There is sweetness
In the suspension of busyness
Making space for nothingness
In the hours
Of a day
I went to Duluth today March 27, 2020 to photograph the city on the first day of Governor Walz’s Emergency Executive Order 20-20 Directing Minnesotans to Stay at Home. I have been writing about and photographing the Covid-19 pandemic for two weeks now to bear witness to this experience.
In Duluth I found empty spaces and abandoned places where usually on a Saturday there would be people, very little traffic and only congregants of humanity at grocery and liquor stores. So, people are staying home. I am still wondering though about the “essential” workers and if some are essential to keep the wheels of commerce and capitalism from completely coming off. It seems there is a dichotomy between legions of healthcare workers doing all that is possible to save lives and some politicians doing all they can to save the economy. There appears to be a certain willingness by some to sacrifice life for dollars. There will be a reckoning after all of this and so many things will be different – so many unintended consequences yet to be known.
Since the metaphor of war has been invoked to describe what is being waged against this virus, I would like to think it analogous to WWII when the Germans invaded Poland and France. At that very point, early on in 1939-1940 with a lot of war left to go until D-Day. We are only at the beginning of a protracted crisis.
I will share my photos here on this first day of “Stay at Home” which is two weeks after some already began to stay at home to work and students stayed home from school. New York, the epicenter of the US outbreak is expecting to reach the apex of infection in about 21 days and Minnesota not for weeks yet. This is going to be our new reality for some time and we still do not know if there will be a second wave of Covid -19 similar to what occurred in the 1918 pandemic. There is much that remains to be seen. I will continue to reflect and write and photograph to have a record of these times.
In the end
Buildings become ruins
Life an enchanted empty space
“Among the overwhelming majority of people, anxiety, greed, lack of independence, and brutality show themselves to be the mainspring of behavior in the face of unsuspected chance and threats. At such a time the tyrannical despiser of humanity easily makes use of the meanness of the human heart by nourishing it and giving it other names. Anxiety is called responsibility; greed is called industriousness; lack of independence becomes solidarity; brutality becomes masterfulness . . . For the tyrannical despiser of humanity, popularity is a sign of the greatest love for humanity. He hides his secret profound distrust of all people behind the stolen words of true community.”
~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Ethics.”
When the Covid-19 pandemic became a present reality I started watching the Netflix series “Pandemic: How To Prevent An Outbreak” which turned out to be informative and an educational resource to help wrap my head around the severity of the pandemic we were going to be living through. Then I went to the movies and watched “Contagion” and “Outbreak” followed by the series “The Walking Dead.” Why was I watching all these things when a real pandemic was playing out in real time on CNN?
I then came across this in the American Scholar “What Zombie Movies Can Teach us About Viruses” . Stephanie Bastek writes in this article, “In her book Going Viral, pop culture critic and film professor Dahlia Schweizer asks why, and when, outbreak narratives became such a part of our culture. She divides these narratives into three distinct waves of film starting in the early 1990s: first globalization, then terrorism and conspiracy, and then post-apocalypse and zombie films.” She then shares an interview she did with Dahlia Schweizer in which she discusses her book “Going Viral: Zombies, Viruses, and the End of the World.”
I found this all to be fascinating in the context narratives are being shaped now during the Covid-19 pandemic. What weaknesses and strengths is this pandemic revealing about life in America? The lines that are being drawn between saving lives and saving the economy, the fractured health care system, paralyzed partisan politics, k-12 and university education, value of workers – what makes one essential and another non-essential and why? Will we take greater care of the earth and its resources? What do we value? It is not surprising that these questions were being asked in pop culture before the pandemic arrived, but humans seem reluctant to ant to answer the difficult questions until on precipice of disaster. At the American Scholar article there is a list of additional resources to look at and the one I found most interesting is a syllabus of supplemental study materials for a course at Rutgers University centered around Dahlia Schweizer book referenced above.
