Sunlight isn’t the same through windows. An essay by Valerie Curro Khayat

I sit on the edge of my bed, eyes closed, in total silence. Just to feel the sun. I ’ve long noticed the way it enters my bedroom in the afternoon. It ’s as if a painter flicked his brush and the sunlight landed everywhere. These days, that room and its light seem to narrate the inner states I navigate, sometimes different from hour to hour. I cannot help it, when I catch a glimpse of it, I sometimes have to stop everything and sit in that light. Some warmth, some comfort. Like a hand on my skin.

My nonno’s hand. That summer evening when we sat at the dinner table as a family during one of my many trips to Italy. Whenever we’d be sitting side by side, he reached for my hand at some point or another. It was a way of saying he was there, completely present with me. An anchor thrown into fleeting time. Over the last twenty years, in random moments, I still have vivid memories of it; the warmth of his hand as it adoringly stroked mine with the gentleness and pace of a lapping wave the way only his did. Some people remember scents or eyes, for me it is hands.

I can recall exactly the weight, the touch, the texture of all the hands of those who have ever been important in my life, here and no longer here. Even decades later. I have a photograph from years ago, taken with my manual camera, of my late bisnonna’s hand next to mine (as I struggled to snap the shot with one hand and capture the moment using the other). Our hands, just a pair of hands but with such a far measure of living between them both. Whenever I hear my father’s piano playing, I instantly see an image of his hands, their own unique architecture, moving graciously along the keys. I have an old journal where I had sketched a lover’s hands in various moments; at the restaurant by candlelight, in bed, on a weekend during a random afternoon… Then, there are the hands I held in their final moments, aware I was feeling the life they contained for the last time. My own hands, in excruciating pain last year, were a reminder of my human fragility while I experienced a health challenge. Hands are a source of joy when they mark a reunion and heartbreak whenever they move us into the awareness of the brevity of life. And in all cases, they are a reminder of living.

In the morning, I wake and turn to my jasmine plant, touch her leaves as if I were reaching for a pair of hands. She is my reminder of life these days, my reminder that I still am. With the constant waves of suffering that are all around now, I need this gentle reminder more than ever. Many times, I’ve found myself palms pressed together or clenching my arms in an attempt to comfort my being, warm tears flowing as if my heart was going to burst following sad news I received that hit too close to home. For the moment, there are no other hands to hold, not for now.

Today, I decided to go outside and take a quick walk. Sitting at my window in the sun won’t appease the feeling that inhabits me, today. I’m not sure what to call it. It feels like a stranger in the home that is my body, one that is mute and unwilling to reveal its name.

I’m walking outside for the first time in a long time. The concrete under my feet is reverberating through my body with every step. I am aware of every sound: my shoes, my breath, children in the distance, the few cars I see passing by. I am not heading to the grocery store, I am just out walking to feel the sun directly on my skin, to remember the world. It’s an exhilarating feeling but one that also brings, at the same time, hints of vertigo. Like walking along the edge of something. Some sort of satiation and an incompleteness all at once. Like the sensation of feeling only one finger placed on your back, not a full palm. There is contact and presence but also an unbearable longing for more of what you know exists at the root of that touch. Whether I am inside or outside, the world always feels almost but not quite, within reach. As if my hands and the world’s are reaching for each other but do not end up joining.

I miss hands the most; holding them spontaneously, the timid unexpected contact with strangers’ hands as you receive an order at a counter, the different weight of hands, the sharing of the same table space like a dancefloor on which they unsuspectedly move for hours to the sound of conversation. I am noticing that hands are often left out of video calls. They’ve become invisible. And then, there is the quiet pain that comes from suddenly no longer being able to cradle the face of a child you love or feeling the spontaneous weight of a touch on your arm, those simple gestures that acknowledge one ’s being, even in passing or ever so briefly.

I’m walking today only to walk, without destination. Something I’ve always had great trouble doing; going out for a walk, without any specific task to accomplish, without a purse or a backpack. It makes me feel naked, too bare. Some peculiar form of vulnerability. Naked is such a relative term from person to person. But the task these days has become going out and walking itself, within all of that vulnerability. The text messages, video calls and audio messages are not always enough. Being outside is like feeling a little more than the touch of just that one finger of the world on my back even if it’s not its entire palm. I’m out walking and I don’t know what I’m searching for but I know it will inevitably elude me.

Just a few months ago, I was walking through these streets with my 4-year-old niece who was visiting me. I held her little hand so tight as any adult does with a young child in busy streets. I also carried her in my arms for long distances, our cheeks softly banging against one another, her tiny voice tickling my ear. That nearness feels so far now. The only touch upon my face these days is my mask.

I walk these streets that I know so well yet look and feel like nothing of what they were in their stillness. During the blue hour, tiny lit up windows are a reminder that life is inside now, not outdoors. By the evening, streets are mostly silent and any exchanged gazes are rare, brief and happen from afar. I am gripped by the nostalgia of having somewhere to come home from. Moment of vertigo.

The world is at my fingertips it seems, but not quite and I can also so easily abandon it to travel so far within myself at any moment. I have always easily done so since I can remember and even with much pleasure. But during the last while, the difference is that I, like the entire planet, have been thrust into the task without any clear end to it. Some days, it feels like peacefully floating in the depths of a calm ocean and on others, like an endless swim up to the surface while running out of breath. I know it is all part of the ebb and flow of this experience.

The lack of human touch for countless weeks has become a negative space that has expanded like ink somewhere inside of me, somewhere I can ’t identify. It is like walking a tight rope as time goes by. There is tension, there is exhilarating beauty from the rare view, even freedom in some ways but it is also a double edge sword. You can’t confuse the tight rope with the negative space and they are side by side. Your foot needs to travel through absence before finding that ‘’ground’’, that touch again, to follow the map of the spine which becomes imprinted on the soles with every step. You constantly need to find balance over and over and reposition.

I am almost back home. I catch a glimpse of my shadow against a brick wall. It feels like a sight I have not seen in forever. “That shadow is me without the details ’’, I think to myself. It seems like it goes far into some other universe if you stare at the center of the form. But the shadow only really shows the contour. This walk is only the contour before I return to the heart of it all, at home. This is where it feels like life is speaking loudest these days, seemingly motionless but travelling so far within another world at the same time.

I arrive at the spiraling stairs that lead up to my door and I grab hold of the railing, with a new awareness of it as I walk up. Maybe as one last taste of the world. It’s not just being touched but also touching that is a reminder of human existence and experience. Even an inanimate object gives the sensation of holding on to something, like you are still here.

These days, I’ve often thought if outside there is only a memory of past seasons I do not even know how to name, if there is no touch, if there is no even solid, “ground’’ to walk upon but only a tight rope right now, what is it that truly remains? Not just the cliché realization of the fragility of life and its ephemeral quality. There is only what you know to be true about who you are, in the deepest part of yourself. This is like a cleansing, a burning of the heart and burning takes time. Often, you cannot know what remains until you are left with ashes through which you can sift for what has survived, what you can still hold.


Poet and singer-songwriter from Montreal, Canada, Valerie Curro Khayat writes and performs in Italian, English and French. Continuously moving across disciplines, her candid and deeply poignant compositions are at once strikingly bare and powerful. Valerie’s artistic practice integrates poetry, live music, movement and multimedia components. http://www.valeriecurrok

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