I have taken for granted the pleasures of a tactile world: dragging my hands along a cold steel balustrade, cupping porcelain whilst drinking a coffee, skin torn by sandstone gripped too hard. Instead, I find myself shying away from everything like a vampire fleeing an upraised cross.
Where is this place that we are? We are not where we were and we are not where we are going. When I wake up in the morning it feels like nowhere, off balance, off kilter, suspended. A great and terrible ennui has descended.
The physical world has shifted and yet I still feel compelled – maybe even more so – to be a physical being, to move and run and thrash around on a dancefloor and climb a rock and pull on plastic. And breathe thoughtlessly. Being physical, though, is as much about human contact as it is about movement.
I had an ornate way of greeting my mates. To outsiders I am sure that it might have looked overly macho, regimented, foolish, but I loved doing it. First came a slapping of hands, not a handshake but rather gripping each other’s thumbs with the palms cupped, that moved into an embrace, a cheek kiss, the embrace tightened. Often I’d lean in so they bore a little of my weight, or shift back and take a bit of theirs, decouple, then slap hands again with even more vigour – if you can call to mind the über-famous embrace between Wolfgang Güllich and Kurt Albert you will know precisely what it looked like. Not everyone was into it, I had to moderate it for some, mostly ditching the slapping hands for being too aggro or invasive. It seems such a small thing to miss now, but I do.
Physical distancing is obviously making it harder to be physically close to the people we love. The problem is that touch is a basic human need. When we touch someone we use the same neurons that primates use when they are grooming each other, neurons that ignite the brain’s endorphin system, an opiate that manages pain and gives a light sense of happiness, instilling trust in the people with whom we do it. It is fundamental to creating close relationships. Now, though, we are apart, cutting wide berths around each other.
The things that used to define our physical experience of the world are no longer available. No climbing. No touching. No embraces.
‘Everything happens so much.’ One of the most profound Tweets I’ve ever seen. I return to it again and again, and now it seems more apt than it has before. Everything happens so much. Despite everything seeming to ratchet up daily, for many there is also time and space and in the that must be a reckoning.
I feel a huge compulsion to train, a knot of energy that makes the walls shrink inwards and sitting down itself painful, it is as if I am wasting opportunity and wasting time, growing weak and feeble and incapable. But I also feel a huge compulsion to think about what it is that I want to do, what I should be doing. To ask what is important and what to do about it.
We must stay safe, sane and healthy. We must try to stay connected and stay afloat. To look out for each other. But out of this mire we must reckon within ourselves and wrestle with what is important to us. Hopefully this reckoning can be brought to society, politics and the economy as old truths are erased, though I can’t help but think that much of the change will occur silently within individuals. Our time and energy is limited, but so too is our capacity for emotion and thought. They are wells that can be drained dry.
Under normal circumstances we spend so long with our heads in the weeds we don’t notice the elephants. Often we do things because we have always done them; habit has a tremendous inertia. But when those habits are broken you just might get to understand why you do the things that you do.
I feel a loss at not being in the bush, near trees, with bird song and smells and views to the horizon, light winds and jangling gear. Being outside in the world, wandering around freely and without fear, in a society that is not precarious, with systems that do not appear to be teetering on collapse, is a privilege. Having the resources, the time and money and mental space, to flit around rock climbing is a huge privilege. Even hugging the ones that you love is a privilege. We need to appreciate that.
One thing the virus has highlighted is our interconnectivity. What you do affects everyone else. Maybe we can shift some of our selfishness and come to a better understanding of our shared experience, of our obligations and not just our rights, rights about which we wave our arms and stamp our feet and shake our fists.
There will be a lag between writing this and it being read and things are moving so fast, I hope you are all okay. I hope we are all okay. Sometimes the thought of climbing seems obscene but then moments later it’s imagining climbing again that buoys me. Climbing is a definite act in itself, but then really it’s so much more than simply scaling a rock. We will be climbing again, but will we be the same?
I am looking forward to climbing rocks and laughing. And I am looking forward to ornate, macho, regimented, foolish greetings.