My quarantine mornings begin with chopped strawberries. The dulling knife hits the wood below, rapping like raindrops, my hands sticky with juice. I break the berries into imperfect increments, toss them over yogurt into a bowl. I can’t tell if it’s today or yesterday. “They smell fresh,” I say out loud to no one. I live alone and I am talking to shadows.
“Tonight I’ve watched the moon and then the Pleiades go down; the night is now half-gone; youth goes; I am in bed alone,” reads a poem attributed often to Sappho. I recite it aloud and the quiet carries my whisper like a thunder crack. In the absence of touch these days, I feel a sizzle of electricity when a stranger brushes my hand by mistake. My weeks pass – at least, I think they do – in a dizzying abyss of absence. I look up and it is July. Really, what I’m saying is it’s been a long time since I’ve felt another heartbeat, since I’ve hugged a friend.
For years, my mailbox has taunted me. Most days I keep it closed, leaving the bills inside to gather dust because if there’s one thing I can count on in this world, it’s that they won’t stop coming. Some months I don’t open it at all. I do not need another reminder of my place in the precariat, never starker than when the mailbox’s jaws yawn open, chequeless. But in quarantine, I cast about for new kinds of exploration. Checking the mail becomes a ritual, a timepiece, the punctuation mark of my day.
I’ve never stayed in one place for so long as this, and like so many people, I feel most comfortable in some kind of motion. Quarantine is a lesson in forced stopping, in stasis and in letting go. I relinquish a plan I was holding tight, a trip through the geysers and glaciers of Yellowstone National Park with my best friends. A week in the wild has always felt to me like one long exhale, and here is one of the tiniest ways the virus is making it harder and harder to breathe. I let go of a dream I had, of a lover across the world flying home to stay. Now, my only journey is down concrete steps and out onto my stoop to find that everything means more and less than it once did. I’ve never been more and less in touch – the darkest irony – than these past weeks. I hear constantly from family and friends, but can’t reach out to press my hand up against theirs, can’t bury my face into a shoulder or a chest for temporary relief. I begin to look into my mailbox for connection, and am surprised at the whole world I find there.
When I was a child, my grandmother told me that if I held a conch shell up to my ear and listened closely, I’d hear the ocean. In the absence of sanity, I begin to listen to my mailbox tell me distant stories, too. Talismans begin to arrive. My brother leaves me a loaf of dense sourdough, its underside a thick, chalky black. The burn gives it personality, he says with a laugh. I slather it in butter and crunch my way through every hearty piece. It tells me there is more learning to be done, more living to do. A friend across the city mails me a painting, and when it arrives on a day I feel particularly weak and flutters softly to the ground, I cry a little when I see in bright paint the words: “strength (you are strong).” A friend I haven’t seen in years drops by on her bike with a novel aptly called The Door – where is it? And when can I slip through? – passing her much-loved copy on to me. Another friend tucks a newly sewn floral-printed mask inside my mailbox and nearly a hundred others all over town. Hers is the gift of movement, of safe passage. We commune with one another, new closeness I did not expect to find here. We are children again, holding tin cans at our windows, imagining we can hear through the twine that binds them.
When a booklet entitled “Simple Foraging in Southern Ontario” arrives from a friend in Ottawa, even the adventurer in me is sated for a little while. One sunny day, I take it with me to the park. I press my hands into the soil, cooler to the touch than human skin, and beneath my palms it almost feels like it is breathing. I carry home a fistful of ramps, wild leeks I foraged for the first time, and a cluster of dandelions. I tear off their young leaves for my salad, tracing the light outlines of hearts in the yellow powder they’ve left behind on my arms. Inside, I chop tomatoes and listen for a siren call of new adventure that hasn’t come, at least not yet. I sit on my stoop and watch the show the sky puts on each night, yearning for a future to pin my hopes on. My friends, falling in love despite quarantine or maybe because of it, shine like beacons as I bob in choppy waters a ways from proverbial shore. Touch is easy, I realize, and it’s care that’s hard. I take lessons from them, slowly. The sky looks especially bright tonight. Maybe there are wilds within us worth exploring.
It seems obvious to me now, in a way it always should have been, that what we pin our hopes on is each other.
Katherine Laidlaw lives in Toronto.
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