Reflections on (Covid) Ephiphany

Stockholm, Old Town (Gamla Stan), 6 Jan 2021

I confess that I went to a museum today.

Stockholm’s Fotografiska lets in just 8 people every half hour, for 90-minute slots. There are never more than 24 people in the whole museum of photography, which occupies a large former warehouse at the docks. So I felt quite safe, Covid-responsible, and usually quite alone in the expansive galleries.

I also felt, more often than expected, surprisingly moved. There is something about being alone with artwork that facilitates a deeper experience of it than when one must share it with a crowd of other gallery-goers.

Take, for example, the video installation Passage, by Mohau Modisakeng. It is the kind of installation that I usually breeze through, noting its contours and its principal message, feeling a bit jaded because I have seen so many other similar works. They all tend to run together in a common “art video” blur.

Not today.

Three black-and-white videos of a Black woman in a white rowboat, projected on a wall with three partitions. The woman in the central video is slow-motion writhing in an almost inundated vessel. She turns and twists under the water, eyes closed. Perhaps she is drowning. Perhaps she is simply looking for a position in which she can rise to the surface and breathe. It is difficult to know. The other two women are also moving about, both in seemingly random ways , both in completely dry boats. One woman is holding a bullwhip.

The imagery has no specific narrative in itself. It takes the accompanying text to make sense of this art: Passage is about water, and South Africa, how water brought people to Cape Town or carried them away from it, into indentured servitude or slavery, starting centuries ago. The heart breaks before it can even take in the magnitude of what this artwork is attempting to represent, with its simple yet sophisticated language of women in boats.

I also learn that in the spoken Setswana language, the word for life (botshelo) means “to cross.” The word for person is “traveler” (bafeti). We are all travelers, making a crossing, from one (unknown) place to another. Life is the journey itself.  

Here and now, this strikes me as profound rather than platitudinous — perhaps because I am not traveling at all. For decades, I have traveled with great regularity for my work (as well as for personal reasons, with family on two continents). At least once a month, I go somewhere, and often somewhere quite far away from home. But for the past several months I have not traveled farther than downtown Stockholm. I have not left Sweden since March 2020. And I notice one striking effect that all this relative stillness is having on me: a sharpened self-consciousness.

The Covid-19 pandemic has intensified the feeling of singularity in everyone’s lives, I wager. We are, every one of us, unique individuals. Much of the time, we have only ourselves to converse with. We are always alone with our thoughts. The pandemic has made this more apparent.

This does not mean that we are self-sufficient. Certainly the connections we have to others are important, life-defining, more or less essential. The essential connections that we experience directly are many or they are few, depending on where we live, which culture we belong to, what family or friendship means to us. We are also indirectly connected to —and utterly dependent on — the work of many others: the “essential workers” who produce food, work in hospitals, drive trucks. We are of course embedded in deep webs of social, economic, and technological connection.

But in being restricted in how much we can move around, in not meeting so many other people, in staying home, it also becomes achingly clear that we are individuals, separate and free-standing points of self-awareness, each inhabiting a specific spot on this very singular globe we call Earth. The pandemic makes it impossible not to become more aware of this essential feature of the human condition. This is an awareness that some welcome more than others, for even this insight is something we each respond to in highly individualized ways.

I for one experience this time of restricted social contact as affording extra time for reflection. I have more time for myself (and my family) than usual, which means more time to read and think. I see this as largely beneficial, something like an extended retreat. I feel calmer in my mind. I know, more clearly than usual, what I think, why, and what I want or need to do once the wheel of daily work begins to turn again.

But I recognize that others may not see anything positive about this time. Many are suffering in “tunnels of loneliness”, as a writer in the New York Times put it.[1] I further recognize that this gift of additional time to reflect is coming at great cost to so many, and that my thinking is (as it always is) dependent on the continuing “essential work” of many others, who must now expose themselves to higher levels of risk just to keep food on our tables and to provide healthcare to those who fall ill.

Of course, it took a small journey into town to jar this reflection and this writing loose, and that is somewhat ironic. But let no one tell you that we in Sweden are not taking the pandemic seriously. I traveled by car, walked outside around Stockholm’s not-quite-shut-down Old Town (with a mask on), stuck mostly to the most deserted and wintry streets (see photo above), dodged and weaved when necessary to keep two meters away from the small numbers of people I passed on the main thoroughfares, showed up for my appointed time at Fotografiska, stayed far away from the 23 other people sharing the many large exhibition rooms with me (I saw six or seven of those people), and left when my time ran out.

But I am lucky to experience even this small degree of freedom. On this day, January 6, which is Epiphany on the Christian calendar — and still a day off in the secularized holiday system of the Swedish state — I suppose I was looking for some kind of epiphany before returning tomorrow to a calendar full of digital meetings in my home office.

And I suppose I found it. We are alone, yet not alone. We are bound up together, and we are separate. We are all travelers, but many of us are having, and have had, much more difficult journeys than others. Many of us are experiencing loneliness and hardship, so we need to find ways to help each other, to use our singular self-awareness, our separateness, to strengthen and appreciate the things that connect us. We need this especially now, when we are not even permitted to meet.

It is far from being an original epiphany. But it feels like a gift, and I am grateful for it.

[1] “The virus has burrowed into people’s lives, digging tunnels of loneliness that can feel never-ending even in places that have fared relatively well.” In Jason Horowitz’s article “’I Will Get Up’: A Hard New Year Greets a World in Waiting,” New York Times, 6 January 2021.

Epiphany has always been one of my favoite holidays, not for religious reasons, but because I like the word and what it means: a revelation, a sudden awareness. So here is a “bonus track”: my first song to be pressed into vinyl, in 1986, “Epiphany Dream”: