A compendium of dreams, encounters, observations, poems, and questions….
I: Two Pandemic Dreams
21 April, 2020
I awoke early imagining the heads of ducks and geese close up in front of my eyes. Their blunt beaks gnawed gently at my lips and face. I was on the ground looking at the sky. Was I dead?
Ducks have always been a sign of deep pleasure for me. I grew up in the countryside outside of Toronto. We had moved to Ontario from Manitoba where my father hunted ducks with his father every year. At the back of the yard of my childhood home, my father built a duck pond. My Dad started our flock with thirteen ducks. One day Bruce the white goose showed up unexpectedly. Our ducks expanded over the years to over two hundred. They nested in the garden. We fed them all winter. Weekly I trundled the wheelbarrow down the hill to the pond with a fifty pound bag of grain teetering towards the ducks. Or was it one hundred pounds. It was a lot. I was small. The burlap bag was not.
As I struggled to open the bag, it fell to the ground. The ducks and Bruce the Goose greeted me so happily. I could have kissed them.
23 April, 2020
All night, my pandemic dreams drifted towards community. I sheltered inside early on in this crisis. I was fascinated by a new architectural design – a group of houses sat on thick sheets of steel that jutted out the front forming a curved porch, the arched metal jutting into the air like a metallic toboggan.
A back door was open so I slipped unnoticed inside to explore. I walked to a room at the front of the house, crouched down on the floor, and peered out the bottom of the wall to see how the metal foundation floated up towards the sky. A small space between foundation and floor let the light in. I stayed there for some time. I may have had a nap.
A young boy entered the room. Startled I recognized this must be his bedroom.
“Oh,” I said. “I was just looking at your foundation.” Embarrassed at being an interloper, I exited the room
In the living room, I discovered his family newly arrived: two elderly grandmothers, the boy’s parents, and his brother all sitting at a large round table.
They looked at the home invader with surprise and curiosity.
“I’m a retired English professor,” I said as though that explained a stranger’s presence in their house.
“Oh,” they sighed.
I awoke imagining they offered me a cup of tea.
A tale of White privilege.
II: The Compensatory Poetics of “Lockdown”
My dreams are particularly vivid during this COVID-19 era. They teach me. Haunted by the effects of illness and isolation, they reveal the other side of solitude – imaginary nocturnal home invasions and fantasies of childhood.
The hyphenated term “self-isolation” is redundant as Poet Laureate Simon Armitage notes. In isolation, the self rules. His poem “Lockdown” explores the creative energy of imagination and dream. He offers up the imagination as a way to journey beyond lockdown. Writing matters as does day dreaming and wandering and thinking beyond this box we all live within.
Lockdown And I couldn’t escape the waking dream of infected fleas in the warp and weft of soggy cloth by the tailor’s hearth in ye olde Eyam. Then couldn’t un-see the Boundary Stone, that cock-eyed dice with its six dark holes, thimbles brimming with vinegar wine purging the plagued coins. Which brought to mind the sorry story of Emmott Syddall and Rowland Torre, star-crossed lovers on either side of the quarantine line whose wordless courtship spanned the river till she came no longer. But slept again, and dreamt this time of the exiled yaksha sending word to his lost wife on a passing cloud, a cloud that followed an earthly map of camel trails and cattle tracks, streams like necklaces, fan-tailed peacocks, painted elephants, embroidered bedspreads of meadows and hedges, bamboo forests and snow-hatted peaks, waterfalls, creeks, the hieroglyphs of wide-winged cranes and the glistening lotus flower after rain, the air hypnotically see-through, rare, the journey a ponderous one at times, long and slow but necessarily so.
III: Voyaging Out
A Horse Named ….
It is as though space disappears into degrees of absence. On the one hand we are apart. Yet temporality itself collapses with an urgency of the moment. And you and others reach out. In the past twenty-four hours I’ve corresponded with Don, a childhood friend and distant relation. He lived on a farm in Manitoba where I rode horses with my cousin. I vaguely remember this. But through my genealogical sleuthing I know our Scottish ancestors arrived from the same small village in the Highlands to settle and intermarry in Ontario and then travel West to Manitoba in the late 1800s. I look up our genealogical connection and this remote family tree provides me with knowledge my childhood memory fails to deliver.
And a bit later, a friend from graduate school texts. He taught me Harold Innis. We talk on the phone describing in capsule form 40 years of our lives – our work and relations. Our daughters – both at a distance. His voice sounds so familiar after the intervening span of silence. We could be friends though never lovers again. We muse the way people getting together at a funeral might – recounting a lifetime in moments caught up with the urgency of our mortality. Something ominous about the potential of a pandemic ending makes reconnection and reunion so tantalizing. Why miss out on a fleeting opportunity at this late stage?
