Earlier this evening a hailstorm pummeled the roof. I didn’t get a chance to peek outside while it was in progress and afterward, the pavement shined beneath street lamps, wiping away all traces of the staid, calm day that had preceded it. Lightning flash and fury to match the times. An earlier version of me would have found a jacket and boots to inspect the storm in progress. Tonight’s version listened, waiting for an appropriate pause, grateful to have strong shelter and nowhere in particular to be for once.
Gifts for the giver can take on the form of a sapling. And those same gifts received can take on the form of a tree. Thinking of this time spent waiting while remaining socially distant as a gift feels hollow. Remaining gentle with oneself, reckoning with the slowness amidst the chaos, is the best one could do. It’s easy to think that our collective isolation will be the unifier, that the barriers we’ve built up are in fact vast sails that will buoy us back together. And yet, here I am, finding trees in spite of absence gnawing inside my brain:
Unlike the kids at school, the trees remained silent as I passed, and I took this as a sign of acceptance. Irrational, sure—but in my feeling so unlike everyone else at school, in my confused wrestling with what I felt was real but I couldn’t name precisely, why not take silence for acceptance? Among the trees loneliness could be itself, in the open—so could strangeness—even as both remained hidden from the rest of the world for the time it took me to pass through the woods to the bus stop. As I walked, I’d sing to the trees, loudly at first, then more and more softly the closer I got to where the woods gave out, until all I could hear was whatever wind there was through the leaves and needles. A sound like the trees unable to sing back, but trying to.
Carl Phillips has a way, doesn’t he, to make something so profound explained in terms that sweep away the noise? When I looked up at the trees this afternoon, most branches still bare save for these pines, I didn’t sing aloud but I did think about this unseemly gift of time, space, connections that can’t happen in real-time, connections that won’t ever happen now that we are ordered to sway in place. Phillips talks about the process of understanding his queerness, feeling sheltered enough beneath these branches to explore, be bold, be more strange. “Song travels differently in forest light.” I walk between and around trees each afternoon, watch pale sunlight mark branches and sometimes stipple leaves, the color muffled by clouds. I think about Almodóvar colors, rich and warm and thick enough to touch, the kind that doesn’t show up in this strange spring where no one is here and all I hear are echoes.
Making do equals making space in amorphous shapes we must now border and align with meaningful interactions - except the engagement more or less is only apparent on one side, as though a wall were dropped between. Connections forged via platforms for connecting and creating and collaborating and complaining and co-habitation are now artificially rendered and strained to become the theater, stage, studio, desk, lectern, amiable local coffee shop, another pale sun of what once was. I recognize that my version of making do is heavy with the privilege of someone who will never know what it’s like to be hungry, overcome with fatigue, without a place to call home, in want of safety and people to call one’s own. I reside in space with most of my faculties and abilities intact, and so, making do is hardly that different.
Instead, what I’m pointing to here is the certainty of bodies that no longer find their selves on steady ground. In thinking about the veracity of uncertainty, José Ángel N. writes of the stance of the many who exist in shadows and in broad daylight, maintaining, fixing, preparing, gathering, ushering, cleaning, scrubbing, and acting as the foundation for our society: “Such a strange thing—to depend on the deliverables of a group of people who only half-exist, to rely on the labor of a lawless mass in order to sustain that most basic of laws, survival. Perhaps, when this crisis has finally passed, the undocumented will be remembered in the annals of COVID-19 as a great irony—a people stripped of humanity who helped usher humanity into the future.” What will happen to the people caught between and among, who can’t benefit from what might come next and yet must shoulder what will certainly be the virus in various forms, some deadly? Where do the hands rest when there isn’t a space of care? What amorphous cells will we create next to call home in spite of no home that can ever contain the illogical bombardment of legality? Bodies in constant motion, wondering where is home?
Over the past few nights, I’ve immersed my ever-so-gradually recovering ears in a series of ambient albums. Whatever refuge I can find, lingering in the sound while thinking/not thinking about what might happen next. Of the ones I heard, I keep returning to “The Sacrifical Code” by Kali Malone, a set of trance-inducing pipe organ dirges that felt light, soft, inhabitable, welcoming. “Free of signposts,” as the description says, boundless, available for the imagination, unwavering, awake. As a child of diaspora, I made home far from what home is, like so many do so that it’s another unremarkable story. I sit here, in my home, with the people who make the house a home, waiting, watching, hoping. I make do amidst the (non)chaos of this time.
The stability of roots is elusive for me. For much of my life, I hadn’t a singular place or person to call mine aside from what was assigned. To clarify: I chose the circles I keep, and the same circles spread and furrow into the ground. A few days ago during our now weekly low-key reading party, we were asked to describe the view from our window. I’ve lately spent more time in our bedroom than ever before, where a small desk, my laptop, and books rest against the wall. The windows, facing north and west, capture the afternoon light so perfectly when it’s sunny, and grow dim when the clouds inevitably pass through. Three large trees - two pines and a hybrid cheery-willow engineered decades ago by a previous owner - shelter the yard, while the overhang of neighbors’ trees from the east and west are also visible. A cement patio in dire need of attention sits immediately below the windows, and beyond it is a stubbly yard with dips and portions of patchy grass. When we first moved here, I’d take turns mowing the lawn. Bushes round out the sides. There are no immediate landmarks, and a long-rickety green bench broke once when a visitor decided to stand on it to reach the branches of one of the pines. This is the view I now see, an improvement I suppose over the graying fabric walls of a cubicle where I only saw the reflection of light upon my desktop computer’s screen.
The trees in this yard, the room I find myself inside for much of my day, the dining chair I’ve commandeered for the desk, the occasional piles of laundry that settle in baskets nearby: this is now the home I spend much of my days in. It’s unremarkable in its domesticity. I still awaken each morning and attempt to care for and dress myself as if I were leaving, but I realize that the motions are for the benefit of a tenuous routine which borders and aligns what I now call ‘work’ inside a home, my home, the place I finally marked as our after years of looking and saving and making a series of decisions that led us here. Sometimes, I step away from my desk and look at the clouds take on the crenelation of waves:
Radiance versus Ordinary Light by Carl Phillips Meanwhile the sea moves uneasily, like a man who suspects what the room reels with as he rises into it is violation—his own: he touches the bruises at each shoulder and, on his chest, the larger bruise, star- shaped, a flawed star, or hand, though he remembers no hands, has tried—can't remember . . . That kind of rhythm to it, even to the roughest surf there's a rhythm findable, which is why we keep coming here, to find it, or that's what we say. We dive in and, as usual, the swimming feels like that swimming the mind does in the wake of transgression, how the instinct to panic at first slackens that much more quickly, if you don't look back. Regret, like pity, changes nothing really, we say to ourselves and, less often, to each other, each time swimming a bit farther, leaving the shore the way the water—in its own watered, of course, version of semaphore–keeps leaving the subject out, flashing Why should it matter now and Why, why shouldn't it, as the waves beat harder, hard against us, until that's how we like it, I'll break your heart, break mine.
Here I am, here we are - swimming in spite of it, in place and yet, drifting in spaces that have yet to make their walls truly visible. I’ll break, you’ll break, and then we’ll all wake up, yes?
This is Episode 10 of “Love in the Time of Coronavirus,” a semi-regular check-in with vignettes, questions, and other ephemera related to spaces and beauty-seeking during a global pandemic. There are quite a few links in this piece that I encourage you to click on, but if you don’t want to have a trail of tracking codes activated each time you click, then here’s the full list of links for you to cut and paste into your browser.