to Sandro Cohen,
and all the friends mentioned here
December 2020. The end of an indescribable year in which everything has happened and, at the same time, in the repetitive routine of confinement, it seems that nothing happens. That nothing will happen ever again. A continuity of grey skies, and light completely hidden by four in the afternoon. It is like walking among ghosts, or being a ghost myself. I have taken to listening to what decades ago was my favourite music. I don’t know if it’s a masochist joy, for delight comes hand in hand with a conviction: “All that is gone now. The world where this had a place, where it was created, where it stirred an echo, doesn’t exist anymore”. I don’t even know if it is a real conviction or just a pandemic delirium. If I enjoy the music, and it stirs an echo in me, it cannot be completely finished. Unless, of course, I have indeed become a ghost.
Is this desolation then? Or is it something else? I need to know. The meaning of the whole of experience must be sought, because some meaning it must have.
Winter brings fantasies of sun worship—to go back, as Giordano Bruno proposed, to Hermes Trismegistus’ original religion, even if he wasn’t exactly who it was once believed he was. Sun worship contains, of course, the worship of the whole of life, the adoration of the world, and I do not know how you can worship a world which seems dead. But the mere articulation of words brings with it the answer: elegy. The song for loss; tenderness (softness, delicacy). What we have lost is so much, and those who have left, who are leaving, are so many, that the song will be magnificent.
One 5th of November
Last November the 5th I woke up happy because it was the birthday of a very dear friend, author Verónica Murguía. Our friendship goes back to at least thirty years. Despite distances, geographic or those imposed by the year’s catastrophe, Vero was widely celebrated. Affection illumines reality from different perspectives. Love is lucid. Celebrating the fact that someone we love dearly is alive in the world makes it possible to let go, for a moment at least, of collective obsessions. Like, for instance, the American elections, which that day had the whole planet suspended in unbearable tension. (And how strange it is, to talk about that unbearable tension some weeks after, and find it real and illusory at once. The world goes round the same; day follows night. We humans go on living and dying, just as we would if Trump had won.)
In the afternoon I found out that Sandro Cohen had just left us: poet, essayist, publisher, translator, professor. The pandemic took him away from us. A friend to whom I didn’t say goodbye. How many will there be? The question tortures me during particularly dark or long nights. Rarely does death give us the chance to say farewell. Sandro and his wife, Josefina Estrada, published my first novel, La sed (The Thirst), and one of my books of poetry, in Colibrí, their heroic publishing house, now disappeared. They were generous and enthusiastic publishers, true book lovers, and I have immense gratitude towards them. At the book launch of La sed at the Claustro de Sor Juana, some twenty years ago, much affection was brought together. Sandro took part, and Verónica, whose birthday we celebrated with such joy the day that Sandro left; and so did Ana García Bergua, a beloved friend also for several decades. Santa Sabina played, led by Rita Guerrero, that other irreplaceable friend, who is already, impossibly, gone. On the drums was Julio Díaz, also no longer with us. My memory of that night is one of sheer joy and profound affection. A sort of innocence.
Sandro, I say, left last 5th of November, leaving us paralysed in disbelief. Where could I reach him to say goodbye, to tell him ‘thank you’, to add mine to the offering of love with which we wish him a good journey?
In the darkened afternoon I sat down with death. I remembered something I’d read at the beginning of the pandemic, I can’t remember where nor by whom, among the flood of information where we’ve been looking for answers: some doctor or scientist, when asked about the seriousness of this coronavirus’ outbreak, answered that we could put it like this: we all were going to lose someone we cared for. The inescapable fact of our mortality, of our absolute helplessness in the adventure of existence, left me very still—for hours.
Some days before I had bought a ticket for a virtual concert, part of the Greenwich Festival of Early Music. A year ago, I attended the festival at St Michael and All Angels, a gorgeous Gothic revival church in Blackheath. It felt like the memory from another life. Now I saw the empty church through my screen. It looked bare. There were only the members of the Fretwork ensemble doing their thing, without saying a word between one piece and another, as if they too were enveloped by sadness, this burden which I still cannot name. I thought that Sandro loved music. In the last email I got from him around a year ago, he told me how happy he was, and mentioned the progress he was making in the piano.
It was a long and dark afternoon, as they are in November in this part of the world, and as it was in my heart. Just like the musicians, I didn’t have words. Only music seemed to offer answers, if not comfort. Later and without knowing why, I dug up from memory Peter Murphy’s Deep and listened to it. That afternoon the notes of everything I listened to were transmuted into vivid memories. Like listening to the same album with Rita. Once we took it (in a cassette) to Puerto Escondido. We talked of the songs, and of Murphy’s beauty. Rita had revealed him to me: the singer, and his beauty. I have a clear memory of that trip: watching the trees through the hotel’s window, listening to that album precisely, and suddenly realising that the trees were behaving the way they did on magic mushrooms’ trips. Only that this time there were no mushrooms involved. Not even in those years of experimentation did I try them much. It scared me; I grew up with an all-powerful fear of madness. But in that trip of another kind—to the beach—I realised that what the magic mushrooms had revealed to me was simply the weave of reality, and that those doors of perception (Blake’s, taken up by Huxley and then by Jim Morrison) are always there, within our reach: no need of intermediaries. Decades later, Buddhism and meditation would confirm it.
