Personal writings from the pandemic by Kara Au
Photo: Kara Au.
When I was in university I half-unplugged an appliance from a power bar and touched its prongs with my index finger, shocking myself. I don’t really have a better way to say it except that it was exactly like the cartoons. I want to say that this was the moment that I became mad, but becoming a writer tops that.
Today, words are not flowing from my pen. The process of creation is not as romantic or drug-addled as some would make it seem. While the cartoons were right about electrocution, the movies were wrong about writing. My hand is cramped and I’m struggling to concentrate. Sometimes that’s why I think I shocked myself—to bring my scattered attention to one half-second moment. But the truth is that I’m trying to attach meaning to make sense of it all. I was just an idiot and wanted to see what happened. Even for a shining, electrocuted beacon like me, life goes on.
I am feverish while writing this paragraph. My body is barely able to hold its weight between the relentless summer pollen assaulting my sinuses and my second coronavirus vaccine. It feels like the madness is catching up to me while I’m at my most vulnerable. My entire body is uncomfortably warm and moist.
I close my eyes and relive each moment of delayed responsibility with horror, but I’m too tired to fret. It’s like riding a rollercoaster through a dark cave, but the thrill is replaced with anxiety as I try to assemble a to-do list from what I’m able to piece together from the disparate images in my head of what could go wrong if I crash.
I woke up that night, plagued with worry. I don’t know, I don’t know. I am very comfortable not knowing a lot of things, and yet I cried. I felt frenzied, unable to cogitate. I couldn’t derive meaning or context from the present moment because I was too sick and tired to form cohesive thoughts. That night, from the emptiness in my heart, where there was nothing to reach for, I cried. That was my ongoingness. The pain of having to live another day as I was. The coronavirus is exhausting, but it was also revealing the seeds of doubt that have been there for years.
I took a break from writing and the cogs of contemporary art happily turned without me to grind between its teeth. Life continued with an unsurprising lack of empathy. Things did not stop so much as I paused and demanded respite in spite of continuous opportunities appearing on my desk.
It’s painful reconciling writing for its own sake versus writing for a (frequently delayed) paycheque. More often than not, I return for the latter reason. This time I had writer’s block, thus I took time off to focus on physical work and craftsmanship while wondering if there was a way to write that felt less burdensome. I don’t have an answer yet, and so I continue this onerous task of applying my fine pen to my snobbish, imported Japanese paper. Why do I do it? I had no aspirations to write when I was younger, but the skill naturally came to me. It’s like not wanting to waste the last bit of food or the last drop of water if I can help it. It seemed like a shame not to explore, and contemporary art was so weird when I first learned about it. Weirder than the remix video I edited that featured hip thrusts and glasses of spilt milk which made my professor recruit me for an internship. Amusingly, I made that video with zero knowledge of art.
It is no secret that I have struggled to write during the pandemic—ongoingness is like a fleeting moment, one which I am only able to grasp when I am at my worst mentally, and ironically when I am unfit to write. When I’m down, its tendrils entwine me, leaving a weighty foreboding that I am still here, there is still tomorrow, and to what end do I even do any of this? The movies get that right: writing is kind of depressing. I have rewritten these thoughts more than I care to say.
When I feel joy, there is an absence of ongoing. I feel absolutely present, like I could never feel happier. Thoughts of time do not occupy my mind. I have less of those days than most. I also have a pattern of describing myself in less-than-favourable terms, so I wonder what parts of this essay are lies that I can’t even tell?
I missed giving my best friend their holiday gift before the end of December, so it became a New Year’s present. On the card, I wrote about dispelling illusions in 2022—the lies that we tell ourselves to keep a consistent frame of mind. I already know so little about myself and who I’ll be the next day that it seemed silly to hold onto an identity I determined for myself.
I feel like I’m supposed to say something meaningful or important right now, but I’m sure we’re all tired and not thinking straight after almost two years of covid. Even as someone who takes great comfort in regular solitude, and who panics in crowds, I find myself yearning for the old normal—to be frank, this new normal can shove it. I do, however, love frowning underneath my mask in public.
As a belated birthday gift (we are all behind this year), my best friend gave me a self-improvement book. They are in the nature of giving books, as they are an avid reader. My favourite part is reading the short messages they leave beneath the book cover. They are probably hastily written, but I consider them the only time that I am able to peer inside the intimate parts of their mind, together with their choice of book. I struggle to make sense of their handwriting, but it’s part of the fun.
This year’s book was about tapping into my inner genius and to stop self-sabotaging at the peak of success. Included are more practical thought exercises and case studies performed by a psychologist. He is a better psychologist than a writer, and I feel a bit cheesy rifling through the pages, but if I can derive anything useful from a gift that I would not buy myself, I will put the effort in.
The author's wisdom, which I share with you today, is about reconceptualizing our perception of time. He tells me to stop thinking time is “out there,” to take ownership of time. Time is where we come from, it is of our own making. I stopped asking where the time was going that day, because I knew where it was. I just didn’t want to acknowledge that I had used it poorly. One illusion banished in 2022.
I tried thinking about ongoingness in the same way I learned to think about time. They both feel “out there,” thus I feel powerless and surprised when things don’t go my way. But what if ongoingness was a condition of my own making? To keep me from achieving my “inner genius” (excuse the cheesiness) and living a fuller life, I created an amorphous, unsolvable, existential neurosis to constantly produce anxiety and worry. While I have no control over its concept, I do have control over how I engage it. So I tried to let ongoingness stop owning me that day. The illusion still stands, as faint and fearsome as it is, but I look through its lens a lot less than I used to. These days I don’t shock myself on purpose, I complete the circuit and let the power flow.
Sometimes life takes me in interesting directions. Most of the time, I feel like I’m aimlessly plodding about, trying to find my footing as a writer in a capitalist society. What makes money, what is networking, what makes a precarious relationship, what should I say? Is this interesting at all? I work, work, work on myself, but self-confidence is still in short supply. I will soon exit my writing hiatus and so many questions remain unanswered with my professional practice.
COVID restrictions are lifting in the province soon, but that’s not the interesting direction life has taken me in recent weeks. Rather, life gave me another gift: true sleep. It never occurred to me that I might seriously have insomnia, but all the symptoms were there in grave abundance for almost three decades, symptoms which I incorrectly attributed to other health problems. I feel like I’m making up for lost time with my newfound focus and energy. Maybe I’ll be a better writer now? Ha, ha (flat).
Ongoingness, the intangible illusion, still not laid to rest. But neither am I.
March 2022, end.