Distance in two scenes: The retail store & the paddock
Science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson argued in the New Yorker that coronavirus is ‘rewriting our imaginations’. ‘We seem to be learning our way into a new structure of feeling’, he states. I agree with him in principle, but diverge in opinion on whether this is necessarily an optimistic outcome. The new structure he writes about relates to how we experience being alive in a (post)pandemic world, where what was once impossible, deemed the folly and fetish of sci-fi, is now becoming thinkable. ‘Science fiction is the realism of our time’, he writes.
In this way, responses to this current crisis may shift our imaginations to new follies of impossible futures, rescripted to extend on our now newly possible, dystopian-esque times. In other words, there is a process of redescription being enacted in our imaginations as we feel and move our way through this changed world. It is, in fact, this moving and feeling that allows for reimagining.
I’m interested in how we’re modifying our appropriations of space in a virally vulnerable world. This is also a process of redescription, a very visible and embodied one. We’re having to relearn how to move through throngs, over pavements, toward cashiers and clerks. I’m interested in the corporeal, the physical occupations, the anxious choreographies that now characterise our streets and stores, our public spaces. This new performance of space is still filled with our physical accommodations, but is no longer home to our corporeal exchanges. Intimacy is all but erased in these redescriptions.
There is, as a result, an almost beseeching loneliness to this new social distancing, which is difficult not to notice when you move around. I think it’s also difficult not to be affected by it because there’s something so curt and uncivil about these new procedures of separation, implemented of course to protect us and those we tentatively engage with. Separation is surely an antonym to urbanity. And more than this, it seems an antonym to conviviality, to hospitality, to love.
Recently I went to a retail store to pick up my non-contact shopping,k my ‘click and collect’. This wasn’t because I was being a particularly diligent pandemic-city-citizen, but because I’ve become a bit fascinated by the push, entirely justified, to remain contactless in our current coronavirus climate. I’m curious to see how it works. I live remotely, which means I’m not immersed in these new ways of being in the built environment, and I come at it with the eyes of an outsider, learning from the acclimatised, the acculturated.
Two metres from the register, I stand waiting for a staff member to bring me my package from storage. I watch the queue, well-spaced. An old woman moves up to the register to exchange a pair of slippers she says are too small. She places them on the counter and waits for the usual gestures of transaction to be enacted. The cashier, from behind the Perspex sneeze guard, tells her to stand behind the line. ‘I can’t hear you dear’, the woman responds, cupping her ear and moving in, her head leaning around the side of the guard. ‘The line on the floor, black tape’, the cashier says not raising her voice which would have assisted this woman so obviously hard of hearing. She points down, vigorously. The old woman looks, and shuffles backwards. Everyone remains silent behind her, as though watching the naughty child in class.
The next customer is a young man, jaunty, following all the new rules. He puts some miscellaneous clothes items up on the counter, and steps back behind the line, before realising he forgot to put his reusable bags up there too. He dithers, jumping from one foot to the other, trying to throw the plastic bags across the social distancing divide and onto the counter. They don’t make it; they fill with air and sink to the linoleum floor. He bends into the no-go zone to pick them up, before trying again. We’re all watching, amused by this new sport; this mundane conundrum of our covid-19 times. The cashier says, from behind the guard, ‘Don’t worry love, you have to pack ‘em yourself anyway’. The young man laughs, embarrassed, scrunching up the bags in his hands. ‘Ok then’, he responds, defeated.
Between each transaction there is the compulsive wipe down of the counter.
The last customer I see before my click and collect is brought up, and left on the cleaned surface for me to come forward and pick up when it’s declared safe to do so, is a woman who does all the right things. At the last minute, with the arm of the credit card machine jutting out beyond the no-go zone for ease of contactless payment, she asks if she can pay with cash. This time the cashier laughs. ‘Not anymore darl’, she says in a tone that allows for no response.
What is most startling about this redescription of space, produced by our changed embodiments and manoeuvres, is the suspension of usual norms. All the gestures that once were a sign of trust, now give us cause for suspicion. We’re awkward bodies in the pandemic spaces we’re performing. We’ve become discourteous according to the old norms, if they can be remembered, as a means of protecting ourselves as we wait for a vaccine. But I wonder what our body memory will make of all this; when a vaccine is here, and when it’s safe again to approach, to brush warm skin under coins, hold out a hand to be greeted, lean in for embrace.
