Your quarantine begins on March 8. Spring break opens with the administrative murmurings of temporary closure. Days later, the news is confirmed with an email from one of too many deans. New Haven is quiet over the breaks, but this time the silence hurts rather than heals. Undergrads, grad students, postdocs secret themselves away to home, to silk-sand beaches, European cities, or dusky archives. The air is cold, but the sun sings of the coming of spring. The trees know it before we do. For them, very little has changed.
A handful of your friends meets up every now and then to get work done at a local café. Then “the ick” arrives in New Haven, and suddenly that is no longer possible. Cafés, restaurants, bars close here as they do around the world. The streets are empty. They even shut down the traffic lights downtown, claiming there’s not enough people to sustain so intricate a spider web of streets and signals. The entire earth retreats indoors to endure a new normal.
Quarantine has been a void. Time doesn’t matter. Diet doesn’t matter. Discipline doesn’t matter. There is a rhythm to life but you can’t catch it, can’t jump into it. As you grow accustomed to the tempo, there’s a change – things get faster, your feet get slower. Your body sags and dips, you stutter. You slip, you fall. You heave yourself up, try to get back into the saddle of the day, but it’s not so easy anymore. Wouldn’t this be an easy transition? Most of your work can be done at home, anyways. You have all your books. You have a working computer, a stablish internet connection. You have assignments, tasks, lectures to keep your days ordered and organized. Yet, you can’t catch a break. Although you cannot master the dance of the new normal, your graceless feet-tripping is in sync with everyone else whose feet clatter in this endless night. Every day is Friday evening, but you have the flu.
In the first few weeks, you were feeling good. You’re still gainfully employed and grateful. You did not quite ache for the presence of others, but found the sudden prohibition on connection unnerving. You formed a closed loop with friends to steady the course, and vowed to hang out with only one another as you wait for this nauseating song to end. Yet it whirs on, your feet ache, and no doubt you and your selected friends have outgrown the charm of one another’s presence. There are voices in my ears telling you things you know are not true, as is prone to happen every time the seasons change. April showers water the flower of dread in your mind’s garden.
The semester picks up again, and you and the teaching staff for your course stumble your way through the first few sessions. You-all meet perhaps too often, sometimes just to hear the simulacrum of another person’s voice or to consider the facsimile of another person’s face. A cyber fatigue creeps – you know it very well, now. Something about Zoom wrings you out. A day full of back-to-back meetings and go-see’s around New Haven is the equivalent of two one-hour Zoom meetings, during which you have not moved from that uncomfortable chair in your living room. You sigh because you’re tired of talking to people. You sigh because you miss talking to people.
You go on walks around your neighborhood. At first you do not like this. You are disturbed by how few people wear face masks. You wear yours in order to remind people of their lack of consideration for the health and wellbeing of others. They’re so selfish, you sneer in the vault of your mind. On the days you forgot yours at home, you feel every particle that lands on your body. You are nauseated by every surface you must touch. Every door handle and credit card terminal fills you with dread. You wash your hands, but you never count to 20 (or is it 40? You can’t remember). You wash your hands with scalding hot water, because your mother said that only hot water can kill germs. But viruses aren’t alive, and thus cannot be killed.
You listen to the news as you get in your morning exercise. Or maybe you listen as you eat your third bowl of Cheerios. Who can judge you, sitting there in your underwear on your couch, your cat (or a friend’s cat) skating around your feet? Korva Coleman tells you about something stupid and/or terrible that the president said in his now-daily coronavirus briefings. You laugh at the absurdity, or your furl your brows – there is no difference. You complete another uninspired set of sit-ups and feel the muscles tense under your paunch of quarantine weight. Outside it’s raining.
The semester is over and you let out a sigh of relief. You finish your grading, send out your grades and wish your students a good summer. Then you find that you have nothing left to do. It’s the end of April, and you’ve given yourself until June to begin working on your dissertation. You come up with all sorts of funny ideas on how to fill the month between now and then. They are funny because they are absurd — you lack the discipline or the resolve to get them done. You clean your apartment for the fourth time this week. You take your daily two-hour nap.
