By Leslie Shimotakahara
It’s early February, as I write this in my journal. I’m in Hong Kong at the peak of the coronavirus crisis. At least, it may be the peak. A week ago, I saw in the news alerts on my phone that a prominent scientist had predicted the virus would reach its height around now. But then, other scientists refuted his opinion, claiming we have no way of really knowing.
Life continues on, in this slightly surreal, suspended state. I used to enjoy stepping out for long walks in the neighbourhood, picking up groceries, stopping for a matcha latte at that cute café. But these days, walking has come to seem an unnecessary luxury, a risk to the health. When I absolutely need to go out, I walk briskly, my glasses fogging up from the cloud of my breath, which gets trapped in the baby blue surgical mask affixed over my nose and mouth. A couple weeks ago when I first arrived here, I wasn’t wearing one. I was simply washing my hands a lot, as advised by op-eds in the western newspapers I read online. Yet it’s not a good feeling to see that you’re fast becoming the only one not wearing a mask, and was I attracting dirty looks? A taxi driver refused to let me in his car unless I had a mask to put on. That left me feeling vulnerable.
As does finding empty shelves in the supermarket in the soap aisle. Of course, I expect face masks, hand sanitizer and bleach to sell out, but ordinary hand soap? Tinned goods? Rice? Toilet paper? Really? Although the outbreak here remains modest to date, knock on wood, stocking up with a vengeance seems to provide people with a sense of control, however illusory. And I’ve become just as manic as everyone else. I rush to the drugstore and manage to grab the last bottle of antibacterial liquid soap. A small victory.
Mid February. There’s a weekly meditation group I often attend, when I’m visiting Hong Kong. (I’m usually here once or twice a year, since my husband’s doing ongoing architectural work in the city.) In my current state, I could use a meditation session to unwind. One of the teachers is an older woman with an enchanting, childlike smile; she left the corporate world to train at a monastery in Myanmar. At our last group practice, she talked about staying with and showing curiosity toward your thoughts, during meditation. You don’t have to immediately shepherd your attention back to your breath; you can stay with your thinking, while being mindful of your thoughts. I told her that I think my mind’s natural inclination is to obsess over and analyse its own frenetic activity. So, it’s a matter of your mood, she said. Sometimes, one wants to look more closely at one’s thoughts; other times, one wants the discipline of coming back to one’s breath. A hybrid, shifting approach. I’m grateful that when I’m in Hong Kong, a city that doesn’t seem naturally conducive to much reflection, I have this community that I can discuss these things with.
The next group practice is in two days, and I’d love to attend. But the venue is a twenty-five-minute walk from our flat, and I doubt I’ll be able to face rushing past other mask-clad passersby. This ever-present feeling of disease in the air.
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Early March. This evening, like all others in recent days, I stay home. I continue to do what I’ve been doing for the past several weeks, months, years. I’m researching a new novel, set on the Queen Charlotte Islands during the early twentieth-century (these islands have since been renamed Haida Gwaii). My grandmother on my mother’s side grew up there, after her father had immigrated from Japan to British Columbia in the 1890s. When I was a kid, she told me many vivid tales about her youth in the wilderness; these tales, conveyed in her elliptical style, offered mere tantalizing glimpses. Now, at my dimly lit desk, I’m examining photographs on the internet of that wondrous forest, full of towering Sitka spruce trees, glistening, veil-like lichens draped from cathedral-high branches. Majestic as these forests appear, I know they’re less majestic now than they were in my grandmother’s day, when the Canadian government began a large-scale campaign to chop down Sitka spruces and ship their timber to Europe, where it would be used to build the Allies’ fighter planes in the First World War. I’ve been reading a lot about this period, researching BC logging history, of all things.
As I sip my peppermint tea and keep looking at images, occasionally taking notes, a lulling sense of calm slips over my skin. Delicious as it is, I’m aware of its fragility, its transient, illusory nature. I’m reminded of a line in an essay called “The Age of Ephemerality” by Stephen Marche: “In writing we hide from the fact that the life of the mind is the life of the flesh delayed for a bit.” While there will be no escaping disease and death for any of us in the end, writing offers a mental refuge, where for a fleeing moment other worlds and possibilities seem within grasp.
Mid March. The city’s gradually coming to life again. People are out on the streets at lunch hour. They’re chatting animatedly through their face masks, as they briskly walk past patches of torn-up sidewalk, where construction workers appear to be digging trenches, the muted sound of something jackhammering in the distance. Who knows whether this is just a lull, before yet another storm. Nevertheless, as the city slowly wakes up, after a long illness, I feel my own head clearing a little, my limbs shaking off their lethargy, ready to move again.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Leslie Shimotakahara's memoir, The Reading List, won the Canada-Japan Literary Prize, and her fiction has been shortlisted for the KM Hunter Artist Award. She has written two critically acclaimed novels, After the Bloom and Red Oblivion, published by Dundurn Press. Red Oblivion, released last fall, was The Word On The Street’s Book of the Month for January, included in the 49th Shelf’s “Great Books for the Moment,” and praised in Kirkus Review for showing “virtuosity in this subtle deconstruction of one family’s tainted origins.” Leslie has a PhD in American Literature from Brown University. She and her husband live in the west end of Toronto.