I had just returned from a very short run around the neighborhood. I was frustrated by the bandana mask on my face that proved both too loose to adequately cover my nose and too tight to allow me to breathe freely. A neighbor popped her head outside as I was stretching against our family car.
“I don’t want to interrupt your solitude,” she said. “I just wanted to say hi. I really needed to say hi to someone. How are you?”
Her question felt like a tipping point for my emotions. I burst into tears, then looked away, embarrassed.
“I’m just so angry,” I told her.
She looked uncomfortable. We were friendly, but we hadn’t shared tears before. She stayed engaged though.
“Me too. You can probably hear me screaming at my family.”
“Not above the sound of my own screaming!” I replied.
She made a face that said that cannot possibly be true. I wasn’t sure if she meant it couldn’t be true that I hadn’t heard her or that it couldn’t be true that I’d been screaming.
She continued, “Every day I tell myself I’m not going to get upset, and then every day I hear myself yelling again.”
“Me too!” I exclaimed.
We wished each other strength to get through one more day, both hoping for less screaming in our homes. And, as a strange result, our little conversation jogged my memory and set me off on a project.
You see, with the libraries closed, I have been considering reading all of those books on my shelf. You know the ones. They seemed so good, so deserving when I first bought them. Now I can’t remember where I acquired most of them. But one title came to mind.
Yes. This is quite relevant. Disaster movies are trending right now. When my husband and I watched Outbreak a few weeks ago, Netflix ranked it #5 and then recommended Contagion and a series called Pandemic. Then, a woman in my writing class shared that she and her partner were revisiting plague literature -- Edgar Allen Poe, Daniel Defoe, Albert Camus, Gabriel Garcia Marquez…
Why was this? Was this akin to our instinct to gape at a car wreck?
Weinstein suggests that “literature..makes it possible for us to understand, even to hear our feelings. The scream that goes through the house is the heartbeat that makes audible, at last, who we are, how resonant we are, how connected we are.” (XII)
“For too long we have been encouraged to see culture as an affair of intellect, and reading as a solitary exercise. But the truth is different: literature and art are pathways of feeling, and our encounter with them is social, inscribing us in a larger community...Through art we discover that we are not alone.” (IX)
It’s a buzz phrase these days: You are not alone. In this time of isolation, when it can often feel like we are alone -- or alone with our families -- we turn to reading about the shared experience.
In his chapter on plague literature, Weinstein walks through plague texts by Sophocles (Oedipus the King), Daniel Defoe (A Journal of the Plague Year), Charles Dickens (Bleak House), Albert Camus (The Plague), Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal - film) and Tony Kushner (Angels in America).
Weinstein defines plague text as “a story of epidemiological disease, a story of mysterious transmission, a story of community responses and resources,” and, in these examples, he posits that as plague texts uncover secrets and reveal what is hidden in individual characters’ lives, they begin to move past the puzzle of bacterial transmission to “the deeper riddles of human connection and social fears.” (p. 213, 215) He dissects these texts to explain how plague literature causes society’s “mask to fall” so we can see “who we are, what our values are, and how we behave in the face of both sickness and death.” (p. 228, 274)
Given what it can teach, Weinstein argues that “we stand to learn more about plague and the actual dimensionality of infectious diseases by consulting literature, rather than medical history…The plague text intrigues because it broadcasts an entire web of congruences and patterns of causality that mystify our scientific logic, that seem to adumbrate a networked universe that, far from being chaotic, may actually be cogent beyond our capacity to explain, my be “rhymed and reasoned” in ways that beggar our rational thinking.” (p. 213-4)
In other words, he stresses that we are intricately connected. The problem is that this realization can breed paranoia, “that the folks across the water, across the border, across the street, have brought the miasma into our midst.” (p. 228) Or, for the hyper-conscientious among us, the realization can stoke the fear that we might unknowingly transmit the disease to others.
So we practice social distancing, like my neighbor standing greater than six feet away from me after my morning run, not leaving her porch in a small attempt to make us each feel a little more comfortable.
Plague brings a separation, akin to “a feeling normally as individual as the ache of separation from those one loves suddenly became a feeling in which all shared alike and -- together with fear -- the greatest affliction of the long period of exile that lay ahead.” (Camus, The Plague, p. 67)
We don’t want isolation. Humans weren’t created to be alone. So how do we make the leap from being suspicious of our neighbor to being generous and caring?
