Green Papayas on a Sunday Evening

TIDINGS

 

A harried wind has come

bearing in his arms

ill tidings.

 

Ratt-a-tatting timidly

on my door,

head hanging low,

hat in hand, my rain-drenched wind

pleads to be let in.

 

But I do not want him

in. I quickly shut my windows, and

stuff all the nooks and crannies.

I even cotton up my ears,

because I know.

 

Oh! I know. Don’t I know what my wind

has come to say?

 

He’s come to say the world is in utter disarray.

And, that I am weak and powerless. That I

can do nothing! Dear God! I can do nothing

but watch the horror unfold.

 

Perhaps I was being prescient when I wrote this poem before the world changed. I don’t know. All I know is that there is an odd stillness in my heart now. And the face of that woman selling green papayas is haunting me.

That Sunday evening seems like a distant dream today. We left the city of Hyderabad a few Sundays ago, and are still settling down in our own home, even as I write this piece. The shadow of the virus dims our sun. The numbers have climbed up so high, India now practically leads the global pandemic. Covid 19 has swept out from the cities into the hinterlands, where basic healthcare is negligent, forget Covid care. The virus has even entered our tiny community of seventy-two homes. An eerie silence wheels around the children’s play area. And that mainstay of Indian homes, the daily help, is missing. The sharp edges of people have softened since the early days of Covid. Neighbours are no longer discriminatory towards those in quarantine. Our face masks have created a fraternity which wasn’t there before. There is little difference between our lives in Hyderabad and Chennai. Except that here, in lieu of a large balcony, I have a terrace I can run up to, and stand beneath a vast rolling sky. It provides a respite from the walls. In Hyderabad, we needed to rush out of our homes just to get some fresh air.

That Sunday was no different. My husband and I drove towards Hyderabad’s older parts, where people live cheek by jowl, and the shops are open-to-the-sky carts and wooden platforms. Hyderabad’s historical monuments, the Golkonda fort, Kutab Shahi tombs and further down, the Charminar and Falak Nama Palace, are located there. I wanted to see them as we drove past. So, we went, armed with face masks, hand sanitisers, a large bottle of water, and a shopping bag, in case we found something to buy!

We cruised around, safe inside our mobile egg (that is what Arvind Adiga called cars in his Booker award winning book ‘The White Tiger’). The evening sky had turned into a violet velvet cape, pinned up by the brightest Jupiter of the year. The narrow roads were chock-a-block with people. It was in fact a scene straight out of a village fair, a mela. There were men selling shocking pink cotton candy on sticks, balloons, cheap plastic toys, spicy crispy fried snacks in newspaper cones, corn on the cobs roasting on charcoal stoves on trolleys. People sat with their wares laid out on plastic sheets on the dirt tracks beside the narrow road. Second-hand clothes, rubber footwear, folding umbrellas, fruits and vegetables.

Nobody seemed to care about safety. Most of them did not have masks on. They were obviously not practising social distancing, but were laughing, talking, backslapping and hugging each other with abandon. Some women and children crowded around a handpump, gossiping or playing as they waited their turn to draw water. The scene was a far cry from the other India of glass and concrete towers, air-conditioned homes and malls, and all the necessities and luxuries available in all developed countries. A world we too are privy to.

If anything, Covid 19 has outlined the thousand-headed social divide in India with thick black indelible lines. The have-nots out-number the haves by far despite the strides India has made in the past decade. Online classes are a privilege the majority of Indian school children cannot afford. What the world knows about India is always a few notches off the mark, whether it is the good, the bad or the ugly. This subject is so complex and convoluted that it cannot be explained away in a few lines or even chapters! But if I were to draw a quick sketch, I’d say that those who are subjugated and deprived in India face it from so many angles that they have no fear left. They leave it all to fate. In their world, they have only each other. This was the spirit I observed all around me from behind my rolled-up car window, as we negotiated our way past the human throngs, stray goats and cows, and unruly traffic. And, we also saw the papayas!

“Want to pick up a few?” said my husband in all seriousness.

The woman selling the fruit understood from long experience that she had a potential customer. Her body shifted, almost imperceptibly. I knew if I gestured, she would bring a few over for me to choose.

