The electronic check-out machine does not want to recognise the small beige barcode on the plastic-wrapped parsley in my hand. I try scanning it in the usual variety of augmented angles before tapping in the long barcode number. Alas, I have another bunch of parsley to buy and I have to enter again into this banal exercise. With my head lifted to the screen, the strange clinical and simultaneously stale smell of my N95 VENUS mask wafts through my nasal passages and drips quiet vapours down the back of my throat. The forced stillness of this act leaves room for that inner voice I have been ignoring for the last hour to make itself heard: I can’t breathe.
It is no longer odd to wait in 1.5 metre-spaced lines, or to wear the oversized plastic gloves from the counter whilst trying pathetically to open the pressed sleeve of a plastic bag. The initial shock of the shifted landscape of the supermarket, at first neatly regimented with signage and compulsory PPE, has sluggishly unfolded into a more inconsistent, meandering visual uncertainty reflecting the incoherent state of affairs. Modular Glovo and Ubereats backpacks block aisles in the fresh fruit section; young Brazilian men wearing masks eye the produce with bags in their hands. The vague curl of uncertain smiles upon their faces as they corroborate strangers’ shopping lists with each other. Some of us wear gloves, others don’t and move with economy and purpose, seeming to flout the caution of the PPE-dedicated.
I can’t breathe in this mask.
V moves it below his chin and his visible relief makes me envious, but when I do the same it feel like I’m doing something illegal. My breath has been shortening for some time behind my fluorescent muzzle. Ambling between aisles, I bring back single items with my single gloved hand enveloped by a cognitive fog that can only be described as ‘Alzheimers-esque’. With the ungloved hand, I hold my phone and attempt replying to a group WhatsApp text from India. Our relative passed away a few days back and images come through of his last rites. I want to compose a message of consolation, of appropriate compassion given our intimacy. Instead, a swill of reactivities explode in my brain. The pictures of elderly relatives constellated in intimate and enclosed spaces; the unprecedented influx of lengthy emotional text messages from family members still carrying the urgency of grief, of panic; my pathetic single sentence attempts to respond to the still ringing lucidity of it all: where are their masks? how many tomatoes do I need? what is an appropriate emoticon? is four euros too much for grapes? what if they all got COVID? Is there a greater responsibility to respect mourning or pandemic? do I use the gloved hand or the ungloved hand for the fridge door?
Backstage a meta-mind is frantic, attempting to catalogue this emergent disarray.
It is difficult to tell whether the concern now is that we never go back to ‘normal’, or that we go back to ‘normal’ and forget this ever happened: this rattling, shattering of waking life assembled to appear as “business-as-usual” with a few extra props and gestures. The internet continues to swarm with candid videos of ‘covid inspo’: ironing table DJs, Zoom parties and ‘curve’ memes. There is a certain drabness that is felt when the musty corners of a stranger’s home echo into your inert and passive frame. Regardless of its humour or beauty, some sadness wafts at its margins like a dull breeze.
The streets are slowly resuming ordinary paces. It is as though we all got tired of where the movie was heading and flicked onward to binge-watch a different show. Maybe the panic, the threat of finality and the feat of solidarity it begged initially seduced us. But how could a systemic risk we’ve never known defy an apathetic complacency we have rehearsed all our lives?
There is no mistaking the gradual decline into madness. The definite guarantees that we will not, and cannot, rise from the rubble with grace. The post-truth world ushered in when He-who-shall-not-be-named became Ruler of the Free World means that doctors can be harangued on the street for impeding a person’s “civil right” to disobey and die, nurses 3D printing valves to save lives can be sued for infringing private patents, bars can take city councils to court for hindering their profits, pro-choice slogans can be donned in opposition to wearing face masks. The cult of the capitalist has steeped well in its so-called invisible, free hand. Hijacking all logic and sense-making it now flails well within a 1.5 metre radius to bitch-slap us into a horrid, demonic reality.
This virus, this is a god. And the god’s in the house. And the god’s having god’s way as gods tend to do. And our obligation is to reconcile a radical hospitality to this anarchic practice and learn how to be undone by this presence.
I am grateful for the uninhibited rain that starts early in the morning and allows us to wake into a cocoon. The outside, slipping and enlivened cultivates a deeper inside within which to dwell. It is gentle, like it should be, to wake from such a deep coma where dreams get dark and twisted, weighting my mind into a subliminal resting like gravity on drugs. Small ships drown in large bodies of clear water, pooling at my ankles and surrounding a floating house. I muzzle my own face as I wait in the prison cell. I smell my sour breath. I struggle to breathe.
The street sings a melancholic siren song when the weather and the wind combine to deliver a particular velocity. It is faint and definite, a choral coo of metal ringing echoing via neighbouring burrows and gathering as an avalanche against the narrow glass-panes of Rua do Jasmim. I sigh with it, a nod between that outside and my inside of our shared woe; a fleeting meeting in covidian hyperspace; an intimate kiss from a world I cannot see.