Weinstein suggests that the best response to quarantine might come from Defoe’s characters, the joiner, the baker and the sailor, who exercise “human freedom and creativity, even the making of community.” (p. 240)
Dickens echoes the message that we are not alone and that our individual pursuits aren’t even possible without our connections to others, “that connection is prior to individuation, that the simple acts of living and breathing are in truth versions of incessant traffic, that no human subject -- especially no subject living in a metropolis like London -- can claim immunity or think himself or herself safe behind the walls of stone, class, or flesh.” (p. 249)
So we try to continue with our work, our relationships and our pursuits -- over Zoom or at a safe distance. We continue, because the awful truth just might be that in the end, “plague cannot be exterminated.” (p. 260) Weinstein’s conclusion following a review of the final passage of Camus feels particularly poignant as we anticipate another viral surge and lockdown next winter, if it is ever safe enough to emerge from this lockdown. The germs will still be around, invisibly present.
The question is, will our human connections remain as well?
This week, my neighbor announced that she is moving her family back home at the end of the summer. I can already feel the loss. I have to remember that it was following the loss of the previous family in that house that I even got to meet her in the first place. Both neighbors provided comfort and support during various trials -- frustrations with children, death of a dog, and yes, one global pandemic.
Many of us will have the urge to move during or following this experience, but I hope that wherever we end up, that we stay connected -- whether through literature, or across a driveway -- and that we hold onto what makes us human.
In March, I volunteered to help my son’s elementary classroom collect sap from a couple of trees they had tapped at nearby Fresh Pond. The aim was to boil it down to make maple syrup, to be enjoyed with pancakes!
I accompanied a small group of children on two different mornings to stroll over to Fresh Pond, lower the buckets from their posts on the trees, and pour the golden liquid into a large collecting bin before returning it to school. My husband also helped out one morning. We were signed up to help on several more occasions, but two things cut our duties short. First, the weather warmed up. Without a temperature differential from chilly nights and subsequently warmer mornings, the sap wouldn’t rise to flow out the taps. The buckets were dry.
But also, COVID.
A few minutes later, while my husband and I were seated on a bench outside the conference room waiting our turn, those same kids skipped by us on their way to gym class. They each waved, but the last one stopped, hesitated, and then spoke:
“I just heard the teachers talking,” she said quietly. “They said they might close the school.”
I took a breath.
“That’s true,” I told her. “They might close. But for now, we do school,” I added gently.
The girl gave me a small smile, nodded and skipped off to gym class.
“What was I supposed to tell her?” I asked my husband.
“I think you did fine. She was just looking for someone to share what she’d heard.”
The next day turned out to be the last day of school for the school year, but our job of trying to help our kids navigate their feelings is far from over. I became a homeschooling parent overnight and have been wondering why anyone would voluntarily choose this job.
But, as I’ve written elsewhere, there have been good moments, wow moments even. Still, this is a service to my kids now. I am helping to continue their education, to give them structure, to provide reassurance and connection to the familiar during very uncertain times.
And we’ve been exploring our own outdoor classroom, with hikes two or three times a week or more. On one hike recently, my son (the one whose class had been collecting sap) brushed a tree with his hand and cried out from an unexpected sensation on his skin.
You see, when they collected the sap, they were under strict instructions NOT TO TOUCH IT so that it wouldn’t be contaminated. This was the first time my son had touched sap.
We looked at the sap dripping down the bark of the tree, and I wondered aloud who had made the hole. I asked my son, what kind of animal might dig into it to find the food inside?
“A squirrel!” he exclaimed. “Hey guys! Guys! Guess what I found!” He ran ahead to try to convince his siblings to turn around and check out the tree.
Now, the other kids didn’t retrace their steps (“No! Let’s keep going!”), and my son got pretty annoyed when he realized that he couldn’t wipe all the sap from his skin with a Wet One, but it was a great lesson.
Prior to the closure, my son’s classroom had begun boiling the sap they collected in pursuit of maple syrup, and their teacher continued the process at home, sending us a picture of tasty topping that the class would all hope to enjoy once they are together again.