Raw-green papayas are nutritious and delicious. Their most famous avatar may be the Thai salad, but their buttery texture when boiled and mashed makes them a great substitute for mashed potatoes with roast pork or beef. A pat of butter, salt and pepper is all you need. Bengalis, like us, love them grated and steamed with whole aromatic spices like bay leaves, green cardamoms, cloves and cinnamon, and topped with shredded coconut and clarified butter. My mouth watered. It had been a while since we had eaten them. Even from a distance, and in the fading light, I could tell how fresh these were. Glossy jade green, with their cut stems still oozing the milky sap.
“You think it’s worth the risk?” I said, even as my fingers itched to touch them. “I mean, nobody’s following any safety rules here.”

My husband swerved just then, taking most of the car out of the road and onto the dirt track. A gleaming Range Rover Autobiography muscled its way forward. A man in his late thirties or early forties was at the wheel. He barely noticed our much smaller vehicle. Irritated, I looked away. At that instant the eyes of the woman with the perfect green papayas met mine. She smiled with compassion at this privileged woman, fearful of the poor and angry at the uber rich. Her eyes seemed to fling questions at me: Would I recoil if my hands involuntarily touched hers? Would I rush home to disinfect myself?

We drove back home without the coveted papayas. Some weeks later we relocated. The young men from the packers and movers kept their masks on in our presence. But took them off blithely during their lunch break. To them we were delicate creatures, not of robust flesh and blood like themselves. Yet we are all brethren under the Indian sky. And, if the little poem I wrote was prescient, my sentiments were wrong. One can always do something, no matter how insignificant. That small something may be a thought in the mind or a feeling, but it is still a shift towards change.

Gratitude for what we have. Frugal and mindful living. Respect for this world and all in it. And outrage at what we have knowingly and unknowingly done. These may sound like platitudes mouthed by a woman living a sheltered life, but to quote Benjamin Franklin, “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”

From the Editors

Winter comes (in Provence, it looks much the same as summer from a distance, only crisp and windier), and with it the end of a long, harrowing year. A year of sorrow, for the families of a million and a half. A year of change, some say, though change may be less eagerly anticipated than a return to normal. An opportunity to take a break, for a lucky few, to think, to watch, to wonder. To realise that, no matter how sheltered, no one is safe from the brutal consequences of environmental destruction.

As I asked short story authors to share their sense of wonder with us, to stop and look at the world and report on the beauties they glimpsed there, I had no idea how relevant that question would be, a year later. Yet as the virus came to us out of destroyed forests and ravaged species, the question of the cost of sheltered lifestyles is more pressing than ever. How can we protect our environment if we are hardly ever reminded that it exists? Living in the heart of cities, it is far too easy to forget that there is such a thing as nature, messy, scary and uncontrollable, when trees around us are slashed into submission every year, weeds plucked out of pavements and birds driven out with spikes and hoses. Nature is no longer a fact of life, but a rumour, a holiday experience. Our lives have adjusted around its absence.

There are reports that as covid numbers soar, sales of scented candles drop, as customers report on their disappointing lack of smell. Whether it is true or not, the realisation gives one pause: we live in a world where it is plausible to imagine that thousands of people would fail to realise that they’ve lost one of their senses, so little do they use it in their lives. It is equally disturbing to hear the phrase ‘augmented reality’ used, without irony, to refer to games that restrict reality to pixels on a palm-sized screen. The enormity of the loss, when the reality itself of the world we live in, its weight, its sensorial presence, has faded away from our lives should no longer be allowed to go unnoticed.

But it would be far too easy to answer with nostalgia. There is no utopian past to go back to; we are the direct result of the centuries that preceded us, where nature was an enemy, a poison, an endless source of fear. We did not descend from a golden age. But maybe we can make it come true.

So let’s make it happen. Let’s head towards a world where the ground under our feet crawls with life, and we don’t call it vermin. A world where glyphosate is only allowed to keep existing to rectify past mistakes, where trees grow free and rivers run clean, where the people who live off untamed forests and tundras no longer have to fight for dignity and peace, where the beasts that terrify us are left alone rather than slaughtered, when we turn the mistakes of our past into something that can thrive again.

This is a time of waiting, of stillness, but only if we accept it so.

When winter descends on Provence, the north wind sometimes turns the sky into the purest, brightest shade of blue. Such stillness can only come from the deepest turmoil, air twirling above in mighty currents, even though we cannot see it. Only when we look down to the ground do we notice the trees swaying. Only when we pause at last to look at what stands right in front of us do we realise that movement is in the nature of the world, and it only takes a strong will to steer it where we want it to go.

