Photograph: A dense patch of crocuses - yellow, white, and violet - cut with the diagonal pattern of tall tree shadows on a sunny morning in Edinburgh’s Harrison Park
There’s a sweet, funky smell that whispers in under the tenement’s draughty window frame from time to time. It also likes to sneak up and surround me on the walk to the supermarket. It is malty and vaguely tasty, edible-adjacent, like sweetcorn in a state of early rot or a wheatbag hot out of the microwave. I told a new friend about the smell when I first arrived in the city and she said she knew the one, most likely from a local brewery, but when I went two-metre walking with her in the park and urgently pointed it out to her - it’s here! it’s the smell! - I was met with surprise. Ohh that smell, she said. I do know this one, but it’s not the one I thought you meant.
Now I want to encounter her smell, the one she thought I meant, and I want to find a better description for my smell so that I can more reliably secure a shared understanding. Not only the sensory conundrum of yore (is your green the same as mine?), I’ve come to doubt whether my descriptions for any other number of things can be trusted to secure shared understanding. Apart from the one person in my household, I have come unbound from a sense of a shared reality. I see people living their lives and they seem to occupy not only different subjectivities but a different species. It’s not even particularly unpleasant, simply experienced as a bubble-wrapped fact.
I went to an online talk between writers Ellena Savage and Jean Hannah Edelstein this month, where Savage shared that she was uninterested in writing (both the verb and the noun) about the pandemic. I recognised the sentiment, I could smell it, but it wasn’t my smell. The pandemic still feels like the Only Thing. It’s not only in passive situations like event attendance that this conceptual ships-passing experience comes up, but in friendships, too. Usually my tolerance for (non-oppressive!) perspectival difference is a great joy, a curiosity and a puzzle, a chance for a lovingly barbed discussion, or just an indifference. But, in a situation of social isolation, the usually enriching relational elasticity of ever-changing levels of closeness and distance feels stretched out. It’s hard to experience a conceptual distance with someone when there are fewer other ways to be close. There are the material distances, too. Some people are vaccinated and others are not. Some live under the power of states that took the pandemic (took the value of lives) seriously and others do not. Some can work from home and others cannot.
Anxiety swirls around my interactions with beloved people in New Zealand. It’s a mash of fearing not having anything new to say, not wanting to drone on about my isolation, wanting to empathise with their own recent weeklong lockdown, being flooded with rage at their relative (oh so relative!) ease, flooded with guilt at my rage (so unappreciative of relativity!), entranced by their dancing limbs in large crowds, repulsed by their inequality-as-usual normality, truly wanting to listen to their life events, suffering while listening to their life events, shuttling the suffering off somewhere else like nuclear waste buried underground or launched into space, hoping it will disappear but knowing very well that you can’t rush a half-life. If I’ve felt alienated from others, I’ve no doubt alienated others, too, mainly in moments of self-delusion. Distance and closeness are important not only for interpersonal relationships, but for self-awareness. Time makes the difference. Delusion is one problem of writing the present, or the near past. I’m clearly committed to it (month by month, here we all are!), but it’s risky. I want to nail the experience of today’s close data set down before it disappears, but allowing more distance would serve to strengthen insight and weaken the melodrama of the solipsistic now.
Last month I tried to talk about things other than the Only Thing - crafty things like lyricism - and I talked melodramatically about being unable to let spring in. I assumed the resistance was merely a personal depressive or cantankerous streak at work, but the day after I pressed send I met my correction in the too-familiar onrush of a warm spring breeze: I couldn’t let spring in because it was too associated with the start of lockdown and the start of this isolated life as we know it. The arrival of all that sensory hope was last year twinned with all our senses of doom and danger, the days lengthening alongside dread, the usual joyful abundance largely obliterated by panic. Even if I had no desire or interest to write about the pandemic, the pandemic keeps up its perverse interest and investment in us. Whether as literal viral hosts or as hosts to the trauma of completely shutting down life as we knew it, the pandemic has written our cells.
It took so much to shut everything down. It can’t all just be switched back on in an instant. The energetic and psychic cost of cutting off social circulation makes me worry that maybe some things won’t come back, a bit like nerve damage. But I have felt the prickle of intimacy with spring again, and with friends, and maybe with my self, too. Spring’s gormless insistence on life might say something about our own social resilience, across lines of difference. I turned to the sun in the park the other day and I let the fact of the year touch my face. It wasn’t anything like the dull padded sensation of bubble wrap. It was just the speed of light, close and distant all at once.
Until next month, I have a wish for you from Métis researcher Zoe Todd:
“I hope, as it is safe to do so, you have the choice to find the versions of yourself you buried as you fled. That person is still with you, in many refractions.”
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