The Aitken Alexander Isolation Series: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Crisis by Jessica Johannesson

Photo by Nicholas Herrmann


Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Crisis

A long time ago, long before I became afraid of what’s going to kill the birds, I was introduced to the Wallace Stevens poem ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’. In 13 short stanzas, Stevens explores what he’s seeing (a blackbird, some mountains through a window) but also the framing of a moment and its significance. He twists the lens, adding one meaning to another. Over the years I’ve written dozens of ‘13 ways’ for a variety of confusing, surprising or intimate things, hoping it might take me to the outskirts of the obvious. I’ve used it repeatedly, compulsively, in order to box-cut them open – a girl I fancied with bright red nails at university, British ‘snow days’, drum skins, human feet. When the tool gives something back, it’s like being the kind of person who understands clockwork.

So, as we are now so far apart and away from the job to be done, here goes:


  1. Please don’t say that a crisis is also an ‘opportunity’. ‘Opportunity’ may be one of the Chinese symbols for ‘crisis’ but the neighbour’s mother just died. Our families are squinting and waving crammed with all their greatness into screens from across various seas. There is a tightness like clingfilm between my ribs which is not only coffee. Tell me words like ‘solution’ or ‘measure’ (I especially like ‘measure’), say ‘cure’. We need comfort that doesn’t give when you poke it. Only months ago, we were blocking bridges, because we knew there was no cure that could be discovered, funnelled out and quickly spread to every one of us.


  1. The WHO explains that the virus is spread by ‘droplets’ and do I ever resent the cuteness of such a word. Experts assure us that air doesn’t carry the virus from your eye to mine, but if that’s true then why is it happening so fast? Is the virus not following the rules? A man in a pink-shirt walks past, gaze to the pebbles, on our daily state-allotted walk up the hill. ‘You can’t catch it by eye-contact, mate,’ my partner mutters once the man is gone, because he’s from Yorkshire. If we were social distancing in Yorkshire, he says, everyone would be sure to say hello.


  1. A former colleague I never spoke to one-on-one, with a habit of displaying dead deer on Facebook, writes: ‘is anyone else wondering if this thing can spread through tears?’ This would explain some things about crying, or not crying, applicable to more than one crisis – that sadness itself is contagious. I suspect the downstairs neighbour hasn’t been able to cry either and that this is behind the late-night hoovering. I wish we could all cry (cry-sis!) and the absence of tears out in the open reminds me of that other crisis, the reason why we were on the bridges.


  1. For years now, we have woken up every morning and fallen straight into that other crisis. Why does so much chaos, by the way, start with a C? Corona, collapse, cholesterol, climate? Someone must be having so much (clumsy) fun. We woke up and fell into trying to do something. We joined movements to keep the world from falling further. We brought our bodies to bear on the tipping points, we wanted to learn how to speak to people who would rather not speak to us. We took time off from our jobs and told them: ‘I have one already (a job)!’ Outside this or that police station at some surprising point of the night, we wished we’d thought to bring something other than oat cakes. Now we go on daily walks, hands in our pockets, and sometimes someone will say: hiya! Then we dislike them because we think they’ve forgotten about the crisis.


  1. We’re so endlessly horny for causes. I am more than a bit anxious for roots. Crisis, I read, is a latinised version of the Greek ‘krisis’ meaning a turning point in a disease, that change which indicates recovery or death. When my friend’s toddler has a tantrum, she excuses herself on the phone and says ‘I’m sorry but we’re having a little crisis here!’, as if the crisis were a third child coming, just then and right now, sliding across the floor. In ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, D H Lawrence repeatedly refers to orgasms as a ‘crisis’. It is hilarious to read this out loud, to each other, again and again until another hour has passed. He never describes the recovery part.


