Public Books and the Sydney Review of Books have partnered to exchange a series of articles with international concerns. Today’s article, “The Ten Thousand Things,” by Suneeta Peres da Costa, was originally published by the SRB on May 3, 2021.
The bag of drugs is sitting untouched on the kitchen bench beside the cans of diced tomatoes and chickpeas I’d earlier quarantined. They—cans not drugs—may be useful, I think, although in less apocalyptic times, I might prefer to soak dried chickpeas to make hummus or chana masala. The chickpea glut follows a 9 p.m. masked assault of Harris Farm Leichhardt and the fact the ex has recently turned up unannounced with a care package of more canned pulses, organic brown rice, and greens than I have room to store. An Amma devotee never known to hug spontaneously, he’d stood at the mandated distance of one Kylie Minogue on the other side of my gate (less gateless gate than gate that never shuts properly, the broken latch, I observed as he handed me the box, one of the ten thousand things now unlikely to be repaired …).
I hadn’t the heart to tell him I already had enough chickpeas. Long before lockdown, I noticed he’d developed the habit of addressing me in the third person—as in, “How is Suneeta?”—but this now felt part of the new protocol, a kind of quarantining, albeit voluntary, too. Was there anything else I needed? “Actually, there was …” I started. At one time I would have settled for his child but now, the wit, said, “your urine.” Deadpan, I added the citrus needed to be fertilized with testosterone and, as I didn’t want to risk going to Bunnings, would be glad if he could oblige. He walked away muttering, “you’ve got to be joking,” but I called after him that I was serious; he could at least fill a few old milk bottles? It would soon be my birthday and I hoped he’d come through! Afterwards, I went out the back to inspect the intensity of the lime tree’s anemia. A familiar pain sliced through my abdomen and, the better to distract myself, I leaned in and hugged the paperbark.
The friend who knows about the drugs calls to remind me to check the expiration dates; she has gone through many grueling and exorbitant cycles herself. She tells me, sotto voce, that she might have to be redeployed. It has been years since she has worked as a nurse, but she has been called up now, enlisted. In a show of solidarity and friendly reassurance, I unhelpfully exclaim, “Oh, Gawd!” For the next few moments neither of us says anything; all I hear is the faint rise and fall of her breath on the other side of the phone. We hang up and I briefly, bracingly, open the cooler bag. It is filled with brand-new hypodermic needles, a plethora of antiseptic rubs and a small sharps bin that has been meticulously included. I am agile and creative, earmarking, as if for a war effort, how these could be repurposed. Perhaps I too could join the frontline by at the very least giving myself (or another, should they trust me) a flu shot? Pass them on to some diabetics I know?
I am supposed to be writing this essay, ostensibly on technology, but am distracted, enervated, channeling Pompey Casmilus who, convalescing from Freddy heartbreak, office doldrums, and friendship ennui, travels on doctor’s orders to a Schloss on the Baltic coast in Stevie Smith’s Over the Frontier. It’s the very eve of the Second World War and she who confesses to being afraid of needles (“Pompey very very bad soldier”) is suddenly awoken to Allied duty:
Oh war war is all my thought. And suddenly I am very alert and not dreaming now asleep at all, but very awake and for ever more, and not dreaming again at all … but very practical I am become. Achtung, achtung! I hope that I am very practical.
But, caught in the freakish time warp of a new world order, I feel I could equally be fleeing Shen Fever and holed up in a mall outside of Chicago with protagonist Candace Chen, in Ling Ma’s prophetic, post-apocalyptic novel, Severance:
Our Googlings darkened, turned inward. We Googled maslow’s pyramid to see how many of the need levels we could already fulfill … we Googled 7 stages grief to track our emotional progress. We were at Anger, the slower among us lagging behind at Denial. We Googled is there a god, clicked I’m Feeling Lucky, and were directed to a suicide hotline site.