The present is clay, sitting cool and wet in the palm of your hand. Squash it, twist it, mold it. Shape it into something beautiful.

From the Editors: a scribbled note in a water-damaged notebook

The call for submissions for Reckoning 5’s poetry started as a scribbled note in a water-damaged notebook I lost years ago. It was Toronto labour rights activist and scholar Dr. Winnie Ng’s answer to a 2013 panel question on what she’d tell young organizers: that we can organize from rage, but where it was possible, you could go the long haul if you organized from joy. I lost the notebook, so I’m not going to get that quote right.

Living in a busy urban downtown sharpens your vision for the natural world living alongside and around you. You start relationships: with the raccoon that topples over your compost bin to eat tomato scraps; with the ash tree whose lowest leaves are low enough to, on the days you wear high heels to work, brush the top of your head like a benediction. You learn to truly value that ecosystem threaded through the cracks, and realize that busy spaces are full of half-visible mitzvot. You can think nobody is and then your vision sharpens to those little signs, and you realize: somebody is. That public native species garden didn’t grow itself, and those squirrels aren’t fat and happy on their own account. Someone planted chestnut trees. Someone is, just outside your frame of reference, doing the work.

Our call for poetry was about those intimacies: the seed waiting in your pocket, cupped handfuls of gorgeous things in motion, little gods. What work you were doing, and why you did it. Maybe we could all sharpen our vision, together.

We had no idea what was coming.

In Toronto, I have spent this pandemic year uneasily hibernating as part of a high-risk household. I stepped outside in May and the trees were leafing outward; the next time, in mid-June, the flowers were already going to fruit. It has been hard to know whose precautions to trust, where the future was leading.

Meanwhile, submissions poured in from every continent except Antarctica, and built a paper spine to keep my head up as the case counts fluctuated. Every week this year, I’ve spent a few hours reading poetry and essays about those little flecks of possibility: vivid, loving descriptions of the ground as wrinkled wise skin; laughing lines about coral; how far you can travel on patched-up sails; “we breathe and breathe and / breathe”. Ambivalent, pragmatic, realistic, joyous, fierce, those carefully nurtured loves started to feel like sonar, describing the shape of a world latticed with somebody is. Everything was most-beautiful. Webbed between chat servers, databases, and international video calls scheduled delicately to link three time zones—systems that felt like they should be so tenuous—what’s emerged is so solidly real.

Doing this project in a disrupted, unsettled year meant no matter what I could find to fear, somebody is. The process of putting this volume together gave us the proof. I can close my eyes and see a constellation: hundreds of people who believe in the limitless potential of being for something fiercely enough to write about it during a global pandemic.

That’s what I hope this offers you: a volume that holds the proof, that shakes with the force of that jotted-down note seven years ago, organize from joy. Even though the notebook got soaked until it was unreadable, was lost in a move, and I had to dig through old websites and event listings to find the conference and rediscover Dr. Ng’s name to properly credit her for the impact, I remembered the important part all the way through: If I love things and work from that love, my strength will not fail me.

So, here we are—not all of us, and not in equal circumstances: on our balconies, in wide-open spaces, in overcrowded housing with a half-dozen people we love, doing the work with our hands, doing the work with our mouths, holding ourselves or other people together, failing for today to do it, following instinct, following best practice, fumbling, planting, advocating, pushing back, pushing forward. Tending tiny miracles until they split the pavement.

Grieving Season

I take my father’s ghost and a crochet bird nest with me. The air is clean and clear, my body is empty, and no-one mentions the war.
It is January. The nest is a half-built tiny home for a tiny injured thing. The left-over yarn I’m using is messy as life, cobbled together. An emergency measure.

 

We already know which cities will go dry. Which will be flooded.

I tuck the nest, with hook and yarn, into a (reused) paper bag.

And somewhere there is an animal. The last of its kind.

 

In March, we are sent to our homes, while we still have them.

We’ve already forgotten islands. We’ve already forgotten fire.

I fold my father’s ghost and slip it between my ribs. I wear my grandmother’s thin Irish skin as a mask and learn how to breathe. Nothing is wasted. My liver came down from my Grandfather.

We are sent to our homes.

On the TV the rich men take turns.

And somewhere is an animal. The last of its kind.

 

I have forgotten the unfinished birds’ nest by August, until I find it on a side table. It is made of left-over strings of yarn in every colour and it is the ugliest thing I’ve ever created. I remember when I sat watching the world on fire. All I could do was twist and hook with great seriousness.

