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BooksApril 16, 2020

Lockdown letters #21, Ashleigh Young: Avoiding the loaves

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On writing and not writing about bread.

Read more from the lockdown letters here.

I’m afraid that soon I’m going to write about bread. I can’t hold it much longer. This is a lockdown diary, I’m running out of thoughts, and the bread is coming – I feel it. Each of the fragments below can be read as a desperate parrying motion as the loaves slowly but surely make their way towards us. I told a friend I was struggling to think of anything new, and that I was at the bottom of the barrel, and he suggested I write from the perspective of both the barrel and the barrel-maker. So maybe that’s what this is. (I could not write from the perspective of a person inside the barrel and looking up, because Murakami has pretty much already done it.)

I was thinking about buying some winter pants. Halfway through the search I decided there was no real need, so I didn’t buy any. But I’ve had a tab open for over a week that says: “The Continue Pant”. This pant is my mascot now. Every morning when I wake up my computer, there it is. Winking with its tapered leg, shimmying its elasticated waist, and continuing. Always it appears in the singular – it’s one of a kind, a lone cheerleader. The pants I have at home right now can only ever exist in the plural. Continue Pants. These are something else altogether. These are the pants that can be worn at home but not outside. They have huge holes in the crotch, or they don’t stay up, or they look weird when you put shoes on. They continue – do they ever! – but they prefer not to be seen while they’re doing it.

I’m also trying to avoid writing about what coronavirus tells us about a specific thing, or what the specific thing tells us about coronavirus. “What This Story About Americans Blowing Up a Whale Can Tell Us About Fighting Coronavirus”. “What Vampire Bats Can Teach Us About Socializing in a Pandemic”. “What the Zombie Genre Tells Us About This Crisis”. “4 Things the Covid-19 Crisis Tells Us About 3D Printing”. “What Oneweb’s Failure Tells Us About Space Resiliency in the Age of Covid-19”. Ordinarily I’d be cynical about all of these parallels, but the desire for meaning and for some measure of understanding or control is so compelling right now that maybe everyone should get a pass on outrageous analogies for the next year or so. I find that the more I resist writing about the meaning of the virus, the more the things around me speak to me of what they know. “What your wood pile has to say about self-isolation”. “Why your lemon tree is dying, according to Covid-19”. “What the pandemic can tell us about why poetry doesn’t sell”.

Not seeing people regularly affects my sense of how time works. I’ve realised the obvious thing, which is that people contain time. Their routines, their plans, when they repeat a story they just told yesterday or announce that they’re going to have some toast – even by standing there yawning, other people reflect time at you and show you where you are in it. Without them, it’s easy to come untethered and freefall through time. The other night my shoulder felt sore, so I rubbed it absently for a while, and then somehow forty-five minutes had passed and I was watching a YouTube clip of a chiropractor running a little motorised device over someone’s back and legs. “It’s like a brick wall!” This sort of thing keeps happening.

I’m reading Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker about a mid-century family of 12 children (10 boys, two girls), six of whom were diagnosed with schizophrenia, and all of whom suffered various abuses at the hands of the mental healthcare system, the legal system, ableist stigma and wrong-headed psychiatric theories, and of course each other. Hidden Valley Road is really good. It’s smart, even-handed, empathetic, and it illuminates the personal in the political, and vice versa. As you’d expect, though, the book is also disturbing and brutal, and horribly sad. But I’m finding that the things I am most disturbed by aren’t the things I am supposed to be most disturbed by. There is a scene with a captured falcon at the beginning of the book. And later something happens with a cat. They are cruel scenes and both times I thought I should probably stop reading, because scenes of cruelty stick in my brain like a bad loaf in the tin. I had to talk myself down and remind myself that far, far worse things had happened in the lifetimes of these people. But it’s very hard to reassign your upset to more appropriate places – to tell yourself, “That’s nothing. There are so many worse things.” Enforcing perspective is something we are always doing to ourselves and to each other. But, obviously, it’s possible to be upset by a smaller thing while holding the bigger situation in your head. To conclude this review, Hidden Valley Road is a good book but I’m not sure I would recommend it. I would recommend Weather by Jenny Offill, and Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, and Last Things by Jenny Offill.

I’m typesetting some poems by Kate Camp, and I keep going back to the index of first lines. I just read them over and over. The deeper we get into our isolation, the harder I find it to reflect on anything bigger than a day, or even an hour. We’re into the fragments now, people. We’re deep in the crumbs of things.

Everything that’s important now

From the Circle there was a man we couldn’t see

Have you ever had the urge

He is in the desert

History shows

Hope weather is all good etc all is well and dog is wagging

I discern the weather by watching the river

I had almost forgotten what it is

I hardly know what to say to you

I have a new minute in my day

I live in a block called The Village

I love the aesthetics of working ports

I pay a man to manipulate me

I want you to look into an oncoming night

I went to the Kilbirnie Watchtower to pick up your personal

If this song ever saw the light of day it would fade real quick

In Homer, the gods

In my hand I hold a mouse

In this city you will always be above and below


Keep going!