We are not used to a calamity that comes from within. A pandemic begins after all inside a body, and within months finds itself throughout the globe within millions of individual bodies. We have experienced an upending of what catastrophe means, not as something necessarily externally wrought, explicitly violent and loud. After all, the streets outside are not on fire, but are quiet.
People are dying, but most of us do not see it. How things have unfurled was not by divine providence, but human action.
Months after people first started wearing masks as part of their daily armour against the virus, carelessly discarded masks began appearing on shores thousands of kilometres after a long journey by sea.
They arrived in places as far as Greenland to join the everincreasing diaspora of non-biodegradable trash. Many moons into the future, those picking through the time capsule of our disposables may wonder what happened to our love for music, that the CDs dwindled in numbers amongst the discarded. They may wonder about our sudden, explosive use of tote bags.
Then they will see the wave of crumpled blue and know that for a time, we went through a pandemic. They will wonder, but will never fully know, the ways we took care of each other. They will have their theories.
The thing that travels fastest and furthest, we know, is starlight. Persistent in its singular direction, travelling 300,000km per second through the soundless void of space, sometimes for millions of years, before reaching us. It ends its epic journey only to land on a window, the water, the trees, the belly of an upturned dog scratching its back on the ground in bliss. It travels so far, for so long, that the star itself has changed by the time the light reaches our eyes. We are lit up by dead time. We look up, catch the light in our own eyes, become a little bit more made of starlight and by bearing witness, make the death of a star a little less lonely.
Some of us who were extra careful about our safety, but thoughtless about disposal (see also: Masks), wore disposable gloves. These too would make a long journey by sea and find themselves distributed throughout the world, to islands so far-flung and obscure they might not even be mapped.
In seawater, the mixture of plastic gloves with the dimethyl sulfide from algae and bacteria tricks certain species of birds and marine mammals into thinking they have found an appetising meal. This is the responsibility we bear. Throw a glove on the ground, and it may journey across the Pacific Ocean into the stomach of an albatross.
A marine scientist who has travelled out to sea for decades understands loss through the sound of birds. How they slowly fade into silence as time passes. Like the sea, the sky too has experienced a great emptying.
When the grass and wildflowers return along the pavements in my neighbourhood, so do the birds, walking as if giddy with sunlight and a kind of primitive return they do not know is temporary. For a moment, I think I feel what marine scientists might feel, should the birds return across the ocean.
In a pandemic, the apocalyptic impulse ripples through many of us. We have always imagined the end of the world as graciously immediate, an event finished within a day. What happened to the dinosaurs seemed to be an apocalyptic promise we took for ourselves. What convenience, to surrender our end to an external force, to imagine our own hand bloodless, clean. We do this perhaps to avoid blaming ourselves or disavow our own destructive power. The psychic image of the apocalypse as a desire for absolution. The world has ended in my head a thousand times.
Only when I had been deeply seen and deeply loved did I see that the world could be loved and remade anew, all the time. When all of this is over, may we learn to cherish the sound of birds enough to discard our gloves properly, may their small bellies be safe, may our sky be full of song, our waters full of fish, our land bereft of needless suffering. May the silence of the streets be a sign of calm instead of pandemic. May our eyes always catch starlight.
- Diana Rahim, 28, is a writer, photographer and the editor of Beyond The Hijab, an online platform for the stories of Muslim women in Singapore. During the circuit breaker, she worked on her collection of short stories.
- To read the other works in this series online, go to str.sg/30Days. To listen to them in a podcast, go to str.sg/Js2a
- For more local digital arts offerings, visit a-list.sg to appreciate #SGCultureAnywhere