This will be an ongoing conversation in our culture, especially when we begin to chronicle how this pandemic is and will continue to shape and transform how we live and how we continue to define what being human is during and after this historic crisis. I think the quintessential question is what do we do with our fear and anxiety? Do we look for a scapegoat(s) to project blame, do we create an “other’’ real or imagined to lash out at in anger or frustration? Or do we look inside and come to the realization that we all as humans are potential hosts for a virus whether a disease or an ideology (which is the message in “The Walking Dead”). And as such we have no control other than the awareness of our lack of control.
Hold space for darkness
Lingering in liminal chaos
Staggering within ambiguity
Tasting salty tears mingled with blood
Fashioning angst out of fear
As death machinery moves across the faces of the dislocated
Resist the machinations of the wheel of violence
Dare to ask, “how do you still love in spite of everything?”
Even if no answer comes to the question
Sit in silence and in waiting
Breathe and hope for justice
“The martini felt cool and clean… I had never tasted anything so cool and clean. They made me feel civilized. I had had too much red wine, bread, cheese, bad coffee, and grappa. I sat on the high stool before the pleasant mahogany, the brass, and the mirrors and did not think at all.”
~ Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
~ Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
My grandmother Olga survived the 1918 Spanish Flu and lived to be 98 years old. Every time I was sick as a child, she would remind me that she survived the Spanish Flu by eating garlic and drinking Brandy. She would insist on preparing food for me with plenty of garlic to ward of whatever it was that was making me not feel well.
My memories of her and her resilience are entwined with meals, food, drinking, dancing and laughter. Perhaps, it is these things that can sustain us during a season of pandemic, whether we are with friends and family staying home together or more isolated and with other people virtually in some way.
Shared meals bring people together even if mediated by Facetime, Facebook or Zoom. Seeing each other eating food and drinking we are reminded of something shared as humans – solidarity in the human experience around a table. Food unites. An open table for intimates and the stranger – no one is an outsider, there is no other. We create a space for shared experience and a place for stories and belonging. My grandmother modeled these values for me. By her living through the Spanish Flu, The Great Depression and World War II, she embodied sustainability and was able to laugh and dance and celebrate life.
Another story from World War II come from Franklin D. Roosevelt and his implication of a mandatory happy hour at the White House during the war as means to relax and maintain some form of normalcy during a crisis. “One of the primary ways in which FDR dealt with the stress of his responsibilities was to convene each day in his second floor study in the White House a gathering of friends and associates that he called ‘The Children’s Hour’”( FDR – The Children’s Hour).
Jerry Anderson continues, “It was a time FDR set aside to meet informally with his political family and friends. He had begun this tradition during his years as Governor of New York and had institutionalized it during his years in the White House.” Anderson describes the “Children’s Hour” this way:
“…no talk of politics, Depression or war was allowed. Jokes, gossip, and funny stories and anecdotes from the day were the topics of conversation. FDR would tell his own tales while engaging in one of his favorite pastimes, that of mixing drinks for all of his guests. He would sit in his wheelchair next to a table filled with the alcoholic beverages necessary to make any kind of drink for his visitors. Martinis seemed to be the preferred drink. As people would filter into the second-floor study, they would approach the President, say “hello,” and the President would ask them what they would like to drink. The guest made a request and the President made the drink and gave it to him or her. As the “Children’s Hour” went on the atmosphere became loose, loud and full of gaiety. As he mixed drinks for his guests, he would increase their strength if he wanted to create a more relaxed and uninhibited atmosphere.”
We find ourselves in unique and trying times, feeling anxious and living in liminal spaces. I believe we can learn lessons from my grandmother and FDR on how to sustain our humanity by laughter and by finding some levity in the midst of serious times. By sharing a meal and a martini, whether at home, with family or on a screen with friends, we can find solace from isolation and fear.
A secret for you…
Is a blessing and a curse
You will know both
Beauty and horror
It is okay…
To know both and all that is in-between is to be alive
Grace will dance with you
Hold dear all you love
Embrace the mystery
All you touch will become sacred
Experience all of life you can bear
Inhale it all
Savor the aroma of the sublime
“Human existence is so fragile a thing and exposed to such dangers that I cannot love without trembling.”
~ Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace
Last night I drove to the Minneapolis Airport Herbert Humphry Terminal 2 to pick up Donna (my partner) who was flying home from Ft. Myers, Florida. She had been down there for a week to be with a dying friend on what will undoubtedly have been her last birthday. We had talked about the risks of flying to Florida as cases of Covid – 19 continued to increase across America and the world. Donna is an RN and she spoke with two epidemiologists about traveling and they said with proper precautions she would be fine. There will be more risk for Donna when she returns to work on Wednesday as a nurse in Duluth, MN. Her going to Ft. Myers a gift of time to a dear friend who will probably not be alive in a month.
In these times we now find ourselves living in perhaps gifts of time in whatever way are sacred offerings. As Simone Weil said, “I cannot love without trembling.”
When I arrived at the airport, I parked my car and entered the airport to wait for the arrival of Donna’s plane. I wanted to experience what it would be like inside the terminal. It was eerily quiet and vastly empty. I walked around soaking in the absence of humanity in a space usually occupied with life. I observed and took photos and I thought to myself is this what Covid – 19 (a post-modern plague) is doing to humanity? Creating spaces and suspending time. Or as the Irish poet says in the interview below, “diverting newness.” Not that Covid – 19 is in itself something good, it is in fact horrible. Yet, what we as humanity do in spite of it and in the face of it and because of it which, “…takes our eyes away from the obsession of the moment.” This can define us by embracing the fragility of life with compassion in a time of anxiety and suffering.
“Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.”
~ John 8:6-8 NRSV
I thought of this image of Jesus writing in the sand because of an interview I heard years ago. This portion of an interview is taken from the Paris Review, Fall of 1997 No. 144. It is called “Seamus Heaney, The Art of Poetry No. 75” where Heaney is interviewed by Henri Cole. The complete interview is here: (http://www.theparisreview.org/…/the-art-of-poetry-no-75-sea…)
“Don’t you argue in an essay—using the example of Jesus writing in the sand—that poetry has the power to suspend violence? You suggest that it wasn’t important what Jesus wrote in the sand, but it was the unexpected gesture of his turning away from the stoning of a prostitute and writing in the sand that stops the stoning or suspends it.”
“Yes. Debate doesn’t really change things. It gets you bogged in deeper. If you can address or reopen the subject with something new, something from a different angle, then there is some hope. In Northern Ireland, for example, a new metaphor for the way we are positioned, a new language would create new possibility. I’m convinced of that. So, when I invoke Jesus writing in the sand, it’s as an example of this kind of diverting newness. He does something that takes the eyes away from the obsession of the moment. It’s a bit like a magical dance.”
So, the metaphor of plague “…a bit like a magical dance…” or put another way an opening to something new. What can we hold onto and sustain together? What injustices can we avert by our own writing in the sand? Are there diversions we can create by gifts of time to bear witness to a shared renewal in humanity? To not allow, “…the terror of the unforeseen…” to paralysis us.
“…the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as ‘History,’ harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.”
~ Philip Roth, The Plot Against America
“I began to talk. I talked about summer, and about time. The pleasures of eating, the terrors of the night. About this cup we call a life. About happiness. And how good it feels, the heat of the sun between the shoulder blades.”
~ Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems, Volume Two
Sit lightly to life
Drink good coffee
Listen to the words in the silence
Hold a friend’s hand
Walk barefoot in the rain
Paint your story
Write what you heard in the silence
Give up control
Break the rules
(They are merely social constructs)
Savor red wine at twilight
White wine in the afternoon
Escape when you must
(It means you are human)
Softly touch a lover
Eat your favorite food
Watch the sunrise
Get a tattoo
Skinny dip in a river
(Let the water baptize your fears)
Stay awake all night
Sleep all day
Drive all night
Ask for help
Fall asleep by a fire
Listen to music
French kiss life
Do nothing for a day
(Your worth is in being not doing)
Experience a birth
Experience a death
(Grace is present at both)
Help someone make it through the night
Wipe a tear from a cheek
Smile at a stranger
Give away what you love the most
(It will return in a mysterious way)
Sleep with someone special
Heal when you can
(Yourself and others)
Be a balm to pain
A tonic to grief
A friend who can sit in silence
Believe you are worthy of love
Accept your own acceptance
Life is fleeting
Live without regrets
Make poetic memories
“Life is a hospice, never a hospital.”
