Poems I posted to honour Adrienne Rich popped up this morning on my facebook feed during the COVID-19 pandemic eight years to the day after her death at 82 on March 27, 2012. Her poem “In Those Years” could have been written for this moment — “We were trying to live a personal life, and yes, that was the only life we could bear witness to. But the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged into our personal weather.”
This pandemic, a dark bird of history, pierced the thin membrane of our personal worlds. Ripped open, we feel the call of friends lost and and found. Their voices sound in our dreams. We bear witness to our loss. Our bounty. And reach across to others.
When I read E.M. Forster’s classic novel Howard’s End as an undergraduate student, I loved his epigraph: “Only connect.” He understood this at his moment in history. And as a lonely girl in residence, these words became my motto.
In this new era, COVID-19 time, this impulse to connect, an essential element in our well-being, is enabled by our digital technology. Isolated in our homes or wherever we find ourselves, connections stretch out the minutes of our day into a zone of contemporaneous aliveness. We humans peer at each other through machines. Our bodies relax or contort into awkward postures scrunched down on a chair – or standing, our weight on one foot, at the sink.
The obituaries begin to read like a library. The beautiful New York architect and thinker Michael Sorkin, 72, succumbs to coronavirus-related ailments. As does Parisian Marguerite Derrida, 87, a psychoanalyst and wife of brilliant theorist Jacques Derrida (1930–2004). Not to mention the thousands of dead who remain unremarked except by the grief and loss of those who knew them.
Last. night during an almost two-hour dinner face to face via FaceTime, two friends and I talked politics and the academy, our love of art, our travels to Mexico City, our care for beloveds, both human and canine. We talked about book making and photography, and all manner of things. It was entirely splendid. Suspended in conversation, the pain of the world fell away minute by minute for hours.
Over the past days and weeks, I have felt a strange sense of calm. The news is bleak. The suffering is great. Death tolls mount. The economic turmoil promises to harm so many. The front page of the New York Times stretches to accommodate the 3.3 million unemployed – a record.
A crisis. A crisis. All of this is disturbing and unsettling. Several nights I sobbed myself to sleep. Nonetheless, through an act of will, I can find myself in a still centre of something that maintains hope for a better future. The long view of sixty-eight years tries to imagine a world improved. Imagine how the giant cruise ship industry might sink into outmoded oblivion. Will people fly less. Drive less. Care more. Perhaps. Or not.
Still. I am still.
In captivity, bouncing between the four walls of my abode, I find myself thriving. Or at least, not falling apart. No doubt, the everyday deprivations of not circulating in public are less of a problem for me. I’m retired. Thirty-two years was enough. I don’t have to be anywhere. There are few demands on my time. It is a luxury too many can’t afford. (This tag line is a necessary proviso in a moment in history when too many work without the protections of unions or contracts or or or….
My temperament suits a homebody life. I love conversations and my friends. But I wanted to be Colette when I was young. I read about her work habits when I was away from home studying as a student. How brilliant Collette was to take advantage of the morning quiet. She wrote in bed til noon in one of the stories I read. How ideal, I thought. Heaven!
So fortunate to be able to write and flourish in solitude.
But my pleasure in solitude would not be possible were it not for conversational interruptions that arrive like tender gifts. I am no introvert though I subscribe to their proclamation in “Springtime For Introverts”: “We are the hopeful practitioners of antisocial distancing.”
Take today, for instance, Friday March 27.
Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest. Live in fragments no longer.”E.M. Forster, Howard’s End
Accomplishments today —
When under COVID-19 house arrest, count your accomplishments: Made a chicken soup broth and a giant pot of soup I can freeze and eat for days. And I ditched my pj’s for a comfy shirt and pants. Put on purple boots as though they might head out to dance.
Ate delicious Doreen leftovers for breakfast. Soup for lunch. Soup for dinner. (It is scrumptious.) Counting my blessings for a friend whose cooking is not only sublime but an unexpected arrival on my front porch. Phyllo pastry stuffed with pine nuts and mushrooms and cheese and herbs and spinach and arugula and … well, you can imagine its glory.
Talked with my darling daughter in Vancouver who shows me her freshly-baked white chocolate and salted caramel cookies – they do not dematerialize and transfer via FaceTime unfortunately, but we have a good talk. She shows off new purple slippers, a gift from her kind-hearted and playful friend.
Students manage the pressure of their studies and the threat of infection with more equanimity than I can imagine at her age. Until they don’t. The fact that universities are sensibly shifting grading schemes to a pass/non pass system reminds me how onerous traditional grading systems are. And certainly under these pandemic conditions where students don’t have access to labs or software or classroom dialogue, refusing to pretend it is business as usual is a master stroke in crisis management.
Over the course of a fairly long day, I shared conversations with friends in Edmonton, Ottawa, Toronto – about writing, our children, politics, life. One friend spoke of her fraught return from Paris and London and her worry about her children working in the U.S. Another discussed how to work out contagion protocols with a delightful and kind neighbour who brought groceries to her apartment. We also talked about writing and how to develop a work in progress to something that could be characterized as shared.
Another friend happily described news of new Canadian federal government economic supports that are now available for small businesses – they provide enough money for employees to keep them going. So grateful to live in a country where the leader and the cabinet are effective and smart.
Today Jason Kenney finally closed hairdressers and clothing stores and other establishments along with gatherings over 15. Why 15? Another magic number that masks the contagion of an invisible virus. It only takes two. The sensible Angele Merkel’s government limits Germans to gatherings of two. We should be meeting in groups of no more than two. Get a grip Albertans. Go home unless you must be out to bravely supply essential services.