This 5th of November 2020, immersed in music, remembering that trip, and with Sandro and Rita present in their silence from the other side, I also remembered Paco Barreda, a friend from my early youth in Guadalajara, my hometown. Paco also left us this year. It wasn’t the pandemic that took him away, but it did stop his family and friends from saying farewell with the closeness that grief demands. I didn’t say goodbye to him either. Paco was a tireless curator and cultural promoter, infinitely generous, and Guadalajara’s cultural life is greatly indebted to him. He was himself an artist, creator of fascinating objects animated by his lucidity, curiosity and humour. For decades he organised in his house the most formidable New Year parties ever. We danced to the best music, all of it represented in his collection, surrounded by the marvellous artifacts he built with found objects.
It was in one of those legendary parties, by the way, that I met Rita. We were so very young then. I often thought of myself as carrying a heavy load of torment, but the truth is that we both were brimming with future and life.
I also remembered walking through the Jalisco countryside with a group of friends, Paco among them. I was afraid of some cows and a bull that were roaming around. The next image in my memory is of many hours later, with psilocybin already doing its work and us lying under the sun, and suddenly realising that the cows and bull were lying a few metres from us, and fear had gone. We were all in peace.
From the many of us who danced and laughed in those parties of perfect happiness, which were the living reflection of Paco and his family, several are here no more. I don’t want to wonder how many more have departed without my finding out. And yet, I do.
That November afternoon my flat was little by little crowded with those presences. Outside the fireworks were bursting. In the United Kingdom, the 5th of November is Guy Fawkes’ Night (remember, remember, the 5th of November). Fireworks and, in years without pandemic, popular parties in parks, with bonfires where the effigy of the Catholic rebel who tried to blow up Parliament in 1605 is burnt. In the gloom and sadness, the explosion of those pagan lights was also joy; rebel joy: that, at least, was something that COVID-19 couldn’t take away from us. And in my heart, an ember kept on gladdening for Vero’s birthday (‘the fireworks in England are all for you’, I tell her every year), for knowing her happy, for the torrent of love that she was receiving.
A tangle of conflicting emotions, and a recurring question: what for? What for, literature, music, anything? What for, if a catastrophe comes, any catastrophe, and snatches us away from the world, without time to say goodbye, with nothing in our hands but this impotence?
On the second Sunday of December, I dared to go out to see a friend, because I’m well aware of the fact that the prolonged isolation is little by little blurring my ability to understand reality. We agreed to meet in Finsbury Park, halfway between her home and mine. I wouldn’t go too far; it seemed to be a safe plan. Perhaps we all thought the same, suspecting what would become reality a few days later: that they would send us back to the top tier of restrictions due to the pandemic, so there were a lot of people in the tube, though it was a Sunday morning. As I waited for my friend outside the station, I saw out of the corner of my eye a man hurriedly approaching me.
He was coughing; a deep, violent cough… and forced. Terror didn’t allow me to see his face; the memory is a blur. He came to me coughing, said I must stop smoking, and left in the same haste as he had come, while I slipped like a mouse through the wall and a notice board’s metallic structure. A tube staff member asked me at once if I was OK and said, ‘he did it on purpose’. I wasn’t well, and she noticed. I went into the station with her and burst into tears. It was sheer terror. ‘He’s killed me’, I thought; ‘that man whose face I didn’t even see.’ My pretty facemask, with its William Morris-like design, though it isn’t, seemed to me the most useless thing in the world.
The equanimity of the woman who came to my rescue comforted me; it also intrigued me. She was a slim black woman, spirited, cheerful: I could see that despite the facemask. I asked her about how exposed she was, as public transport staff, to incidents like that. She confirmed that, indeed, she and her workmates deal continuously with all sorts of aggression, and with madness, which is sometimes the way loneliness is embodied, particularly in big cities. I had told her that I was afraid to get ill because I live on my own and am among the Covid vulnerable people. She said she was vulnerable too, because of an immunologic problem. She has two children. Her mother, who suffers from MS, had Covid. She was in hospital for seven weeks, but is recovered now. Years ago, she also had flu swine. ‘How do you do to control fear?’, I asked her. ‘We have to live’, she said. ‘We cannot let anyone like that madman stop us. You’re going to be all right; you’re wearing your facemask. Life is risk. We have to live.’
