Love in a Time of Anomie
“This place is a dream. Only a sleeper considers it real. Then death comes like dawn, and you wake up laughing at what you thought was your grief.”
March; daffodils and daisies thrive, bigger, brighter, better than ever; all the heavy rain we've had for the past three months has been good for Nature; grass is tall, thick, glossily green; trees are thriving, foliage thicker and lusher than I seem to recall. But perhaps that is the effect of me as observer? (Quantum physics is all the rage.) But then again, this current crisis, and the endless quarantines and interminable local lockdowns also seem to have facilitated an uncanny renaissance for Mother Earth.
A band of foxes confidently scavenges in formerly traffic-ridden suburban streets, during odd hours of day and not just under cover of darkness; for now the old commuter's drive, the old school-run, and so many other comforting (if much maligned) mundane routines of the familiar old order have ceased to exist.
We are locked down, indoors; and the rain, or rather, deluge, adds another level of seeming inevitability to that for it is not at all tempting to go out in such conditions.
Maybe the planet would prefer us not to be around?
I have been a guest of the Sanatorium for some time now, having been in a state of extreme apathy, such that I was labelled as one of the “Living Dead” – a colloquial expression used among some staff and residents of the San, referring to numerous of the inmates, who, like myself, are apathetic and self-neglecting to the extreme, without, however, being in a state of catatonia. (But technically we are referred to, officially – and when figures like the Director, or other external visitors of importance are around, and everyone is on polite behaviour – as “Guests”.)
It all began in the autumn of the year before last, ie prior to this "epidemic" and what is being called "the unprecedented global crisis". My condition developed as a result of a generalised obsessive anxiety about death, hence my desire to avoid engagement with reality. I saw the San as a refuge, and soon settled in, adapting happily to a life cushioned from the vagaries of daily life, and started to eat, shower and show basic signs of sentience again. All this was considered a major success story.
However I could not be said to have really recovered, as there was no way then I could foresee I would ever be leaving this place – seeing as it was, for me, the sole space of safety in the harsh, dangerous world. Instead, I was considered to be permanently institutionalised, at the tender age of 25.
The wing in which I live houses other young women, around my age. It was almost empty at the start of last year. But over the spring, and into the summer, more and more people started to turn up, seeking refuge. More and more people seemed, like myself, to yearn for the sanctuary of seclusion among a community of like, anxious minds, in an institution whose walls are high and whitewashed, whose sturdy stone buildings embody the principals of isolation and containment.
This is likely because of the Epidemic, which had been intensifying over this year, until now, end of summer, when it now seems to have swept (or rather scythed, in the old cultural conceit of Death as skeletal Reaper?) across the land.
Everyday the papers feature front page and double page spreads about it. Everyone out there, in the vast realms of the so-called wider world, is randomly killing themselves. Interestingly, many of its victims choose to die outdoors – leaping from bridges, or drowning themselves in rivers, crashing their cars into walls at top speed being just a sample of modes of death. Now our nation's streets and parks and office blocks are littered with the bodies of the fallen, felled by their own hand; by jumping from tall places, bridges, buildings; by hangings, or overdoses in communal and private parks; by night, by day, it's all as one to them, voyagers into eternal darkness.
Moreover: the corpses are left to lie, in copses, in the gutter (gazing up at the stars), for there aren't enough city council workers and medical professionals to come to deal with the corpses – they too, are all suicidal, dying or dead themselves.
Re. the mysterious virus, various rumours have propagated. Some say it spread from wild animals in some confusing, bizarre and inexplicable manner. One particularly dominant discourse suggests it was created in a laboratory, in some faraway foreign land; but by whom or why exactly, there is no definitive clear answer. How it operates, too, is quite the mystery, though it is, according to scientists and medical experts, understood to be highly transmissible in indoors settings. Various cultural commentators have said it is evident that the "real" underlying causes of this simultaneous spread of the Epidemic over the country are not purely or even mainly materially-grounded, and that we as a collective, that is to say, "Society" as well as relevant policy makers, must look beyond purely economic and social considerations; that any true understanding as to the whys and wherefores are to be sought elsewhere than in the kinds of analysis which focus predominantly on unsatisfactory socio-cultural-economic conditions.
These deaths are occurring under the most varied sociological and demographic conditions and contexts; in addition to which suicide is not, per se, in itself something to be explained in terms of any simple single factor causation. There are, in a sense, never really "reasons" for the suicide of any individual. The motivation, if there can even be said to be such, is bound to be so personally subjective to the individual who suicides, it is always already at least in some aspects, beyond the total comprehension of the outsider looking in....
