Will My Summer Vacation Kill Me?
By Tony Lopresti
Listen to Tony's account of how he survived his summer vacation.
Read Tony's account of how he survived his summer vacation.
My Summer Vacation: This Year, Will It Kill Me?
Will my summer vacation kill me?
Since 2009 I’ve been going to Italy every summer to work on the shores of Lake Como as partner and Mime Director for the Festival Musica sull’Acqua - an international music festival. I train and direct young silent actors to perform my original mime choreographies based on the Festival’s theme and music. It’s a rigorous, physically demanding, athletic endeavor. After the Festival I usually stay in Europe for a vacation.
Except for last year, 2020.
Last year Covid-19 halted everything. And it also halted me for three weeks in the spring when I became ill with the corona virus. A deep, lingering fatigue plagued me for two months after that. And then it took many months of a slow, controlled rehab to begin to get back into shape.
Would 2021 be different? Would the pandemic conditions improve enough to travel? How could I even think about travel when I still wouldn’t eat indoors at a restaurant?
Would I dare take even the tiniest risk of becoming reinfected? And if I did get sick again, would I recover again?
I had gotten my two vaccine shots by the end of February 2021. By March, things seemed to be getting better in my home city of New York. People began to lighten up. Summer looked like it would approach what we’d begun calling “normal”.
But the numbers in Italy weren’t looking so good and the initial vaccination rollouts were not going well. The CDC website still said to avoid travel there.
In March I contacted two friends who are doctors in Milan. They told me not to even think of going to Italy. Besides, they said, would you really want to be in an airplane for eight hours with lots of strangers from who-knows-where?
In an act of immense hope, preparations for the Festival continued even though it was unclear what Italian health officials would allow. During transatlantic Zoom meetings – what else? – we discussed the knowns and unknowns, the vaccines, the distancing and masking procedures, rehearsal space, concert venues.
Underneath it all was that lingering question: If I did this would it kill me? And with that question came a terrible realization. I suddenly understood that I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to do anything. I just wanted to stay hunkered down in my bubble. I didn’t want to extend myself. I didn’t want to worry. I didn’t want to know that others were worrying about me.
And then the worst fear. Had the last eighteen months shattered and destroyed my creative abilities? Silent acting has been my passion for my entire adult life. Now I just wanted to shut it out, to keep it away. I wanted to turn my back on it. I became afraid that the virus had spared my body but not my soul. I felt dead inside. I felt like a crusty shell that still walked and talked and exercised but at any moment could disintegrate into a pile of ashes. I wanted everything and everybody to just go away.
Illness and trauma bring us face-to-face with our aloneness. No one can ever know, let alone understand, anything that another person experiences. It doesn’t matter how close someone might be, or how much that someone might love another person. The chasm between my body and your body, between my mind and your mind, between my experience and yours can never be crossed. Do we fool ourselves when we claim to know someone, or to love someone?
For me, words have never worked. I feel most comfortable, most alive, most like me when I am in silence. Silence takes me away from myself. In silence I feel that I can begin to approach my own essence. I approach a space that has no light, no sound, no physical sensation. And it is there that the world exists for me in its fullest.
Sometimes that silence erupts through me into a series of movements and gestures that can begin to be coherent, that might begin to communicate to others. That can become a mime performance where words would only get in the way.
But while the last eighteen months have been quiet, they have been far from silent. Fear interrupts silence. A fear spurred at this time in history by a tiny, tiny non-being called a virus.
And the loudest voices railing against that fear come from those who are the most afraid.
Silence … silence, I think, is the greatest strength but where had my silence gone?
By May, conditions in Italy had improved dramatically. My doctor friends in Milan confirmed that the risk was equivalent to being in New York. A major airline had begun Covid-free flights. The CDC said vaccinated people could travel to Italy with caution. So - would I join the Festival in person or not?
Yes. I would go, but with profound trepidation as a constant companion.
I’d felt like that before – the first time that I traveled to Europe after 9/11. But that’s another story…
Everything about the preparation for this year’s trip, everything about the airport and the airplane, everything about my arrival and seeing my friends and colleagues, everything about the rehearsals, the pre-show meetings and the concerts – everything blared out that nothing was normal.
Like in New York, everyone wore masks indoors and most did outdoors when there were people nearby. I, too, wore the fashion statement of summer 2021 – a surgical mask attached to my arm at the elbow.