But actually, no, I am in my kitchen in Sydney. The ice pack has perforated and is oozing its freezing liquid. As luck would have it, the fridge is leaking too (another of the ten thousand things …). The drugs themselves, having languished through the long, apocalyptic summer (is this a double apocalypse?), have names like Cetrotide and Orgalutran, which I can’t help notice are near anagrams of, respectively, ecocide and gargantuan. Made in France or Germany, without the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme they’d have set me back at least $700. If I squint I can see the instructions say to store them between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius and, stamped in bigger letters across the cooler bag, the following warning: “NOT designed to keep your medicines at the required storage temperature.” Whereas, I console myself, concerned with different economies of scale, the chickpeas were just $1.99 organic. I place them, earliest-to-latest expiration date, in the pantry drawer, momentarily soothed by this most humdrum of housekeeping enterprises.
It is within these interstices of consciousness, existential intentions stripped to questions of contagion, to sheer utilitarianism, that thought—if thought it can be called—alights in those first days, weeks, and even months, but there are also blind spots and dead ends where it does not move at all, corners where it collides with dust balls or becomes entangled with ever-lengthening, ever-graying hair—Whose! Mine?—on the floorboards. I am supposed to be writing this essay, ostensibly on technology, but the rooms of the house become a labyrinth, a game of snakes and ladders, a ten-thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle in which I am apt to forget my task or purpose. It’s like No Exit, except that Hell is now Self as much as Other People. Marooned in ruminative cul-de-sacs, hideouts, cubbyholes, the Inner Child tumbles in too. Sullen when I refuse to play with her, she acts up, acts out. By day she moves far away from me, to return at 3 a.m. to disturb my already-fitful sleep.
When I wake it is to snags of fear which I anxiously ravel and unravel in the manner of some very weird Penelopiad. Against Prime Ministerial advice, I cower from the cascade of woeful planetary realities and creep further under the doona. I decidedly don’t want to be found and so don’t bother to install the tracing app. The Inner Critic nevertheless discovers me malingering and asks, Inner Child, Suneeta? Yes, I obediently answer. Like an Imaginary Friend? Yes, I aver. A Jungian Fantasy! Probably the result of a regressive ego doing service for the child you will never have. HaHAhaHA! Indeed, perhaps the only evidence of time passing will be my own extinction, my toenails growing intolerably long, scraping the bedsheet. Or the susurration, the white noise, of someone washing their hands and singing “Happy Birthday to You,” revealed in the streaky bathroom mirror to be none other than me, myself, and I.
When a prospective employer contacts me to discuss a job I’ve almost forgotten I interviewed for, there are ten thousand tabs open on my browser and I may accidentally hit “share screen.” I pretend to be adapting well to the new technology, although such is my self-consciousness that, at least under my breath, I have taken to calling Zoom Zoo, instead. Answering emails or texts, white space engulfs all known signifiers. I type like a demon, like my life depends on it, like I’m breaking a code—but omitting whole letters and words, drop into a deeper disquiet about whether things will still exist if communication is also leaky; could we subjects fall in, slip through, dematerialize? Reading, the mind finds no traction or narrative hold, instead rehearsing doom-saying lines it learned by rote long ago from “The Second Coming,” “Prufrock,” and Lear. It hesitates, procrastinates; its imaginative leaps and exploits extend no further than making a found poem, a zootic petition of sorts, from Marianne Moore’s “Pangolin”:
unemotional armored animal,
true ant-eater, not cockroach eater—
draw away from danger …
I am supposed to be writing this essay, ostensibly on technology, but not for the first time, I believe I am unable to write; and not writing, doubt that I will I ever write again. I wonder whether such a loss will even be noticed, will matter even less now than any time before, given relative prospects of dying from an incurable virus, annihilating the planet, or being swallowed whole by the algorithm—none of which can any longer be called “catastrophizing.” In any event, Arundhati Roy, in her searing essay “The Pandemic Is a Portal,” may have already said it for me and you, too:
Who can use the term “gone viral” now without shuddering a little? 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 dotted with suction pads waiting to fasten themselves on to our lungs? Who can think of kissing a stranger, jumping on to a bus or sending their child to school without feeling real fear? Who can think of ordinary pleasure and not assess its risk?
