to regret anything. I just want to enjoy this surprising new experience now. When I get dressed in the morning and see my reflection in the mirror, my daily motto is another wonderful line from the fantastic Anna “Squalloscope” Kohlweis: “I’m aging as an act of rebellion”
When I wrote to the community to formally request extending my stay in Calafou for another year, I also said that one of my personal goals is to explore what other roles might be possible for me. I don’t want to just be the old woman who listens to everyone’s stories and bakes sweets to cheer everybody up. From the reactions I have heard to that, it appears that all the women of the community understood and thought it was funny, but it seems that most of the men were generally a bit mystified by the remark. I think that’s funny too, but I don’t feel motivated to try to explain it right now. I hope it might become a bit clearer when I find other roles for myself.
To begin with, I am looking for other role models – and finding delightful inspiration. Although I left so much behind in Linz , and absolutely needed to do so, at some point I realized that June Lawlor has accompanied me to Calafou. I am grateful to her daughters Sara, Kate and Emily for sharing her with me, because her spirit inspires and strengthens me.
Earlier this week I started seeing posts on social media commemoratig the 84th birthday of Margaret Hamilton. Most of them were accompanied by the iconic picture of her standing next to the stack of her hand-written code in 1969, but my favorite post included a picture of her Lego figure and a picture of her today along with the picture from 1969. Seeing the expression of joyful, determined intelligence on her face, framed by long gray hair, I melted into a little puddle of admiration. As wonderful as she was in 1969, it appears that she is even better now, and that inspires me too.
Another inspiration is Angela Davis. Although I have admired her since I was quite young, at that time I felt both awed and terrified by her courage. As she has been so frequently quoted more recently, pictures of both the young Angela Davis and Angela Davis today often show up in my social media feeds, and the character inscribed in her face now evokes hope and determination in me.
There are many more, of course, but there seems to be a pattern that intelligent young women become the most interesting and inspiring older women. Can I follow that pattern too?
So here I am now, a year after I wrote to the community of Calafou that I want to do something useful with the freedom I have, and in the midst of a global crisis I find myself even more privileged. And the question remains: What can I do with that?
The one thing I absolutely don’t want to do is to simply resign myself to a “new normal” of just being careful and baking sweets to cheer everybody up a bit.
But in the meantime I promised to bake a vegan cake for a friend arriving this evening.