Scenes From a Pandemic: 44

22 03 2021

by Asam Ahmad

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

Last garden’s bounty (photos: Asam Ahmad)

Growing Things

Toronto

Two months before it all started, we moved out of the downtown core to a residential cul-de-sac ten miles away, near the city’s western edge. At the time, having to move unexpectedly felt like a nightmare, but now, a year into the pandemic, this place feels like a gift. It is a beautiful home: the living room has large south-facing windows that let in light as soon as the sun rises in the morning. Along the perimeter of the backyard there are steps leading down to a terrace-sized ledge that overlooks a creek surrounded by trees and lush foliage.

We’d moved because we had to: We were being illegally evicted through a “renoviction” order. Toronto is one of the most expensive real estate markets in North America, with a housing bubble and a crisis of unhoused people, where renovations are just one excuse to push tenants out. Our new neighborhood is not far from Jane/Finch and Brampton, high-density communities of mostly black and brown service workers and many newcomers, neighborhoods known in the media largely for gun violence and thus for being dangerous. Visiting us soon after the move, a friend remarked on feeling unsafe, as if the nightly news’ scare stories had any bearing on the vast majority of lives in this part of the city, where the most common experience was reflected in buses full of our neighbors, mostly middle-aged and young people, riding to work early in the mornings.

Then it started, the contagion, the lockdown, the anxiety. I stopped letting light into the living room. What was the point? The living room is where we watch the news, where the ledgers of the dead kept growing. Outside, our neighbors, now called essential, still filled buses in the morning. Ontario still refuses to mandate paid sick days for all essential workers.

Now, on the cusp of another surreal spring, I have never felt simultaneously more at home and more afraid of being unmoored.

Last May we planted a garden, the first I could call my own. It is still thrilling to think about how much we were able to plant, and how much grew. The names themselves are a delight: zucchini, delicata, butternut, spaghetti squash; heirloom and red, blue, and white cherry tomatoes; black beauty and pink stripe eggplant; habanero, sweet, and red lipstick peppers; blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, golden raspberries, golden gooseberries; chives, sage, cilantro, basil, spear and black peppermint, pennyroyal; brocade and French marigolds; calendula, climbing nasturtium, velvet queen sunflower; snap peas; sampaguita, or jasmine; St. John’s wort, white yarrow, English lavender, sweetgrass, white spruce; radishes; gifted blue corn; brown bear beans; dinosaur and Red Russian kale, arugula, spinach, purslane, butter lettuce; yellow gold and blueberry kush; baby watermelons; hydrangea. It felt like a small miracle to escape the news and sit with things that needed our help. Tending to the seedlings and the plants was enough; for a time, just to keep them alive was enough to keep ourselves going.

Our garden let our neighbors peer a little into our lives. Some of their stiff coldness thawed. Catherine, a university admin worker, makes beautiful soaps and enjoys a good pastry. Adeline, a flight attendant, loves to grow things almost as much as we do. The Jewish adage “My neighbor’s material concerns are my spiritual needs” has never felt more resonant. We are learning to check in on one another in hesitant but kind ways. Yet we are still cautious about how honest we are about our needs; my partner and I still don’t know how much of our politics to share.

Near the end of 2020, when a second lockdown loomed and new Covid variants were emerging, I started going for long walks along the Humber River. Being outside before dawn and breathing the cold air reminds me that I am still alive. On every walk I meet some new fauna: cardinals, thrush, hawks, egrets, hares, even a small fox who scurries near the creek behind our house. Walking is a new and comforting ritual. I have only recently realized that I am doing a kind of cartography: learning the routes of this place, figuring out which are the easiest, which the most joyful. One imagines building a politic like this: knowing the routes that work, knowing the ones that are clogged, knowing which ones will never yield.

This moment, awaiting spring, feels less like an ending or a beginning than a respite: a brief moment until another downturn. Clearly, for some the downturn has never fully stopped. As I walk for pleasure, others are forced to leave their homes so they don’t lose their homes (while still risking their health in order to do so). The emergency benefits of 2020 have ended for many who relied on them. Eviction orders ceased for a couple months in Ontario before kicking back into high gear; thousands of people are camped out in public parks in Toronto, and instead of designating enough adequate housing or hotel spaces, the city has chosen to take a carpenter who was building tiny shelters for the homeless to court. The unresolved contradictions of capitalism keep accruing; whose lives matter and whose don’t becomes more glaringly obvious under the pandemic’s harsh, bare light. I cannot shake the feeling that we are not through this yet, even though using the generalized we, as in “we’re all in this together,” feels more obscene every day.

What kinds of coalitions, of we‘s, are possible in this protracted, still expanding historical moment of catastrophe? What kinds of routes are available to make one another’s lives less vulnerable to despair? Like Gramsci, I keep reminding myself that it is painful to be alive at the time of a new birth; that it is painful to witness newness being born.

Coda: The day this article appeared on The Nation’s site was bittersweet. We found out that the landlord is selling the house, and we are being evicted again.

Asam Ahmad is a writer living on Treaty 13 land in Tkaronto, the original Mohawk name for the lands around Lake Simcoe, now known as Toronto, Ontario. He was a participant in Kopkind’s political camp for writers and organizers in 2014.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on March 17, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: An Interview From Kerala, India

Our friend the indefatigable Vijay Prashad writes from Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research about upcoming elections in Kerala (population 35 million), where the Left Democratic Front has been in the government for the past five years. In that time it has confronted the aftereffects of Cyclone Ockhi in 2017, the Nipah virus outbreak of 2018, the floods of 2018 and 2019, and the pandemic. Kerala’s health minister, K.K. Shailaja, has earned the nickname the ‘Coronavirus Slayer’ because of the state’s rapid and comprehensive approach to breaking the chain of infection. All polls indicate that the left will return to the government.

Junaina Muhammed (India), Green Kerala, 2021

In the engaging interview below, Vijay speaks with Kerala’s finance minister, Thomas Isaac (also a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), about the development strategy that Kerala has charted and intends to extend; one that, within the terms of Indian federalism, has managed to meet the needs of the people and show, as Isaac says, that “another world is possible”.


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