Published on Friday 11 September 2020

“There’s a Chinese saying. ‘When is the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago. When is the next best time? Now’” Richard Powers – The Overstory

“Let’s call it a day” is what I often told myself over the past surreal months, endless aimless days indoors, unlike any other that came before them. Never before in living memory have our lives been shaped by the shared fear that despite our scientific and technological advances, we are fundamentally helpless before the natural world. For so long, that fear was the sole preserve of climate activists, frantically warning us of impending climate catastrophe, but for an all-too-brief moment before our coping mechanisms kicked in, we all momentarily experienced a shared sense of dread. We thought may be living in the end times after all, as Žižek once argued, although surely even he never expected them to be quite this outlandish.

As the pandemic spread throughout Europe, finally reaching Malta’s shores, we all prepared to batten down the hatches and adjust to a new way of life, one that promised to be more sedate, more caring, more egalitarian. We told ourselves that a virus, after all, knows no colour, class or creed. This would be the end of our divisions and conflicts, suddenly rendered so petty in the shadow of a global pandemic. We were wrong, of course, as we so often are.

We turned to our gaze inwards, in search of purpose and reassurance. We can finally be truly productive, we exclaimed - we can finish long-overdue projects, take up new hobbies, spend more time on the things we love.

I took to gardening, tending to my strawberry plants with a dedication that was both admirable and more than a little pitiful. The vaguest hint of a new leaf or berry met with unbridled joy, an unequivocal sign of the resilience of the human spirit. My professional life followed a similar pattern, thinking up new projects, planning the dissemination of a survey that had just been completed, developing new research studies. Local artists – as resourceful ever – were even more hopeful, responding to ACM’s funding calls with unprecedented enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, our old habits re-emerged as the pandemic faded into memory, only to return with renewed vigour shortly afterwards. By then, our old projects remained unfinished and our new hobbies were new no more, the strawberry plants dried up under the blazing August sun. What remained was that initial sense of dread, although perhaps no longer shared as widely as it once was.

A few nights ago I was visited in a dream by dear friend who passed away through illness when we were just eighteen, still children in all but name. In the dream we drove together through woodlands and coastlines, occasionally stopping to admire the views and bicker over what music to play (he argued for U2’s Discotheque, an old shared favourite of ours). Although we drove through endless winding roads, we never reached a destination, nor did we hope to.

When I awoke I felt an unexpected sense of comfort. Perhaps now is the time to stop to admire the view, not worry about the destination. Perhaps now is the time to revisit U2. Perhaps now is the time to go back to planting my strawberry plants.

After all, now is always the next best time.

Words by Neville Borg.