Every Festival participant was tested. I directed rehearsals from the stage of the town’s large auditorium instead of in my regular studio. The cast – their numbers greatly reduced – were on the floor where all the chairs had been removed. We all wore masks the entire time. All doors were open for additional ventilation. At the venues, ticket-takers, ushers, guides, audience members – all were masked whether the concert was indoors or out. All distancing guidelines were strictly adhered to.
Everywhere I went and everywhere I looked I was reminded that the virus was lurking.
Rehearsals were really hard. My body was still not fully back in shape. I could still stay a step ahead of everyone else, but just by a step. I feared that my creativity had been compromised … damaged. For the first two weeks I woke up every day feeling like I would throw up. Choreography for one musical selection had come quickly and naturally as soon as I started listening to the music in New York weeks before. For the second selection – nothing. An idea here, a movement there, but nothing cohesive. That had never happened before. I’d been stuck before, but on a transition, or a segment – never on a whole piece.
Was fear blocking me? Of course it was. And not just me. All the musicians gave amazingly beautiful concerts with a bursting forth of the tremendous energy that had been pent up for so long. But none of them would claim that it was their best work, or at the level it had been before. We’d all been beaten down to some degree.
Because reminders of the virus were all around, none of us could feel really free. We all loved being in front of live audiences again, but those audiences also posed threats. You can’t get away from that, you can’t forget that. It scratches at your brain, constantly eroding the artistic freedom we’d all spent lifetimes building.
One morning I woke up very early and started typing. I typed non-stop for more than an hour. It was the entire outline for the choreography of the piece I’d been having so much trouble with. I read it over, but it didn’t sound at all like it had come from me.
That afternoon we began rehearsing it and it worked. It even fit the timing of the music almost exactly. The actors picked it up quickly. The concerts – each more than an hour long – went very well.
But the celebrative post-concert moments were muted. There were no spontaneous congratulatory hugs. People would ask if the other was OK with a hug. In Italy…?! Some stayed distant, only smiling and waving. And the after-show meals were limited and usually outdoors. The feeling was good. The love was there. But the spontaneity was stunted.
After the Festival, I went with my wife to Rome – the city of her heart. We traveled by train on the Freccia Rossa – the high-speed “Red Arrow”. There were fewer places to sit or to gather in the station. Every other seat on the train was blocked off. Wearing masks, train attendants – like flight attendants – came by after departure with offerings – bottles of water and snacks – but also with packets containing masks and sanitizing wipes.
In the entrance of the B&B where we usually stay, next to the tray of chocolate covered espresso beans was a tray of hermetically sealed masks with the B&B logo on the package.
It was July and the streets of Rome, normally teeming with tourists, were practically deserted. Major monuments and tourist attractions were devoid of visitors. There was no line at the famed Della Palma gelato emporium near the Pantheon. One special museum exhibit we went to had attendants who, with profound apologies, kept the numbers of people in each room limited to five or six. And you couldn’t go back to see something again in a room you had already visited. The owner and staff at our favorite restaurant were warm and welcoming but also masked and distant.
The return flight was so empty that we easily got complimentary upgrades.
Shortly after our return we left for the West Coast to celebrate my hale and hearty father-in-law’s 90th birthday. We returned by way of Lake Michigan where we visited friends whom we not seen in years.
I’ve been back now for a few weeks. I can say that the experience of the summer was totally and profoundly restorative. For a little bit of time every day I was so involved that the virus didn’t seem to be there. But then a mask, a required Covid test, the distancing markers on the floor, a friend asking me if I was comfortable doing x or y, would jolt me back to the pernicious reality of the pandemic. And to the question, “Would doing this kill me?”
We visited my doctor friends in Milan before we left Italy. Usually upbeat and lots of fun, they were exhausted, angry and cynical. Tired by the crushingly long hours, angry with people who wouldn’t follow public health recommendations, and cynical that it would get better anytime soon. “We are worried about the Delta variant,” they said months before most people had even heard of it. “In a few weeks,” they said, “we will know how bad it will get.”
It has gotten pretty bad.
My summer didn’t kill me. But it killed others and threatens more.
My summer was a window with two views. One view was of a vista filled with beauty and music and history and family and friends. The other view was filled with a dark dystopia of aloneness and death. Both vistas are real. Both, for now, are constant.
I choose to concentrate on the beauty, the music, the love.
But I will wear my mask and get my shots.
I’d like to hear your story from this past “summer of Covid”. Send an email to me at email@example.com. Or you can leave a message on the contact page of my website: www. TonyLopresti.com. I’ll get back to you.
Bye for now!