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|| Stay away if you love me

Quarantine is A Pisces’ Dream

By Coline Houssais

Lire en français (FR) - version originale

I've been locked down from my loved ones for a long time. Always somewhere else, always on the move. Never there when I need them. There when I shouldn't be.




Call it lucky timing, there could not be a better place for quarantine than a long-planned artist residency. This is indeed a paradise: the sheer size of the estate overlooking the Mediterranean sea, the balanced mixture of nature and civilisation 360° around. The winds of Provence that come to us when we can’t go to them. When did I last have such a vast undisputed space to call my own?

The residency is a white canvas on which to paint the people we continue becoming. A blank page on which to sketch the relation we desire to develop with each other. In the same way we don’t have to hand in something at the end of the residency, there is no pressure to socially optimise our presence here. Some withdraw, others enjoy what the others share, voicing their appreciation or keeping it to themselves. We can be the silent mice, the bragging cockerels, the faithful dogs or the busy bees we want to be. Not that we don’t care about the others. But we allow ourselves and each other this break. Perhaps this is how residencies work. This is my first one, and for once I feel tuned in, I who so often struggle with group dynamics when pressed to adopt a position other than a leading or an observing one. There is no casting: no roles are to be assigned apart from the ones we want to take on at the very moment.

I came to realise over the past couple of years this is the social setup I am most happy with. Being independent and alone, yet part of a group. A harmonious mixture of chosen sociability and aloneness - in opposition to loneliness. Solitude and solidarity in equal measures.

Catastrophe is the anxious person’s solace. It was the wait, the uncertainty of the situation that made me anxious. We’re now at cruising altitude. Here in the secluded serenity of the Foundation nested in this sleepy French seaside town, little will come our way. I have a confession to make: I am a hoarder, always overpacking and grocery shopping by fear of impending doom. Deep down there is now some comfort, a tinge of solace that some deep inner fears have eventually come to life. Here we are, at last. We have touched the bottom and there is therefore no chance of us falling further. How reassuring. Not a hint of pride or feeling of victory to have been right. Rather the relief to be relieved of this never-ending anxiety of disruption of our well-oiled daily lives.

Many of us are mourning our certainties and feel anxious about the future. I feel certainty has always been an illusion. Nietzsche talks about maddening certainty, not uncertainty. The majority of the time we are lucky and our plans turn into reality. Future turns into past. Ambitions into accomplishments. Now, the mask of certainty has fallen. Our lives have been stripped bare: welcome to a state of survival— however secure and luxurious this might be here in Cassis. Yet, this is how I feel the most comfortable.

There is more to it: in a way, I have been living in quarantine from my loved ones for a long time. I am always far, always moving. Not always there when needs be. Not always absent too when they’re busy. Passing through villages and cities like a ghost, squeezing as many back to back meetings as possible to make the most of each visit. Work, work, work intertwined with friendship, as is often the case in creative industries. A daily life dedicated to a passion-profession. The train, the plane, the bus. Hours spent on the move, surrounded by people yet alone, distanced from them as they are from each other. Looking deep into quarantine as if it were a mirror I realised: this, too, is a face of isolation triggered by its own virus. Hypermobility.

Hypermobility has been my curse and blessing for the past two years, if not more. A chosen lifestyle that sometimes leaves you with no option but isolation. What a period this has been. No more than four nights spent in a row at the same place. More hunter than fugitive. A whirlwind of every sort. Permanent reinvention and construction of the self. A handful of broken hearts (mine, others’). Oneself as one’s sole landmark, with the selfishness that comes with it. The habit to seek refuge in my own universe, perpetually blurring boundaries between dreams and reality. Between one’s inner empire and the outer galaxy. A distant echo of teenage years when, following the puncture of parental structure, I switched schools and moved houses after every summer break. Twelve houses and almost as many classrooms and playgrounds before I reached 18. Fast forward a decade and a half - I was therefore looking forward to this residency like a buoyancy aid, something to rest on and momentarily stop paddling. I did however fear that taking this necessary break would mean cutting off from the rest of the world as it carried on working. A hint of anxiety lingered at the thought of the amount of work and energy required « to get back in the game » afterwards.

But quarantine has happened. And everybody ended up on the same page.

I don’t have the daily physical encounters so many of us have, whether in the shape of co-workers or life partners. Most of my relationships, regardless of their nature, are conducted at a far bigger distance than the required 2-meter safety one. Video calls, voice memos, texts, memes and photos. The occasional handwritten note and carefully curated parcel. All must make up for touches and smiles.

