Whiteout in the mountains and the sorrow over time compressed

We are in for a snowstorm tonight, the reports are saying. There is something about being at the mercy of weather that really is refreshing. I have, over the years, become more and more skeptical about city-living, and have enjoyed being ice-locked on an island in the archipelago and now huddling next to the fireplace in our rented cabin in the north. I am working, reading – but I am also connected with the nature around me in a way that feels extraordinary.

I have found that a lot of friends and colleagues are worn down by the pandemic. I don’t think that they are tired of it or sick of the restrictions, that is not it (and the restrictions have been lighter in Sweden than elsewhere), but I do think that there is something about the way we spend our time that is at work here.

Some time ago I read a small paper about how women in women’s prisons in the US were developing coping strategies for dealing with the fact that they would spend perhaps decades incarcerated. One key element, the paper noted, was to create really monotonous routines – since those routines work as time compression algorithms. If everyday is the same they compress to the same day in your mind. When you are incarcerated that becomes a coping mechanism, and the compression is your friend.

When this is what your freedom looks like – when this is the natural state – I think it generates a sense of dull sorrow over time compressed. At some level we are all aware that we have a limited time in the world. The memento mori may not be as articulated as with cancer survivors or others having a near brush with death, but it is there. It touches us, absently, in the middle of the night when we realize that at some time we will leave our loved ones behind and that our children will cover our eyes. It can fill you with a startling moment of deep sadness, but most of the time it just alights like a butterfly and then leaves in the tyranny of everyday things, or better: in the variety of everyday things.

When the variety disappears, we end up feeling time not slipping away but being compressed. Every day becomes the same, and that makes the thin veil separating us from our demise thinner, more translucent. The routine inherent in pandemic life, the lack of variety, the lack of distraction from our mortality is wearing us down.

Knowing it will pass is not enough. In a sense we are, to varying degrees, going to be survivors. How will that impact our lives? I know that there are those who think that we will rush to forget it and jump in to a new version of the 1920s, but I wonder if that is true. I, for one, feel more like seeking out other rhythms and paces, finding new contexts and building a good routine around being with family, learning and experiencing. Once the allure of the busy life lifts, it is less likely to put its spell on us again.

But, hey, on my part it may was well just be age – and maybe the younger generations will jump back into the fray. They should, and it is probably likely they will. And we will emerge not stronger, not weaker – but different from this year.

Outside the storm is building, eternal and ageless. The snow is blanking out the mountains and other cabins, and in a way it reminds me of the pandemic – it is a different whiteout, where we lose the contours of life and it all melts into a single time.

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