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you are told to hold a moment

Heather Parry



You are asked to write on the concept of now. You are asked to consider what it means to be in this present; what sense can be made of the contemporary moment. Writers are always asked questions like this. You think that this is like asking a ship to make sense of the ocean tide; a drowning dog to make sense of the water. You reach towards something and all you have is fragments. You wonder which here, whose now you are supposed to be holding.


You are given time and space to write on the concept of now. You are gifted a new community of writers. In the highland air and the city heat you commune. Over whisky and food and palm wine you share: experiences, backgrounds, practices, hates. You laugh, and argue, and tease each other drily; you lay on mats together and giggle at scissors. One day, you walk on unmarked roads towards a body of water; you slip together into the sharp coldness of the loch. You shout around the sheltered space, joyous and ridiculous, and encourage each other inwards. You find yourself buoyant.


In Ghana, you notice that any small suffering is met with a repeated word: sorry. You trip, you puke, you are feeling bad: sorry. You stub your toe on a chair: they are sorry. It strikes you, how readily the people around you—both strangers and friends—take responsibility for your wellbeing; how mourning even the tiniest ill is more important than apportioning blame. In your country, only the guilty apologise. In your country, not even them.


An interviewer asks you how change really happens. You wonder why you are supposed to know. You give an answer that sounds something like this: it happens in two ways, both slow and fast. On one hand, it is groundwork, the endless trudge of meetings and lobbying, the taking minutes at committees and silently screaming at petulant emails and speaking to blank-faced government ministers who are watching their clocks. It is holding your nerve, your grace when the person opposite you has let go of theirs. It is door knocking and poster painting and conversing and feeding and teaching and learning. On the other hand, it is a spark: an unexpected and indefinable surge in feeling that throws statues into rivers and takes over offices and overturns governments and the status quo. You say that it only takes a single act to cause a storm, because the conditions for change have already been laid. You say this, and it sounds convincing. You wonder if you still believe it.


You find yourself obsessed with a guy on Twitter who tweets about menswear. You do not really wear menswear, but you probably would if you could afford tailored suits. You don’t know anything about this man apart from his posting; no biographical information, no political bent, no financial or sexual history. He tweets a beautifully diverse range of great dressers; he unpicks what works for each person’s body. He deconstructs, in great detail, the language of clothes. You have no language of clothes; you barely know how to dress. This one man’s feed is the single thing you enjoy on the internet this year, the only thing that feels unladen.


You are asked to think of joy, and in a way it comes easy: moments in bed, pressed against a body you love, the curtains closed, your phone turned off. The crisp bite of an apple that a neighbour has grown; the steam in your face when you serve up a meal; the way your cat asks for a kiss on the head. These are all, you realise, intimate moments; ones in which you can pretend there is nothing but you.


You see an Instagram post that says: we have exceeded all expectations for global temperature. You immediately close the app.


You sit at a table with five writers you greatly admire, defending the concept of hope. How it might exist when we live in this moment. You have all witnessed a relentless social entropy across your lifetimes; the decimation of democratic institutions, of planet, of people. You have voted and lost; seen lurches to the right, savage reactions to the mere suggestion of progression. You speak of climate breakdown, the death of species, the persistence of brutality across every bit of media; of political corruption, of a poverty that you, personally, are protected from. You find yourself alone in the belief that it can only get so bad before there’s a revolution. There is a silence, a heavy pause. You are the only white person sitting at the table.


You find yourself surrounded by Toni Morrison; her fiction, her essays, her interviews and thoughts. You consult her wisdom when stuck, and find this: I don’t want you to write about what you know, because you don’t know anything.


You take a stifling taxi with friends to the clear air of a botanical garden. You delight, together, in the weight of a listing calabash, the taste of a freshly unsheathed Brazil nut, in the breadth of knowledge shared by your generous guide. On the way home you stop for palm wine, to take some intoxication from the resources of this land. It is not until later, reading a friend’s words, that you truly consider the colonial implications of the garden space; what it took from one people in service of a white other. You consider yourself well-versed in the truths, the history of colonialism; you can speak convincingly about its crimes, its processes both then and now. But still, in the moment, your body, this body, thought first of what it offered you.


You think about now, and you feel like you are a dog, drowning. But you are not the one underwater.


An atrocity occurs, in real-time, while you write this: a nuclear power massacring a people caged in one hundred and fifty square miles of land. Every single political entity that is supposed to speak for you cheers on these events; says the nuclear power has every right to do it. You feel sick in ways you never have before. Propaganda unfurls across the media, a genocidal machine. You realise that the concept of language has failed; that the now for these people is unmoored from justice.


You find yourself defending the concept of hope, to yourself now more than anyone. Your argument, really, boils down to this: if there is no hope, then what else is there?


You are asked to think about joy, and you cannot put it into words. But you know that your life is replete with it, a true embarrassment of riches. You are given space and time to write about now. You sit in a dirty pool, laughing. You are challenged by someone who regards you with love. You share handfuls of food, bowls of fresh palm wine. You stand at the end of the world, breathing a clear sea air, and watch a fulmar feed her babies. There is nothing more you could possibly say.


You are told to hold a moment; to layer it with metaphor and beauty. But you wonder if fiction, if prevarication, is part of the problem.



 

Heather Parry is a Glasgow-based writer, editor, and publisher. She is the co-founder and Editorial Director of Extra Teeth magazine, co-host of the Teenage Scream podcast and the Scottish Senior Policy & Liaison Manager for the Society of Authors, a trade union for writers. In 2021 she created the free-access Illustrated Freelancer’s Guide with artist Maria Stoian. Her short stories and nonfiction have been published internationally, and her debut novel, Orpheus Builds a Girl, was published in October 2022 with Gallic Books.

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