The Taj Mahal
Later, after my nap, a note arrives from Kay, a friend I meet up with rarely over the past thirty years. Once we met by chance at the Taj Mahal. What a strange sentence to write. It was 1995 and I was travelling for a month through India giving a series of talks. She was lending her expertise to an international film festival in New Delhi. Across the glassy pond of the Taj Mahal, I heard someone cry out. She couldn’t remember my name, but she yelled from somewhere near the Temple of Love “Hey you!” I recognized her voice. We sat on the steps in front of the Taj Mahal and marvelled at our meeting that seems remarkable even now. And at this moment in time, there is a weight to “getting in touch” that resonates with a with an urgency. As though one shouldn’t wait any longer to make plans for a visit. We’ll meet again – when the pandemic is over.
The Last Word
And a chat with my mother whose memory fails. Our conversations remind me of her resilience. How she takes pleasure in the birds outside the window. And the squirrel. Or was it a chipmunk? “Was it white or rust?”
“Jan, it’s scampering up the tree now.”
My beloved former undergraduate professor is ailing. She taught me such important knowledge – women’s social history in England and North America. She taught me resilience and commitment to justice and a love of ideas. This in the midst of my travels to Africa and women’s consciousness raising groups expanded my understanding of my role in the world. A beloved now deceased colleague introduced me to nineteenth-century American writers. Over almost fifty years, my friend and I talked and visited – in time we became sisters. Two years ago, at eighty, she published her last book, an award-winning biography of a Canadian feminist politician and peace activist. Letting go of her research along with declining mobility have been wrenching losses.
This morning on the telephone we commiserate about her health. And I chat with her partner, a medical historian whom I’ve also grown to love. He tells me he is in despair but researching and writing a paper about early Charcot, a subject he is an expert on. Not certain he will ever publish this work, he says, but the research keeps him going. He muses about how reassuring it is that his word count continues to climb.And he wryly recounts Albert Camus’ The Plague story of the writer who perpetually edits and reedits his work until it is cut down to single perfect word.
IV: Night Side Pandemic Time
4 April, 2020
What a hypochondriac I am? Or is this all day exhaustion something else. Life on the couch from morning to night. Staggering towards the sink for some water. Or to chop more vegetables for proverbial soup. Chills in the morning under covers and then sweating while napping in the late afternoon. All day, the piercing pins and needles of an old shingles effect ripples up and down my leg. And my usually unarthritic hands ache. It is as though every ailment that could visit me has made its appearance over the past twelve hours. Now I’m in bed still exhausted. A close friend sends me a link to a theatrical performance she knows that ordinarily I would like. And I peevishly reply I only like movies featuring men with machine guns. The shoot em up fake heroism of Hollywood, a fantasy where delirium takes you. Later I watch a wedding romance that should be unappologetically vile but isn’t quite. Must be the altered state of consciousness.
My daughter is far away and I miss her. Finishing up a final paper, she texts to say she wants to talk with me about her work and I hope tomorrow I will feel healed again. I feel this terrible pandemic alienation effect that makes the mountains between us seem so insurmountable. The ocean coastline is remote at this distance with a raging virus all around us.
Silent wingeing helps. And podcasts
I listen to a podcast interview with the screenwriter and the epidemiologist of the film Contagion. The excellent scientist points out that he would only work with the director if he could avoid the cliches of happy endings. No simple resolution at the end to make the pandemic screech to an end. Only the closing scene where doting parents hold the young woman’s impromptu prom in their garage. Her boyfriend shows up wearing a wrist band that indicates his immunity. Is this what we will come to in the end? Graduated testing and identification that will show us how to emerge into a social world without killing each other.
12 April, 2020
Indeed the symptoms are definitely not coronavirus. And may are shingles and its aftermath. I hadn’t realized that fatigue, chills and fever were part of the repertoire. I had it before in and on my leg, but don’t recall these other symptoms. So I set off to see if I can find a remedy for some of this.
V: The Waiting Room
Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.Susan Sontag Illness as Metaphor (1978)
As more research informs our knowledge, COVID-19 becomes an ever more gothic nightmare. Early reports charted its attack on the respiratory systems. Then some discovered how heart failure was a part of the death march. A later report from New York and Shanghai doctors suggests the virus attacks the immune system much like HIV. And more recently, doctors point out how blood clots are deadly causing a risk of debilitating strokes in old and young.
While we are not all in this together, in Pandemic Time, we are all in the waiting room of illness – some of us cramped into small airless space, others sequestered with laundry to do for the first time now that the servants have departed.
Some are housed in swanky digs. Others are displaced and crowded into places where lockdown and social distancing are impossible. The virus underscores the suffering and inequalities that shape our world. For Indigenous peoples, genocidal viruses are ancient history.
One theme of the post-pandemic world is that we will all find ourselves emerging from our home caves blinking in the sunlight awakened to a more intensely orchestrated surveillance military industrial authoritarian state. Another trajectory imagines that the social inequities that are hidden in plain sight will inform us about better ways to live. Perhaps we will ban deadly cruise ships that pollute and pollute and kill. Or pay the workers who tend to our elders a living wage. Or perhaps not.