  1. 2020 was the year we were meant to start recovering. ‘12 years to save the planet? Make that 18 months’ a BBC headline said. ‘Alright BBC,’ we said, ‘you’ve suddenly changed your tune’. We felt like hugging the BBC but also slapping the BBC in the face for taking so long. If global burning is an addiction, we have to cut ourselves off this year – if it is a disease, we have to bring in all the big guns, the best drugs, the right injections, try EVERYTHING, doctor, ok? This year, we were going to take giant leaps. We were going to spread out in rhizomes, whisper new friendships and ways to be, get into each other’s dreams. We were going to be on the way up.


  1. When Boris Johnson speaks to the nation my partner says it feels like living in the film ‘V for Vendetta’. But, I remind him, at the end of that film they all march for Parliament, and they’re most definitely less than two metres apart even if they are wearing masks. This is not the kind of disruption we were after. It is the kind we were scared was coming. This is not the way to clear the skies.


  1. I’ve begun A Cluster-Fuck of Crises and pinned it up on the fridge door. It’s for us both to have whenever we reach for the wine or the way-too-old Colombian fudge. Drawing lines between and around things is like putting on rubber gloves. It puts us in the hands of such lovely professionals. There’s the corona crisis and the financial crisis, the oncoming food crisis, which is also part of the climate crisis, the Cuban missile crisis (how did that actually end?), the NHS crisis (how did that actually begin?) and the crisis between two or more of our brains. The parent crisis is related to the child crises, who are blood-tied to cousin crises but don’t hang out very much, at least not in in the presence of their peers. It doesn’t look like a family tree when I’m done. It looks like a ball of yarn. I grew up with parents who worked with phones and screens. The word ‘system’ used to make me think I was another kind of creature and not very good at maths. When I’ve heard it too much, the word makes me crave a palate cleanser – something like another word for ‘like’.


  1. But it is a system nonetheless. Do we begin here or there or everywhere? Is it ever helpful to compare suffering? I think not, but I’m ashamed to say I did it again only this morning, waking up from a dream about adopted seals wearing face masks. Is it helpful to say: remember it’s for the people you love? Is it helpful to say: you are not as likely to die? Is it useful to say: there’s such a thing as ‘ecology of disease’ and it shows that we’re more likely to experience this kind of thing more often? Is it ever helpful to say: if this thing was on its own the hospitals would have a bed for you? You could ask the homeless guy on the bridge if he’s ok taking a sandwich and he wouldn’t say: ‘thanks for asking, most people don’t’. Does it help to push the whole world into your best pal’s body, especially when, lately, you’ve not really been that close? You talk too much about the crises.


  1. When we return to that other crisis, we’ll at least be tactile again. When it’s once more about the melting glaciers, the Amazon, the burning mums and dads, at least we’ll be able to touch. It’s difficult to care about the other crises right now, you see, because we can’t touch each other. When this is all over, we’ll be able to not keep our hands off each other. That is, unless, you’re not the touchy type – I myself have never been the touchy type. Either way, we will at least have the option. I say to my partner: ‘is it still going on? Because today I’m quite enjoying this box.’


  1. When this one is over it might be too late.


  1. A crisis: a turning point in a disease, that change which indicates recovery or death. Which is not to say an ‘opportunity’. Not as in ‘grab it’, ‘seize it’, ‘go to that university career-fair and make something of it’. Nope. Maybe, in this crisis, definitely don’t say that,


  1. but say that we could not wait until this one was over. The other one was embracing it all along. It was tugging at it like a shell on soft-boiled egg, scooping bits away. Say that if we already knew we were porous, we wouldn’t think these were separate bad times. Even if it was a bit much. Just A BIT MUCH. Perhaps say that we know how to protect each other already, and it’s not only by staying away but by staying with.


Say we could take great leaps and come together in vascular systems. Say we could whisper too many messages a day. We could bring ourselves to bear on the tipping points and make sure they know that we have not gone away, that we will not go back to the way they wanted us to be. We could get into each other’s dreams. We could design our own recovery.