~ Alan de Bottom
“In the midst of hate, I found there was, within me, an invincible love.
In the midst of tears, I found there was, within me, an invincible smile.
In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm.
I realized, through it all, that in the midst of winter,
I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.
And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”
~ Albert Camus, The Stranger
I keep going back to Camus, perhaps because he grasped at a deep level our shared tenuous existential predicament of being human. As Alan de Bottom wrote this week an opinion piece in the New York Times about Albert Camus and his 1947 novel “The Plague” (Camus on the Coronavirus), De Bottom comments that Camus, “…was drawn to his theme because he believed that the actual historical incidents we call plagues are merely concentrations of a universal precondition, dramatic instances of a perpetual rule: that all human beings are vulnerable to being randomly exterminated at any time, by a virus, an accident or the actions of our fellow man.” And that, “Recognizing this absurdity should lead us not to despair but to a tragicomic redemption, a softening of the heart, a turning away from judgment and moralizing to joy and gratitude.”
A few days ago, I wrote this during the first week of working from home:
I am wondering how others are doing at Swanson & Youngdale (the company I am now working at) with this new reality we find ourselves in? I spoke with my supervisor yesterday for some time and again this morning. I told him how I am finding it difficult to focus and establish a new productive routine at home. Not only for “work” but also for my graduate studies, exercise, family and life in general. I do not think I am alone in feeling some level of anxiety in not knowing how all this will play out. I appreciate the ability to work from home and have a job where I can still work – many others do not have this option now.
My partner is an RN and working on the front lines of this pandemic. She also has a cleaning company and had to lay off three of her four employees as customers no longer want people in their homes. We also run an AirBnB in our home and all the guests for April have canceled. This is just a small slice of how life is changing for now and undoubtedly will continue to change in the foreseeable future for many.
As I have reached out to classmates and professors at UMD, they are sharing the same uncertainty. And, I am sure many at S&Y are also feeling this way. Perhaps, not knowing how to express it or if they should express it. I was telling Mark how this feels different, worst, more serious than even 9/11 and the 2008 recession which both altered live dramatically. I remember working for Tamarack Materials during the 2008 recession and being laid off in 2009.
It is difficult to not let your mind wonder to that place and ask what is next?
Today was a better day of focusing and being in a new regular routine. I feel that I was more productive than the previous days. I think our individual and collective mental health may be a challenge to maintain. At least for me I know from suffering with depression and anxiety in the past certain triggers make life more challenging to navigate even with strategies, doctors and therapists to help.
One thought I have is to develop a means to share stories about working from home, the job site, the office so we can be in solidarity with one another. It could serve as a testimony to perseverance through these times.
Back to De Bottoms thoughts, “’The Plague’ isn’t trying to panic us, because panic suggests a response to a dangerous but short-term condition from which we can eventually find safety. But there can never be safety — and that is why, for Camus, we need to love our fellow damned humans and work without hope or despair for the amelioration of suffering. Life is a hospice, never a hospital.”
I really think that last sentence has real significance for all of us, “Life is a hospice, never a hospital.”
Camus writes in his novel, “However, there’s one thing I must tell you: there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is—common decency.”
Nikon D5300 camera
Nikon 18-200mm lens
Beefeater Gin and Tonic
A methodology for observing (being a flaneur), wandering, observing, collecting, interacting, creating, learning, sharing, communing, tinkering with life (bricoleur). As a result of these things discovering and being part of communities, finding and being part of new stories, ways of seeing, knowing and existing.
(My) Tools of the Trade:
Nikon D5300 Camera
18-200mm Nikon Lens
35mm Nikon Lens
Senses – all of them. Touch, taste, feel, listen, look, and see using instinct and intuition.
Questions, questions and more questions…
Reflection and reflection and more reflection…