Finding the Form with J.P. Letkemann
A couple of days ago, my sister sent me a link to a recent CBC interview with John Koenig, author of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. Koenig’s project, according to host Piya Chattopadhyay, involved coining new words to fill in the “blind spots of our emotional vocabulary.” Describing his rationale, Koenig explains how new words can “install a handle on a feeling that [is] otherwise unspeakable or undefinable.”
The article accompanying the interview focuses on several of Koenig’s words. When I came to the definition of “onism,” I shivered with recognition. “The awareness of how little of the world you’ll experience in your lifetime, forever stuck in just one body, that inhabits only one place at a time.” I know this feeling. And it gave me pause to realize that this feeling is universal enough for someone to coin a term for it.
“The awareness of how little of the world you’ll experience in your lifetime, forever stuck in just one body, that inhabits only one place at a time.”
In part, my essay “Homebodies” is an attempt to grapple with the frustration of being trapped in one body, in one place, in one period of time. I suppose the feeling was always there, vague and unspeakable, but something about pandemic conditions—lockdown, working from home— brought it more clearly to the surface.
In a way, “onism” describes not only the feeling that gave rise to the essay but also my experience of grappling with the essay itself. I wrote the first draft in the early days of the pandemic, in April and May 2020. During the revision process, our collective experience of the pandemic evolved dramatically. For me, the days and months unfolded like a spiral pattern. Periods of hope circled back to periods of despair. Time felt linear and progressive (vaccines! new variants!) but also cyclical (déjà vu: “here we go again!”). As I revised the essay, I chafed against its limited and preliminary perspective. Knowing neither the full impact of the pandemic nor its interminable length, the narrator now struck me as clueless. Depending on my mood (and on the current pandemic situation), I sometimes found his attempts at humour to be ill-advised. The “onism” I experienced was the awareness of how little I could convey with this piece, stuck, as it was, in one time and one place. I wanted it to speak more fully to the isolation, the depression, the unbearable tedium of the winter of 2021. Nevertheless, I recognized that for the sake of integrity, for the essay to be coherent and true, I needed to firmly maintain a limited point of view, which meant rooting the piece in my headspace, in Kitchener, Ontario, in March-May 2020.
Perhaps I will write another pandemic essay someday, one with a much broader scope. I shudder as I write this; even the idea exhausts me.
J.P. Letkemann lives, walks, and writes in Kitchener, Ontario.