In my mind, as I drive out of town and back to the bush block where I live, I’m thinking about sneeze guards, barricade tape, contactless payment, sanitiser spray, wipes. I’m remembering the mostly frustrated faces of the cashiers, the people employed to count bodies entering stores, the sometimes smiling eyes above facemasks. I’m thinking about this new world where people are hesitant in their movements around strangers as though they’re a carrier of disease. And I’m glad to leave it behind me, for another little while.
In Australia we’re moving into the winter. We’ve escaped the brunt of the pandemic so far, and have managed to flatten the curve. But our flu season awaits, and the long dreary days loom where we’re stuck inside thinking about this pandemic, and wondering what it means for our rewritten imaginations and our bodies’ memories. This seems a hard blow. We, in this antipodean nation, had a summer of bushfires and exile, where many fled their homes; followed by an autumn of house-arrest, and soon we’ll have a winter to hibernate and to ponder. What some of us will be thinking about, I imagine, is what this backlash from ecology might offer up next.
After the separations I endure in public, when I arrive back home I’m relieved to find the paddocks with the donkeys brushing noses, play-biting at each other’s withers. There’s no social distancing with animals. Here, space is once again filled with corporeal exchange.
I climb over the wire fence and walk through the new grass toward the donkeys. I’m treating one for a hoof injury and have come to remove the poultice. They stop grazing when I approach. Their long ears, pricked, look like burnt loquat leaves folded at the seam. The jack with the injury limps toward me and leans into my chest.
When I got these animals, someone wise told me that at the first sign of lameness you have to understand that the donkey is in considerable pain, and probably has been for some time. ‘They only show weakness when it’s become unbearable’. I think about this as I clean the gunk from the corners of his eyes, and scratch at his long flat cheeks. He bends his head low to the ground, his muzzle scuffing the grass, as I scratch harder into his coarse grey coat. I move my other hand to grip his mandible, my fingers either side of the bone, and let him rest the weight of his big stocky head in my hand. It feels good to hold something warm.
Now that I’ve been in lockdown for countless weeks, I’ve had time to stop and to think. And since this injury appeared, I’ve been thinking a lot about donkey’s legs, the sturdiness of them, the surety, their calm solid beauty that carries outrageous loads. As I hold his heavy head by the jaw bone, I look down at the fetlock, the pastern, the coronet. I run my left hand down his leg, and he lifts his hoof for me. I soothe him with cooing as I unravel the bandages and remove the poultice. With his hoof cupped in my palm, I’m always amazed at the trust between us. That he doesn’t kick me, and show me all that strength he has waiting, willing, in his stubborn leg. That he just rests there, our two bodies touching.
I leave him in the paddock with his companions and I walk back to the house. At the sink I scrub the brown grit off my hands. It’s oily from the donkey’s coat and clings to the creases of my palms. Even when it’s all rubbed off, I have the memory of the weight of his head, of the weight of his hoof, in my muscles. I have the memory of his contact.
Emily Nemens wrote in the Paris Review, ‘In difficult times, literature can be a respite or a road map, fiction can offer a way forward or a means of escape, and poetry can be a pronouncement or a poultice’. I agree with everything she says, but now with the donkey, I wonder about poultices in times of crisis. And I think about whether the surety of the world required this moment to draw out the contagion, and I don’t mean covid-19 and I certainly don’t rationalise any of the consequent deaths. What I mean is the drawing out of everything this crisis has subsequently revealed. It’s laid bare the division and dysfunction and despair that characterise the structures set in place. Structures that haven’t been properly questioned for too long, which have shown themselves to be malignant, resilient, only succumbing to fracturing after so much unbearable holding-it-all-together. What’s been exposed, many of us can see, is a rabid sense of hopelessness and cruelty that is, it finally appears in all its awful truth, to be all pervading. As Robinson considers in his New Yorker piece, ‘The neoliberal structure of feeling totters. What might a post-capitalist response to the crisis include?’.
Reflecting on Nemens’ comment, I also think, less tangentially, about a line from John Berger’s essay The Hour of Poetry: ‘Poetry can repair no loss, but it defies the space which separates. And it does this by its continual labour of reassembling what has been scattered’. This, it seems, is what we need to do as the lockdowns are hesitantly lifted. Concentrate on reassembling what has been scattered, but to renewed configurations The distance between us, which has protected us in this crisis but has perhaps been between us far longer than we realised or required, this distance needs to be mended. How we relate to each other, in the retail store, in the paddock, is after all how we make the world.
It’s our bodies’ memories of this historical moment that are rewriting imaginations, and I fear contactless memories will offer impotent futures.