Then there are the simple pleasures we miss. Hugs. High fives. I've longed to sit in a coffee shop and read while listening to the music of other people's conversations. It occurs to me that coffee shops are one place where we are our most convivial selves and being convivial is exactly one of the things we've missed. When Saskatchewan's numbers were down (before the "variants of interest" showed up), I spent an hour reading W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz in Brewed Awakenings. I'd turned to Sebald, even to this grim and disturbing novel that uncovers the trauma experienced by someone put on kinder transport and who spent the war safely in Wales, because I needed the comfort of reading something I'd read before. I needed an antidote to the uncertainty that began every day: how were our "numbers" doing? How was the vaccine roll out going? I also needed a novel about one of life's other big traumas--World War II and the Holocaust--to lend myself some perspective.
Most of us are navigating, I suspect, between uncertainty and boredom, trying to use what agency we have to make the days more bearable and even more pleasurable. It's been a kind of forced practice of hygge: how much cheer and pleasure can you make as an antidote to uncertainty and a shrunken world? And hygge has much to recommend it in the pleasure one might take on a dusky spring evening sitting under a task light and reading with a cup of Earl Grey green tea while looking up occasionally to watch the fading light. Or the pleasure of sitting for a while after a meal because the conversation has been so rich.
An article appearing in Atlantic Monthly's evening newsletter explained what's happening to our minds:
'“We’re all walking around with some mild cognitive impairment,” said Mike Yassa, a neuroscientist at UC Irvine. “Based on everything we know about the brain, two of the things that are really good for it are physical activity and novelty. A thing that’s very bad for it is chronic and perpetual stress.” Living through a pandemic—even for those who are doing so in relative comfort—“is exposing people to microdoses of unpredictable stress all the time,” said Franklin, whose research has shown that stress changes the brain regions that control executive function, learning, and memory.'
It was that word "novelty" that caught my imagination and perhaps was behind my visit to Brewed Awakenings. Spontaneity, I realized suddenly, is right out. There's very little we do spontaneously these days. "Hey, let's catch a movie this weekend?" "How about lunch?" "How about an afternoon of window shopping?" The words are hardly out of our mouth before we either say no, unequivocally, or do a quick risk assessment that involves calculating the average number of COVID cases where we live because the week's stats had unpredictable spikes and lows. (There's the unpredictability again.) But even the time we take to make our responsible and practical risk assessment takes the shine of novelty off anything we might decide to do.
It's not that novelty is impossible. Veronica told me earlier in the week when I was thinking about this post that her novelty has been cooking. I gave her Ottolenghi Simple for Christmas--an amazing cookbook--and she's been making food she's never made before. I started a new quilt. Well, I didn't start it. I'd conceived of a double wedding-ring quilt made of green and gold Japanese fabrics, but didn't like the size of the block pattern I had. So I shrunk it on a photocopier. When I got to the point of putting the arcs together, I choked, not believing that my shrunken pattern would work, and put it away. A couple of weeks ago, I just decided there was nothing to lose, and the blocks went together just fine, though I have to take a few stitches out here and there to get corners of those plain green and gold squares to meet perfectly. Seriously, I didn't need to start a new quilt. Except that I did.
I'm trying to get back into shape as a walker, and so thought that I could walk different parts of Regina's extensive path system. But that doesn't have the effortless novelty of looking for a new blouse to wear this spring, though it's much safer. Novelty these days forces us to plan, to invent, to go looking for something new, and to do that with energy we sometimes just don't have, given the pandemic's cognitive load on our brains.
So I've come to prefer the word "serendipity." Things that happen by accident or happen just because they do and we happen to be there to witness it. It's a kind of uncertainty that isn't threatening. One of the reasons we're feeling better and more optimistic right now is that spring brings all kinds of serendipity with it. The rabbit has been back eating the wheat the birds leave under the feeder. I've been seeing more chickadees. I'm looking longingly at the trees to see when they'll decide it's safe to begin to put out buds. Easter, which is actually a solar holiday--the first Sunday after the first full moon after the equinox--is quite early this year, and I've noticed that when Easter is early, so is spring. I may see tulips up in borders soon. I should go looking. What new birds will show up at my feeder to join the sparrows, who definitely aren't novel? Except when one observes them carefully, watching their interactions, their startling flight east across the yard in squadron formation to turn with precision and startling speed south between my house and my neighbour's. How do they do that? That's the lovely thing about serendipity. You just have to be there, on the lookout.