One historian notes that not only does this pandemic illuminate existing injustices and inequities, but inequities are critical factors in shaping its circulation. Laura Spinney notes: “During the 2009 flu pandemic the death rate was three times higher in the poorest fifth of England’s population than in the richest.” Inequalities that lead to enhanced mortality in disadvantaged groups are widely documented in the U.S. during this pandemic. In Chicago African Americans make up 30% of the population and 60% of the deaths. The pandemic shows up the effects of unequal access to healthcare especially among racialized groups, the health effects of poverty, and the way racial segregation remains a determining factor.
The U.S. GOP manufactures a presidential re-election campaign on an anti-China platform. This is interwoven with the White Supremacist racist anti-Asian rhetoric that leafs through the platform binder making space for everyday violence and racist attacks against Asians here and here.. Anti-Chinese orientalist racist actions are documented in countries around the world from the U.S. to Canada to Australia and England and elsewhere.
In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemns the racism of an ugly Canadian running to replace CON leader Scheer.
“Tory MP Derek Sloan, …a rookie Ontario MP, called for Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam to be fired in fundraising e-mails and social media posts this week. In one video, he asks: ‘Does she work for Canada or for China?'” Opposition leader Scheer refuses to condemn MP Sloan.
Remember that the Reform Party’s formation included White supremacists. Remember how the Harperites including Jason Kenney mobilized racism in their “barbaric practices” plot.
Remember how the workers who are infected in the Cargill meat-packing plant are 60-70% Filipino. They complained of the COVID-19 illness and the Kenney government did nothing. Alberta’s Minister of Agriculture trained in Trump’s White supremacist 2016 presidential campaign. Now the Cargill workers make up more than half of the 400 or so coronavirus cases connected to the plant. Racialized people continue to be discounted and dehumanized.
Dr. Tam is highly accomplished and has been unfairly targeted by racists. This began with the ugly denunciation by the Globe & Mail’s own columnist Robyn Urback.
Avvy Go, clinic director of the Chinese and South-East Asian legal clinic in Toronto observes that: Mr. Sloan’s “racist, xenophobic” comments exposes the racism that Chinese-Canadians have experienced for generations in Canada and that continues to this day…. If his comments about Dr. Tam are allowed to stand, the message is that it’s okay to treat Chinese-Canadians as foreigners.
“If she can be attacked, then people like me can be attacked,” Ms. Go said, “the 92-year-old Chinese senior can be attacked, the nurse working in Toronto can be attacked, ‘it’s all okay,’ that’s what they’re saying.”
That is not to say, there can’t be criticisms of the unfurling of Canada’s pandemic plan to respond to Covid-19.
VI: “The pandemic is a portal”
In Pandemic Time, we are all in need of inspiration and the words of Arundhati Roy provides us with a way forward. Her powerful writing asks us to imagine ourselves emerging from this pandemic experience not only transformed but engaged in transforming our world. She describes how on March 24, the transportation and daily life of milllions of Indians were interrupted by their Prime Minister Modhi’s announcement of a lockdown. “An exodus of people left the cities. Unhoused and homeless, millions walked. …”
Arundhati Roy writes of an encounter with one man:
“Every one of the walking people I spoke to was worried about the virus. But it was less real, less present in their lives than looming unemployment, starvation and the violence of the police. Of all the people I spoke to that day, including a group of Muslim tailors who had only weeks ago survived the anti-Muslim attacks, one man’s words especially troubled me. He was a carpenter called Ramjeet, who planned to walk all the way to Gorakhpur near the Nepal border.
“Maybe when Modiji decided to do this, nobody told him about us. Maybe he doesn’t know about us”, he said.
“Us” means approximately 460m people.”
“Who can look at anything any more…a door handle, a cardboard carton, a bag of vegetables…without imagining it swarming with those unseeable, undead, unliving blobs…waiting to fasten themselves on to our lungs?… Who among us is not a quack epidemiologist, virologist, statistician and prophet? Which scientist or doctor is not secretly praying for a miracle? Which priest is not…secretly, at least…submitting to science? The virus has…struck hardest, thus far, in the richest, most powerful nations of the world, bringing the engine of capitalism to a juddering halt… The mandarins who are managing this pandemic are fond of speaking of war… But if it really were a war, then who would be better prepared than the US? If it were not masks and gloves that its frontline soldiers needed, but guns, smart bombs…fighter jets and nuclear bombs, would there be a shortage?… The tragedy is immediate, real, epic and unfolding before our eyes. But it isn’t new. It is the wreckage of a train that has been careening down the track for years… What is this thing that has happened to us? It’s a virus, yes. In and of itself it holds no moral brief. But it is definitely more than a virus… It has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality’, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”Arundhati Roy, “The Pandemic Is a Portal.” Financial Times (April 3, 2020)