In addition to the digital realm, most of the people I know also rely on real-life interactions to provide them with necessary sociability and soul-feeding. For the majority of them I am usually the one you wouldn’t dare to call, not knowing in which time zone and city I am. Eternally presumed busy. Allegedly up to another important, exciting thing .
But now everybody has switched to quarantine mode, distance is the only idiom of love. And I’ve never been more in touch with friends and relatives, getting long phone calls twice, thrice a day if not more. Not that suddenly they care. Rather that we now speak the same language. As distance became the idiom of love.

Have you heard about the p-word? During the first two weeks my mind felt convalescent. In the same way physical recovery after a serious injury or disease means it sometimes takes hours to complete the most simple of tasks I feel my productivity has fallen into an air pocket, dropping to a mere shadow of its former self. While the epidemic continues reaching its peak, productivity is at the very opposite. Like a necessary counterbalance? Or an unspoken respect to what is unfolding outside of the secluded and reassuring Camargo bubble?

There is the downside of the relative hysteria of adapting to the new situation, as well as something deeper, a mental fatigue eventually addressed. My brain deserves this break: it is reclaiming the space and time that has been denied to it for so long. Setting the record straight. Owned some serious deceleration. Me immobile, a steady roof on my head and cupboards full of supplies, my brain can take its revenge and impose some well-deserved holidays. It knows that I can manage. That when it deigns coming back I’ll be there. Held captive due to a world pandemic.

There is also no incentive to anticipate the resuming of our daily lives and projects. There will be no return to normality. Programmes will not resume as normal. The disruption has been too long, too strong to do so. The content and temporality of each project will be reassessed. Others will come along, some will be discarded. We cannot simply postpone our ambitions for an extra couple of months. We will have to reassess them collectively: what really matters now. What will later.

We’ll see dawn from new eyes. At least for a while.

*

I haven’t looked at my calendar for days now, although it usually is my most constant companion. In normal times, I crave for organisation. Some particular parts of my year are scheduled almost to the hour. Each trip colour-coded, each meeting or deadline carefully documented. Hours are spent fine-tuning this calendar, anticipating and planning again and again so that when the unexpected comes - it always does- it will work like a scaffolding as certitude crumbles to the floor. A lighthouse in the storm. I realise that however much I sometimes obsessed over it in a bid to escape the stress of daily life it filled no void: deep down I did not really care about these certitudes. They were more like safeguards protecting me from myself. A tutor helping a plant with a tendency to stray grow better,straighter. The vital self-imposed discipline tool of freelance toil. A compass for the sailor at sea. A comforting presence, a testimony that days gone in the blink of an eye once existed.

Stranded on an island as the fog came down and obscured our views, the calendar now lays, content to rest, in its corner. Unending to-do lists intertwined with one another like Scheherazade's tales have joined it in its retreat. Nor is there any need for them now. The pressure is gone, what a relief. Momentarily no pressure to compete, to keep up. A self-imposed ailment of course, fuelled by fear of lacking material. By fear of not having lived my life to its full potential.

How to keep this mindset once it will be over?

*

Out went the animals: we retreated into fortresses to protect ourselves from the nature we destroyed. For once we played it down, bowed our heads and let the Earth breathe. That kind of reflex breath you take when you unzip a tight dress or unhook a constricting bra. Many of you know the feeling.

While Men locked themselves in, animals wandered in the streets, exploring a planet we had taken from them. They had been quarantined for too long: we swapped.

With humans in their own dens animals went out and strolled. No more risk of being shot, run over by a car, disturbed during mating or nesting season by passers-by and outdoor enthusiasts. By the drills. The hooks. The bullets.

For once we are the ones parked in reserves. I wish they’d come and blow raspberries at us, taunting us with a sneer. I’d happily accommodate this display of disdain for the sake of seeing them embracing the liberty we can no longer enjoy. But they are probably so busy enjoying this liberty that, for once, we’re the least of their worries.

Quarantine is about learning how to listen again. Not simply to the birds now that the sound of engines has faded. Outside noise is no longer something to shield from or complain about. It has become something we pay attention to, trying to decipher it like a music sheet belonging to a greater symphony. Noise becomes unusual, thus precious. It commands respect. So we respect it, and embrace it. It commands to be acknowledged instead of ignored. Imposed immobility forces us to be more mindful about the now and here. I’ve never been good at meditating. Isn’t quarantine meditation on a jumbo scale?

*

Somewhen during the fifth week, I noticed an unusual sight: dormant suitcases quietly gathering dust under the bed. They too are on leave, going nowhere. For a split second I couldn’t recall what used to be a regular fixture of a now obsolete soundtrack: the humming of their wheels on the pavement, the quizzical buzz of their zip. Or was it a soft squeal? The mattress of fluff balls on which they sleep is the currency of luxury, growing thicker as another idle day goes by.

