We are practicing social distancing—keeping to ourselves in a house seventy kilometres from the city. In the morning we take the dog across the field and into the forest, where there is still snow and ice which softens during the day and freezes up again at night. Then we enter our days, working respectively in the living room and dining room; the two rooms are really the same large room, divided only by a short barrier about four feet tall. We drink coffee together in the morning—she takes cream and I, milk. Often we will eat the same breakfast, but not always. Today, for instance, I ate a packet of Quaker Instant Oatmeal diluted with regular quick oats and she did not eat until the early afternoon, a single egg on an English muffin. Typically we will eat lunch and dinner together, although because today her first meal would more properly be described as lunch I ate my lunch separately, even though in the end I ate the same thing. Our last English muffin, the last of the bread that we brought up here from the city.
I think because the situation—locally and globally—is so uncertain, I have been finding it difficult to concentrate. This began long before the pandemic, and the social isolation, had been called, as I followed the course of the disease as it made its way through China, South Korea, to Italy, here. For weeks, anticipating this decampment, for weeks, wondering about the state of the world. I returned from a trip to Boston only two weeks ago, where I passed through two international airports and washed my hands constantly. Before leaving I regretted not pulling out of the conference—but it was too late to do so. A few days after returning I developed chest pains. A muscle soreness that I imagined might have been the coronavirus operating on me relatively asymptomatically—but now I wonder if it wasn’t anxiety, since after arriving here it largely disappeared. It is a relief to not have to worry about my neighbours (have I infected them? will they infect me?) or the people I pass on the street.
We are lucky to be able to escape in this way—I am aware of the privilege that makes this possible. I feel embarrassed, ashamed, that this is available to me, even though there’s nothing to necessarily provoke that feeling. Only that it is not available to everyone. It feels so unfair. Furthermore, I have spent the past decade, of necessity, distancing myself from the privilege that, after all, is not really mine. Except in situations like this. I worry that it has done something to me, returning here—leaving the city behind. I worry that I will inhabit a kind of selfishness, that I will become colder and more closed off. In other words I worry about a form of quarantine that is far from physical. Even as we perch together on what feels like the edge of the world.
Preparing a conference paper I am giving on Saturday I come across a line from Borges that I realize is intimately familiar. That’s because when I first read it, I think sometime in the fall, it resonated so much that I published it somewhere on this blog (I could perhaps find it now, but I’ll leave this fact conjectural). It was something along the lines of recognizing that if he (Borges) does not live his life in such a way that he is frequently writing, or perhaps relating to the world through writing, something in his very being rebels. I’ve done a poor job of paraphrasing—but even though I’ve just put the book down again I won’t pick it up to check. He describes the chain of action that occupies him, ideally, in this process: inspiration, composition, and then finally publishing (“which is the least important”).
I think what struck me, that first time, was that final clause. “Publishing is the least important.” Now, having published a book; now, constantly drawing up CVs and statements of purpose to justify my place in academia, seeing friends and enemies (and myself) crow on social media about accomplishments (hollowly, it feels and seems)—I realize I’ve let publishing assume a place of higher importance than it deserves. As I discovered when showing the first draft of my book to the editors of Harper Collins and Anansi, several years ago now, what is acknowledged as good is sometimes different from what is desired. Which isn’t to say that the desires of a reading public is not a thread that writers should chase. Only that taste and hunger are distinct.
The problem is that lately I have let myself believe too much in that hunger, which is rootless and constant and impossible to satisfy. Hunger—in the author and in their audience—is something entirely outside of the process of writing, which is intuitive and irrational and inspired. To give hunger a place in your life is to worship an angry and insatiable god.
How remarkable to have made it through the month. After an initial flurry of activity the month becomes one of incredible torpor, made worse by an acute and then lingering illness. The days don’t seem to begin. When you find yourself still—on a bed, on your laptop or reading your phone, a heaviness, a cool settled feeling, takes over. You’re late wherever you go. Fortunately it isn’t so egregious that anyone seems to mind. You are able to rouse enough of yourself to carry through the days. But if you were to ask yourself what you had done—it would be both seem impossible and too insubstantial to itemize. Like listing forgotten names of the wind. You find yourself listening to the descriptions of other people’s lives with a kind of passive amazement: “How could I be living so incorrectly in comparison to them?”
(This isn’t your entire life. You meet others, you spend time your partner, but it’s in moments like that this that you efface yourself entirely—so that you are either too much or too little your self. Deflecting or annoying. Too passive or too closed-off. After you watch a World War II movie at the theatre, you discover that your movements on the bus and on the streetcar have taken on an old-fashioned self-possession. You are easily displaced.)