I remember the first time I saw the poster. I was in line downtown for my booster shot. Delta was on the decline. Nobody knew yet how bad Omicron would be.
That’s how I remember it now, at least. Although in retrospect we knew, or we should have. The signs were all there. But signs have never really been our problem during COVID-19. Wave after wave, it was their reading that let us down.
The poster, bathed in these telltale blues, seemed both a fossil and a wormhole — a remnant of an earlier, pre-COVID world, and a bright, confusing artifact of a new earth to come. “Gogh With the Flow,” he read, and with those words he worked his way inside my doughy brain.
At the vaccination clinic, I stood in line but kept looking back. Eventually I looked for it on my phone. I thought it might be a conceptual prank, but it was real: an advertisement for a yoga class in an immersive exhibition of paintings by Vincent van Gogh – an invitation, in other words, to relax in the massive, projected mind of the most notorious mentally ill person in Western art history.
I had made the mistake, before Omicron, of planning again. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I was actively mapping out new things in my mind. We had planned to fly to Calgary for Christmas, to give my daughter some time with the cousins she barely remembered or hadn’t met. I was hoping to finish a book proposal after the holidays. I mapped out a new class I intended to teach and new stories I hoped to write.
It’s not that anything was over then, as Delta stepped back offstage, but it felt better. It didn’t seem strange to have friends over for dinner, to huddle around a crowded table, to hug a vaccinated friend. It was a heat wave that I took for spring. And when it was over, I tumbled into something numb.
Christmas was a haze of rapid tests and family tensions amid record-breaking cold in Calgary as the number of cases soared. In the new year, schools were expected to reopen in Ontario until suddenly, at the last minute, they weren’t. And then, at the top of Omicron, we had record snow and the gates remained closed.
“Something is hammering us,” wrote Annie Dillard. And I felt hammered by those days, by online kindergarten, by the things I wasn’t doing, by my own feeling that for the first time in the pandemic, I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel, what I was supposed to wish for, what was the real good thing.
Maybe that’s why it stuck with me, this poster. Maybe that’s why I kept turning it over in my head. It had seemed like a bit of a joke at first – a focused, super-pumped version of what it meant to feel good. But at some point, super-pumped started to feel right to me, like the bare minimum I would need to pull myself out and push myself through.
And so, at the beginning of February, I booked a ticket: $54.99 all inclusive. I pulled my yoga mat from under the stairs. I made an offer for Zen.
Maybe it wasn’t rational. Paintings never worked for van Gogh, after all. He was miserable even in his best, most productive years. But maybe they would for me. If nothing else, these are not rational times.
Three days after schools reopened for in-person learning in Toronto, a convoy of truckers (or “truckers,” depending on your perspective) drove to Ottawa, set up a hot tub, and set up for a long and furious demonstration. A week later, my daughter woke up with a mild fever. She tested positive in a rapid test. Within 24 hours she was virtually symptom free. So this is COVID, I thought.
But it wasn’t, not for me. Five days later I got it. It started in my chest, a sharp pain when I walked that I couldn’t stretch. Soon my legs were tingling, almost numb as I climbed an outside staircase. I went home and tried to work, but even sitting down I couldn’t catch my breath. I lay down on a futon and shot in the air.
Clinically speaking, it wasn’t so bad. I have never been hospitalized. I never needed oxygen. I was just, for 10 days, really sick. At night, I couldn’t sleep because of the pain. I couldn’t eat most solid foods. I could barely swallow anything that wasn’t liquid or cold or preferably both. My brain raced when I tried to read. There was an almost physical ringing in my left ear.
To make matters stranger, this was all happening as the public health response to the virus itself came to a halt. ‘We’re done with this,’ said the Premier of Ontario on Valentine’s Day, as I lay in bed with my throat raw, drinking a 7-Eleven Slurpee for the first time in 20 years. “Let’s just start moving forward.”
By a happy coincidence, my van Gogh yoga appointment fell exactly two weeks after I tested positive for COVID-19. By the time Thursday rolled around, I wasn’t completely better. My eyes still hurt in the light and my head felt full of cotton. But the doctor assured me that I was not contagious. And so, the morning Russia invaded Ukraine, I put on my stretchy pants, found my water bottle, and took the metro downtown, to the building where I technically work but where I have rarely been in the 15 months of the pandemic that I have had this job.
Toronto’s “Immersive Van Gogh” exhibit (there are now many all over North America) occupies a section of the ground floor of the Toronto Star building at the foot of Yonge Street, where Formerly newspaper presses. The show builds on an idea that began in France, in 2008, and took off more recently on this side of the Atlantic thanks to the expiration of copyrights on the art itself and an appearance at success in the Netflix show “Emily in Paris”.
It’s pretty easy to be cynical. The vibe is a bit of a Pink Floyd laser light show for the Instagram era and the gift shop has to be seen to be believed. There are van Gogh socks for sale, of course, but also van Gogh dresses, van Gogh hats, van Gogh mouse pads, tote bags and cufflinks, all lined up in endless aisles that span half the length of the building.
As for the exhibition itself, it left me cold. I felt less like being surrounded by a masterpiece than living inside a screensaver. Like so many times in the pandemic, it felt two-dimensional. It lacked the alien depth of impasto of a real Van Gogh ̶ those radical layers that cling to you in person, ground you and force you to stare.
But I wasn’t there for the show. I was there for yoga. And the yoga had barely started when I realized I had made a big mistake.
Before the pandemic, I did yoga almost every Monday night at a community center near my home. But my last class was February 24, 2020, and over the next two years my body had become stiff and limp from office work and panic.
I had imagined myself, surrounded by projecting sunflowers and murky stars, settling into restful poses and sprouting wise thoughts. I imagined myself rushing to my Notes app at the end of class, desperate to capture all my new insights into those horrible months.
But I hadn’t read the fine print. What I had signed up for was not yoga per se, but Barre Flow, a yoga-like “intensive training system.” And so, instead of contemplating, I fell twice. I growled and twisted. I barely got through the tiny devilish muscle pulses that make Barre so hard.
I didn’t think much about the pandemic during class. I didn’t think of anything other than “Oh my God, I’m going to fall again”. But when it was over, when I was back home, what I felt was, in spite of myself, joy.
I’ve spent so much time thinking about what I’ve been missing out on during the pandemic, movie theaters and galleries, after-work drinks, dates and swimming pools, but I don’t think I realized, until to this course, how much I missed not thinking at all.
Last fall, Carina del Valle Schorske published an essay in The New York Times Magazine about public dancing during the summer before Delta. “I don’t always want to look so serious,” she wrote at one point in the play. “Sometimes I mean I really want to pin someone to the club wall with my butt.”
It’s the feeling I’ve been missing, not contemplating or ruminating, but doing something with enough focus and joy to chase everything else away. That’s the promise I saw on that poster, queuing for my picture. That’s why it stuck with me for so long. It seemed to offer a mixture of old-world pleasures, a mixture of art and sweat that could consume me, however briefly.
I don’t know how much Van Gogh’s immersion in all of this must have given me that feeling, although it was impressive in some ways. (The yogis in front of me, for example, were able to pose expertly while taking photos of themselves posing, through twisted limbs, in front of the projected face of a man who had recently cut off his ear .) But I’m grateful for the exposure nonetheless, for grabbing my attention and sticking in my brain.
It brought me. And that was enough.