A year or two, or a lifetime, or a pandemic ago, I was down the ancient Postojna Cave in Slovenia, home of the strange and wonderful olm, also known as the Human Fish. This blind, snakelike cave salamander can live for 100 years, and survive ten years without eating. It’s a creepy looking, stubborn little survivor, and I feel a certain kinship with it at the moment.
My husband, three small children and I climbed onto a rickety train to descend into the caves. It was a sweltering mid-summer day and we declined to hire one of the musty coats offered to us from a huge rack. Soon, we regretted this decision as the temperature dropped to 10°. We jolted and hurtled for an hour, shivering, through an incredible subterranean landscape hung with Murano-glass chandeliers.
This underground wonderland features an incredible five-metre tall bright-white stalactite known as Brilliant, and all over this fairy-tale place there are mountains, rivers, stalagmites, stalactites, and formations called ‘curtains’, all formed over millions of years. To be in the caves is like being surrounded by chilly, intricate lacework.
In the Vivarium, the underground laboratory, the unprepossessing olm swims in murky green tanks. Described by Darwin in The Origin of Species, and featured in Slovenian folk stories as a ‘baby dragon’, the Human Fish is known for its ability to adapt to surroundings. I, too, adapted to lockdown, so much so that the easing of restrictions in NSW was, for me, harder than expected.
No more pyjama home-school around the dining table. The teen is back on the bus, no longer working from bed, tucked into a complex pillow-fort arrangement. ‘What class have you got now?’ I used to ask. ‘Sport,’ she would say, adjusting the doona.
No more pyjama home-school around the dining table. The teen is back on the bus, no longer working from bed, tucked into a complex pillow-fort arrangement.
We were incredibly lucky that we were able to adjust our work routines to fit this new shape, so that we have been spared the economic and health implications that have made this time heart-wrenching for so many; and especially for our comrades in Victoria, experiencing it again. Lockdown life for us was fortuitously peaceful. But I reactivated my hustle muscle; searching for hats and homework books and lunchboxes, watching the squares on the calendar fill back up.
Like batteries and pens in the junk drawer, family life during lock-down extended to fill the available space. Home all day with three kids and an exuberant puppy, I had to find pockets of time to slot in my own work, which wasn’t easy. But that blank calendar opened up much more space for reading, baths, piano, games and sleeping-in.
Life ramped back up when school returned. So did the activities for three small children: tae kwon do, drama, gymnastics and piano lessons. Instead of sitting in the driveway waiting a weekly supermarket run, the car was once again my constant chariot.
Back to business. But not to the old ways. I feel myself existing in a liminal space, holding two ideas at once: we are safe, but we are not.
Back to business. But not to the old ways. I feel myself existing in a liminal space, holding two ideas at once: we are safe, but we are not. The threat of lockdown remains as the virus winds its way through our communities like a poisonous, invisible mist. The old system hovers like a palimpsest above the new, or, perhaps, it’s the other way around. In any case, the floor is lava. And we're miles away from steady footing.
As we emerge from the sanctuary of lockdown – for now, at least - and stream, like schools of resilient, adaptive little Human Fish, back into public spaces, to protests, to gyms, to the football, we must make an epic mental reset. From hand-shaking and hugs, we must pivot to elbow-bumps and finger-guns, and for the more flamboyant amongst us, full Elizabethan flourish-bows.
It feels a little like the disconcerting sensation of emerging from that cold, dim Slovenian cave system into the full sweaty heat of the day. How do we manage this transition? What comes next for us, as people? What brilliance? What horror? History has shown us that empires fall and rise, plagues surge and retreat, but the human race is resilient and innovative. In some form, we will prevail.
One thing is clear: the new version of this world may not, anytime soon, contain the ease of travel we took for granted such a little while ago. Some experts say that international travel is at least twelve months away, perhaps more, and may contain such things as ‘Covid passports’ and ‘trans-Tasman bubbles.’ The pre-Covid world feels like a fever dream. Did I really travel across the planet to mingle in close quarters with strangers as I hurtled on a rickety train into the bowels of the Earth? How delightful, and how strange.
Rachael Mogan McIntosh is a freelance writer.
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