Fairhaven: Ships In the Night

I am on the 99 B-Line listening to The National and thinking, yes, it is true, I am ‘half awake in a fake empire.’ It is grey and raining outside and the scene is smeared by the condensation forming on the windows of the bus, which is becoming increasingly packed as we near the Cambie Street interchange. Five thirty in the afternoon. We, “the people of Vancouver,” are fleeing home, but the mood is damp, not what you’d expect from people who are escaping the clutches of the weekday. We look at each other distantly, sharing only the understanding that while we have reached today’s finish line tomorrow will place another one ahead of us.

I am tired after condensing a gamut of nervous energy into a thirty-minute presentation on a chapter by Elizabeth Povinelli, the formidable Columbian University scholar who incites all sorts of visible reactions from people: raised eyebrows, agitated wriggling, side-wards glances. She is the kind of scholar we all want to be, but pain not to be, as well, and this is perhaps why I prepared the presentation so reluctantly in the midnight hours last night.

Relief touches me briefly thinking that the assignment is over and now I can rest, but I do not let this feeling settle. I am growing tired of the rise and fall of study, the on-loop nervous anticipation and its crashing release; I want long-distance consistency, a steady line. I wonder why it is we do the things we do; why I stay up late labouring over Microsoft Powerpoint critiquing someone else’s critique. Some days I have some answers to proffer but not today. I think of Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism—how we are compelled to work towards “the good life” in the current biopolitical moment—and then I think of the cruel optimism that clearly drove her to write the book.

I smudge out a rough circle of the window fog with my finger—trying not to indulge any O.C.D. tendencies by dwelling on the germs I just acquired—and look through the peep-hole onto the street. I see only pavement and the long yellow line bounding the edge of the road.

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Two days later I am in Fairhaven, Washington, squinting my eyes in the foreign light of the sun. The skin on my face is shocked but in spite of itself I feel it unfurling its pores. I stumble upon a record store and John Lennon urges me to imagine that there is no heaven – ‘above us only sky.’ When you think about it, I think, the idea of only sky is not necessarily any more motivating than there being no heaven. This could be depressing but since it comes from a Beatle it is not (things from a Beatle are always tinged with happiness and fancy).

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I wake up at three am to the sound of blaring ship horns. I could never be sure if it is one horn from one ship or many horns from several, but my night’s mind is certain it is two separate horns from two distinct ships—one coming, one going. The ship leaving the port farewells the town with an ambitious sound, carrying with it—like all ambitions—both dreams and dread. It passes a ship coming into dock, and this latter ship gives it a nod of good luck with its deep echoing horn. There is a moment of silence, and then this homecoming ship signals twice more quickly: a blow of relief and of a “home, sweet home” that only means so much in this moment because of the outgoing ship that it passes.

I drift back to sleep, restful and comforted at last.

Fairhaven