They say that feeling is grief. It bottoms me out at the end of meditation, gapes open like a well, aching and warm. They say that feeling is grief but I don’t think we know how to mourn it. It is an action that takes a lifetime. That takes mountain tops upon which to dwell in robes, contemplating the very folly of living and learning the presence of death at the pit of every exhalation, inviting it in for a comfort pasta and stress-baked treat, a bubble bath and a glass of red. How do you mourn a lie of a life? How do you reconcile the myth of civilisation, whose ghosts are alive in the millions usually swept into corners and beneath PVC tents, now suffocating, starving, and suffering in socially undistanced hoards? What do you hold onto when everything is collapsing at the same time? When the one sure thing is collapse itself? It strangely hurts to be right about that. A generation raised on the Matrix, smug and anxious, is calmly jousting with its nihilism.
[Threshold: thresh.old \ thresh-hold
— The plank, stone, or piece of timber that lies under a door.
— Gate, door, end boundary: the place or point of entering or beginning; outset.
— A level, point, or value above which something is true or will take place and below which it is not or will not.]
It’s disorienting. It’s disorienting and it’s scary. Once you reach a certain age, it becomes hard to die to yourself and create a new self. One of the main reasons for that is because of the disorientation and fear that sets in when one world is no longer the world and another world hasn’t set in. So the experience is one of being unmoored and seeking for some deeper root than the superficial things that were grounding you. Everyone’s imagination is going to the possibility of worst case, these terrible things you thought — you wished — you would only ever see in a movie, is flooding into your actual experience. Things that were mythic that you watched on the screen are now playing out in front of you. Heaven and earth collide, and similarly, people are seeing this possibility for a radical positivity to come out on the other end. That now is the moment in response to tragedy and pain when utopia could be forged.
The bedsheets are hung on a coat hanger by the window and they flounder inside and out with the wind. I sit beneath them to capture the triangle of sun that visits our floorboards for a few hours each day. The sheet brushes my shoulder and billows into the street and I am strangely thrilled by this tenuous dance. Some part of me wants it to be freed, to see it wafting down anonymous narrows. A powder blue being released from the uncanny innards of my bedroom to haunt the outside. A spectre of our involuted time. But my hand reaches instinctively to keep it tethered to the coat hanger, to coax its expanse back inside.
Utopia is an impossible place. The floating island conceived by Thomas More in 1516 coined the phrase, but the novel itself is considered a satirical fiction about a’ perfect’ society that lived on a walled off island, ruled by unelected masters and mistresses. The island was ‘protected’ from ‘outside invaders’ — immigrants and refugees — although keeping slaves was acceptable. After it was written many commentators remarked that it was strange to depict a clearly un-ideal society as a perfect one. Elizabeth Grosz suggests that this was precisely the point — that utopia, or ‘ou topos’: no-place, was literally ‘no place’; an architectural impossibility; a society imposing a fixed-state of harmony that could only ever breed discontent in a constantly changing world. Utopia, she writes, is always verging on the brink of dystopia.
It is not an unfamiliar story. Believing leaders and ideologies that proposed a vision of a perfect society, of perfect people, of perfect markets, it is apparent that we have been swept up in a narrative of progress that has all along been sweeping its own casualties under the rug. Peering from the inside out, divorced from our theatre of normal activity, we are somehow closer to those dark spaces beneath, digitally exploring the folds within which we have buried those others, along with the parts of ourselves we did not want to see.
But there is something in this: that we went ‘inside’ together. Bowed our heads to this threshold — at least those of us who could — and forged an unprecedented metaphysical terrain. Our own floating island of collective solitude hovering before the unknown future, and after the known past, goading us into a lucid waking. For our generation, it is the closest exercise of unified awareness; memories encoded in our DNA flickering alight like a fire in a cave. Except that we are alone in these activations, coming to in slow contemplations like several billion imaginal cells blindly plotting a metamorphosis they cannot see; the blade of a wing etching upon an unborn body.
Utopia is a process. It is found in neither past arcadias nor future Elysiums.
It is there like a pinprick on the horizon, a beckoning towards Bacchaic revolution that feels primordial. A drive, like an exit from the womb, towards radical, impossible envisioning. It intoxicates, like prayer or salvation, a quantum regression back to Genesis and through its keyhole so we might fall out on some Other side where we got it right.
As the walls fall off the world narrative of our youth, as the paradigm of our civilisation enters its inevitable entropy, this floating island we have forged is our refuge. A lonely frontier for lost utopias where we are learning how to fall; to become wholly undone.
This shaken place is our borderland. And perhaps we ought to guard it against the rush toward certainty-making; against the ‘normality’ that we have so naively performed to survive. Perhaps we ought to step lightly back into the world. A Schrodinger’s reality that may, or may not, have become something else in the time we weren’t looking.