However, this is not to say, various cultural voices keep saying, that no concern should be paid to motivation whatsoever; quite the contrary - in addition to all the above, it has also been said by famous psychologist, tv presenter and New York Times best-selling author Dr Kundry Gardner that the search for the causes which generated the epidemic and caused it to spread is not incumbent upon the communities of medical and psychological practitioners alone, but the right concern of politicians and other public figures, journalists, financiers, educators, employers, anthropologists, therapists, and human beings in general; and in fact, not only the causes, but the meaning of all this.
We follow news of the Epidemic with ghoulish interest here. Some people positively bound out of bed each morning, anxious to discover the new day's death toll. Some compete over who gets first dibs with various newspapers and news reports. People pile in to the communal sitting room, leaning on and over each others' shoulders, to follow the news as laid out on TV, the radio, online. Photos and articles, podcasts and tweets about the national wave of suicides are all avidly consumed and despatched. So we sit and pore over (or even perhaps, absorb through their pores) the latest suicides, stats, and expert opinion of the deathly phenomenon.
Many guests appear to draw an odd and hitherto unprecedented forces of cheerful energy for this feasting off the dead with ears, eyes, minds.
After an initial flurry of interest for anywhere from ten minutes or two hours, people do disperse off to their own interests and predilections – yet in a markedly better humour, and with far greater calm, than ever I have witnessed in all my previous time here.
Indeed, news of this strange state of affairs in the world gives even me a strange renewed zest for life. (And I am the former poster child for ennui and self-destruction.) The world is more relatable like this, I think, with death a constant presence – death the great constant, in the present; life itself mere prelude, or aperitif, or whatever your metaphor of choice, to death.
To know that I am not the only one grappling with nihilism is to feel peculiarly at ease.
It's the apocalyse, says a fellow guest in passing, exiting the tv room.
Somewhat ironically, all of us here were suicidal to begin with, hence our being here. But instead of getting healed or cured, we now seem, for the most part, somewhat doomed and abandoned, in the most calm and civilised sort of way.
However, it was, with my usual perversity, not until the onset of this Epidemic that I started really feeling more existentially secure.
I realise for the first time clearly that I am ready to leave. I am bored here. I have outgrown the Sanatorium. The whole place seems somehow childish, overly-sheltered. Moreover, I realise I no longer feel suicidal, nor apathetic, nor self-neglectful, nor despairing about life. It is as if I have been inoculated somehow – of course not physically, there is no known vaccine against this mysterious and feared disease; but perhaps on what my New Age friends might call the subtle planes; that is to say, spiritually – against the effects of this global madness. Or so it seems to me. (But then, as I gather, quantum physics privileges the observer effect; and quantum physics is trending daily right now; and sometimes I wonder, is there some connection between this phenomena, and the epidemic?)
Whatever is going on, suddenly I am eager to leave, wanting to make my own way in the world, and even relishing the prospect of the upcoming journey, with any and all its pending perils.
After several lazy, cold but sunlit afternoons spent mulling over these thoughts, relaxedly, with no real focus, I seem to have gained some momentum. Immediately going upstairs to pack my meagre clothes, spare pair of shoes, toothbrush, notebooks and pens, cramming them into my rucksack, I set out, down the stone steps, along the path, into the wide world of death, feeling liberated and secure in my ability to survive.
Travelling by bus back to my home city, after an absence of some 2 years now, I am conscious that the world seems quiet, dreamlike. Buildings are dilapidated or covered in scaffolding; shop doorways are boarded up. Restaurants, cafes and bars have shut. After all, the government message is that we must all self-isolate. Work from home where possible. Hide away alone indoors in order to not stay alive. Even the formerly homeless have been accommodated in hotels, now permanently emptied of their usual tourists.
Meanwhile mainstream media bombards us with warnings not to socialise in groups, especially not indoors; not to hug your granny, etc. (Those over the age of 70 are thought to be especially susceptible to this virus; they've been dying in record numbers throughout the Epidemic, and can now, literally, be considered a dying breed.)
It's true, there has been the odd protest, and anti-lockdown narratives have arisen as a reaction to all this; but for the most part the entire world is in thrall to this new normal. So people shrink from one another as they pass in the street – the exception to this being young people, 5 marching boldly abreast, defiant, cheerful, marching along, taking up all available space on pavement so that if you want to keep distance from them you must step into the road.
Scientists initially considered young people and children be somehow naturally immune to the mysterious virus. However, it has been clear for almost a year now that that isn't, in fact, the case.