I am supposed to be writing this essay, ostensibly on technology, but the phone keeps vibrating. It is a sibling texting updates about the fate of an elderly relative who, found near dead in her apartment at the beginning of lockdown, has just come out of ICU. I am devastated to learn she had given advance-care directives to have life support turned off. She has no mobile and I am terrified of going to visit her. When I call, the nurses pass her the ward phone and I quarantine information about the outside world—until the phone itself is identified as a possible source of contagion. I hurry off, as though this may forestall harm, but she tells me not to worry, that Jesus is protecting us. Later, she is transferred to a mental hospital where she chatters away on a phone all patients can, randomly, use as much as they like; she tells me she’s playing the piano, tunes of her youth—“My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean,” “Johnnie’s So Long at the Fair,” “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” When I promise to visit she thinks it’s a party and asks me to bring the junk food she’s craving. I envy her her delusions.
Ordinarily a skeptic, I am nevertheless so lonely waiting for the world to end that I find myself wading into the social media slipstream, blithely retweeting quarantine music made by Italians from their apartment windows and balconies. Some are singing the anti-fascist anthem “Bella Ciao”; one poignantly serenades his Sicilian neighbors with “Imagine” on a sax. Soon a bunch of A-list Hollywood actors are accused of bastardising this same song from the comfort of their Hollywood Hills villas; and, however murky, I confess to stepping into the same river twice, hopeful of encountering Mark Ruffalo on his sofa. Speaking of polluted waterways, it seems the Venetian canals have now cleared up; one can even see dolphins swimming in them! Oh, but no, no, no! It was all a bit of beguiling photoshopping, magical thinking, a hoax, #FakeNews! The ex sends a cosmic joke horoscope that has been making the rounds; each star sign is greeted by the same facetious forecast: “You’ll be spending time in your home.”
I am supposed to be writing this essay, ostensibly on technology, but not for the first time, I believe I am unable to write; and not writing, doubt that I will I ever write again.
My dad sends the same joke along with other, at times politically incorrect, jokes on WhatsApp. One of these includes a skit of a smug Indian school teacher taking class attendance in the year 2025: “Quarantina Joshi, Lockdown Singh, Social Distance Singh. …” The punchline involves a boy called Covid Awasthi who has been truant, whom she scolds, “Covid, pay attention in class or I will send you back to China!” Meanwhile, three of Jammu and Kashmir’s Associated Press photographers win the Pulitzer Prize for their feature pictures of Kashmir’s lockdown since the Revocation of Article 370 of India’s Constitution on August 5, 2019. In the most militarized place on earth, under cover of the pandemic, the Indian Army has upped the scale of its surveillance and control of the Kashmiri population: extending a communications blackout, razing the homes of suspected “terrorists.” Overnight, “domicile” laws have also been introduced which, like the citizenship amendments of late 2019, threaten the sovereignty of the local Muslim population (who in this case form the majority).
I retweet Mukhtar Khan’s prize-winning photograph of six-year-old Muneefa Nazir, “whose right eye was hit by a marble allegedly shot by Indian Paramilitary soldiers”; then, some hours later, unable to sleep, come downstairs to find I have several new “followers” I don’t recognize, seemingly also followers of senior members of India’s ruling party … Dad also sends a mash-up of the harrowing scenes this side of the Line of Actual Control, when, following four hours’ notice of lockdown introduced by the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, millions of itinerant migrant workers pour out of Indian cities, hitching rides on super-spreading, crowded trucks, cycling or walking home for days, children carrying their elderly parents on their backs. Bereft of house help, multitudes of the urban middle class turn out to give the workers a tone-deaf send-off, bashing pots and pans on their balconies in a manner more brutta figura than bella ciao. Workers who remain behind, breaking restrictions, are given humiliating corporeal punishments like sit-ups or push-ups, or are beaten with lathis by police patrolling city streets.
