A valediction forbidding mourning (a more or less true history of the present)

Over the course of the last week everything has changed radically. In the northern hemisphere winter has officially become spring. We’ve shifted from an eerie quiet, as if collectively in Canada we were kneeling, our ears pressed to the tracks of time listening for the train of the future to come barrelling upon us, to something still more unearthly. Early closures, slow stunned walks in the sun and recommendations about how we ought to behave have become, over the course of several days, a state of emergency and civilian lockdown. Overnight, visiting a park has become illegal; gatherings even at a distance of more than five people are suddenly punishable by hefty fines. Social isolation, our new watchword, means we are not to mingle, not to share meals, not to shake hands nor to embrace in greeting, but should we happen to cross another’s path–and surely it would be better if we did not–to stand primly, six to eight feet apart, nodding slightly.

According to the new rules, we are to go nowhere and do nothing: to stay indoors. Work at any common sort of work space save hospitals and grocery stores is forbidden and outdoor play has been banned or nearly banned in many places for adults and children alike. Libraries, schools and restaurants are closed; the stock market won’t declare a truce in its steep downward descent; homeless shelters have been padlocked and soup kitchens shuttered. Where do those with nowhere to stay go to stay if they can be neither indoors nor out? As jobs and wages and other pieces of the money system fold, how is anyone to feed and shelter themselves? Everything that has happened is for our own good the directors say, but the truth is these days, if you are hungry and confused in the morning you are not any less so come night. The day begins with alarm and cycles through hysteria, outrage, panic, misery, hopelessness and despair–pure comedy if it weren’t so dire.

We’ve begun looking upon one another as suspicious types; we listen for and dissect every cough and wheeze. Have you suddenly lost your capacity to taste or to smell? That’s a sign; step away; step away! Our very breath has become toxic matter. Loneliness might be a certain sort of hell, but the respiration of the other is now pure contamination. We swipe through the news bulletins, the lists and locations of the ill and the dead; we perform certain probabilistic calculations; we do panic purchasing (whether or not we can still afford it); we pace wall to wall so as to avoid imagining how many we might lose or unwelcome thoughts of our own onrushing deaths.

The train has not yet arrived, but as we are beginning to hear its rumble here comes the cavalry to bind us to the tracks. They wear an odd admixture of hospital gowns and riot gear: their helmets in particular are striking. They handle us ever so gently, laying us out on the crossties and binding us in plastic. Events are happening at such speed (each of us was sure that we would be among the survivors) that no one has yet imagined what to do with the dead. Attendance at funerals is also strictly forbidden. It’s a wonder they’re letting births happen. Won’t it be marvellous when robots can simply do everything, lifting and rotating us in our beds as if we were silkworms, then disposing of our corpses silently and efficiently, as if mourning, too, might soon be eliminated.

2 thoughts on “A valediction forbidding mourning (a more or less true history of the present)

  1. Hello, darling Karin, from the fortress that is now Montreal. Yes, that suspiciousness that now arises even among friends–proper distance observed, feet as nervous as those of deer, ready to bolt if the other takes even one tiny natural step forward towards what we once craved: connection. Sad beyond words, all this, and terrifying: what will it bring? How will the world change after we return to “normal”? Will we ever again forget that fear of the other? Thanks for this text. I might use it in one of my “online” classes (what a joke this is) as a springboard towards students writing a fairy tale about the kingdom under a spell that we have become.
    Virtual hug, alas–Tessa.

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    1. Dear Tessa,

      Thank you for your appreciation and your news. We joke that nothing out here in the middle of nowhere has changed–that we’ve been practising social isolation for 20 years. But of course that’s not true, and this distance and anxiety that have entered everything are killing; it feels as if we are living in the present as an awful alternative near future, not apocalyptic exactly (although I have plenty to say about that too, and why apocalyptic thinking might not be all bad), but abysmally punishing, lonely and sad. Working on more short texts to follow this up–would be very happy to share in some kind of online imagination challenge/ discussion with your classes should that be of help. Big virtual hugs to you too–I know I owe you a much longer letter–have my head down trying to finish a long mss–and indeed am making headway!
      xok

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