On the TV the men don’t mention tiny birds and their vaporised homes.

The people are dying (heart disease, cancer).

The people are dying (suicide, hunger, mosquito).

The people are dying (virus unknown).

“People really die and no longer one by one,” Sigmund Freud said (Freud, via Victoriano, 2003 212).

On the TV the men come and go but there’s never time to grieve.

Fire season is nearly here again.

And somewhere there is an animal, the last of its kind.

 

I am 11 years old, sitting under a tree next to the river. A migraine peels apart my brain. My grandma’s cool hand on my face.

“Just let the pain in, don’t resist,” she says. “Relax. The pain comes from resisting.”

I relax my mind. The seagulls wheel.

The tree holds us in its shade.

 

Here’s the pain I let in: I have stopped thinking about the baby bird. (I think of it as a baby but it could just be very, very small). I’m slow at crochet and not very good with babies either, having never had one wanted one, having never seen the need.

But now the world is full of endings and somewhere an animal is the last of its kind.
My Grandma’s cool hand on my skin.

The world is full of endings and I am the daughter of a daughter.

I will never have a daughter.

And somewhere, an animal is the last of its kind.

 

There are no ultimatums with ghosts.

My dad is a ghost who, when living, would enter the country in secret, so he could surprise us after school. Thirty years before every kid in the country saw the animal corpses. Thirty years before we started baking bread with fervour, stuck at home, safe at home, neither, never. He leans in, all paper, and reminds me that it was him. That he told them where to dig for the oil and the gas.

Here, on Noongar country, I was born, he was born, his dad was born, and before that, the boat, the English towns, the Irish fields. The sky is clear, there is no emergency for white folks, until there is.

And somewhere there’s an animal. The last of its kind.

Dropping its bones for the future (what future?) to name.

 

I tuck his ghost back between my ribs, I take him with me to the protest march. But my voice is stuck, there are feathers and guilt in my throat.

On the TV, the rich men come and go.

Fire season is nearly here again.

“People really die, and no longer one by one,” Dr Freud said. “It is no longer an accident.” (Freud, via Victoriano, 2003 212).

And somewhere there is an animal, the last of its kind.

 

The Noongar calendar has six seasons, because December is different to February, but they all burn just the same these days.

The ghost of my dad folds up small. A beginning, an ending, an origami weight of never growing old.

It’s eleven seconds to midnight. The rich men wear suits and wave showbusiness hands.
Now is not the time.

Now is not time.

Now is not.

I thought there’d be more shouting, at the end.

And somewhere, there is an animal.

The last of its kind.

 

—January – September, 2020

Works cited

Victoriano, Filipe, Aaron Walker and Carl Good Fiction, Death and Testimony: Toward a Politics of the Limits of Thought, Discourse 25, (2003): 211–230. Sourced at http://www.jstor.org/stable/41389671.

In Isolation

In isolation, I thought maybe nature was the answer. No other humans, just the organic Earth and everything else that lived on it. If we were the lice, then all those other plants and animals were what? The too-tiny-to-see worms inhabiting our eyelashes? All the microorganisms living on our bodies, unnoticed until something goes wrong and the benign skin bacteria begins to rot the blood?

The metaphor got away from me. It’s useless anyway. Language is for communicating with other humans. The world doesn’t care what we call it.

And so I took long walks at midnight. Sometimes I heard frogs. Sometimes crickets. Sometimes birds whose bodies were fooled by the glow of the city that never died. Sometimes someone else walking the sidewalks, face also masked. Everything went quiet when I passed, ghosting like a dream I couldn’t shake.

In my fourplex, the sounds of my housemates were distant. Practicing drums. Loud and laugh-salted phone conversations. The thud and groans of home exercise or masturbation. There was no passing each other in the front entry. No hellos. The cars drove themselves out in the morning and parked themselves at night. Packages delivered on the front steps walked their way inside.

I was lucky to have this luxury of isolation. I had savings. A job I could do online. When I went to the grocery store, I eyed everyone with suspicion, and they suspected me right back. This would bring us closer, I remember an op-ed claiming. Distance makes the heart grow fonder. People are more compassionate with the suffering they can’t see.

A shaky claim, but I’d bought into it.