Ivanka Trump is trolled for lauding the “beautiful feat of endurance and love” of 15-year-old Jyoti Kumari who cycles home to Bihar with her disabled father on the back of her bicycle. I wonder under what circumstances she or I would carry our fathers? I talk to my friend, an American citizen of Indian origin, who lives with her partner in Gurugram, where Jyoti’s father had an autorickshaw business. We discuss the dark side of endurance and love, otherwise known as starvation and death; the role of daughters in the Indian family system, and the paradox that punishment for untouchability—a concept central to both Brahminism and Hindutva ideology—could prove a more virulent scourge than Covid-19. We discuss the lies at the heart of the phrases, “world’s biggest democracy” and “richest country in the world.” My friend has had to let her cook go for a time, and we exchange recipes for chutney and dosa batter; we show each other how long our hair has grown and, beyond the frame of the camera, she gestures to the dogs who are hungrier and the park where she longs to walk, except for curfew and the monkeys who’ve grown boisterous.
All the same, Sadhguru’s prophesying it will all be over soon, he has a gut feeling (though cautions about eating meat). The important thing is to keep calm, not let your mind be disturbed! Certainly do not confuse self-isolation with discrimination! Sensible people I know join the becalming ranks of a #WarandPeace reading group while I frantically refresh my Guardian Australia feed which, at any given moment, may reveal strikes of international Amazon workers; a locust plague threatening the entire cereal crop in the Horn of Africa, and the allegorical tale of the two Coopers in New York’s Central Park. I am supposed to be writing this essay, ostensibly on technology, but one day in late May it is reported that Rio Tinto has blown up the ancient rock shelters of the Juukan Gorge. Just a few days later, a video goes viral of a Black man in Minneapolis who, on suspicion of buying a packet of cigarettes with a counterfeit 20-dollar bill, is suffocated to death by the police who arrest him.
My period is late and then I start to bleed profusely. My face also hurts. When I report my distress to a friend, a poet, she asks have I been grinding my teeth. There’s a good chance I’ve been gnashing them, I say—and I’m not referring to the literary fiasco that has erupted online in which she, I, and everyone else we know appear to be implicated by mere association. It’s my frontal lobe that ails me, I say, as though it might be ossifying. “Horn or tusk?” she clarifies. We begin to speculate about rhinos and narwhals and before I can answer which, she suggests, “Suneeta, perhaps you’re turning into a unicorn?” We burst into hysterical laughter and I feel a fleeting, creaturely limbering, a forgetfulness, an ease. As though proof of Levinas’s ethics, the muscles of my face, so tense till now, suddenly release. Yet the moment is also inflected with the tenuousness of our promise to see each other soon, the realization now, more than ever, that the ten thousand things are completely evanescent, unable to be captured in words onscreen, far less by emoji, however cute or pithy: 🦄 ❤️❤️❤️
I’ve left ten thousand messages on my mother’s answering machine and sent as many texts telling her to please refrain from shopping in crowded malls, taking public transport, going to mass, to restaurants, etc. I can get her groceries or do errands on her behalf. No answer, no answer, no answer. One afternoon, when I have learnt to be OK with the silence, that I have done my part, my daughterly duty, Mum arrives as an unmasked ghost at my door. Letting her in cautiously, I ask how she has come? By public transport, she tells me. COVID-19 is not contagious! With infinite forbearance, I go into the kitchen, make her a cuppa, citing a few statistics—Kawasaki’s syndrome, the UK death toll that day—but it’s too late, she’s picking up her bag and already moving toward the door. Summoning her back is futile. At the same time, some primal force arises in the Inner Child, a biological tug of war, that compels her/me to follow. It feels like an ancient ritual, a primordial dance: her/me waiting for the lights; her/my heart palpitating; she/me crossing the road, putting herself/myself in harm’s way in a quest to ferry my mother a spare face mask. But she disappears into the train station, which may as well be the River Lethe …
“The nameless is the mother of heaven and earth. The named is the mother of the ten thousand things”; I am supposed to be writing this essay on technology, but I’m reading the Tao Te Ching. Where does heaven leave off from earth, dream from waking, and life from death? Does poetry remake the world by transfiguring our suffering, our grief? Should we, as Adam Zagajewski exhorts, “praise the mutilated world / … and the gentle light that strays and vanishes / and returns?” Is there, even in sundering, a grace, as in Ali Cobby Eckermann’s “Dip”:
my mother is playing hide and seek
between my memory and my dreams
no longer foetal I must arise
no longer prone she has arisen
No doubt the Bard himself, who lived through plague, was prescient to have asked,
What’s yet in this
That bears the name of life? Yet in this life
Lie hid moe thousand deaths: yet death we fear,
That makes these odds all even.
