Please allow me a paragraph or two or a few to vent.
A few days ago we traveled to a hospital in Barcelona for Susan to receive some routine medical treatment. When we got there, I was horrified.
In front of the single open entrance to the hospital there was a guard checking passes and printed appointments. We hadn’t realized that we would need to print her appointment schedule, so that was a problem, but the far more serious problem was that there were hundreds of people passing in and out of one bottle-necked entrance. When you go to the supermarket, folks are spaced at least 2 meters apart, calmly and patiently waiting to enter. When you go to the hospital, on the other hand, WHERE THERE ARE A LOT OF FUCKING SICK PEOPLE, it’s a rugby scrum where no one, NO ONE, is separated at all. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Needless to say, I was pretty upset by the time I and my immunocompromised wife got to oncology. We sat in the waiting room. Seats had been marked off so that there was an empty seat between each patient. Susan and I sat next to each other at the end of a row in two adjoining seats. A few minutes later, two doctors passing by stopped as though slapped and glared at us in horror and outrage, ordering us to separate immediately. So instead of sitting next to my wife, with whom I’d recently shared a bed, a car, a kiss, and whose ungloved hand I was at that very moment holding in my own ungloved hand, I moved from roughly 90 cm away from an elderly cancer patient, whose immune system was no doubt weakened, to about 45 cm from him. Made perfect sense.
Susan’s morning appointment wrapped up around 8:30, and her next appointment wasn’t until 12:30, so we got in the car and started heading up into the hills. Almost immediately a police car pulls up next to us and indicates that we should roll down our window.
“There are two people in your car,” the cop driving says to us. I immediately launch into an explanation of how we had gone to the hospital, and my wife can’t drive, and her appointments…. Until the passenger seat cop leans over and explains that if there are two people in the car, the passenger has to be in the back seat. And we should both be wearing masks. Oh, okay, no problem there officer. They glower at us and drive on.
We pull over so Susan can climb into the back seat. Now, I can understand (somewhat) the reasoning behind this, and for taxis and public transport and such, distancing makes good sense. But I might note again that my wife and I had recently shared a bed and a kiss, held hands, and were at that very moment in the enclosed confines of a car. How was moving her to the back seat going to protect either of us? Perhaps if she rode on top of the car…but hey, whatever, she can move out back if necessary.
Anyway, by this point I was feeling angry, sad, frustrated and, since my wife is in a lot of pain and the only thing I can do about it is go to the pharmacy to get her more meds, helpless. But since we had a lot of time on our hands, we drove through a gorgeous spring morning into the hills above Barcelona and parked at the Can Coll Center for Environmental Education, which has access to some really lovely walks.
Now, having to go to the hospital under lock down has advantages and disadvantages. On the minus side, it exposes you and your loved ones to the toxic cocktail of illnesses to be found in hospitals (1.7 million Americans develop hospital-acquired infections each year, and 99,000 die from them), you risk run-ins with police, and you have to leave your kids at home alone. Oh, and, you know, cancer.
On the plus side, you get to leave the house and go somewhere – anywhere, you can potentially find a place with no one around where you can sneak off into the forest, and you get to leave your kids at home alone.
While Susan sat in the car and had a snooze (windows open, a wildflower-scented breeze blowing through), I grabbed my binoculars and headed out on a trail. I can’t even begin to describe what that did for my physical and emotional well being. I’ve written quite a bit about the health benefits of being out in green spaces, but I believe those benefits have grown exponentially with each day I’ve spent indoors. (And we’ve all spent a lot of time recently learning about exponentiality.)
Iris, alyssum, cistus, wild garlic, cherry and dozens of other flowering plants dotted the fields and forests, and I followed a path that wound through meadows and mixed woodland, past a small pond, and along a tiny burbling stream in a spring-green valley. I surprised a little owl perched on a post, listened to a woodpecker drumming for a mate, heard a hawk keening above the trees, and stretched out in a meadow to revel in sunshine and birdsong.
I swear I could feel my cortisol (the “stress hormone”) levels dropping. My frustration ebbed away. My NK cells (“natural killer” cells, crucial to the immune system) multiplied like mushrooms after rain, and I found I could concentrate on my immediate surroundings without worrying about what latest evils America’s orange monster was perpetrating, or how many new infections there had been in the state of Maine, where my 85 year-old mother lives, or whether at that moment curves were flattening around the world.
But of course at the time I wasn’t thinking about cortisol, or NK cells or “mindfulness” (And let me digress slightly here. You tell me you’re going on a ‘mindfulness walk.’ I’m not sure how to feel about that, but if you have to consciously bring your attention to your present surroundings and situation, if you have to focus your attention on being conscious of your consciousness, you’re maybe not doing it right. I don’t know. Look around you. Turn over logs and stones to see what’s under them. Smell stuff. Feel stuff. Eat stuff, if you know it’s safe. Check shit out without being mindful of your own mindfulness. But hey, that’s just me going off on one.), I was just hanging out in the woods. And it made me feel a lot better.
Which brings me, I suppose, to the whole point of this bramble of a ramble. At some unknown point in a truly unknown future, all of us are going to go outside again. It is my dearest, most fervent and heartfelt desire that when we do so, we choose not to flock back to the shopping malls, to the MegaMarts, to line up for hours in front of the sleek minimalist wonder of an iStore for the latest iDevice. That we don’t purge our weeks or months of isolation with an orgy of consumption. That we don’t heed our leaders who tell us the best way to get back to ‘normal’ is to go shopping. What we’re going to need most, at the end of all of this, are open green spaces, trees, flowers, plants, clear-flowing rivers and clean seas. We will need to reconnect not only with the people we love and have missed but with the natural world around us.
Here in Spain children have not been allowed to leave their homes for over 5 weeks. I think that has been a grave mistake on the part of the government. Everyone needs to get outside, needs to feel a connection with the natural world – even if it’s only on tree-lined city streets or in public parks – for their mental and physical well-being. I feel that sensible measures could have been taken to allow this to happen. But what’s past is past. What we need in the short term is to get out into nature, hopefully with new-found affection and appreciation. What we need in the long term is only to change the entire way humans think about, use (and abuse), and interact with the our planet, its resources, and our fellow inhabitants. That’s a pretty tall order, I know. So let’s just start with a walk in the woods.