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BONDING OVER WORMS: LIMITS AND LOVABILITY



Being a member of Generation X – or, as I prefer to say, being a child of the 1970s – has shaped my tastes forever. You’ll know the kind of thing. I crave the taste of artificial strawberry. Fake fruit chemically sweetened that decade, from the fluoride treatment coating my teeth at the dentist to wet desserts whipped up from a packet of powder. I had to look up the pop label for my generation. If you want to know yours, Google ‘what generation am I’ to find an online tool, where you can put in your birth date and your death date. A simple calculation will give you your result.

Put in your death date and wait to be told something about yourself. That thought occurred to me before I batted it away like a rain fly at the kitchen table. Semi-lockdown does odd things to the perception of time, life, death, and all that. Well, as a child of that orange-wearing, eyeliner-positive decade, I also have a penchant for weird mental contortions, though without quite believing in these…meditative practices. To put it another way, Half-Belief is like a dopey friend, giggling and dragging down the arm of Practice, which sternly marches on.

These (perhaps pointless) exercises were fun. For example, when it was possible to meet my one-to-one mentees in person, we often visited somewhere together. Maya and I would free-write in a Scottish garden. Jazmine and I broke from editing to play with an interactive shea butter exhibit in a Yorkshire museum. Writing and editing poetry involves a lot of staring into space. So, I like the stared-at space to be active in its own way, stimulating and treasurable. I want us to get away from bookshelves and walls. Those ‘writerly’ interiors look back blandly and submit to our projections; how could they shake us out of living in our heads? I need space to be place, and to have the dynamic of encounter.

What happens to writers who attempt to, or must, ‘shield’ during this plague? I find that one-room living does not create an echo chamber of words. It does, however, propel me into specific memories. These are not flashbacks. They do not overwhelm me or interrupt the writing process. Simply, when looking away from the screen or page, I’m catapulted into elsewheres and elsewhens.

Often these are shot-silk recollections; they shimmer between twin-woven colours of emotion and event. I am not longer curled around my computer; I am standing in Lydia’s kitchen. It is not air conditioner-scented night; it is chilly early morning. Porridge is cooking. Dazed from overwork, we are gazing into the compost bin, to see the tiger worms at work. Scarlet and superb, they busily munch and loop their way through leaves and leftovers. They fascinate us. We love them. Have you ever bonded over worms? I think we did.

What are the limits of the lovable? When the basic reflex that keeps us alive – breathing – could maim or kill us, or kill or maim those we breathe on, those we breathe with, those we breathe among – how do we love ourselves? What about others – are they primarily lovable, or dangerous to us, or vulnerable to us? Is there fear and self-loathing in every breath? Is there pride and escapist disregard?

Now I look up from the keyboard. Memory hurls me onward, or backward, five months from the present moment. We are in Ireland. The month is March, when daffodils take the winds with beauty. The onset of COVID-19 is rippling into public consciousness. It’s baffling. What to do? How to be? We are standing near the inner entrance to a public building. That’s you, me, and two supersize containers of hand sanitizer. You are a smallish lady with a halo of dry, silver-white curls, frantic dark eyes, and a body reshaped by serious knitwear. Are you twenty or forty years older than I am? Anyway, anxiety is making you breathe audibly.

“God is not pleased with us,” you say. Your face twists like a bullied child’s when out of sight of the bullies. “This is a sign. He is punishing us.” I look as kindly as I can at you, panicking. I am afraid of saying something to correct what you think, instead of listening for what you feel. Uncertainty makes me be there for you because uncertainty – not love – makes me stand still.

I try one of those weird mental contortions. Can I alchemize acute uncertainty, verging on dismay, into something like love? You face untwists, as if you see a change in my eyes. You step closer. I say something awkwardly – the wrong thing; but at least it’s not theological.

“He is testing us,” you say. You are holding onto my forearms; onto my upper arms; your face is close; if your breathing were not so loud, we might start breathing in synch.

“Maybe He wants to…see how good we can be to each other. Maybe He wants us to treat each other well,” I say, mentally kicking myself and calling myself a coward and a liar.

Your face clears. However old you are, you are twenty to forty years younger than me. You pirouette away. “Yes! God is good,” you half-sing, entering the building.

Staring at you as you walk away, I sanitize and sanitize. I go in after you.

These diary pieces are memory pieces. They recall encounters shot through with a feeling so much taken for granted that it was not sayable, maybe not knowable: the feeling that the normal condition of life is being continuously alive; even having the chance to make plans. Was this part of a foundational refusal to make a ‘new normal’ out of war, climate disaster, or any other catastrophe? Were ‘new normals’ already being pushed on us? If precarity gains the status of everydayness, who won’t hunker down and lash out? Long before the pandemic, news-consumers have been edged towards that, and away from the sense, or practice, of hopeful futurity.

Now, between each diary piece, there may be a diagnosis, illness, or disappearance. Between or arising from whatever meetings physically take place – meetings which I am part of, or hear of, or never learn about – there may be a disappearance, illness, or diagnosis. I plan and send each instalment virtually, from rainy season Trinidad to Canberra of friendly and silvery memory, both as if the next set of words surely will happen, and as if setting down these words is the only thing that is happening.

Things were a little like this before, but if we were complicit, we did not feel it. We were complicit. We did not feel it.

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© University of Canberra | Poetry on the Move 2020
Poetry on the Move is a major initiative of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research in the Faculty of Arts and Design, University of Canberra.

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We pay our respects to all Ngunnawal elders - past, present, and future - and to their continuing culture.