I read April Bernard’s “Haunt,” in which the speaker is attended by the ghost of her recently departed mother, a poem that lifts and carries me through that particularly trying week:
There she is, darkening
my starboard periphery un-
smiling, reaching cold mist hands
into mine to whisk the eggs, fold
the sheets, sort the papers, choose
spools of thread for stitching
another face mask. This is her kind
of catastrophe, rife with irony and fear
The sky hangs as though held up by scaffolding; the trees sway on their hinges; the birds, eerily quiet, seem part of an artificial set, except for the fragile, faded chalk drawings of neighborhood children that include rainbows and the longest hopscotches I’ve ever seen. When it rains, the kids remake them the next sunny day and I’m touched by these small, irrepressible acts of faith in the quotidian. For a wild moment they seem a throwback to a time when the boundaries between inside and outside, self and other, were softer, more porous; indeed, a time when I was still young myself. Though I feel my age and childlessness most particularly now, this evolutionary logic—the one true and ultimate TikTok—is counterpointed by a deep ambivalence about bringing children into, and a helpless rage about, the fate of this ravaged world and the broken planetary covenant, the legacy of waste and destruction which is being left to future generations.
(Yet perhaps I am being overly sentimental, for in “normal times” hopscotches are in fact as rare a sight as the children who now find them a release from being cooped up and home-schooled during the aberration of lockdown. In “normal times” the children are, like me, often voluntary prisoners of their screens. In a country like Australia, with comparatively high levels of freedom of speech and democratic rule of law, there’s a paradox to our technological enchainment and enslavement. That social media is disrupting, corrupting, and distorting our relationships with ourselves and others, fracturing and fragmenting our psyches, polity, and public sphere, has been well observed. And we ourselves are complicit—for the instant self-gratification of likes, loves, and retweets—surrendering deeper values of privacy, intimacy, sincerity, kindness, civility, subtler kinds of knowing, forms of non-self identification, and self-doubt. The pandemic has also revealed how social media can so easily be weaponized by neo-fascists and conspiracy theorists whose monstrous cultures of narcissism and cults of personality tap into zeitgeists of fear and misinformation with disastrous political effects.)
Yes, it’s certainly clear that we adults are experiencing as much difficulty coping as young people. Nearing home, I see an older neighbor has left out on the nature strip what seems a fairly new TV with a note that reads, “Please take! In perfect working order! I just can’t bear to see or hear any more rubbish!” At home, I myself switch from the nightly program the ABC has dedicated to pandemic coverage called “The Virus,” to SBS Food and see Nigella waxing lyrical about the virtues of Aleppo pepper, whereupon my addled mind wanders to the refugee camps of Idlib province, northwestern Syria. I look around the house, which is so messy it looks “like a bomb has hit it”—except this is not quite correct, is it? Since bombs generally land elsewhere … Meanwhile, the Inner Child has gone AWOL. I recall James Baldwin’s remark that “love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.” I start to clean up.
One evening I attend my Zen meditation group by Zoom. The subject of the dharma café is compassion. We are asked by the teacher to reflect on how our ability to be compassionate and our relationships with others may be being challenged during this time. Frozen behind the screen, I can only think of those unreturned phone calls, whether my voicemails will one day be discovered and played by my mother before the abyss grows wider, before the river of forgetting and oblivion becomes unfordable. I am supposed to be writing this essay, ostensibly on technology, but I am glad to be silent, for the inner chatter to settle, to cease at least for a little while; to listen and tune in to how others are faring with similar and also radically different conundrums. I wonder, can anyone speak, except in a broken-hearted way, to this suffering which is epic because of its scale, its disproportion, and whose only known antidote—separation—causes immense kinds of suffering too?
