Saturday, September 25, 2021

The smell of irritation and boredom

There's a Jewish joke that says God often rereads the Torah to try to understand what's going on in this world he created.

On the 561st day of German lessons, the sickness finally comes. It announces its impending arrival by text from a friend already ill. And its presence is confirmed by phonecall from Public Health.

I keep looking at the photo he took of me at Jazz Festival that Saturday evening. I look so happy. And pretty. And it warms me, to know he saw me that way in that moment. He infected me with his glance.

She wishes she could abandon her body and dissolve into everything outside.

That afternoon I'd been running errands and stopped by the old park with a coffee. But it was fenced off, under construction. How many hours I'd spent there in the cold of last winter, nipping scotch from a flask, stealing time with my old lover, under curfew. All those conversations and kisses now to be excavated. Time to find a new park.

I feel light. I have music in me, jazz, these are the good old days.

Monday, in line at the walk-in clinic, I'm reading The Anomaly, by Hervé Le Tellier (due out in November), pretentious in its intentional stance of antipretentiousness. It is the French intellectual version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, clever but not very funny. I'm symptom-free, and nervous to be huddling among the potentially infected. But he'd messaged to say he'd tested positive, I should get checked too. Protocol 42 is invoked after a plane lands three months after it originally landed, carrying the same passengers, after experiencing turbulence, presumably a glitch — not in the matrix (the virtual manifestation fed by human energy), but in the coding of the program itself (Slartibartfast asleep at the wheel). Purportedly Oulipian in its design, this wasn't obvious to me, which may be either a strength or a weakness.

It's election day. It wouldn't be right to vote, to potentially expose others; the directive is to isolate while awaiting results. It's Helena's first election. I wait it out at a distance, she is in line for two hours, polls have officially closed and the election is already decided by the time she casts her ballot. It's late and chilly, and my throat feels a bit sore.

The passengers meet themselves three months older, with the exception of one passenger, an author who killed himself. They can see their futures, and try to change them. On Tuesday they tell me I'm already sick, but I'm not sick yet.

We must kill the past to ensure it is still possible.

My contacts are traced, and people worry illogically. How I could infect someone if I hadn't been exposed to the virus yet?

I attend my usual (virtual) meditation session Wednesday. My mind wanders; it is designed that way, our guide reminds me. I practice breathing. I'm good at breathing, I can beat the illness by breathing. For months already I have been feeling that I cannot breathe enough out. My capacity to breathe in is capped; I have first to expel what I have been holding in. There is always more to breathe out, I could breathe out forever. I visualize the viral particles expelled from my body.

She brandishes the empty bottle in her hand, leans forward in a deliciously unfocused way, and blows her warm, hopscented breath at his nose.

"Breathe it in, Adrian, that's the smell of irritation and boredom."

(What if it attacks my lungs? I need to practice breathing.)

I have permission, for the first time in about 600 days, to relax. Because I am physically sick. Never mind wellness culture; however much I try to care for my spirit, every mote of indulgence is tied to a strand of guilt. Work harder, call your mother, be productive, put food on your table, have purpose. 

I force myself to exercise my senses. I had no appetite last night, but I cook sausage so that the house reeks of it. This morning I have quince spread on baguette, just so I can describe it like grainy, tangy chocolate. I've never had quince before.

Over just a few weeks, a graphomanic Victor Miesel fill hundreds of pages in this style, fluctuating between lyricism and metaphysics: "The oyster that feels the pearl knows that the only conscience is pain, in fact it is only the pleasure of pain. [...] The coolness of my pillow always reminds me of the pointless temperature of my blood. If I shiver with cold, it means my pelt of solitude is failing to warm the world."

I spend afternoons on my balcony gazing through the trees at the sky. My temperature climbs another tenth of a degree. Will it stop now? What if it doesn't stop?

I'm fully vaccinated. The friend who exposed me to the virus is fully vaccinated. We were supposed to be allowed to live a little, again. I'm supposed to go to Ireland this week. I need a vacation. I think I have to cancel my flight. Maybe I'll read Ulysses. Maybe I'll sleep. 

There's a helicopter overhead. Maybe it's here to lift me out of myself.

I feel like I'm having weird dreams, only I don't remember them. I feel like I'm on drugs, certain sensations come into hyperfocus and time distorts. Moments of intense clarity. And then they're gone.