But in the grocery store and the post office where other people were unavoidable, all I saw were the eyes and the upper part of the face, eyebrows angled down, foreheads wrinkled in annoyance and fear. Do you know the way an ear moves when a person frowns so deeply their face collapses in on itself? Or how the throat visibly tightens if you’re straining to hold back a scream?

I practiced in the mirror, eliminating all the telltale signs visible around the mask. It is so much safer to be a blank slate, reflecting nothing. With all the masks, how can we know who to hold accountable? By the time the mask is off, it’s too late.

Months passed. The world evolved. Civilization adjusted. Every online meeting I attended, I blanked my camera. My cat became a great conversationalist. Television windowed a world that was and would never be again.

Oh, not even that is the truth, I can tell you now. There was an alternate universe in old photographs, one which never even existed. Or if it existed, it was always an illusion with as much solidity as a soap bubble. The illusion popped and our eyes are stinging and we can choose to keep our eyes closed or wash them out and look around us with a new, pained vision.

I say we because it’s easier than saying I.

Here’s the truth.

We are each in a tiny spaceship, a bubble just large enough for us and the supplies to survive. An attic efficiency in space. Bed. Kitchen. Exercise machine. Entertainment box. Each ship can survive indefinitely, which is good, because each of us is traveling through space for an indefinite time. Like dandelion seeds, we have been blown from Earth and shot out into the vastness of the empty black.

Food and water are effectively infinite. Air, too. Everything is recycled. Nano-machines ever carefully clear the air of the dust made by our flaking skin and shed hair. Something something relativism makes it so we age virtually not at all. And communication between us is equally magical and instantaneous. There are explanations for why it all works, but the science doesn’t matter. Whether we understand how and why we are here, here is where we are. In an enclosed space, each of us alone.

Hello? Can you hear me? If you can hear me, press the red flashing button.

One day we’ll travel beyond the Sun’s encompassing light and it’ll shrink to be just another star. Already, all the planets are invisible except by computer projection. I know your voice is out there. So just press the button to open the link.

All we have is each other.

 

—September 9, 2020

Writing in the Time of Coronavirus 2

One thing that’s been blooming in this coronavirus crisis is dreams. Near the beginning of lockdown, a friend told me hers: the landscape outside her house was destroyed. But it was replaced by a green cactus with kangaroo-bear hybrids lolloping round it. It seemed to symbolise devastation and enforced change, but something new and tougher was growing from it.

My latest story involves a prison, and a tremendous sense of longing for and guilt about what we’ve lost through our destruction of the environment. Oddly, we’d succeeded in displacing ourselves. As I’ve had more time to listen to the birds singing above the traffic, and to observe a chopped-down tree continuously sending out new shoots in the back garden, I’ve been cheered by nature’s astonishing tenacity, and saddened at how, if we don’t get our arses into gear, we won’t be a part of it. Already, we barely belong.

What has also crept into my writing is paying more attention to all of the senses, but especially touch. Currently single, not touching people feels like a dismemberment of something crucial: connection through the body. I’ve written quite a few stories about apes and this strange absence makes me think about how they touch each other continuously, and how the warmth of another body bypasses the mind and hooks into the sense of belonging necessary to all human beings.

I’ve been wracking my brains about how this sense of belonging can help overcome the enormity of the climate crisis facing us. People’s actions during the covid crisis are a giant crucible, reflecting how we’ve acted in the past and showing how we could do things differently in the future.

There are no goals for me in writing fiction, only open-endedness: feeling my way, seeing what comes up, and following it. It’s the opposite of the control and dehumanisation inherent in the late-capitalist view of what a human should be like.

Writing constantly surprises me with the answers I find, without trying to, answers that seem to come from the sum of my experience with other human beings, which is why I think of writing as a communal act.

So, who knows how writing fiction can help change the world. Some submission calls ask you to imagine a positive future. That has its place. But writing about the sadness of the world could just as easily change something. The reader’s absorption of the writing is as mysterious as the process of creation. How to put a value on such a subtle, but real, thing? Which is why it’s so hard to fund the arts in our hyper-capitalist society.

But don’t you always remember that thing you read years ago, that you’ve never forgotten, that in fact changed your life?

Whatever happens, I know I’m going to keep on with this odd activity called writing, that is all about exploring and possibilities, without pressure. The crisis has affirmed this for me.

 

—August 26, 2020

Escaping in a little boy’s play.