You’ve taken up alcohol as a hobby. The clerk at the liquor store at the end of the block now recognizes you, even when your face is covered by your repurposed pillowcase mask. You smile to greet her as you enter, but she can’t see it. You buy your six pack of Lagunitas, your Spanish red, your bargain whiskey. You swipe from behind the plastic curtain draped between you and her.
You find yourself in “the weird part” of YouTube. Why do yo find videos about wasp nests being removed from the inside of walls so fascinating? You love when the man pulls out the fat wriggling grubs and feeds them to his clucking hens. You watch with contentment as a mink flushes rats from their underground dens, only for their necks to be snapped by a motley crew of hounds. Your YouTube algorithm is entirely fucked up. This is who you are now.
You break social distancing protocol every week, it seems. Sometimes you go to the store simply because you know you shouldn’t. Sometimes you meet your dealer and he chats you up in his dirty car for far too long. You don’t know where he’s been, who’s company he’s kept. You may have even had an illicit Tinder date out of desperation, your body starving, your mind ratty with stir-crazy boredom. The two of you are so anxious that whatever happens between you isn’t very good. And even if it’s good, this person has already proven themselves reckless and irresponsible. You two have no future together. Of course you never speak again.
You’ve gotten fat.
You’re hungry all the time.
Are you depressed?
You’ve started talking to yourself… or now you’re more comfortable doing it without the fear of someone in the hallway, through the wall, hearing you.
You started reading a book and did not finish. It’s like you can’t absorb anything. You read the same lines over and over again. You give up and check what’s going on on Twitter. When you put your phone down, the book has tumbled to the floor and it’s now nighttime.
You miss your mother.
You’re wearing that shirt again. When was the last time you did laundry? Changed your sheets? Brushed your teeth?
You have so many plans for when outside opens again. First is brunch with your friends. Bottomless mimosas. Laughter. Sunlight. Next is a concert. You’ll match your mask with your fit. That should be enough, right? Then maybe a quick trip somewhere to spread the ick. A poor Caribbean country too desiccated by the sudden drop in tourism that they don’t turn you back at the border. Hot sand between your toes. American food served poolside by brown servants coughing in their elbows. Cocktail umbrellas. Pinyah coladas. You wake up from your fantasy. 80,000 Americans dead.
It seems a package from Amazon is waiting for you every morning. You feel conflicted because Bezos is trash and people are dying in Amazon warehouses. Each parcel could be contaminated. You wash your hands after handling, although you feel like it doesn’t eve matter. You don’t want to support this company anymore, but you also don’t have much of a choice. You’ve been conditioned to not tolerate anything other than two-day shipping. Why wait 8 days for your conditioner to arrive, when it could be here by tomorrow at 8pm, for two dollars cheaper? You order because you alone cannot defeat Bezos’ monopoly and you feel defeated. When your purchase arrives twenty seven hours later, you’ve already forgotten that you’re upset.
This is your life in the bunker, cruising along the Möbius strip. Your new normal. You stare out your window, and for a minute you forget that you’re in the endtimes. A cardinal is singing somewhere. Fat bellied robins pick at worms in the grass. The trees bud, blossom, thicken, scatter pollen, dance in the breeze.
The air is cold, but the sun sings of the coming of spring. The trees wave to one another. For them, very little has changed.
Image by Papa Ibra Tall
If you try your best, you can.“Optimistic,” Radiohead, Kid A
If you try your best, you can.
The best you can is good enough.
