The Fortune Teller

Three years ago, I found myself in Osaka. I was winding through Japan and stumbled on this pulsating city, whereby I sought out its castle (being a person rather attracted to castles), discovering a time capsule had been buried in its manicured grounds. The details are beyond this column, but essentially, in celebration of the World Expo in Osaka in 1970, a comprehensive menu of earthly items of modernity were buried in two time-proof capsules. The objects sealed inside included a portable radio, an endoscope, seeds, an iron – things that represented life as it was when the shaft was sunk. The first of the capsules was dug up in the year 2000. The next, buried five meters deeper, is to be unearthed in 6970 AD; 5000 years after its burial. I stood in front of the information plaque, and my little mind could not get its head around what the world would look like in 5000 years. So many possibilities, yet with such impossibility to predict. Would earth still stand? Would it be a cooked, scorched memory of its past? Would we have learnt the value of connection and care, eschewing the rapacious capitalist drive scouring away all that is good and real? Would we have Bladerunner cars?

The reason I mention this here is that when writing these columns, we do so two months in advance of publication, before you, the reader, consume them. Normally this is of little consequence, but these, of course, are not normal times. Today is the last day of March, the longest month in living memory. We have watched the entire world spin in directions we could never have imagined. The things that are soaking our feeds and our news were unimaginable and unthinkable even a month ago. I write this, from my home in Perth Australia, also a world away from where you’re reading this. I, like you, am an Emergency Physician, on the frontline, involved in frontline planning. My personal role has been to go a little rogue – I am the consultant in charge of the black-market supply of PPE, a role which suits me rather too well.

But although we have not yet gone under, been inundated like we know you have in the northern hemisphere, we do not know what the next month, week, even day has in store.

We are living on the edge of understanding. There is fear and confusion and the vertigo of having all that we depend on ripped from under our feet. But what this pandemic has exposed is our connectedness. On the record, our hearts are with every single one of you in the hospitals in New York, in Boston, in the other cities whose graphs are beginning to light up like homemade fireworks. Never before have we felt such brother and sisterhood with every single one of you emergency clinicians, risking greatly on the frontline. At this point in time, all we can do, while we hunker down here in readiness, is send great love and solidarity to you.

The only thing of which I can be sure, is that this outpouring of admiration and respect and hope and love, will still be there in two months time. Beyond that, what our hospitals will look like, the supplies of PPE, the death toll, the grief for friends and colleagues lost, I can no better predict than you.

So here’s me, sending a message to the future. Stay strong, stay safe, look after yourselves and each other, and read poetry.

Here’s a few words from Louise Glück, your magnificent poet laureate from 2003 – 2004, who grew up on Long Island.


Louise Glück. The Theory of Memory.

Long, long ago, before I was a tormented artist, afflicted with longing yet incapable of forming durable attachments, long before this, I was a glorious ruler uniting all of a divided country – so I was told by the fortune teller who examined my palm. Great things, she said, are ahead of you, or perhaps behind you; it is difficult to be sure. And yet, she added, what is the difference? Right now you are a child holding hands with a fortune-teller. All the rest is hypothesis and dream.

About the author

Dr Michelle Johnston is a consultant Emergency Physician who works at an inner city hospital. Mostly her days consist of trauma and mess. Also, she writes.

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