Still, some residual sense of invulnerability persists among those below the age of 25, who in any case, have perhaps been deemed expendable, seeing as all existing infrastructure is crumbling and there will be no jobs on graduating, no houses that anyone can afford to rent or buy, so all the poor young unemployed recent graduates now have to look forward to is the rest of their lives under a strange sort of self-imposed house arrest: so why worry, really? And certainly why worry about death, seeing as life nowadays is a kind of living death in any case.
Sunday lunchtime. I am newly arrived back in my home city, and on my way to P's house. We haven't seen or spoken to one another for a some time, mostly on account of my absence. I have as my excuse to see her a serving of homemade apple crumble that I want her to try... I am trying to bribe her with something good to eat...
I take the beloved, familiar old route through the churchyard, where, on this overcast June day it is all grey-green; past the labyrinth, inlaid with crystals that shine in the mid-morning sun, rose quartz, carnelian and amethyst glinting up from the ground beneath my copper-plugged sandals (good for grounding); ivy winds about the gravestones, many of which are askew, leaning at acute angles, and grass grows 6 feet tall in parts. Red and white roses in full bloom along the edge of the stoney church itself, and, to paraphrase Noel Coward, I am practically deafened by birdsong; but can only identify the individual melodies of blue tit, blackbirds, and possibly a wren.
Emerging along a side path out onto the neighbouring street, I cross the deserted road and turn down the first cul de sac.
At the end of this street her house stands set slightly apart. I hurry up the path and ring the doorbell. As soon as she opens it I press the Tupperware container into her hands, explaining that it has been made by my fair hands, organic apples, cinnamon and nutmeg, and that it is gluten-free but doesn't taste like it...
We stand chatting for half an hour in her front garden, which is completely different since the last time I was there. It is all manicured now, and the privet hedge is gone, and there is gravel where there used to be grass, and only a narrow strip of flowerbed remains.
She is 86 and will be moving away and into a flat in a big block full of other people her age, for reasons that seem to make sense at a pragmatic level but which I know deep down inside I just don't really understand. I ask her whether she will be able to return here, if she doesn't like it there? But she says no, it wouldn't be fair to her daughters. They do not like her messy place, and ways, and general comportment, I gather, and perhaps she feels it is her spiritual duty to do what they want; for she speaks, a little randomly, of parenting practices back in her day, and how being spiritual for her was about being married and raising a family and being active in the world, rather than renouncing it... which I think is what I vaguely recall hearing described as the "way of the householder" in Buddhism.
I was determined not to let her go without a hug. So when we said goodbye, I stepped towards her. There she stood on her step. She opened her arms out to me and I stepped up and put my arms around her. I almost thought I would topple backwards. But somehow I found my balance as she very slightly tightened her arms around me.
I pressed my hands gently against her back, trying to channel energies of love through my palms and press them into her.
Now, me and P have hugged literally hundreds of times over the years we've known one another. But now this feels completely different. The very meaning of a hug has changed, now it is something we're not supposed to do. I feel strong, if lowkey sense of a subtle, transformative, healing power, that is not only to do with the hug itself, but is connected with my sense of some unspoken agreement between us that we will permit ourselves to... a sense of tacit complicity.
I held her rather gently, carefully, trying not to squeeze too tightly or engulf, feeling protective towards her. Yet, though she feels physically small and fragile, vulnerable, nevertheless there is about her something strong and indomitable.
Savouring the precious, fleeting moment of deep comfort and (re)connection, I realise that this is my first hug in 1 year and 3 months (since the Epidemic began); and I am so glad that we got to share it together – I would not have wanted to hug anyone else other than her. And I feel a gratitude that transcends the moment, and time itself, and I think that this must be what is meant by eternal gratitude...
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Though the storyline is interesting, the way it is written seems to be like more of theoretical discussion on the impact of the loss of physical contact between humans. The words used are heavy, I needed to look up the meaning of anomie. I also needed to read it thrice, to fully understand everything. The use of so many semi-colons in the first paragraph was distracting, as well the use of numbers instead of writing out numbers under ten. I couldn't see the link in the story about the prompt. There is also a sense of wondering where this sto...
Thanks for the thoughtful critique Bernadette, it is great to have these intriguing points you raised, and very helpful for my writing. The first part of the story was inspired by a dream, hence the surreal atmosphere and imprecise location/setting ;) That was also the link with the prompt, but perhaps a little too subtle... Lastly, I am not clear about the "numbers under ten" issue, but it is an interesting point.