I remember it clearly, that Friday on the 1st of May 2020. As my alarm rang at 6 AM, I threw off the blanket with an almost forgotten determination. I slid into a pair of leggings and a hoodie, grabbed keys and a scarf (as a mouth cover) and rushed out my apartment block in the Cape Town city centre (South Africa). The first step outside and breath of air felt like pure freedom. My eyes squinted. I had not gone to the supermarket in a few days, one of the few legitimate reasons to leave the house during the hard lockdown, and I was adjusting to the unobstructed sunlight. I could not help but smile. My giddiness increased when I came past a jogger, greeting me with a beaming glance and continued growing with the encounters that followed. The excitement was surreal.
Soon, my bouncy-but-decisive steps led me past a group of people lined up on the asphalt who were just leaving behind the realm of sleep, with a few already going about their morning practices in the chilly morning air. A woman with a blanket wrapped tightly around her exchanged my smile for hers while brushing her hair. Crossing a grass patch alive with dogs and their walkers, out together for the first time in weeks, I volunteered eye contact to each person. On the side of the buzz, a man went about brushing his teeth in his sleeping quarters, his gaze captured by the movement around him. The further I walked up towards the iconic Table Mountain and the heavier my breath became, the more I felt the giddiness and the freedom I had fathomed glide away from me. The greetings now directed towards me by the numerous people out on walks and jogs failed to bring it back.
I let myself plop down on a broken tree branch next to the main road. My eyes wandered over the city’s harbour. This was when I took note of how much my desire for perspective and assurance that things will soon normalise again had become entangled with the idea of walking unrestrictedly. Except that there were plenty of stipulations to it - movement for no longer than three hours from 6 AM, no further than five kms from one’s home and complying to social distancing rules. But it was not the remaining limitations that had a sudden sobering effect on me. It was the realisation that movement and physically created distance between me and my home bubble would not offer me the sense of calm vision that I had hoped for. Instead, I felt just as unsettled, encapsulated and impotent as before.
Walking is my strategy, or bodily technique, as Marcel Mauss might put it, of maintaining my balance and sanity. But rather than making me feel steadier and retrieving a sense of an everyday unremarkableness, I felt as trapped in a new state of normalcy walking relatively freely outside as I was when cooped up at home with my thoughts moving in circles. Reclaiming walking was not a messianic moment of disruption and arrival as the Coronavirus was – suddenly magnifying the very fears, insecurities and interdependencies we all share as humans.
The biopolitics of a ‘state of emergency’, the lawful amendment of rights to a ‘new normal’ as it is popularly referred to had left imprints too deep to be shaken off in a leap for a sense of agency and freedom. The limits imposed on our bodies (some being more confined and surveilled than others) map out the everyday in ways that may be counter-intuitive but that nevertheless set firm boundaries. Crossing them takes a conscious decision, whether it is a sneak visit to the family or not wearing a mask in public and incorporate the risk of repercussions in one form or another. Even those who are generally less monitored now receive critical looks – their bodies are everyone’s business. With every inconsideration carrying the potential of a nasty, health-consuming aftermath, no movement can free itself from its ethical dimensions. Social distance, coverage, hygiene: The protocols are incessant reminders that we can use our bodies to either reduce or produce precarity and safety. Yet, it takes the confrontation with others, clothed in masks and hesitancy, to realise the situation we find ourselves in and the responsibilities enchained to the smallest day-to-day decisions.
Normalcy does not reveal itself suddenly. Rather, it is subject to gradual habitual adjustments. Unexpected changes to common practice tend to be justified with the credo ‘for security reasons’ and may soon be felt to be normal. This is, for instance, the case with intense security checks at airports that became the global practice in tandem with cultivated concerns of a constant risk of terror attacks, resulting in an ongoing state of emergency. In Corona times, our mouths and touch are under suspicious scrutiny. Bodies adjust to this odour of danger. As does our sense of the ordinary.
While inside my apartment, I was going about a daily routine of morning coffee, thesis writing, eating lunch, admin, cleaning, yoga, more thesis work and dinner prep almost as if on autopilot. The aim: making it through the next weeks (which soon turned into months) without letting this holistic lifestyle change twist into panic. My thoughts felt comfortingly encompassed in a limited range of information, movement and set of options throughout each one of those treadmill days. This prevented my brainwork from imagining hypotheticals. Like what were to happen if my health-compromised mother were to contract the virus dominating conversations and news content, both of which I had been avoiding.
At the same time, a part of me wanted to break free from this new mind-dulling custom of busying myself that had become part of my being. Subscribing to altered rules and following the wisdom of political measures taken to sustain life kept me from thinking about what I could no longer reach in conventional ways, my family in Germany or my peace of mind. While reducing my body to a cog within a larger apparatus generating discipline, I also sheltered myself from grappling with the myriad dimensions of the ongoing health crisis, conflicting expert opinions and farther delayed forecasts of innocent movement.
Leaving this cocoon was liberating at first. My coping-strategy seemed to do its trick in recreating old comforts. Nonetheless, my thoughts were quickly detained in a corona-virus web once again – this time in one that was spun wider. It felt inevitable now, watching people around me move and staring onto the ocean eventually connecting to other continents, to think about the bigger picture. What had begun as a walk of determination geared towards capturing something I had come to miss as a former routine and embodied coping-strategy turned into the unsteady walk of a toddler, navigating inescapable landscapes of the unfamiliar and unpredictable. Normalcy did not return with the ring of the alarm-clock, with an altered set of government guidelines or my different versions of escapism. Walking the steep roads downhill back towards my apartment, I felt the residues of the gleeful anticipation I had awoken with spill out of me. With it vanished the mirage of a reset normality.