Joshua Whitehead reflects on music and the surprising connection he made with a neighbour while in isolation
On Doomsday Anthems is a personal essay by Joshua Whitehead, part of CBC Books' Transmission series
When COVID-19 was first announced and became all too real in our own Canadian (by which I mean Indigenous) backyards, it felt as if every radio station in Calgary was playing If the World Was Ending by JP Saxe and Julia Michaels on repeat. I couldn't help but ponder the aurality of a doomsday anthem during a global pandemic.
How lecherous, I thought, is this predatory to our mental well beings?
As the pandemic set in, I attuned to it, learned to appreciate its emotionality and lyricism for I too had fallen into a rut so deep I'd have drowned should the sky had chosen to crack open and weep worlds. The song is a primer in how to open old wounds in order to blanket one's self in the softness of a faded intimacy — I thought it a beautiful sentiment, however damning.
As an extrovert whose love language is physically based, I find myself bewildered within social isolation.
I'm so thankful for those who found me when they did, pre and mid-COVID, as I fall asleep in an entanglement of virtual kinship webbings inasmuch should the sky fall I know I'd be held, if not bound, by these strings that cascade across Turtle Island — and I spell out good will from such threads for each of my kin to see: "We need you here."
Lately, I've been listening to Love is at the End of the World, by Canadian folk singer Basia Bulat on repeat. As an extrovert whose love language is physically based, I find myself bewildered within social isolation. I'm touch starved as if I were a newborn aching for skin-on-skin contact: a hug, a nudge to the shoulder when laughing, a cuddle, a kiss.
"Love is at the end of the world," sings Bulat, "Another end of the world." I hold tightly onto these lyrics too because they fill me with hope, about romance in the age of COVID, they open me to the possibility of connection in a time sorely requiring disconnection. I find it beautifully horrifying that, as I sit and write this on my patio facing a courtyard full of greenery: cedar, pine, willow, I contemplate the looming threat of sickness that permeates the air like pollen — I shy away from bark and petrify.
Last week, I was having a cigarette on my patio, the skies too churning into ash, clouds plump with rain, and the all-too familiar smell of a wind gone giddy for the play promised from a storm. Above me, I heard someone crying. Normally, I would let them be so as not to be too nosey, but her sobs deepened into a full-bellied mourning. I called up to her, someone I've never met, and asked, what's wrong? She told me that her boyfriend just broke up with her because of social isolation — the hems of a relation ripping from the pressure of love stretching across latitudes.
I listen, fiercely, allow her to expunge her emotions, to release the stories of wounds newly emerging, petroglyphs newly etched onto infant skin. I stepped out into the now downpour, my clothes, moccasins, and hair drenched in a sky that too wept for its kin. We discussed heartbreak and finality for nearly 30 minutes.
I asked her to wait momentarily and ran into my apartment, grabbed us both a can of beer, returned, and tossed it up to her. We cheers to a new day and a better tomorrow — we fill our bellies with grain and let the rain pour into our empty aluminum, overflowing into our cupped palms, like hope in a chalice we so desperately cherish, we soothe our aching bellies so starved for intimacy with the gentleness of runoff, a gifting from the land: we sip geography, we lap up provinces and oceans and mineralized scales of pickerel, salmon, algae.
I stepped out into the now downpour, my clothes, moccasins, and hair drenched in a sky that too wept for its kin.
It was such a lovely moment to me, for surely in this act of benevolence I too am being gifted knowledge, for no gifting is ever without the expectation of another's joy — there: two strangers laughing in the rain amongst a pandemic and splitting heartwood. I palm sap from such a rupture and glue her into my spiritstories, like a portrait in a photo album, I hold onto this memory of warping wood and sobbing skies. That as I sit here and write now, my face follows the sun, I a flower to such a shrike.
I smile up into her balcony window, swallowing whole pîsim through its gift giving abilities, its abundance of joy which synthesizes minerally, and I craft for both of us a pearl of a world to place into our emptied vessels.
Joshua Whitehead is an Oji-nêhiyaw, Two-Spirit member of Peguis First Nation (Treaty 1). He is the author of the poetry collection full-metal indigiqueer and the novel Jonny Appleseed. Jonny Appleseed won the Lambda Literary Award for gay fiction. Jonny Appleseed, was longlisted for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize and was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction and the the Amazon Canada First Novel Award.
His forthcoming work, Making Love With the Land, is set to be published in 2021.
Transmission is a new series of original creative works, commissioned by CBC Books, that reflects on time, place, identity, community and purpose in an era of COVID-19.