It’s the end of August and school is about to start again. For the past month, I’ve been trying to figure out how I feel about my upcoming second year of graduate school. Throughout this summer I’ve been slowly and carefully reading the marginalia from my first year of graduate study, unpacking situations, reliving conversations, and trying to learn from my experiences. I was unhappy, perhaps the most unhappy I’ve ever been in my life. Everything I had once thought about myself, the great pillar of my self-worth, seemed suddenly called into question. I was worried that I had made a mistake in coming to grad school, or in picking Yale, or in deciding on a research topic which seemed to get more frayed and frayed at its edges. I was unsure of what it meant to be a scholar, of how scholarly writing or scholarly reading should look. I was disenchanted with academia and uncertain of the weight of my dreams. I was unsure of myself as a person, not really aware of how people understood me, displeased with how my friends had begun to treat me, and unsure of how to remedy these situations. I was very lonely, and I felt at times as if no one wanted to be around me. I began to think I was a person undeserving of close friends.Continue reading “year in review: onwards”
I’m supposed to be doing readings right now, but I’ve been so distracted by my emotions and my thoughts (on topics I won’t discuss here) and have started writing to distract myself, hopefully with the intention of clearing my mind. Since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to keep a diary, but was never able to write in one consistently. At the same time, being a 10 year old, I didn’t have much to say, since my day consisted mostly of going to school, seeing my friends, learning things, seeing my parents, etc, all of which were so quotidian they didn’t, in my mind, warrant being written down. They were as monotonous as breathing, or waking up, or blinking; activities which provided the background for my everyday life, the details which were often omitted from the manuscript because they added nothing of substance, because human beings themselves have come to take them for granted. When I got to college, I started journaling as a way of addressing a mounting issue in my life; my anxiety disorder. Unable to speak to anyone, feeling stupid for feeling so uncomfortable in public space, I turned inward, went inside, through writing in order to get to the central question: “Why are you anxious?”
“Why?” A question which has no true answer, which proves the existence of the small, interior realities in which we all live, isolated, distanced yet nevertheless influenced by the world around us. The “rooms” of headspace, unpopulated countries comprised of regions and provinces which are often frequented and avoided. Perhaps not unpopulated; peopled with memories, shades of loved and hated ones, shadows of ourselves. “Why?” A verbal question whose answer is never satisfactory, for we can never adequately fit ourselves into another person’s headspace and therefore understand the context or lack thereof which feeds its dissatisfying response. A question which when spoken aloud only furthers the rift between interlocutors in its affirmation of the notion that one’s thoughts are distinct, are unintelligible, are irrational, that one’s mind operates differently, that one’s reality functions differently than another’s. “Why?” A command of a question; it demands an answer, is imperative in its unanswered disbelief and distrust. A question which forces the mind to translate rabid thoughts, mental gibberish into language which cannot and never has been able to support it. Meaning is lost, details fall by the wayside, for language is not enough. A question whose answer is never enough.
I’m working on becoming a more selfish (autocentric) person, and it’s a long process with no end in sight.
I have been getting better at dealing with my image this summer. I suppose this has been the best summer I’ve had in a while, and this is mostly because I have felt almost entirely in control of how things pan out. There are no unaccounted-for variables, bugs in the code, missing semicolons, unbracketed while loops, to throw off the whole program, report only a blank, anxious screen. I had been for weeks haunted by the memories of previous summers, almost as if my body can tell that at this very time last year I was in great distress over things I could not understand until they happened, weird whispers in the allegedly empty corridors of my mind, telling me “things are not as they seem,” dismissed as irrational until things were indeed not how they seemed. Bumping into ghosts who refuse to materialize, who would rather stay shrouded by the memories which sustain them than realize that their ghostliness, their ghastliness, is itself an illusion. Looking up whether or not I can hypnotize myself into forgetting someone. Trying to distract myself from my thoughts, from the inquest of my memories, using other people’s voices, Black women podcasters, even when they are talking about things I don’t care about (celebrity gossip), liberal alarmist pundits, squawking like stir-crazy parrots, BBC reporters speaking in received pronunciation tinged with pity and notes of guilt about mudslides killing hundreds in Sierra Leone and a massacre in British India whose memory is only remembered by the very old, whose trauma wrote itself and writes itself, today, into a people’s genes. As I flip the pages of a book I’ll never read, turning its yellowing sheets, careful not to tear the tome as it sits in the German scanning machine in the moist room in the basement of a library that resembles and feels as dour as a church, I can’t help but think about the partition in my life which I have built, the constant tug-and-shove between the two versions of the self which struggle with one another to fit within a body which seems never to be enough – the self which exists for itself, and the self which exists in relation to, and for the satisfaction, approbation, of others.