by Claire Wilmot
Look I know this one hits different, but I’m writing to tell you I’m tired of asking is this it? with every new blip in crisis time, tired of waiting for the other shoe to drop only to realize that both have fallen already, might keep falling forever. And just cause you haven’t been listening doesn’t mean that no one is talking about it, and please remember that there’s more than one way to lose the plot.
Something has been quietly dimming the lights in all my dreams, scuttling behind me in the shadows of some dim-lit room. The darkness falls slowly and then all at once—so incremental that I don’t register it’s dark until it’s utterly upon me, in that slow-fast way of dusk or tides.
I guess it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that sleep is a kind of flow, but I read the other day that the sleeping brain quite literally sends a slosh of cerebral-spinal fluid over the squishy contours of your brain, washing away neural debris that gets caught up in the folds of the brain’s grey matter. Sleep sorts out all the raw stuff of living, engages in selective forgetting, simplifies, synthesizes, makes coherent. The sleep-deprived brain retains too much, and, overwhelmed by data, can’t make sense of any of it. Can’t figure out what to forget in order to remember.
There is a bit of beauty there—feeling stoned and breaking down among morphogenic shadows, sloshing around like flotsam and jetsam, those baffling twins, patron saints of maritime destruction.
And just as imperceptibly as dusk, dawn creeps in. In the thin grey light of morning I watch as a moth bashes itself against the glass, casting a tiny chaotic shadow on the white tablecloth, steam unspooling from my coffee mug. The cat sits on the window sill, back arched like a Spanish question mark. In the kitchen, a timer goes off. I told myself that I need ‘structure’, but I cannot structure my thoughts, let alone my days.
When I’m done here I will venture outside, walk to the top of the hill overlooking the Toronto skyline where ribbons of yellow caution tape ripple in the wind like birthday streamers, past a few huddles of chilly, anarchic park sitters, a cavalry of cops (who never met a war they didn’t like) patrolling on horseback, re-energized by this war on the virus.
Three selections from ‘monstrum’ series. Ink & gouache on paper. By Claire Wilmot (2020-2021)
iii. love letter
I guess I’ll start by saying that I’m sorry for not writing because isn’t that what you have to say after four years of silence, even under these circumstances? S said “rituals help”. I’m not sure they do. I try this one anyway.
It’s early morning, one of those perfect spring days in eastern Canada, clear sky and warm light filtering through all the green. I still don’t sleep well but I like the flavour of quiet in these hours, its attenuated softness. But lately, it’s shattered by sirens and a hospital looms into view, rising out of the mists of my memory. Across the street, I watch as spiky green cartoonish viruses spew from the mouth of our neighbour as he takes out the trash. They get caught in the hair of a man peddling past on a busted up bike, holding up a speaker and blasting “1999” by Prince.
I read somewhere that when politicians called this pandemic “the great equalizer”, what they really meant was that things that usually only happen to poor people might now happen to them too. I think this was pretty much true. In Toronto, opioid deaths outstrip Covid-deaths threefold and the municipality is destroying camps set up by the unhoused under the auspices of health and safety. To the south, rumblings of fascism, the ‘China virus’ and other hatreds shouted through megaphones and dog whistles, seeping through the bowels of the internet. Chants about some singular notion of freedom that has gradually parted company from the conditions necessary to enjoy it. And all the while I find myself compulsively adding this death toll to the ledger of ordinary death, from war, from inequality, all those non-novel diseases. More than 500,000 since the opioid crisis began in America. Last year alone, 600,000 (and probably more) dead from Malaria, nearly a million from AIDS, millions more from digestive diseases. The hundreds of thousands of wartime dead in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Yemen, Ukraine, all the others. The countless more killed fleeing those death rates in the endless Mediterranean, the Rio Grande, the Sahara, the Sonoran, the Danakil.
I hope my intentions are clear but in these times (and about these things) one can never be too careful—I cite these figures not to diminish the severity of what’s happening, not to distract from one pile of bodies by pointing to another. Nor do I wish to point toward history’s long arch, suggesting that in the big scheme of things this is no big deal. This is the big scheme and this is a big deal, something that ought to be able to be true alongside a recognition that we were mired in crises long before this one began, and will cope with more after, and for longer. A pandemic simply added to what should already have been an intolerable body count, and has globalized (but not universalized) the condition of crisis, intensifying it in places and among people who have grown accustomed to feeling rather safe. Or who are at least accustomed to seeing crisis Elsewhere, whether that Elsewhere is across an ocean or across the street.
I’ll admit to you (and only you) that when all this started I had a shameful hope, which was that in the midst of a global crisis the pain of your absence might be a little less lonely. Because it’s always seemed to me that grief’s cruelest, most surreal form of power is its ability to alienate its sufferers from the unafflicted. And in the spring of 2020, the question of what a collective crisis would look like, if such a thing exists, remained an open one. You died in a country and at a stage of life where death is largely unimaginable. You were not underdoing complex treatment in a world where hospitals were overrun with pandemic patients, or by casualties of war or other disasters. Your citizenship meant you had access to some of the best doctors in the world while the cost of treatment was largely covered. Our community was not roiling from armed conflict, natural disaster, or economic collapse. Your pain was doubted (you were a girl and a teenager) but not entirely dismissed (you were white). We were safe from the compounding power of multiple afflictions, but it also felt a bit like living in outer space.