There they were, two poles of human diversity: a stupid and cowardly man, a kind and courageous woman; one among the innumerable anonymous heroes who some way or another risk their lives every day and even so honour with grace and kindness their commitment of service to others. There was no doubt as to on which side the meaning of life lay. In the middle, there was me, terrified, reduced to tears by fear and a sense of impotence which, I suspect, was owed not only to the recent aggression, but to the whole experience of the pandemic, the slow experience of this grim year.
The day was grey and cold. My friend and I walked through the park in the drizzle; we ate at a café with outside tables somewhat shielded from the wind. I was carrying my disposable wooden cutlery, just in case. I came back home by bus. A woman boarded it, staggering. I don’t know if she was drunk. Her legs were bare despite the cold. She had no facemask. When the driver told her to put it on, she said she would with a lost gaze and went to sit at the back. Then she coughed. I came off the bus right away and walked for a long while in the darkened afternoon before I finally got home. I felt in every cell of my body that Evil had descended, and had its sights set on me.
At the same time, I couldn’t stop wondering who was the man who had coughed on my face ‘as a joke’; why he had done it; how often he did it; whether he planned it or the prank came spontaneously. How old was he? What was his name? Where did he live? How he started his days, and how he finished them. If he had Covid and had infected me, if I got sick or, indeed, died, our interaction, which had lasted a few seconds, would have been of the most intimate imaginable kind: murder. But even if there was no contagion, that interaction had made him violently enter my life. It had thrown me into the well of fear and desolation. My reaction—the fear he had sought to sow—would have amused him, would have given him some momentary satisfaction, but I held no doubts that he too lived in a form of torment, in some form of soul-exile which I truly could not imagine. Probably most banal, which is perhaps the worst thing of it all.
There is nothing like worrying for those we love to ease concern about oneself. A few days after that lugubrious Sunday, the top tier of restrictions in England we’d seen coming had come into place; the rate of contagions raised; a new variation of the virus was registered and, in Mexico, two persons I love seemed to have developed symptoms. A few dark days came, in which it didn’t seem possible to even articulate my sadness, my anxiety, behind which stretched a strange landscape of silence, of some acceptance which wasn’t neither calm, nor wise or judicious, but didn’t stop being nevertheless part of the unquestionable weave of reality.
As I write this, surrounded by that silence and the depths of the loneliness which is only experienced in misfortune, we’re a week away from Christmas. In the United Kingdom the Beast’s government keeps on sending us conflicting messages: while in the maximum state of alert, only three days ago we were being told that people would be able to gather at Christmas, ‘with all due precautions, with responsibility’. And after the festivities, which will be hardly festive at all, a new lockdown may come. As if the virus knew anything about Christmas. After a public battle to make the government take a clear and responsible stance, the cancellation of Christmas gatherings was announced. If they aren’t cancelled, we know, more people will die. But the Beast’s ambivalence, which has already cost so many lives since the beginning of the pandemic, is unforgivable.
Demonstrators against the new restrictions are out in the street again. With no facemasks. Laughing, shouting or provoking, armed with no other weapons than stupidity or blindness. What is happening here replicates the demonstrations all over the world, and things are becoming ugly. I can barely understand this invocation of the freedom to infect others and get infected, but in the scenes of the protests I recognise an obstinate facet of the human spirit, and the rendition of one’s own faculties that takes place so often under cover of collective action. I read that aggressions like the one I was a victim of last Sunday have been quite common this year against employers in public places, and in particular against the police: people who coughs on or spits at other people’s face wielding the Covid threat. I feel like crying again. I can’t take any longer the exhaustion: mental, emotional, which clings to the body and becomes then physical.
Since the previous lockdown, I’ve spent weeks exploring the streets and parks around my neighbourhood, this London suburb which the pandemic threw suddenly out to the edge of the world, seeking solace in light, when there is any; in a bird, a cloud, the now bare tree branches; finding harmony in some houses, in unexpected streets, in the winter light upon the facades and the sun so low it blinds you as you walk. One afternoon I found an attractive 19th Century church, the spire of which I had seen from afar many times, and I was almost happy. But I miss London, the real London, and I wonder with hallucinatory anxiety if I will ever inhabit it again. I miss getting lost in the city, among fellow humans. I can’t take it anymore, I think often, without drama or fuss, contained by silence, and I’m scared.
Then I quieten down and ask myself, fear of what? Covid or not, I’m going to die one day, anyway. Just as one day, suddenly, around a month ago, Carlos Warman died. Musician, composer, and a very present friend in a past time of my life. I met him by chance in a corner of the neighbourhood we both used to live in, the Condesa, when I visited Mexico three years ago, and that, without our knowing, was our farewell. Haven’t I always known that I am mortal, that we all are, that human will can do nothing against that shared destiny? The pandemic is only forcing us to face it without hideouts, without distractions.