We don’t know when that will be. Maybe in the fall? Hopefully in the fall.
But for now, we do (home) school.
The Gap Between Hope and Reality
In some ways, Easter 2020 was no different than prior Easters. The night beforehand I thumbed through the dresses in my closet and chose the one I most wanted to wear in celebration of Jesus rising from the dead. Like most years, the dress I settled on was brand new, a bright, Easter-egg color, and made of lightweight spring fabric, this one with three-quarter length sleeves and the skirt cut just above the knee. Like most years, the dress was perfect for celebrating the hope of Easter...and completely impractical for the expected weather conditions.
On Easter morning, once I took pictures of the kids devouring their candy from the Easter Bunny prior to dawn (well, I suppose Mary Magdalene went to the tomb while it was still dark out!), I went back to bed for awhile. When I got up to start the day a second time, I prepared myself for it by showering and actually blow-drying my hair before donning my choice dress and adding decorative earrings. I came downstairs excited to start the day...except that my earrings reminded my daughter that we can’t fulfill her wish to get her ears pierced during this pandemic.
The other bummer was that I felt chilled all day.
I returned to my room for socks...and then slippers...and then a faux-fur vest...and when I told my husband that I was determined to wear my dress even though I was freezing, he mused,
“Oh April, when there’s no greater gap between the weather we want and what it’s actually like outside.”
Yes, I thought. It’s how I feel about so much right now. About how I want to have hope...and about how I can’t see an end to our altered reality.
My husband recently described our daily lives like a sine wave. Life is bound to have peaks and valleys. Only, he says, our waves are getting closer together. We try to be grateful for the little things -- like the grocery store restocking Honey Nut Cheerios -- and I am trying not to despair about the hard things -- like my kids mutinying against the homeschooling curriculum I prepared for them.
Thanks. (For that packet of hand-sanitizing wipes I found shoved in the back of the bathroom drawer where I stashed them last summer after receiving them as part of a welcome package during our church’s summer family getaway.)
“A lot of us religious types go around saying thank you to God when we find a good parking space, or locate the house keys or the wandering phone, or finally get a good night’s sleep. And while that may be annoying to the people around us, it’s important because if we are lucky, gratitude becomes a habit.” (p. 48-9)
Wow. (Upon returning from an unexpectedly long hike with the kids during which I carried a backpack on my front, a five-year-old on my back and a plastic bag of human poop in my hand, I received a card in the mail from my godmother. The printed message read: “Let’s stick together...because sometimes life gets a little prickly!” The illustrations? A bunch of cactii labeled with the names of my family members. In her personal message, she wrote that she was praying for “patience, creativity, and quality sleep...and that [I] can see [this time] as an opportunity, not an obligation.”)
“You mindlessly go into a 7-Eleven to buy a large Hershey’s bar with almonds, to shovel in, to go into a trance, to mood-alter, but you remember the first prayer, Help, because you don’t want the shame or the bloat. And out of nowhere in the store, a memory floats into your head of how much, as a child, you loved blackberries, from the brambles at the McKegneys’. So you do the wildest, craziest thing: you change your mind, walk across the street to the health food store, and buy a basket of blackberries, because the answer to your prayer is to remember that you’re not hungry for food. You’re hungry for peace of mind, for a memory. You’re not hungry for cocoa butter. You’re hungry for safety, for a moment when the net of life holds and there is an occasional sense of the world’s benevolent order.
“So you eat one berry slowly, savoring the sweetness and slight resistance, and after sucking the purple juice off your fingers you say: Wow. That tasted like a very hot summer afternoon when I was about seven and walked barefoot down the dirt road to pick them off the wild blackberry bushes out by the goats, Pedro and Easter, in the McKegneys’ field. Wow. The blackberries tasted like sweet purple nectar, not dusty exactly, but dusted just right, not quite leafy but still alive, a little bitter around the seed, juicy and warm with sunshine.” (p. 87-8)
Oh pandemic, when there’s no greater gap between the daily routine we want and what we’re actually allowed to do.
And yet, there have been wow moments. Wow. That’s striking, isn’t it? That there have been wow moments even during these times?
God, I’ll keep praying. Help. Thanks. Wow. In this season too.
