Stop the world
Updated: Jan 9
I want to get off.
Photo by Barrie Kreinik: Paris, France.
It’s 10:30 am in Manhattan on Sunday, January 9th.
I was supposed to be on a plane right now.
Two months ago, when things seemed to be looking up—or at least looking tolerable—I planned an escape from New York with two of my friends. I’d been reluctant to plan any kind of international travel until the pandemic was over, but as the concept of “over” became more and more remote, I reconsidered. Maybe I should just carpe the damn diem and make the most of it! I thought. So it was with arm untwisted that I booked my flights, secured us an AirBnb, and bought a colorful guidebook about the French Riviera.
That guidebook sat on my coffee table for five weeks. I’ll look at it closer to the trip, I kept thinking. I wasn’t sure why—I love reading guidebooks and had been eager to dive into this one when I first snapped it up. But some obscure part of me hesitated. I was busy, I had other things to do. I could read the book later. I could even wait to read it till I was on the plane, I reasoned. What better way to kick off a vacation than to dream about it while flying through the sky?
But in mid-December, two weeks before my departure date, my anxiety level started to rise. I’d seen the interminable testing lines stretching all around my neighborhood. How would I get the within-48-hours-of-departure test that France required for entry? And what about the passe sanitaire, which I’d need to apply for upon my arrival if I hoped to do virtually anything indoors? It seemed like a straightforward process, but if for any reason I couldn’t get one, things could get challenging. And then I started reading—and listening, and watching, and hearing—about the new virus variant tearing across the globe…and how France had some of the highest case counts in all of Europe.
I could hardly keep track of the questions that stormed through my mind. What if the country went into lockdown while I was there? What if I tested positive and had to quarantine in a nation whose language I’m only just learning on DuoLingo? What if I needed emergency medical care but couldn’t get it because the local hospitals were overwhelmed with Covid patients? And what if, for any reason, I couldn’t get home?
All of these were worst-case scenarios, situations that would have seemed far-fetched to me just a few months earlier. After all, when have I ever needed medical care while on vacation? And what’s the actual likelihood of me testing positive when I’m a triple-vaxxed Covid survivor who wears a mask everywhere? Statistically speaking, these things were highly unlikely. But as omicron continued to wreak havoc around the world, even the slightest chance of such disasters began to seem like reason enough to avoid risking them.
One of my friends was already in France, having arrived before the panic started. I called the other friend and found that she’d been having the same anxiety spike that I’d had. Part of the problem with our intertwined itineraries was the inclusion of intranational travel: I was supposed to arrive in Lyon, take a train to Antibes, and finally fly to Paris before heading home—a ten-day off-season adventure that would have been eminently doable two or three years ago. Suddenly, it seemed like utter folly. And my anxiety about going began to outweigh my disappointment at the prospect of not going.
After a lengthy discussion with my friends, and some logistical maneuvering, we canceled our collective trip on December 21st—just eight days before my expected departure. I lamely proposed rescheduling sometime in the spring, but the words felt empty: this trip was a once-in-a-long-while opportunity, an accident of good timing that had turned into a catastrophe of bad.
For several days, I fell into a depression the likes of which I haven’t felt in a long time. I knew this was absolutely a first-world problem: who cares about my lost vacation when millions of people are still losing their lives? But as the days went by and I watched some of my fears made manifest—canceled flights, unattainable tests, skyrocketing cases—I realized my despair was less about the canceled trip than about what it symbolized: a cancellation of hope. Because what’s the point of making any plans, of looking forward to anything, when this unstoppable force of nature can sweep in at any moment and destroy it all?
A year and a half ago, I wrote about in-the-moment thinking as a way to cope with the uncertainty of the pandemic. But I’m a planner—an imaginer—a practical dreamer. I can take life one day at a time for a while, but at some point I’m going to want to look ahead. And what I still see in the distance is what I’ve seen for the past two years: a great big blank.
Stop the World—I Want to Get Off is a 1961 musical written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. I’ve never actually seen it, but the title has repeatedly circled through my mind over the past few weeks. The hardest thing about this pandemic, I think, is the fact that there’s no escaping from it: there is literally nowhere in the world, even in the remotest parts of Antarctica, that the virus hasn’t touched. There’s a quality of despair in that thought which makes me want to leap off the surface of the planet just to get away from the constant barrage of calamity—the repeated reminder that the world is in so many ways a deeply damaged place. And although it might have felt refreshing to spend a few days sipping wine on the shores of the Mediterranean, traversing the art-laced halls of the Louvre, or even just eating a real croissant while wandering the streets of an ancient city…the mask would still be on my face; the risks would still surround me. And what kind of an escape is that? Better to stay home and escape into books, into films, into creative projects. Better, at least for now, to view the Mediterranean through my TV screen from the safe vantage point of my couch.
Just before New Years, my depression began to lift. I was reminded of the mantra I wrote about in August 2020: this is what’s happening. I can’t stop the world like a train. There’s no emergency cord. There are only our most basic resources: resilience, gratitude, love, and perhaps wine and chocolate. When there’s nowhere to go, going inward is sometimes the only option. And right now, I’m finding whole worlds within my own walls.