stillness. silence. of a type i’ve never before in my life experienced. yes, there were the the wild places. the far reaches of tajikistan, the gobi desert, white sands, otago. places where i noticed the missing rumble of humanity. but now is different.
i wake and wonder if i’m still dreaming – though my dreams have been restless and cleansing and strange, and this silence is the opposite of that. some mornings i wonder if i’ve possibly passed over. normally on a sunday, planes landing into heathrow airport would be thundering overhead every forty-five seconds, a familiar pendulum reminding that life as we know it, the steady hum of commerce, industry, capitalism, is ticking over. today, it is so quiet and so still, if it weren’t for the sun’s comforting ascent, i might wonder if the planet had stopped spinning altogether.
this morning i hear nothing. an occasional bird’s twittering song, but even the birds seem mystified and have quietened themselves. a report yesterday said that seismologists who, in searching for earthquakes normally measure the persistent vibrations of the ground, found that “seismic noise” has dropped by one third. the turning of tires over asphalt, the roar of airplane engines, the rattle of trains and metros, the clanging of building machinery constructing another skyscraper. all shut down, and it is quiet. the whole planet is, very literally, stiller.
the stillness is hard to get words around. i sense that, if my back garden were a pond, even the vibrations of typing on my laptop might cause ripples in the water. the fact of experiencing this deafening quiet while still somehow surrounded by nearly 9 million people is almost too much for my brain to take in.
later, noise of a more primal sort will patter as my street slowly lifts to life. children shouting in back gardens. a neighbour finally hammering together that bit of fence that blew down last winter. the trill of a fork on a plate as someone lingers over a lunch outside. and sirens, there will be sirens.
i live alone in a small studio attached to my landlord’s 1920s terrace house in southeast london. my flat is a tiny empath’s oasis with its own entrance, and now it is paradise. a place to live out this house arrest in peace, a hard-won serenity i laboured over the past few years and work daily to maintain through regular cleansing rituals, emotional purges, meditation and scent control.
i’ve kept to myself. though the government has said we’re allowed to go out once a day to take exercise, it almost seems counter to the point. the virus has stilled the planet for a reason. it’s brought our economies, our way of life, our busyness, movement and constant on, to a grinding and then very quiet halt. it has asked us a few simple things: stay at home, stop what you are doing, be still.
many jog and work from home and use zoom to attend meetings and pub quizzes and raves. many plan future travel, fill the time making lists of how to fill the time, learn to cook, make sourdough and sew. many drown in netflix, in delivered cocktails, in online exercise classes. a strange shadow of life pre-virus.
it’s not anyone’s fault. we are all products of a system. we have been programmed to be productive from babyhood. told if we are still, we are worthless. taught if we experience the depth and fullness of the human spectrum of emotion, that we are mentally ill. chided that if we feel sadness, grief or anger, that we are depressed or disruptive and should be medicated.
and now, here we are asked to be still. we are asked to go within. we are asked to reconsider our lives as everything we’ve built crumbles. we are shown that things we learned as gospel before we could express ourselves – to be productive is to be a good human, to feed yourself to the system, to spend is happiness, if you feel something deeply move to avoid it – are falsehoods.
the virus orders us all into time out. go and think about what you’ve done. who you are. what you have valued, and what you have believed to be true. your complicit and complacent personal participation in how we got here. and what you truly want for this and all of life that is to come with and after you. go and feel it – all of it, finally.
this is what the virus demands.