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The World We Once Lived

How do we live when the sound of dying is everywhere around us? How do we grieve when we cannot see or touch the dead? Going online nowadays feels particularly morbid, death only one click away. What does it mean to ‘like’ yet another bereavement message? Does it even give any consolation to the bereaved? I live twelve time zones away from New York, but the endless ambulance sirens I heard this morning are still ringing in my head. Social media creates the illusion that we are all connected, but our ongoing social isolation makes us feel more disconnected from friends and family than ever before. I read a particularly good line about this a few days ago, about the dissonance of our minds being ‘tricked into the idea that we are together when our bodies are not’.

Dissonance for me is turning off the computer and hearing birds in the trees, the sound of my children playing. Our flat is small but it is a palace compared with S11 dormitory (one of two massive foreign worker dormitories gazetted as isolation areas after clusters of COVID-19 were discovered there). Yesterday I wrote about these foreign worker dormitories being akin to the crew area of the Diamond Princess cruise ship. Cramped living quarters, impossible social distancing, a breeding ground for widespread infections. Singapore is a luxury cruise liner, where we enjoy the ocean view and the sunshine, doing our best to avoid thinking about what lies in the ship’s belly, beneath the sea.

I wrote in my first newsletter yesterday about the cruelty of a world where death is everywhere, but we cannot grieve:

One month, and the world changed. We thought we were wise, and then we weren’t. We thought we were rich, and then we weren’t. We thought we were free—and now we look out of the window and long for a world that in truth, has already passed on.
 
Now that I think about it, the signs were all there. Starting last October, the spate of funerals I attended, one after another. Aunty Doris. My second uncle. My close friend’s father. The approaching cloud of death, like the first rumble of thunder before the storm. Once upon a time, we could still grieve. On Friday, I was shocked to hear of an ex-colleague’s sudden death. We were not close, but Kevin sat behind me for three years. Even now, I can remember the exact pitch of his voice and the sound of his laughter. In the world we once lived, the living would gather around packet drinks and melon seeds, remembering the good times as we mourned the dead. After Friday’s lockdown (or ‘circuit breaker’ in Singaporese) announcement, the best we could do for Kevin and his family was an online memorial.
 
In grieving, we find a way to make it to morning. We endure. If the condition of sleeplessness is holding on, then grieving is what helps us let go. That’s why so many of us are in this strange state of limbo, isn’t it? We’re stuck in an in-between place, holding onto the ways of the old world, unable to grieve, and yet the new world has not come.

How do we go on? Which will get us first, the virus? Or the fear, anxiety and exhaustion? One thing is clear. No one will come out unscathed. Tomorrow, Singapore enters an unprecedented lockdown. The thought of a month at home with two preschoolers, while working my day job from home (and I can probably forget about editing that novel), was enough to send me into a funk. But depression is body chemistry, as a dear teacher once taught me. Or as another friend said to me earlier, “your brain likes to lie to you.” 

I went out for a run, at three in the afternoon when the sun was at its strongest. The only people I encountered at the park were an elderly Caucasian couple playing Pokemon Go. My feet felt like lead, and it was hard to get going in the afternoon heat. But as my brain began releasing the right chemicals, the negative thoughts started to disappear. I ran up the slope near my house, stopping at the top, drenched in sweat. As I felt my heart pounding in my chest, I felt a little more alive.

Above Photo: View from the Jane Austen room at The Sylvia Beach Hotel, Newport Beach, Oregon.

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