It’s been some cold four months. Even though our heaviest rainfalls happen between March and July, and are always chaperoned by intense heat, these months have been cold ones. Somehow, the months had the biting loneliness and endlessness one only gets on cold nights. Living, for those of us that haven’t died, has been like lying in a large bed in December with no coverings, in a room with large open windows. Alone. Wondering when morning will come, if morning will come.

What I have done the most in these days and months has been watch. I watched because in watching you’re persons removed, you’re apart from the pains and the confusion. I watched my four year old nephew who got so little time to watch cartoons when we all soaked our eyes in Al jazeera resort to staging plays with his pairs of slippers, and cups, and sticks. I watched as people who once had full lives, who went to the gym and planned diets they knew they’d not stick to and holidays they could never afford became reduced to numbers and cases. When I went out to buy vegetables from the small market at a junction not so far from my house, I watched faces that knew so little of what was happening in the world outside their front doors and stalls forced to close up shop early or close altogether and go hungry without explanations or provisions… Watching was a lot of comfort but at the same time a lot of pain.

While counting the cold days from March to July, and watching, I wrote poetry. I didn’t write poetry because I wanted to bide time as my cousin did when he opened a Tiktok account to follow trends of short videos. I wrote poems because that was the only way I could stay sane. I wrote poems because I needed to stop talking to myself and I couldn’t stop talking to myself knowing that people who once had full lives, beautiful lives, sad lives, all kinds of lives were now nothing but numbers and cases.

The poems, all twenty of them, were imagined lives and significant others of the cases and numbers. Some recovered and went home others died and others faced agony within white walls and under bright lights and the stench of disinfectants, not knowing if they will live to go home or not. I hoped that these imaginary lives would add some warmth to the coldness of numbers.

When I wasn’t watching the news, wishing I could give those cold words and numbers the broadcasters called out a hug, I was watching my nephew, all William in his Globe, casting Romeo and Juliet, and having them live happily ever after. Thinking back now, I marvel at the escapism his plays offered him and I; creativity rescued me from the chill of numbers.

 

—July 30, 2020

It’s a Dark Time and I Try to Be a Light

I’ve been interviewing artists of various kinds in New Haven since March about their response to the pandemic, and I’ve been telling people throughout that my job as a journalist has often been a real help, because I’m telling the stories of people who are adapting, people who are still working on things, who are sort of doing OK. I’ve also noticed that it seems sometimes like they’re talking to each other, like they seem to be on the same page. What’s below is constructed from quotes from 22 different people.

 

This virus is a horrifying gift—a life-and-death gift—for us to examine our priorities for how we want to be in this world. The system was set up for us to work too much and forget as much as possible. This has made us aware, if we didn’t already know, of how on a wire our lives were.

 

It’s not necessary for us to be stressed for the sake of productivity. If everyone just had $1,000 a month coming in from a value-added tax, people might be able to stay indoors and not have to risk their lives to get groceries. How robust a system can capitalism be if it needs to be bailed out by socialism every 10 years? If we didn’t spend $90 billion on a bomb the size of Rhode Island, we could have a test kit in everybody’s mailbox.

 

We are not going to go back as a society to the way it was before. People won’t want to go back. We have to find out how to have the space to access that part of our brains and hearts, to take care of ourselves so we can take care of others. We got to lock arms and get through it together. What better way to uplift people’s spirits than to do what we love to do? It’s a dark time and I try to be a light.

 

I find a lot of solace in history as time goes on, because you see the patterns. This has happened, and people had to figure it out, and yet we’re still here. Things continued. This is all just sort of a trial run—working out the kinks for what you have to do with climate change—anyway.

 

The danger isn’t running out of stories; it’s not telling them. I didn’t have the time before to finish records, but now I do. Creatives always say that: We need more time. Now we have the time. We are understanding what a moment in time is. We can sit on a bench and think: light and leaves do that? Bathrooms are the cleanest they’ve ever been. They could be this clean all the time. People have a lot of time to work on stuff. Maybe we’ll all learn how to farm and cook.

 

I’m not afraid of dying, We’re all going to leave here; it’s just how we go. I truly have a deep, deep trust that there is a lot going on that we don’t understand, or can’t wrap our heads around. I think my whole childhood and young adult life got me to this point. We have one life on this earth. I’m in my 50s. I want to eat every good thing in every day. I have all this wood laying around—a lot of random, found objects. I have a bag of paints and glues. I got some papier-mache. So I’ll come up with something.

