On my way home from work yesterday, I stopped in the park to draw a tree. It was a cool early Spring afternoon, the sun was just beginning to slip behind the mountains, and I had my sketchpad in my bag. I had been cooped up inside the office for 8.5 hours and I needed to do something unrelated to preparing for the new school year and fretting about the pandemic. I even took my headphones out of my ears to be exactly there on the hillside, though Caribou’s newest album was a perfect soundtrack for the moment. And I began to draw.
Like most things that matter deeply to me, I am self-conscious about drawing in front of others, which disrupts the flow and results in wonky looking images. The tree you see above is not exactly wonky but it is what happens when you start mapping out a giant tree and begin to get absorbed in the act when someone interrupts you to see what you are drawing. This happens a lot in Japan because people are naturally
nosy curious about what others are up to, especially me. I am not sure why but I think it is because I am cursed with whatever is the opposite of resting bitch face. Something about me makes people, dogs, cats, babies feel very at ease in approaching me. I don’t usually mind but it means that my public drawing time is always going to be interrupted.
Anyway, so about five minutes into my drawing time, an elderly guy in his seventies/eighties/nineties (it is really hard to judge people’s age in Japan) lumbers up the hillside and plops down beside me. We don’t say much, just a nod of recognition. He looks at the tree and my sketchpad and then back at the tree again. I attempt to continue drawing though nothing really comes of it. Then he says, you know, there are some cherry trees over there, very pretty trees. Much better for drawing. And I say, ah, yes, I know, but I like this tree. The shape and lines are interesting. He nods and gives me a gentle pat on the shoulder then wishes me luck as he pushes his leathery hands against the grass to stand and continue meandering through the park.
As he went, he began coughing. I listened to him cough, not violently just rhythmically, walking along, hands in his pocket, mask on his face.
This is our new reality. Everything seems normal, the sun still shines, the flowers still bloom, and so we believe it is the same as it was a month ago, when an old man’s cough was something lingering from a late winter cold, not a highly contagious virus that could infect you and everyone you know.
We are still, obviously, not on lock-down here in Japan. I really, really wish Abe would go ahead and declare a state of emergency because we common folk cannot be trusted. We still eat out at restaurants and pack in like sardines on the trains and sit in small, confined spaces for meetings. Our lives are designed to be interactive, socially intimate. Sending every household a pack of 2 masks is not going to stop us from trying to be as normal as we can. We will wear your masks in the restaurants, on the trains, at meetings. We will still be spreading the virus, of course, just with government-issued masks strapped to our faces.
I don’t want to be suspicious of every cough but considering how often people are washing their hands now and wearing masks, it is hard to know what else could overcome our enhanced healthiness defenses. People in my office have begun coughing though most people will sneak off to do so: no one wants to be the one spreading this thing, which makes me wonder if shame is fanning the flames of our recent outbreaks. People might avoid being tested to avoid being called out as one of the infected, especially since the government and media like to broadcast the infected’s details, if not name then at least age, gender, and location. I noticed that the ones cited today opted out of having that information published, invoking their right to privacy. The shame is already in place for illnesses as it is thought that if you get sick, it is your fault. Every year in my school, my coworkers always refer to the student who was responsible for introducing the flu to their classmates, as if it was intentional. Of course, this virus is not the flu and in general, shaming people when they get sick is never good bedside manner. And in this case, extremely harmful. But whatever, I am sure the government has considered this, with their panels of accountants.
On a somewhat unrelated note, I have decided to continue working on the quarantine story that I briefly put aside as it felt too real. Ultimately, I realized, it is a story about how people persevere despite being forsaken by their government. Still too real but it wants to be completed and above all, I must listen to my stories. Besides, maybe I can find some hope in fiction as reality is completely barren.