"I feel so cooped up in my house with this smoke and the moths that keep flying by my window. Is a weekend really a weekend in 2020 if it doesn't include plague, pestilence, and Hell fire?" - @a_h_reaume
I tweet this while a moth flutters against my closed window.
The sky has disappeared. It’s been replaced by a haze that descended on Vancouver from the wildfires in California. We currently have the dubious honour of being the city with the world's worst air quality.
Amidst this apocalyptic world, there is also an outbreak of moths. They flutter everywhere- even 12 floors up outside my apartment.
I live alone. We are now in the seventh month of a global pandemic. I know I am alive mostly because my anxiety roils within me. I can’t calm down anymore. Everything feels so uncertain. I haven’t touched another person in over two months.
I used to cope by going on long bike rides and long hikes. I’d tire my body out until it relented, relaxed. But I can’t go outside now. I haven’t been able to go outside for days. I don’t know when it will be safe to go outside again.
That morning, I’d impulsively texted my best friend, a long-distance ex-lover, to tell him I couldn't be friends with him anymore because it was too painful. I’d sent him an e-mail two days before telling him I loved him for the first time. The vulnerability of that e-mail sitting between us was too much for me to hold in a world that seemed in the middle of multiple concurrent apocalypses.
Right after I texted him, I sat down to send out query letters for my novel to agents for the first time. I needed to imagine a better future, I told myself. I needed change. Movement. I kept putting off sending them out waiting for the right time. But I realized there wasn't a right time in 2020.
So, on a day where I was terrified of one sort of vulnerability, I made myself vulnerable in a different way.
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"Hey. If anyone sees horsemen making their way through the streets can you just like give the rest of us a heads up? Looking for four of them." - @a_h_reaume
What does it mean to be a person when the world is literally on fire? What does it mean to be a writer?
"Do you think you would still be in a relationship with him if it wasn't 2020?" a friend asks me when I tell her about the text I sent.
"I don’t know,” I reply. “We would have seen each other in July. It's now been nine months since we last touched. Nine very stressful, horrifying months.”
"Everything is being pushed to breaking," she responds.
"2020 is about perfecting the art of breaking over and over again,” I respond. "And then just walking around like an exposed wound pretending you’re okay."
I pick at a scab on my ear as I say this. She is not with me, of course. We are talking on the phone from our separate socially distanced lives. I am lying on the couch in my underwear, my hair up in a disheveled bun. This is a social life in 2020.
Yet, these talks with friends string the days together and give them form.
“Sometimes I need to reread my own words. This is from an essay I wrote two years ago: “Remember: very little in life is permanent. Remember that most when it feels like it’s not true.” - @a_h_reaume
Querying is an act of hope. It is a reaching out towards an uncertain response. It puts the writer in a position of vulnerability. Because what if no one likes your work? What if it is not marketable? What if you have just wasted years of your life on something that will go nowhere?
Sending out queries involves holding so many potential futures in your hands at once. It involves getting rejections and then finding a way to put yourself out there again.
How do you do that in the midst of a world that is slowly coming off the rails?
"I hate my first chapter," I text a friend. "And I found two typos in it" This is after I already sent it out to numerous agents.
I am mortified.
"Don't worry that it's not perfect," the friend responds. "If the agent likes the concept and the book, they’ll work with you."
“The weird thing about querying is that it feels like my novel is both alive and dead,” I tell her a few days later on a phone call. “It’s like having Schrodinger’s novel.”
“You won’t know whether it will be published for a while,” my friend responds. “It’s a process. You have to trust in it. It takes time.”
After I send queries out to the first round of agents, I get five manuscript requests, but two weeks go by and I don’t hear back from any of them. “That’s normal,” my friend tells me. I hear this but I can’t take it in. I spend a part of every day now worrying my book will never get published.
"I really wish 2020 would respect my safe word already. I've been yelling it out since July." - @a_h_reaume
Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies and I stop caring about my manuscript. All I can think is what will happen if a Republican Supreme Court justice is appointed to replace her. My novel doesn't matter in the face of the generation of suffering that will bring.
I don't know how to sit with all of the futures that could branch and fork from each of 2020’s intersecting apocalypses. I don't know how else this year might take things from people who have nothing left to give. How do we keep fighting within this world of capitalist hellscapes? This life of climate-related slow death.
“This week I’ve been thinking about the mental health impacts of the pandemic and the wildfires and wondering... how will we mentally survive climate change?” – @a_h_reaume
I spend my days wondering what it means to be a human in a world that keeps making it impossible to breathe. When I talk to friends, I hear only stories about how this year is shaping their lives into forms that feel unlivable. Phone calls with friends yield story after story of people hitting against each other in their fear and pain and uncertainty and hurtling further away from the people who used to anchor them.
How do we straddle the pain of this time – all the gaps and disconnections – in order to reach each other? How do we write within this pain?
Some days, I feel like I know only how to survive. It becomes a dull achievement I wrest from each day only to falter again at the need to get through another.
“If you are reading this, you have survived one more day of this pandemic. I hope the day brought you at least one moment of connection with another human. If not, maybe tomorrow? This is not easy. But you got through one more day.” – @a_h_reaume
The numbers of cases are increasing in Vancouver. The US president just refused to agree to a peaceful transition of power.
To be human is to want. To imagine trajectories for our individual lives. But that seems impossible now. This is a moment when we find ourselves within History with a capital H. Complexly entangled with each other and the future. Who can dream for themselves within all this wreckage?
“We have to find ways to hold each other within the pain of this,” a friend told me earlier in the pandemic. “Even as it tears us away from each other.”
This is the same friend who shared an essay I wrote about our interdependent Crip friendship with her dying grandmother and then told me it allowed them to understand each other more fully in her final days. I think about this when I wonder why it matters whether I query or write.
I text that friend as I am driving through the smoke to bring the only N95 mask I own to someone who has a respiratory disability and needs it more than I do.
“I’m not doing well, can I come over?”
She calls me back within a minute to tell me to drop by. And so I go sit in her living room. Usually we entwine our limbs as we talk, enjoying the comfort of our deep familiarity. But she’s on the other side of the room lying on her couch today.
And I cry as I tell her about everything going on in my life. About the anxiety and grief that beat within me about the state of the world. About a heart that’s broken. About all the ways that my life feels unlivable. And she listens. And she speaks the gentle words I need to hear.
And I think as I leave her house -- may we all find that small and necessary comfort – to be allowed to cry over our collective uncertain future in the presence of another. And to be heard. And to be held – even when touch isn’t possible.
That is the simplest and most generous gift we can offer each other now.
None of the books I have read this year have done what she could do for me in two hours of gentle presence. Sometimes books matter. Sometimes they change things.
And sometimes we need each other more.
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
A.H. Reaume is a Vancouver-based fiction writer who reads too much and is currently in too many book clubs (four in total). Reaume has a background in feminist activism and an M.A. in Canadian Literature from UBC. She's been published in the Vancouver Sun, The Globe and Mail, USAToday.com, and Time.com and is currently trying to finish her first novel.