Screenshots from Quarantine

By Chaya Babu

Posted on Tuesday, June 9, 2020

This blog is a part of the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable’s new blog series, “Teaching Artists Speak Out: Blogs from Quarantine.” As schools remain closed, we’ve invited some “Teaching Artists of the Roundtable” to help us curate a series of blog posts written for and by NYC teaching artists.

The days are all the same but I’ve never been good at time any way. I take walks around the neighborhood to punctuate things, stopping sometimes to sit on the grassy medium along Albermarle under the trees. Yesterday I journaled about how the leaves look translucent when the sunlight pierces them — distinct from the glassy look of a fish, more like gossamer, ready to come apart at the slightest touch. The day before that, about Venus stationing retrograde in Gemini. This is my universe right now: the ten-block radius around my apartment and, in turns, a more galactic drawing of my borders. 

 

“All I learn on Zoom is pig latin.”

 

And a new rhythm of conversation with my almost-nine-year-old nephew. The days have this now too. His face bright with his bad homemade haircut on a screen in my Brooklyn studio, sometimes right after the school day ends too but always for a bedtime story. Between 6:30 and 7pm he FaceTimes me. 

He has on occasion given me the courtesy of informing me that he’s about to do so. It’s not a heads-up as he doesn’t leave time in between the message and the call for me to let him know if I’m free; it’s more just an announcement of himself.

 

“Abu-bay,” he says. “That’s what your last name would be in pig latin.” As if I wasn’t well versed myself thirty years ago. I let him teach me. 

 

 

Vihan is my sister’s child. I always thought he would be 11 or 12 before he had his own device with messaging capabilities. Like so many other changes, COVID-19 sped that up. I’ve relished this development. He’s old enough now for us to laugh at the same jokes (sometimes), and to agree on whether a story is actually scary or not (yes I have cultivated in him a strong inclination toward art about ghosts and maybe killers and baby spiders crawling out of human faces). When I got that first “hey” two weeks ago from an email address that was his first and last name plus a 2011 tacked onto the end, I felt a soft heart-blooming that is so much more palpable now that the earth is quiet. A minute later, he was blowing up my FaceTime. We haven’t missed a story night yet. 

 

I’m reading Dear Mr. Henshaw to him. I never read it as a girl, but a friend gifted it to me recently with his own fanmail in the form of a note tucked into the front cover about his high hopes for my book publishing future. Vihan is taken with Leigh Botts’ transition from writing letters to Mr. Henshaw to writing in a diary with each entry addressed to Mr. Pretend Henshaw. He tells me from his little rectangle world on my iPhone that he can understand why it’s hard to write in a diary because he likes to write but doesn’t always see the point in writing to himself.

 

 

I’m not writing at all. Not beyond my slips of noticing the light, catching the way an ant crawls across my knee, the way my hair has grown wild or my whether my breath goes in deep or shallow. As my brain tries to make sense of what’s happening around us, even as I don’t think about it consciously, it feels that it has nothing left to make sense of anything else. It has nothing else to make sense of through language. I think about stories I might like to tell, essays ideas that had been swirling before, my manuscript draft that is waiting for my discernment and hand with red pen, and the fact that I now have all the free, open, boundless time an artist could have dreamed of. But the days blur together in a way that collapses the clock, and I can’t remember why I once believed there was a purpose in putting these thoughts on paper. I can’t remember why I once believed I knew how. 

 

 

I get good morning and what are you doing now? messages from him at 7am. I’m still asleep then. His good morning emoji game is on point though.  

Sometimes he sends me dispatches from the middle of his day.  

If I tell Vihan I’ll call him back in five minutes but I take seven minutes instead, I get back to my phone with three missed FaceTime calls and a message asking why I’m not picking up. I have to explain to him that if a grownup says five minutes, they usually mean fifteen or twenty. He thinks about that and decides it’s absolutely true. 