The provincial government operates with the finesse of slugs or is it thugs? The truly horrific Alberta Minister of Health and his wife harass a citizen in their driveway in front of his children. Screaming and crying, they display a belligerent hysteria that marks Kenney’s UCP government. Has anyone reported a cabinet minister behaving like this ever before. I don’t recall. RESIGN. Please. The Toronto Star headline calls for his resignation, a good newspaper beyond the reach of Post Media hedge funds and the CONs: “‘He must resign’: Amid coronavirus crisis, Alberta’s health minister caught in firestorm over emails, fight with neighbour.” Meanwhile a local journalist outlines Shandro’s unethical conduct in his Alberta Politics blog.
The University of Alberta Butterdome gym is being turned into a health centre for those with mild coronavirus symptoms keeping them out of their home and off the street but not in the pressured confines of the hospital. They have set up 30 beds so far. Fortunately the UCP has not had time to entirely decimate the health system before the arrival of this pandemic. But what will come next? While I was writing this blog entry, the UCP fired 20.000 workers in the K-12 Education sector. Their inhumanity knows no bounds.
Early in the day, I mentored a very thoughtful and bright ten-year-old friend working on a project on women writers in Poland via a SKYPE call (talked about Sui Sin Far (Edith Eaton) and Deborah Ellis and Audre Lorde among others). Maria, her mother, was my daughter’s babysitter. So good to see time unwind between the lovely intelligences of my daughter and hers over time.
At dinner time, I had a music/dance party with Johwanna in our kitchens and laughed a lot.
And in between I worked on my little book. Researching nineteenth-century images from the of women and girls and landscapes and cottages. And sleuthing through documents and histories of the “White Death.” Tuberculosis in London, another respiratory illness in a different era that killed my great great grandfather George Davis, a book maker. He was just 39 in 1871, the same year tuberculosis confined my great grandmother Sarah Davis at 7 to the Eastbourne Convalescent Hospital along with her brother George Jr, 15. (I have been searching for my orphaned maternal grandmother’s family for two years for my mother who never knew her origins. It is ironic that just as COVID-19 enters the country, I have a breakthrough and find the Davis family. My mother is happy over and over when I tell her the story. Her Alzheimer’s is advancing.
And I even spared a few minutes while refining my soup to listen to Donald Trump’s press conference. While he sprinkled his commentary with vile insulting comments about the woman governor of Michigan and a female journalist – his misogyny like his racism knows no bounds – he sounded less demented than usual. I imagine the good doctor expert on coronavirus has slipped some drugs into his hamburger. Or maybe the death count and the fact that the U.S. has now surpassed China in its death toll has finally penetrated his sociopathic narcissism.
The coronavirus curve curves up for Canada along the same accelerating epidemic curve as the U.K. Not quite Italy. The US is however more extreme in its terrifying ascendency. One hundred thousand cases of COVID-19 today. Record-breaking.
At night, I hear from someone struggling with grief. Drinking to excess while under self-isolation leaves others to suffer in the moment and you to stew with regret after the fact. How hard it is to find a space to work out your anguish and longing while confined to a space on your own or shared with other. Go for a walk, I suggest, a paltry piece of advice. But he already has a therapist to confide and others around him. A walk, I think, is best. Especially in a climate where the trails aren’t paved over by slick ice patches.
“Walk yourself into a better frame of mind.” “Or nap.”
Then I stop myself from offering facile prescriptions. And just listen. “Call whenever you like. I’m not going anywhere,” I say before we hang up.
And British Columbia’s cases are apparently beginning to flatten out says their Chief Medical Officer. The social distancing is having a positive effect they think.
May this geometric hasten its descent – for us and for others. Tomorrow is not too soon.
#5 Bear witness.
What to do? What to do in the meantime? Margaret Atwood reaches back to the Black Death that killed half of Europe’s population to offer this advice:
What to do? In my 2008 book Payback, I gathered together the six reactions people had to the Black Death while it was unfolding. They were:
1. Protect yourself.
2. Give up and party, which could include drunkenness and theft.
3. Help others.
4. Blame. (Lepers, gypsies, witches and Jews were all blamed for spreading the plague.)
5. Bear witness.
6. Go about your life.
It’s not one or the other. I don’t suggest No. 2. Or No. 4 – giving up and blaming are not helpful – but protecting yourself, thereby helping others, or bearing witness by keeping a journal, or going about your life as much as you can with the aid of online support systems – these are possible now in a way that they were not in the 14th century.
So plaster a virtual quarantine sign on your door, don’t let strangers in, consider yourself a potential plague vector, watch The Invasion of the Body Snatchers(again) or The Seventh Seal (again). And get out the scissors and paste, analogue or digital, or the pen and paper, ditto. If you yourself are not ill, the pandemic may have given you a gift! That gift is time. Always meant to write a novel or take up clog-dancing? Now’s your chance.
And take heart! Humanity’s been through it before. There will be an Other Side, eventually. We just need to make it through this part, between Before and After. As novelists know, the middle section is the hardest to figure out. But it can be done.
Forget about #4 blaming the Chinese or those who don’t subscribe to your environmental beliefs. Stop the racism and scapegoating.
I‘ve taken up #5. Bear witness.
Voila. I write for you, Dear Reader. Though few of you tune in, a good deal of satisfaction is in the simple act of writing. An imaginative address to a reader. Truly I write for me and for you. Making meaning from these threads of daily life holds me together while I listen for those “great dark birds of history” named Margaret or Adrienne….