In Spanish, the word for pandemic is pandemia. It sounds to me like academia or eudaimonia or even Portlandia: a state of mind, or a place, a world unto itself. In the Land of Pandemia we find ourselves in, time moves differently. For me, the days move slowly, but the weeks pass quickly. Months move like years, and the past year has felt like many more than 12 months. In Pandemia, we daydream, we nap, we dawdle and delay.
It reminds me of another place, the land of the Doldrums, from The Phantom Tollbooth, a book about a young boy, Milo, and his Alice-like misadventures in the fantastical world known as the Kingdom of Wisdom. Thus speak the Lethargians, the native inhabitants of the Doldrums:
There’s lots to do; we have a very busy schedule — —
At 8 o’clock we get up, and then we spend From 8 to 9 daydreaming.
From 9 to 9:30 we take our early midmorning nap.
From 9:30 to 10:30 we dawdle and delay.
From 10:30 to 11:30 we take our late early morning nap.
From 11:30 to 12:00 we bide our time and then eat lunch.
From 1:00 to 2:00 we linger and loiter.
From 2:00 to 2:30 we take our early afternoon nap.
…As you can see, that leaves almost no time for brooding, lagging, plodding, or procrastinating, and if we stopped to think or laugh, we’d never get nothing done.
I recently rewatched the 1970s film rendition of the book recently, and I was struck by the poetic explanation of life in lockdown and quarantine. The Doldrums are the first detour on Milo’s long journey, and as the first stop, they’re a reminder: to discover wisdom, we must first become bored. Both with lockdowns and Lethargians, daily existence is consumed with monotony, boredom and a certain amount of ambiguity about time. The usual entertainments are no longer available to us, and so what remains forces us to think creatively about how to spend our time. In the film, the Lethargians are depicted like a toxic sludge, singing wistfully “Don’t say there’s nothing to do in The Doldrums” while they help Milo stay between deciding to stay or go.
March marks a year since the official beginning of the pandemic, and I’ve decided to theme this month’s writing around it. Milo’s world changed forever when he crossed the eponymous tollbooth from the book, and so have our lives the world over when we crossed over into this COVID-19 reality. Like the real-world doldrums at the equator, this period tests the will and punishes the soul. We remain between staying and going, a year into a time of tremendous uncertainty and looking forward to an uncertain future.
Unlike quarantine, the Doldrums were not accompanied by mass unemployment, hunger and famine. There were no nights of endless sirens and days of overflowing ICU rooms. Milo didn’t need to wear a mask when he left the house, nor did he have to keep six feet away from his neighbors to avoid spreading or contracting disease. But he did experience the same sense of lethargy and slowness that many of us in lockdown experience today.
And so how did he escape the Doldrums? A friendly watchdog named Tock appears and offers guidance: “Well, since you got here by not thinking, it seems reasonable to expect that, in order to get out, you must start thinking.” As we think about a second year in the Land of Pandemia, the opportunity before us is to rethink the conditions in society that got us here today. The Doldrums point to a way forward, and it’s by looking back and asking, “How did we let things get so bad in the first place?”