So there was this fleeting moment back in March when I wondered if those accustomed to feeling rather safe (with good health and healthcare, freedom from war and structural violence, those good passports and some faith in police) might get a glimpse of what it means to be actually afraid. Like actually, fucking terrified, for themselves or the people they love. I know how this all sounds, and you more than anyone know that I’m no utopian. But for a moment I really did wonder whether we were on the cusp of some degree of shared precarity and whether that might serve as a foothold for a new kind of social solidarity. An empathetic basis for a new ethic of care, or understanding of what it means to live in community with death. Because the irony of grief’s isolating power is that this kind of pain is so wildly not unique, even if it feels that way in certain places or classes or countries or neighbourhoods, or at certain stages of life. It is the oldest and most universal pain—losing the people we love.
I remember being struck, years ago, at how Arundhati Roy’s characters in God of Small things became sites in which various kinds of pain, individual and collective, compete for primacy. “Personal despair”, writes Roy, “could never be desperate enough”. Something happened when personal turmoil dropped by the wayside shrine of the public turmoil of a nation. The personal emerged “inured by the confirmation of his own inconsequence, [becoming] resilient and truly indifferent. It was never important enough. Because Worse Things had happened. Worse Things kept happening”. In “I May Destroy You”, Michael Coel’s character chants “There’s a war in Syria, there’s a war in Syria, there’s a war in Syria” while experiencing a rape flashback. More recently, in a personal essay documenting her husband’s near-death experience with Covid, the journalist Jessica Laustig recalls a conversation with her daughter: “Now we live in a dystopian story”, she says. “Yeah”, her daughter replies. And then: “Lots of people already did”.
I did the math—the probability of things turning out the way they did for you hovers around 0.00000007 percent. Prior to the vaccine rollout, the likelihood that a person under 25 would die from Covid hovered around 0.01 percent. Popular forms of Western psychotherapy (particularly ‘cognitive behavioral therapy) claim to be able to teach those suffering from anxiety disorders to think our way out of mental preoccupations with improbable threats. You are trained to ask yourself, what is the probability of the object of my fear coming to pass? Statistical unlikelihood is used to soothe yourself back into a reality that is presumed safe.
But when the worst possible and least likely outcome comes to pass, the logic begins to break down. You find yourself in some twilight zone on the narrowest end of the probability curve, that quiet frontier where reason fails and you are left to wander alone through the dark, unmoored from cause and effect, far from that well-lit place beneath the bell curve’s sweeping arch. This is its own place of madness—a borderland, a rogue planet.
Back in May 2020, the New York Times Sunday Edition reported 100,000 American deaths since the pandemic began—what it called an “incalculable loss”. But how is loss calculable? How might we calculate it now, two years later? And how to represent it? The front page showed a hundred thousand small figures—“Each represents one of the 100,000 lives lost so far”, it reads. “But a count reveals only so much. Memories, gathered from obituaries across the country, help us to reckon with what was lost”.
Do you reckon memories help? Reckoning, from the West Germanic rechen; to re-count, to relate, to “give an account of”, and to “mention things in order”. A re-con mission for memory. If you ask the experts they’ll tell you that memory is both problem and solution, that ‘commemoration’ can help, it’s what makes us human, it’s what makes elephants and crows “human-like”, with their pilgrimages and communal displays of mourning. I’m not sure if memory helps but I, curator of gaps in my own archival memory, am probably not the best person to ask.
They keep piling up and bleeding into each other, these personal and political griefs. “Pain”, writes Maggie Nelson, “doesn’t typically arrive wrapped up in neat boxes, some labeled ‘pain from preventable injustice’ and others ‘pain from basic suffering’”. Despite all that, she thinks there is some value in sketching the contours of different kinds of pain with “patience, with exactitude”, learning to make distinctions among them. It is in making these careful distinctions that we might “wise up to our various styles of imprisonment, should [we] wish to lessen their grip”. My job, as you know, is to document, and I’ve been trying to do so with precision and with empathy but everything keeps getting blurrier. All mixed up amid a barrage of fresh disasters.
It’s March (again) and I’m an ocean and many years away. I don’t know what to do with these half-formed questions without answers so I’ll keep scribbling them down, will toss them into that echoey thing that continues to expand while everyone keeps telling me it should be getting smaller. Do you know at the beginning they said I’d see you in everything? In the magpies and the larches and the cacophony of clouds over the grey-green pacific. In my burnt toast, like some kind of TV evangelist. In the steam condensing on the bathroom mirror. And if not that then at least I’d sense you, in the wind that churns the sagebrush or the wool of your sweater, which I now wear under my jacket like a cocoon. But there must be something wrong because all I have is quiet, the ringing kind, and I’m hovering above myself as I write, watching an arc of starlings expand and contract above the cityscape in the half-light of evening, a perfect murmuration.
*This autofictional essay responds to Jasbir K. Puar’s reflections on the relationship between private and collective loss during an interview published in the Humanity Journal in 2017. The interview can be read in full here.
Claire Wilmot is a PhD researcher, writer, and journalist. Follow her on Twitter @claireLwilmot.