We need to talk about money. Something that came up in the early days of quarantine was my approach to financial matters. I initially thought I’d be drawn towards online purchases, as a way to escape and bring some novelty into daily life through an order or two. Money seems more precious to me now that I can’t easily spend it. Unless it stands like a reassurance for tougher times to come when this is all over. When, out of both residence and quarantine, our necessary expenses rise again and our income starts bearing the impact of the economic slowdown.

Unless it is a sense of priority suddenly much clearer. Deep down lies the certainty that material consumption, whatever its shape, will seldom bring anything more to what is already here. Perhaps because I already have enough: there isn’t much one needs. What really feeds the soul is free, it’s here, in front of me. Or within. And what is at stake cannot be bought with a payment card. Whatever remains on a bank account will be used to help rebuild our world. For bigger dreams. Those we can make running. Those we can make roaming.

Let’s face it: yes we worry about the disease, the fear of losing loved ones. About the blatant inequalities laid bare by the pandemic. But we Camargo residents are probably the most privileged at this very moment. In our own little estate, part of a community that was meant to be anyways, and disruption of our daily lives reduced to its bare minimum.

In some way quarantine magnifies the residency experience. It is a fresh and welcome relief of space and time, the opulence of feeling anchored with nowhere else I’d long to be. I stopped reading the news, and when I go back to it once in a while this is not to seek reassurance but to keep myself informed. Because I already forgot why we are here in the first place. Like a devastating love story on the verge of closure.

Quarantine brings a welcome rest after chaotic months.

How does one define rest though? It is a mutable concept, fluctuating according to who mentions it and when. Rest for me is not being contrived to think. About work. About love. About life. It’s an empty bubble. A barren land on which grows only what wants to grow. What sprouts sprouts. At least that’s the first phase of rest. There’s been a change at work. I stopped yearning for what I was yet to obtain. Sometimes permanently running towards an ideal dismisses what we already have and isolates us from who we love. Quarantine put a temporary lid on my dreams and ambitions. And this, is rest.

I am gathered in, all my sheep are back in the farm. Here at last I have arrived, on shore. Anchorage in the shape of a former seaside hotel, an odd match if there’s one. How many times did I envision this residency? How many scenarios were made? At first, it represented a bet on the future. Next, a promise of care and laughter. Then, a chance to collect broken pieces and glue them back together. Eventually, another card to play in an already complex hand of impromptu weekend getaways and teaching escapades.

But none of this happened.

The stillness and solitude I had craved so much, for so long, was brought to me on a tray. Stranded on an island of sorts to reflect on the past and consider a future I know nothing about. Preparing for nothing in a way. Making myself ready for the future without any plan in mind. So used to flirt with life until it bends to my every desire and dream, I am forced to turn the tools to myself and see, deep down, what I really am. And what I really want.

This I feel, is rest.

When the certitude of economic projections fails to realize, countless frames of reference spring up for consideration. Looking at the skies, astrologists talked of spring 2020 as a time for slowdown. Of all star signs, Pisces are said to eschew, as I do, reality by hiding hide in their little world. It is a coincidence this all happened now?

This is how it feels from here: the outside world fading, enabling me to fully retreat into mine. Quarantine couldn’t come at a better moment. As if the global mindset aligned with my intimate one. An urge many times postponed to lay down my arms and embrace the stillness which I usually associate with emptiness, and broadly speaking death. By creating movement, the state of unbalance is the condition of life, from cells to sun, from sea to souls. Locked-down, the entire universe now seems to dance to this Pisces inner tune, enabling us to float in a bubble freed from the constraints of time, in its short and long term variations.

*

At the dawn of week 3 phone calls have dried out like a spring on a dry summer. This is a time of closing in and settling in for everyone, the natural reaction to the first fortnight of quarantine's necessary social expansion.

When prolongation was announced there was nothing but relief: the truth is, I feel sheltered by quarantine. At the dusk of the first month though, a new energy kicked, vigorously, like sap bursting from young shoots. An urge to jump, grasp the world, and make good use of this unusual experience.

The end of quarantine rang like a tolling bell: thousands of bubbles away Idir, a long-cherished singer drew his last breath, bursting mine and suddenly bringing me back to another reality. His music was partially what brought me to this residency through a project on Kabyle music archives in France cut short by quarantine. As we slowly reopen our shutters to the world his absence has the shape of a missed rendez-vous. Of a necessary reminder that outside my hermitage, life, like death, has never stopped. Of a call to join.

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About the author

Coline Houssais
More stories

Passionate about the Arab world, I like writing (true) stories about Arab cultures and societies, constantly exploring new forms of expressions to reach different audiences. My work mainly focuses on the human and familiar sides of History, in an attempt to build collusions over differences.
"Musiques du monde Arabe" (Le Mot Et Le Reste) to be published on the 30th of June 2020.

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