Transmission·Personal Essay

Gary Barwin's 'morning thought experiments' are helping him feel more connected while isolating at home

Covid Behaviour Therapy is a personal essay by Gary Barwin, part of CBC Books' series about life during COVID-19.

Covid Behaviour Therapy is a personal essay by Gary Barwin, part of CBC Books' Transmission series

Covid Behaviour Therapy is an essay by Gary Barwin, part of CBC Books' Transmission series. (Submitted by Gary Barwin, Ben Shannon/CBC)

Covid Behaviour Therapy is a personal essay by Gary Barwin. It is part of Transmission, CBC Books' original writing series reflecting on life during COVID-19. Read more works from Transmission here.

I wake in the early morning and choose to make conscious connections.

Early morning and I wake to the sound of birds. 


Like me, the birds aren't able to sleep through the night. We wake when it is dark. I don't know what the birds are thinking, but since the pandemic began, I know I wake up feeling worried and unsettled. 

But I get to listen to birds. 

And they get to listen to each other, sheltering in place. Their place: the outside. Ah, the outside, remember that?

Why do the birds sing? Like Italians on balconies, they sing to connect with others. But also because they think, "Oh wow! Another day filled with trees and sky and flying! Also worms!"

So, I listen to birds. 

But I've also been doing "morning thought experiments" — I'm calling them CBT: Covid Behaviour Therapy — letting myself drift and imagine, but not about the pandemic. That's for after coffee. 

I wondered about the virus's perspective. What are its goals? What does it think of humans?

I try to think about things that I wouldn't normally consider.

One morning, I imagined, "What if the sounds outside my window were actually happening inside me?" 

The next day, I imagined the ancestors of the birds in my yard. Then I imagined new generations years from now. Into what dawns did the ancestor birds sing? Into what dawns will the new generations sing? Then I imagined their songs connecting, a net of intersecting songs.

A representation of how Gary Barwin imagines a mist of words emanating from his bedroom window. (Submitted by Gary Barwin)

Another morning, because I couldn't help myself, I wondered about the virus's perspective. What are its goals? What does it think of humans? Does it feel happy, sad, conflicted, guilty, hungry or misunderstood? Does it think of itself like a superhero villain, trying to take over the world… or something else? What would its sense of community be like? And community with what? With other viruses? 

Last week, I wondered what if trees kept their distance, but were connected by a root system. Oh yeah. They are. "There's no place like rhizome. There's no place like rhizome."

But what about frogs, whales, clouds, filing cabinets, teeth, telephones or squirrels? How do they communicate, how do they build community, how COULD they build community from afar? What about the one goose who must keep separate from the V? What about the single car which longs for "contact" with other cars? What about the emotions left at the office which can't connect?

No wonder I can't sleep.

Looking back, I realize that my morning thoughts are about grounding myself during these months of disconnection and dislocation. I'm trying to ground myself in space and time and to realize how the singular place I find myself in connects to all the other places — where there are friends, family, music, binge-worthy TV series, squirrels, toilet paper, other voices and emotions. My own life and the life of the world. 

I feel like a single penguin thinking about being huddled together with a thousand other penguins.

I've recently learned — too much — about how we all radiate moistly, a giant web of moistness spreading madly off in all directions.

But I've also learned that we radiate connection, too. We humans are communication specialists. Interaction technologists. Even the most introverted of us. We send and receive thoughts, feelings and experiences like some kind of fleshy modem. I feel like a single penguin thinking about being huddled together with a thousand other penguins. At least that's what it says on my dating profile. 

But by sending and receiving, we know where we are. We know who we are. Even if it means we're someone who has forgotten to get out of pyjamas or brush our hair.

I've been calling this "conscious community."

It's the choice to nurture connection and communication to build and maintain our own community. This at a time when we're staying physically distant, hunkering down at home or keeping six feet away from each other when we're out. Sure, it makes everything seem unreal. And it makes us feel more distant. 

But at the same time, this ability to create "conscious community" makes us feel closer to ourselves and… everything. It's something remarkable about being human. It's like how sending out for pizza makes us feel closer to dinner. 

I wake in the early morning and choose to make conscious connections. Between the birds and me. Between inside and outside. Between whatever changeable and unsettling combination of anxiety, fear, love, numbness, giddiness and hope we're all feeling. Between this moment and all others. Sometimes I'm swept away by anxiety, but sometimes I find an unsteady branch and hold on and think of everyone else doing the same. 

About Gary Barwin

Gary Barwin is the author of the novel Yiddish for Pirates. (Adela Talbot)

Gary Barwin is a writer, composer, visual and multidisciplinary artist and the author of 24 books of poetry, fiction and books for children. His latest book is For It is a Pleasure and a Surprise to Breathe: New and Selected Poems (ed. Alessandro Porco). His bestselling novel Yiddish for Pirates won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour and the Canadian Jewish Literary Award for fiction. It was also a finalist for both the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction and the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

A new novel, Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted: The Ballad of Motl the Cowboy, will be published 2021. He lives in Hamilton.

About Transmission

Transmission is a series of original creative works, commissioned by CBC Books, that reflects on time, place, identity, community and purpose in an era of COVID-19. It was published in spring 2020.

Transmission is part of the Art Uncontained initiative from CBC ArtsArt Uncontained offers inspiration for audiences and support to the Canadian artistic community in these unprecedented times.

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