 

 

Vihan knows that I’m “a writer,” but only in the abstract. Sometimes he asks me questions about the publication process, but he doesn’t know what kinds of pieces I write, about what, why I do it as my work when it means I live in inside a 500 square foot perimeter while his life happens in the expanse between an Upper East Side townhouse and five acres of green and shadow and crisp air in Westchester. Usually he’s only up north on the weekends but now he’s been there for two months. One day on our FaceTime, after we read a few entries from The Diary of Leigh Botts, I show him my quarantine journal. 

 

“You wrote ALL that just since quarantine started?” he asks. 

 

It’s a soft bound book with a white cover. A gold bee is etched into the front. Vihan requests that I read a page to him. This feels hard. I open to lines and lines documenting my emotional state and the roots of my tendency toward somatic dispersion; somewhere there’s a missive about the direction the dandelion seeds danced in the wind on Ocean Parkway, somewhere else a bulleted list of numbers counting death. 

 

I find something remotely legible and not entirely inappropriate, even if beyond his level of reading comprehension. It’s dated May 5. I read: 

 

“I have lost my way and I know it. I used to know, just from the pulsing within, what came now, and next, and next. Now I trust nothing, always monitoring the okayness, measured by — not me. It has been so sad. This place. Thinking that the current and flow of my own body could be so wrong. An error. Carved into the bed of my feelings place. I’m wondering now if something about now is taking me back. I hope so. I need this time to hold a return. It seems so desperate and urgent a need. And yet, the urgency requires a sustaining force of slowness. Once it was true that the writing came easily. It did. I know it. I was there, that was me. Now it feels like I know nothing, think nothing, without stopping to check for the making sense to the gaze of some other. It never does. What happened? Who said I was such an aberration, and why did they matter?”

Vihan thinks about that. 

 

“Does that mean you think you’re getting less smart?”

 

“Yeah…” I say. “Yeah, it does.”

 

“Me too,” he offers. 

 

“Really? Why? Because you’re not getting much from remote learning?” 

 

And then he explains that all he learns on Zoom is pig latin. 

 

I laugh. 

 

 

The days are marked by our chats. 

A ritual that repeats, but nonetheless allows me to plot the passage of days and ephemeral shifts aside from my own regression. 

 

 

On a pretend Monday, February 5, Leigh Botts writes:

 

Dear Mr. Henshaw, 

I don’t have to pretend to write to Mr. Henshaw anymore. I have learned to say what I think on a piece of a paper. 

 

 

On a real Thursday, May 14, Vihan writes: 

 

(Because I’m annoying and I asked him to think about ways he might be growing that are not exactly related to what he’s learning academically. I decide after receiving the message that it wasn’t the worst exercise.)

 

 

I’ve been thinking about pig latin. How there is a point in our young lives when we are unburdened by whether or not we are understood beyond the scope of those whom we have let in. How having a secret language is sometimes what makes us feel safe. I think about how there are going to be moments, and they may stretch on in a way that causes time to fold in on itself and spiral out and back again, when talking only to ourselves and to those who intuitively grasp the words we use when we’re separating out the strands of our thoughts is what we need to get through the unraveling weeks of unknowing, whole. 

 

 

It’s the first day that I feel a hopeful warmth on my skin outdoors and I can mark the seasons turning, at last. The leaves are glowing everywhere; I try to figure out the name of a fragrant purple flower on a Stratford Road bush. It’s Friday — I know that much because Vihan goes to bed later and so I haven’t heard from him yet even as the 7pm hour creeps to its halfway point. Then my phone buzzes.

 

 

It’s story time.

*****

Chaya Babu is a South Asian American writer, journalist, artist, and educator based in Brooklyn. Her work focuses on power and oppression, cities, the body, foolishness, individual and collective healing, and more, and has been featured in or at The Margins, BuzzFeed, VICE, Open City, the Porter Gulch Review, GO HOME!, and Project for Empty Space, amongst others. She teaches classes on personal narrative, poetry, and reporting through Community Word Project and the School of the New York Times while she works on her first book, a memoir about the intergenerational trauma of exile and the impossibility of return post diaspora. For more, visit www.fobbysnob.com.

 

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