Spring in the Time of Pandemic

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I dreamed last night that I’d said something snappy/snarky/cutting to someone I was debating about some point or another, and Robin Williams, sitting there, smiled with crinkly eyes. It was a smile of compassion, disappointment, love. He’s a muse, or a familiar, or an animus, or a spirit guide, but for whatever reason, my subconscious has decided to send me a message from him when I don’t know how to feel.

I’m always grateful. My dreams have directed me for as long as I can remember but mostly they help me shut down the thinking and lodge me back into feeling and being. It’s a blessing.

But it was that smile that told me that I won’t be distracted by the tiger show or any of the numerous questionnaires on Facebook, that told me that now is the time for thinking, reading.

I want to hold the world’s grief in my heart, as much of it as I can stand, just to hold it, just to take it every bit of it into every cell and really feel this loss, this chaos, and all the goodness and beauty of it too. There is so much to reckon, and what strikes me is that the reckoning is not about death – that is always with us – or disease – that is always with us too – but in the too numerous tragedies of it – how many could have been spared if we listened to scientists, how many could have been spared if we lived in a world based on humanity and not greed, how many wouldn’t be mourning the loss of a person whose funeral they can’t even attend. It’s not death that’s hard, it’s how badly we manage it, how fucked up a culture is that doesn’t acknowledge grief at all.

I remember my mom thinking my brother Joe would be the one to give the eulogy for my grandma because he was, no doubt, her favorite, but also for the same reason she was: he was always the one to make the joke at just the right time, to distract everyone from what was pressing and serious. He was great at it, and still can be. And she worried, as she would, about me being too much of a mess to manage even a reading. I wasn’t. He was.

Goth kid, you know? Gloomy and emo and deep and way too damn serious all the time. And I write that as a kind of defensive gesture, and to say: if the tiger show or whatever distraction helps you, I am so glad for that. But so much just falls away for me and I wish those things didn’t. I wish I could be distracting, and funny, and sarcastic or cutting.

But mostly I’m just sad. I cry a couple of times a day as I suspect a lot of you do. I’m yearning for wisdom and flipping through Thucydides and Mann and Dos Passos and Woolf and Salinger – anyone whose words have brought me comfort in the past. Writers are the best friends you can have, except if you know them in person.

Just about everyone I know and love is still in the New York area and I feel both relieved not to be there now – because a house and a yard are much better than a one bedroom apartment for quarantine, and we have few enough people here that taking walks is possible and easy, and because Wisconsin feels like fucking Disney compared to what’s happening in New York right now. But I also feel guilty for feeling relieved, I feel guilty for not being there, and mostly, I feel all the grief of 9/11 all over again.

The ER doctors then, waiting for anyone to work on.

Now the ER doctors overwhelmed with people to work on.

I don’t know how my friends with children are managing; I don’t know you explain anything to children much less something like this. An entire generation is going to grow up with weeping parents and friends on facetime instead of in person. And maybe they’ll joke about it, as the millennials did about 9/11: that was the day that changed everything, one said to me sarcastically once, and I think he apologized about a million times when he saw the blood drain from my face.

I don’t know why it’s always New York. I know, too, that it’s not. So many people I know – friends from India and Indonesia and Puerto Rico and Haiti – have watched tragedies unfold where the places, the sounds, the people they love are. New York takes up a lot of the air in the room, and I know folks don’t think it’s fair. You don’t know New York if you think that’s unfair, I’ve often said, it’s the best dream this country ever had. It’s not easy to do at a distance because you don’t know what to do and there’s very little you can do.

An artist named Renee French made an image I named Wish after 9/11 that has sustained me more than once since then: it’s two flowers growing to meet the sun, about as far apart as the Towers were. As if. As if this wish might be true, as if things grow where things have been destroyed, as if you can imagine weeds growing in the cracks of the rubble.

I stand outside in the dark in the middle of the night when things are normal, but lately I’m doing it more, at midnight, at 1, at 2, at 3. It’s my nightwatchman syndrome, the way my PTSD manifests; I got woken by the bad news on that Tuesday and something in my brain never wanted to be woken up by that kind of news again so now I stay awake overnight, sometimes doping myself to sleep with Benadryl or whiskey or Ativan, but now, with no job to go to, with nowhere to go and no schedule, I’m just staying up to keep watch on the world while everyone sleeps. (This is when, of course, the writing has always gotten done too, at least.)

And tonight I watched the bunnies munching grass in my yard, visible only when their white puffy tails turned to me, and I listened to the City Park owl hoot twice; I smoked a cigarette because it’s the wrong week to quit sniffing glue and looked at that big dark beautiful Wisconsin sky and the gorgeous home next to mine and at my own and felt that surreal mental trickery telling me that everything was okay. The robins are back. The tulips are coming. There are very few and only very tiny patches of snow left. And my allergies tell me, too, that spring is a minute away.

Spring in Wisconsin almost always involves a lot of unexpected snow – and it’s only March. We will no doubt get dumped on again, more or less; we will groan and complain, more or less; we will roll or eyes or complain or, depending on who we are, we will squeal with joy one more time but quietly because snow is a miracle. I love the stuff.

But spring is on its way. I will sneeze and cough and itch my way through it, and grumble when people ask me why I don’t like nature more – because it’s out to get me – and take Benadryl to sleep so that I don’t worry that every cough is a sign I am infected with Covid-19. I don’t worry too much about dying anymore but I really, really, really hate suffering.

Despite my love of winter, spring will come, and self isolating will be harder; quarantine will be harder. The eternal human need to hug and fuck and kiss and socialize and wear whatever will be difficult to manage. This northern soul, this winter, is so much easier, when everyone and everything is quiet, when the birds are gone, when the lawn is dead and not in need of mowing.

But spring is coming. And despite everything, those tulips are ready to break through the ground, as are the dandelions and the quince and the magnolia and all of those eager, over achieving first flowers of the place.

And they are a wish: that from death and stillness and calm come beauty and chaos and life.

It’s a blessing, not a curse. Life will go on.