That the self advances and confirms the ten thousand things
is called delusion;
That the ten thousand things advance and confirm the self
is called enlightenment.
I’m not much of a bodhisattva, though, for self does not remain still for long enough; holding on for dear life, self does not entirely drop away. When I sit, traces and contours of the ten thousand things continue endlessly in some existential feedback loop in the mind, and I’m hyperaware of the karmic chain links of cause, effect, and conditioning—what in Mahayana Buddhism is called “interdependent co-arising” (Pratītyasamutpāda). Looking within, I can’t help but see ontologically, as much as with reference to any “intellectual” or scientific analysis, that we are already connected and that our connection and interbeing is inescapable. That, although we ourselves may have created the environmental conditions for the viral mutations of a single pangolin, the pandemic is really only a symptom whose effects we decry because they are now being experienced by our own species; we think ourselves exceptional, quite forgetting that we too are part of the planet’s life-forms and intricately interwoven ecosystems—including its conditions of extinction.
I speak in a brokenhearted way, not only of the ten thousand things but of the nearly 11.46 million hectares of habitat and three billion creatures—mammals, reptiles, birds, and frogs in the path of the Australian fires—and the continued burning of the one, true Amazon. Caught in an earlier “storm of progress,” Walter Benjamin wrote that “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” Describing the phenomena of this pandemic means acknowledging that what we are seeing is hardly unprecedented or surprising. The virus has simply exposed and intensified gross disparities of wealth and power whose origins, variously in colonialism, slavery, and the postindustrial age, are in fact the preconditions of our own age of liquid modernity, when the reach of late capitalism through technology and human mastery of the environment (and even designs on neighboring planets in our galaxy)—that is to say, our agency as humans—has never been greater. This is our kind of catastrophe and ours alone to remedy.
I am supposed to be writing this essay on technology, but it’s only in the last few weeks I’ve begun to feel better, to begin to feel more like “Suneeta.” I’m testing my energy levels. Some days I do very little, finding it enough of a feat just to cook a small meal, eat it, wash dishes, shower, and sleep; to be aware of this body-mind, inside/outside, its extraordinary proprioception and capacity to mediate the world beyond. I walk around the block to the community garden and, on days when feeling more heroic, to the village shops and back. I take my opioids and medicines. The mind fog, an aftereffect of anesthesia, perhaps protects from too much recall and also gives me no choice but to slow down, to observe the small things unfolding, evolving, and changing, even dying: the seed I planted emerging into tufts of mustard greens; the curtain I’ve made out of an offcut of yellow silk organza to cheer myself billowing out of the bedroom window and getting laddered and wet in the late spring showers, which are said to herald the return of La Niña.
There is still a bit of strain when I exert myself, but this breath is literally the measure of my existence, oxygenating the blood which my heart reliably pumps. It will not do so indefinitely; one day my heart will stop, so the reliability is just an illusion. I tend the wound, a long vertical cut, for which the surgeon when he first saw me afterward apologized. I felt apologetic too, but did not say, for not shaving my legs or privates. After all, the only scissors they gave were tiny, good enough for a child, with sky blue plastic handles in a sterilized packet. It was a difficult surgery, almost one of the most difficult, he told me, as everything was so stuck together … I did not ask him whether he found any pathology with regard to frontal-lobe damage, bruxism, or irony poisoning. I did not ask if he found ten thousand bits and pieces of plastic inside me. In fragments and not all at once, the details do come back to me. How, at my worst, when every few days I had to be hooked up to someone else’s blood, I’d observe, That’s just how connected we are …
I wonder can anyone speak, except in a brokenhearted way, to this suffering which is epic because of its scale, its disproportion, and whose only known antidote—separation— causes immense kinds of suffering too?