April. I had so many writing goals for April that, on the surface, felt dashed by COVID-19. I was planning to attend a writing conference for the first time where I would meet with an agent and an editor. In preparation for that, I polished and re-wrote and polished a 20-page piece for their review, and I raced to finish a first draft of my memoir...just in case they were interested in reading more.
One Tuesday afternoon in March, as I was picking up my kids at school, my daughter’s teacher asked about my writing. Apparently my daughter had told him I was writing a book! As we got to talking about it, I not only learned that he was an aspiring writer himself, but that he was a reader for a friend of his whose memoir would be published this month. I told him I would look up her name when I got home so I could support her.
Only, when I got home I discovered that Maya Lang, author of What We Carry, was the one supporting others. My daughter’s teacher shared a secret link on Maya Lang’s website that she designed just for my daughter’s classroom. Dedicated to my daughter and the rest of the kids by name, she offered advice for the writing process...and a funny picture of her dog helping her with her revisions.
As I poked around the website a bit more, I discovered that Lang was scheduled to speak at the conference I was attending, and not only that, I was registered for her session. I would get to meet her.
I felt a rush of warmth from the realization that I was beginning to feel included in a rich writing community. I was starting to feel “in it”!
I toggled over to my email where I planned to pen a letter to my daughter’s teacher, sharing my elation in this serendipitous series of events, and that’s when I saw a new subject line in my inbox:
With sadness, Muse 2020 is cancelled.
I stared at it for a while, trying to make sense of how I could go so quickly from feeling that “my dreams are coming true” feeling, to utter loss of opportunity. I thought about the preparation I’d done for the conference. I thought about the new dresses hanging in my closet, ready and waiting to be worn. The news seemed to squelch all of the momentum that had brought me to this point.
And, in many ways, I was right. Three days later, my kids were sent packing from school with a plan to return in two...maybe three weeks. I became a homeschooling parent. I lost my writing time at Starbucks. My writing class moved to virtual sessions, which felt a bit odd.
And the organizers of the conference told me (and the other registrants) to stay tuned. We might still have our agent meetings…
As April loomed on the calendar, I lamented that I hadn’t done more to prepare for the phone meetings that were finally established. I was mentally and physically exhausted and would have to attempt two coherent conversations with adults over the phone from my bedroom while one of my sons had a virtual piano lesson in the living room and my other three children ran up and down the stairs playing various games.
In the end, those two 20-minute conversations gave me great insight into my writing. But wow, were they difficult at the time. The main takeaway: I have a lot of work to do. The agent and editor were not clambering to read more. I was in a bad mood for a few days.
Then my writing class finished its last session, and that felt like another loss of community.
Subsequent weeks seemed both to drag (as we felt increasingly cooped up) and fly too quickly (as I felt the loss of time to accomplish my writing goals). It was easy to slip into melancholy.
Then, I realized that I had a deadline coming up for my writing group. We pass around 10 page excerpts of our work about a week ahead of meeting together to discuss (which now takes place over Zoom). That lit a fire under me to get back to work.
Plus, I realized that while I couldn’t attend the conference this year, I could read more of the works that the speakers had published. Viet Thankh Nguyen, for example, was a keynote speaker. I read his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Sympathizer last year and wrote about how it influenced my own writing. On the other hand, I hadn’t heard of Reyna Grande, another keynote speaker, but fortunately, just before the public libraries closed for COVID-19, I checked out her two memoirs.
aim to. Reyna’s characters pop off the page with all the true complexities of human nature. And since an editor recently suggested that the characters in my own writing fall flat, I want to dig into the sequel to attempt to learn the skill of character development that Reyna has mastered.
Some days it’s really hard to focus on a book. But I have been reading.
So recently, when I received an email from one of the coordinators of the Muse conference announcing the availability of a digital version of Maya Lang’s memoir What We Carry, I eagerly replied to get a copy. I wasn’t able to meet her at the conference this year, but I can read her book. The community is still here.
I don’t know what will happen to the writing center I have come to appreciate so much. The fate of so many businesses is uncertain at this time. But I’ve grown so much in my writing and in my appreciation for the writing community over the last year that I’ve been a part of it, and I can’t thank them enough.
And now a quote from a favorite movie, Love Actually:
“Life is full of complications and interruptions…”
But goals delayed are better than goals abandoned.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.