 

The future: We live there, it’s weird. Hey—what are you going to do? Part of being an artist is getting in touch with your humanity. It’s being vulnerable. We’re all facing an existential threat. Connecting with people—it’s why people keep showing up when it’s so imperfect. This is the thing that reminds us of what it means to be human. That’s what we want to capture when we get the chance, on the other side, when we’re face to face. Even if we’re six feet apart.

 

What do we see through the window? There was a nice day, and people were out and walking their dogs as if they had never been outside before. It is remarkable how good people are being to each other. Go outside and the spring is happening. The swamp maple is covered with little red furry blossoms. The iris is poking out from the ground. The daffodils are blooming like mad. Those are things that happen every year. This is not about the chaos. This is just Earth doing its thing. Every year it comes to life.

 

Don’t give up. Work on you. Do some self-reflection, because once this thing lifts, we got to hit the ground running. We got work to do. There are forces in the unseen that can help us if we’re open to them. There are ways of working that allow for repair to happen. Now more than ever, we have to reach out, figuring out ways of supporting each other. We have to reach out to something bigger than us. It’s the new growth after a forest fire. Make new things. We’re going into a new world. We need new songs.

 

—July 8, 2020

Love in the Time of Covid-19

Dear editor,

I am submitting the personal ad below as a letter to the editor in order to save money for any possible coronavirus-related financial hardship I may encounter. Thank you in advance for waiving, in the spirit of the times, the normal fee for classifieds.

 

CNM seeks CNW

 

Coronavirus-negative man seeks coronavirus-negative woman for social distancing, lockdown, self-isolation, quarantine, hospitalization, possible long-term relationship. Let’s avoid each other from the start! Especially interested in meeting compulsive handwashers and/or professional epidemiologists. Please, no asymptomatic super-spreaders. Attractive elbows a definite plus, though physical intimacy will be very limited for an unspecified period, subject to the dictates of government officials. Interested parties should transmit their astrological and vital signs to the CDC and await further instruction.

 

(s)James Treat

Silver City

 

—Originally appeared in the Silver City Daily Press, March 17, 2020

Living in a Metaphor

I worked on my manuscript, yesterday, for the first time in weeks. I feel creatively, existentially frail; it is hard to think through in the same way I have always assumed that fish find the ocean hard to think through. Immersed in the conditions of your own existence, it’s hard to find perspective. The challenge is to learn to see better.

My country, ostensibly a global power, has the highest death rate in Europe. Our leaders never quite invited the public to join in street parties on VE Day, but they sure did switch up their messaging on the subject just in time for Little Englanders everywhere to mass in the streets, in misguided celebration of our glorious, defanged history. Blitz spirit, and all that; keep calm and carry on. I am not immersed because I am alone in my studio flat, shuttling between my desk and my bed, forcing myself through sit-ups on the carpet. I have exactly one window onto the world, and it looks directly onto a garden to which I have no access. The metaphors write themselves, and yet, sitting down to express them, I’m bereft.

I am trying to forgive myself for being unmoored to such an extent. To a point, the pace of the world has slowed to a degree where this is feasible. But I have it on good authority (from the people who pay my wages) that my work still needs to get done. Ultimately, whatever ‘new normal’ we’ve reached has one thing in common with the way we lived before: it’s okay to not be okay, until such time as it interferes with someone else’s bottom line. I am acutely conscious of how inconvenient I am as I struggle to do what needs to be done — professionally first, and then domestically, and (finally, as always) creatively.

Do I think the world will change? I feel just as precarious, just as thinly-stretched as I did before the virus went worldwide. If anything, the national mood here in England has become more jingoistic and hateful, not less. I don’t have a great deal of faith.

But maybe I’m just too deep in the paint. I’ve watched my friends organise protests, build networks of mutual aid, create art that speaks to the possibilities they believe in. My small-c conservative parents have started to question the authority of the police. Immersion in one’s own solitude and exhaustion is still immersion; I can’t discount the possibility that the stagnation I feel is less than half of the story.

I want to believe it’s a story I will write one day. I want to believe that I’ll learn to see it clearly enough to tell it as it deserves to be told. I may not have confidence that the world at large will discover a better, braver way to be, in the grip of the kind of collective trauma that will shape us all in time — but I do believe that we will survive, and that when we tell the stories of how we survived, there will be a point. Call it cautious optimism. It’s about the best I can do.

 

—June 26, 2020