Listening

Things are pretty bleak. It has been a very long six months of coronavirus restrictions and adjusting to a new normal. Those who think we will return to the previous normal once this is all over should abandon that notion. In fact, if you can imagine what “over” would even mean with regard to covid-19, then you are a more optimistic and visionary soul than I could hope to be. Coronavirus is not going away. Even in jurisdictions where things seemed to be “under control” as recently as a month or two ago case numbers are spiking, and in the US things continue their roller coaster ride past 200,000 deaths. We will eventually adapt to this new viral presence, with uneven access to whatever suite of vaccines are made available and periodic outbreaks until some equilibrium of acceptable deaths and herd immunity is achieved. And when it is, what then? Climate change, economic inequality, and the utter failure of liberal political institutions remain the underlying framework for the conditions that allowed this to be a pandemic in the first place and offer us not much beyond a constant lurching from crisis to crisis for the foreseeable future.

During his imprisonment in fascist Italy during the 1930s, Antonio Gramsci called for “pessimism of the intellect” and “optimism of the will” in searching for and building a socialist transformation of society. I find it exceedingly difficult in the current context to uphold the osmotic pressure between these. I am lucky enough to be on sabbatical this semester, and with a second tiny human now in the fold, a parental leave is on the horizon immediately following sabbatical (thank you, still-functioning social safety net and collective agreement). I am therefore able to avoid the Great Collective Academic Trauma through which my colleagues and students are currently suffering as they struggle to manage the temporary (probably, right?) transition to online education. While this sounds fine and dandy for me and mine — and really it is — it also means that the intellectual and workaday structures and schedules that teaching usually provides me are not currently there. I am thus afloat on a pile of reading I want/need to do, but with no tethers, and lacking in the responsibility toward a specific cohort of students that teaching demands and cultivates. This means I have little grounding or discipline at the moment, and am doing far too much doomscrolling on social media. The things I would read for pleasure are either some pale version of academic critique, which does little to lift the spirits, or … well, that’s it. I have a Cormac McCarthy novel sitting on the bedside table, which is the literary equivalent of doomscrolling. Yesterday I got halfway through an essay on the contradictory economic structure of the US for-profit healthcare system before setting it aside. I have gotten 120 pages into C.L.R. James’ classic The Black Jacobins before hitting a brick wall made up of child care duties, small-scale home projects, and some kind of pandemic-induced brain scramble attention deficit disorder. I have printed out 300 pages of the work of geographer Oliver Baker dating back to the 1920s to begin prepping for a long-term project I have wanted to undertake for 15 years, only to carefully punch holes in each article and place them in a three-ring binder that now stares at me from a pile atop my printer. I routinely stay up far too late, not heading to bed until 1:30 am. (As an aside for those who do not know this, toddlers do not care what time you went to bed, they will wake up before the sun rises like you live on a farm or something, and you will need to engage them because they begin the day at 100 percent charge.) I’ve watched my fair share of movies and television the last six months as well, though aside from watching the full six seasons of Community twice, my tastes run toward the dystopic, so no help there. And I have started and deleted about 10 different blog posts here, unsure of what to write or why.

But this litany of complaints is minor. I have my health, my family has theirs, I would likely be staying up late pandemic or not, and pessimism is not a new state of being for me. Though this blog, which would normally provide me a kind of sandbox in which to dabble with writing and keep me going, has now sat idle for almost three months, I must remind myself that it’s not that big a deal. I have written some other stuff, research-related and (I assume) largely uninteresting beyond its niche academic audience. I am not sure now where to pick up on the next thing, even as other projects sit forlorn and unloved on the shelf or collect electronic dust on my computer, but that also does not matter much. This moment will pass, and in the meantime I go to the playground and the nature park with my kid, I change diapers as needed, I wage low-grade conflict with the rodents taking shelter under my back porch, and I think repeatedly of scenes from a book I read many years ago, Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage. Findley’s 1984 novel reimagines the biblical tale of The Flood, in which Noah is a zealot and domestic tyrant, magic lives even as God chooses to die, and the ark becomes the setting for a revolt that ends in an uneasy truce. The scenes that for some reason — I cannot now retrace the other triggers that brought these passages and the images they conjure to mind — linger in my head and seem apropos to the moment involve Lucy (actually fallen angel Lucifer in drag and the wife of Noah’s son Ham) and the beehives aboard the ark. Trapped below deck with Noah’s wife, son, daughter-in-law, and the animals aboard the ark, Lucy goes into a trance-like state listening to the bees:

Lucy’s interest in the bees was in the heat they made, and in the deep, urgent sound of their awakening … Lucy had set the hives on the table and every once in a while she pressed her ear against them — and she would hum. “So stimulating,” she said. “Quite extraordinary … ” And her expression became quite intense.

Lucy interprets the humming of the bees as voices that guide her and the other captives’ escape from the ark’s cargo hold. Once their revolt has succeeded, Lucy brings the hives above, changing her own appearance as she does so, from a porcelain-faced geisha to something resembling perhaps a goddess of rebirth and spring, with long blond hair and “extraordinary eyes of an almost golden colour: animal eyes, fierce and tender. The eyes of a prophet whose words, like an animal’s warning cries, would be ignored.” As Lucy and Hannah, Noah’s loyal daughter-in-law eye each other warily on the ark’s deck, the bees leave the hive to encircle Lucy and then rise above her in unison to shield her from the sun that appeared as the flooding rains came to an end. Lucy and the bees watch as Hannah drops overboard the body of her baby, stillborn and ape-like, deemed an abomination by Noah and quickly wrapped in cloth to hide its deformity.

The image of Lucy, a 7-foot-tall angel masquerading as a human woman, listening intently to the hives and acting as an interpretive vessel for the bees’ voice, has leapt out at me many times during my last three months of … what? Writer’s block? Melancholy and unease? A focus on quotidian tasks and disinterest in writing? All of these. But also maybe it’s time to just listen. To listen, but not add to the cacophony until something needs to be said. This is hard, requiring its own kind of discipline, and I am practicing this until, perhaps, the bees speak to me.