We're prepared to warp reality if the stake is not losing altogether. We want answers for even our tiniest anxieties and a way of conceiving the world without reexamining our values, our emotions, and our actions. 

The Anomaly: Excerpt.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021


If faced with a rock, for instance, one should stare deep into the place where its rockness begins to form. Then the observer should keep looking until his own center starts to sink with the stony weight of the rock forming inside him, too. It is a kind of perception that takes place within the body, and it requires the observer to be both the seer and the seen. To observe with empathy, one sees not only with the eyes but with the skin.

— from You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin, by Rachel Corbett (quoted in brainpickings). 

Me in awe of L'Age d'airain, Musée Rodin, 1991.
When I was 15, my big sister took me to Montreal for a few days. I live here now, but that was my first real exposure to the city. The details of the trip escape me. I remember drinking milky coffee from a bowl at a sidewalk café. I remember a visit to the museum: a sculpture on a pedestal, many figures intertwined, and I caressed it, at which point a looming security guard intervened. I don't remember what the sculpture looked like; I remember what it felt like.

I should have known then, recognized the draw of sculpture, the tactility of it. The best sculpture, in my view, is the kind that makes you want to touch it.

I lived in Ottawa for a time, and many a day, when sad or bored or simply free, I would stop by the National Gallery. I would gaze at the sun over Monet's Waterloo Bridge and then puzzle over one of Francis Bacon's popes. As I made my way from one to the other, I would slip past a Giacometti at the side of the hall, or it would slip past me. It might stop me in my tracks. I might take a few steps backwards, forward again, back, trying to pinpoint the exact coordinates where it switched from three dimensions to two, like a child manipulating a holographic postcard, to find where the planes of art and science were in precise alignment with humour and passion. The Giacometti would near disappear, just a line dimension containing multitudes, and unfurling in an instant. And this too manifested tactility, I needed to touch it, to grasp that it was there.

I have been to Paris several times, but I have never been to the Louvre. Given a free afternoon, I go to the Musée Rodin.

That first time I went to Paris, it was 52 hours from touchdown to liftoff, and several of those precious hours would be spent standing in awe of muscular bronze works. I'd seen Camille Claudel. (I bought a volume of Paul Claudel's poetry at a stall along the Seine.)

Despite my love of his work, most everything I know about Rodin I know via Rainer Maria Rilke's letters to Lou Andreas-Salomé, when he served as Rodin's personal secretary, and I share his respect for Rodin's ability to materialize his inner mind.

I watched a documentary about Rodin recently and was stunned to realize he'd been rejected, that his career started late, that he was obsessive.

I am coming to understand the physicality of Rodin's work. I am coming to understand why I think it matters. I am learning the art of einsehen, inseeing. I am starting to see something in myself.

I look back at photos I have taken while traveling. Sculptures everywhere, Warsaw, Rome, Barcelona, Prague. Old, obscure, under restoration, often plain weird. From Botero's cat to Černý's babies.

I am learning how to make plaster moulds. I am learning how to see the shape of white space, how to see in relief. We are defined by absence as much as by presence.

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Time is water

The pills flatten me, make me into a thin scum on the surface of still water. I don't sink. Coast instead, detached from the world around me, and I'm fine with it. Time is water, and the weeks run like a current beneath me, without me.

Magma, by Thora Hjörleifsdóttir, is brave and poetic. Lilja describes her toxic relationship, in short, diary-like entries. She's in love, and all too young and ill-prepared for all the emotional abuse her beautiful, brilliant vegetarian boyfriend deigns to hurl at her.

Our love is raw. We trust each other down to the core, something nobody in my life has ever come close to. When I feel as if I've flayed myself with a potato peeler, I remind myself: Love is a spectrum. It is as painful as it is wonderful.

It's heart-breaking. It's hard for an outsider to see anything wonderful in it.

The psychiatrist lifted a gigantic notepad and, as I spoke, scribbled notes here and there on the blank pages. I told him that I'd tried to off myself. That the man I loved was a womanizer, but things had gotten better. I answered his questions as honestly as I could. Yes, I cry often. No, I don't go out of the house much. No, I haven't thought about doing it again. The doctor called me dear and sweetie — I hate it when strange men do that, but I didn't mention it. I'm polite.

And it just gets worse. No one is able to understand her, let alone is equipped to help her. It's hard to fathom that what she sees as a way out could be a way out. 

Read it in one sitting and cry.