I watch mindless amounts of the SBS Food channel, trying to forget above all the hospital menu which I had come to know by heart, and the dread I felt upon seeing the faces of the orderlies as they drew back the curtain to ask, “Would you like to do your menu?” I hardly ate and what little I did was often regurgitated. Now I eat whatever I like while watching David Attenborough’s Extinction on iView and the special livestreaming of the spawning of the Great Barrier Reef. And though I’ve been told it’s probably overkill, I wear the compression stockings. I wear the stockings out of an abundance of caution, defiantly, like some Pippi Longstocking of the COVID-19 era, but also with some affection and even lovingkindness toward the person I was in the weeks and months gone by. When they caught me handwashing and hanging them from the IV poles at the end of my bed, the nurses would offer me new packets. I found it wasteful they’d put the used ones in landfill every day, but now I stretch my sheathed if hairy legs out on the sofa, imagining my secret stash and the ten thousand places I may go when I can walk about easily again.
The limbic terror is turning into something resembling relief and gratitude for simply being alive. Of course I am aware it could have been a worse scenario, including being in Melbourne, or anywhere else in the world; with exactly the same presentation or something even more dire; without universal health care; without friends who, despite their own fears and difficulties, cared enough to visit; to collect things from my home and bring me treats and supplies; to entertain me with books and pamper me with gifts, flowers, and phone calls; to check for mail and water my garden; to hear me when I told them I’d rather die than endure the pain any longer. For the women I met, the one who contracted sepsis; the woman who had been diagnosed with stomach cancer; the one I lay next to when I came out of the COVID-19 iso ward who had just had her leg amputated: for these brave soldiers I was quite happy to search for Lang Lang playing Chopin’s “Grande Polonaise Brillante in E-flat Major” on YouTube and even put the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” on the playlist.
I am supposed to be writing this essay on technology, but before I come to that, I’m googling a recipe that makes the best hummus; better than all my efforts so far, it comes out so smooth and doesn’t require the forethought of soaked chickpeas, just a pinch of bicarb soda. I crack open one of the ten thousand cans from the war arsenal. It’s “like eating a cloud,” my poet friend affirms when she comes to see me and I try it out on her. We’re eager to catch up and yet it’s difficult to know where to begin, to find again the place where we left off, since so much has happened and there are ten thousand and more stories to tell … As she balances the plates and I carry the glasses, she reminds me to take it easy and not lift things. She’s sorry she couldn’t be more there for me. I don’t mind, I say, grateful for her kindness and presence here with me right now, aware she has had her share of heartache and upheaval. We sit out the back in the shade of the paperbark which has just begun to shed its ten thousand and more white blossoms, and the rainbow lorikeets screech as we start.
I acknowledge the Gadigal and Wodi Wodi people, the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which this work was created. I pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging. Sovereignty was never ceded. I recognize their continuous connection to culture, community, and Country.
- James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (London: Penguin, 1997)
- Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970)
- April Bernard, “Haunt,” New York Review of Books, July 2, 2020
- Eihei Dōgen, Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dōgen, trans. Kazuaki Tanahashi (New York: North Point, 1985)
- Ali Cobby Eckermann, “Dip,” in Inside My Mother (Artarmon NSW: Giramondo, 2015)
- Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1969)
- Ling Ma, Severance (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2018)
- Marianne Moore, “The Pangolin,” in New Collected Poems of Marianne Moore, ed. Heather Cass White (London: Faber & Faber, 2017)
- Arundhati Roy, “The Pandemic is a Portal,” Financial Times, April 3, 202o
- William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, ed. A. R. Braunmuller and Robert N. Watson (London: Bloomsbury, 2020)
- Stevie Smith, Over the Frontier (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938)
- Lao Tse, Tao Teh Ching: The Way and Its Nature, trans. John R. Leebrick (Phoenix: Sufi George, 2008)
- Adam Zagajewski, “Praise the Mutilated World,” in Without End: New and Selected Poems, trans. Clare Cavanagh et al. (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003)