It isn’t pleasant, but despite my aversion, I feel a simultaneous urgency to descend, to go deep into that tunnel, to see face to face the fear and loneliness which come with the presence of death, hold their gaze, be reconciled, and fear no more. Aren’t all the friends I’m remembering now keeping me company? Isn’t it true that Armando Vega Gil, who didn’t wait for death but went to look for it instead, who never knew of the pandemic and whose thoughts about it I’d so much like to hear, accompanies me too? What we have ahead is a door opening to the existential dilemma of being, on the face of death, human. What am I going to carry in my spirit in the final moment, apart from fear or, if I am very lucky, even in its place? It has to be something tougher, and more luminous.
As a species, we will go on reacting in ways both extravagant and predictable, to the pandemic and to everything else. While some of us tend to be paralysed with fear, there are others who seem to have no other solace than instant gratification. The last night before we reached the restrictions’ tier 4 and pubs and restaurants closed again, Soho streets were teeming with hordes that went out to drink, sing at the top of their voice, shriek, defy… what? Whom? The instinct of survival? The protection of others which is the last and, at the same time, the primordial stronghold of our humanity when tragedy strikes? In the screen, that window to the world which for most of us has now become our only access, I could see the Soho I haven’t visited for what feels like ages turned into a true no man’s land. The decadence, the nihilistic abandon which always come along the infinitely repeated end of the world. An echo, no matter how much the idea makes me wince, of my own question: what for?
The answer from those who are creating the vaccines is very clear. There is hope there, purpose, even a form of fervour, a word that isn’t often matched with science. These two human groups seem to belong to a different species, but they are not. They are both our mirror.
Politics, it goes without saying, will go on knocking us over. On top of the tension of a Christmas with pandemic, in the UK we have that of Brexit, which will take effect with the new year. There will be disasters and reforms, peaks and precipices, as it has been throughout the whole history of mankind. Tyrants who fall and others rising. The question that matters, though, is still one of meaning. How to live and how to die, how to reach a dignified life and death without dodging the central dilemma of our species.
We shall dance
Early nightfall comes with its own miracles. As I write at my desk, I have seen the full moon rising outside my window at 4.00 pm. It has been my companion and my witness.
Darkness and silence are good allies for playing with the relative nature of our own time. I think, for instance, of the Spanish flu, which spread devastatingly all over the world in 1918. It coincided with the end of World War I. Let’s just picture the scene. And it stopped, its lethal power neutralised after it spread death with a rage even greater than war’s. And what did we humans do afterwards?
We danced. We gave ourselves with relish to the Roaring Twenties; to vanguards and the endless party, men very elegant, women with remarkably daring and seductive new fashions. The world glittered. We danced Charleston and foxtrot, a sign that life with others is possible after a pandemic. True, the party didn’t last much, and history tells us that there would follow nightmares which even now, knowing them true, are unthinkable. But we too will dance and drink together, and we will celebrate the life we’ve got left in ways which will be, no doubt, somewhat pagan, letting tomorrow to look after tomorrow. There is hope. Its name is life, and it is tenacious.
That fifth of November, when I wondered ‘what for’, mourning Sandro, conjuring up my dead, celebrating Verónica’s birthday with every fireworks’ explosion behind my window, there was a lucid moment in which the answer made itself heard with absolute clarity: ‘For this, precisely. For music, for books. For reading, for learning to play the piano, for writing a story. For dancing and getting drunk. For being mortal, with longing and consciousness, which is life’s price.’
This fateful year is nearly ending. The pandemic will pass, as everything does, and will leave us as a gift, even if only for a moment—for humans are forgetful—a finer veil between the living and the dead, easier to clear; a realm halfway, where we will learn to be in communion with each other without paying so much attention to the inescapable frontier. And there, in that space, we will perhaps have learnt to touch reality.
Some days ago, early in the morning, when I was about to light the candle in my shrine, ready for meditation, I was the witness of a small wonder. The light of the early winter sun was casting against the white wall a vase’s outline, shape and angles with sparkling clarity. The reflection was taller, more luminous, translucid and real than the solid, quiet and dull vase beside its projection. I can’t explain why, but this phenomenon made of pure light took on the dimension of the sharpest appreciation of reality possible. It is one of the most eloquent answers I have had during these dark months about the meaning of it all.
It is hard to find the words to wish wellness and joy in ill-fated times. However, I can wish indeed that we all walk through the end of 2020 with some of that light which makes what is untouchable real and unquestionable; that it may light the way in this stumbling among fear and loss. Perhaps what is afflicting me isn’t desolation after all. My affliction is life, the awareness of life, and, on a closer look, that is in fact a gift.