Nurses and Covid-19

This is Donna. She is a registered nurse. Every morning or night depending on the shift she would wake up and go to work. Earlier in her career she woke up and went to take care of children in an intensive care unit (ICU) and she would fly in helicopters when needed to help pediatric patients. Now she works in radiology helping people some of whom are very sick.

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
~ Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell To Arms

She became a nurse after living through a horrific automobile crash in which her husband died. That is why I turned to Hemingway and his words, “…many are strong at the broken places.” He wrote those words in his novel about the first world war and the time he spent in Italy recovering from a wound he suffered as an ambulance driver and the nurse who took care of him while he was convalescing. Donna is a tremendously strong, loving, caring woman which is why she is a great nurse filled with compassion and empathy. 

This morning I took photos of her as she was getting ready to go to work like she has done so many times before except today and every day after today she is going to work during a pandemic. She is an essential worker. Still taking care of people. She is not interacting directly with infected Covid -19 patients at the hospital, but no one really knows who is infected and who is not. We simply have not had enough testing to know that. So, she like so many others who are going to work each day are playing Russian Roulette with a virus. She takes all the precautions to protect her patients and herself, but nothing is for sure and nothing protects absolutely. 

The virus is continuing to spread and in Duluth, Minnesota the experts are saying the peak may not be until June or July with other waves of the virus over the next year to eighteen months. As the need for medical professionals to treat the infected patients grow, she may find herself working in an ICU again because of her experience. 

As hospitals and clinics begin to do more routine procedures again even though the pandemic is not any less dangerous than yesterday, a week ago or two months ago. It still is lurking and waiting further increasing the risk for nurses all medical staff. Why would the hospital increase routine procedures? Hospitals like so many other businesses and institutions are bleeding money. It is a symptom of the systemic breakdown of our world where humanity is sacrificed for money. Donna like so many in medical careers would go to work and run to help someone in need while everyone else is running in the opposite direction for safety. That is who she is. She would volunteer to help if her help was needed. There are other people deemed “essential” workers who are going to work every day because they cannot afford not to. They need the work to survive and to have healthcare (if they are lucky to have healthcare at all) in order to be able to take care of themselves and their families. As George Packer writes in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly, “We now have two categories of work: essential and nonessential. Who have the essential workers turned out to be? Mostly people in low-paying jobs that require their physical presence and put their health directly at risk: warehouse workers, shelf-stockers, Instacart shoppers, delivery drivers, municipal employees, hospital staffers, home health aides, long-haul truckers.” This is our present and future reality. 

Yesterday I was reading through a specification book for a construction project that will be starting this summer in Duluth, MN. I came across words which illustrate the essential vs. non-essential divide and the disjointed matrix between the value of money over the value of a life: “The awarded contractor will be required to submit a work plan for the project as it relates to maintaining any state mandated workplace management as it relates to COVID-19. This should include daily management of work crews, including policy for managing the site and workforce should a contamination be identified in order to maintain the project schedule. This plan will need to be submitted for review as part of finalizing the Owner/Contractor Agreement.” Regardless of contamination which means sick humans the schedule must be maintained. This directly affects Donna and her colleagues – more infected people, means more infected people at the hospitals. Does anyone think about the unintended consequences of these actions? The Butterfly Effect of words and decisions?

There have been many metaphors tossed around as people grasp to understand the pandemic. The metaphor I have been thinking about to make sense of this moment is the Western Front in World War I (WW I) and the trenches dug parallel to each other filled with soldiers who had fought to a standstill. The word “war” has been used to describe what we are living through in the fight against Covid-19. Even as it may appear that we have come to some sort of standstill and people are becoming antsy and wanting to have their normal lives back while thinking the pandemic is slowing and the curve being flattened or that they will not contract the virus in blinded exceptionalism in which it is always the other who is infected but not me. 

We have dug trenches and may be lulled into thinking that it is safe to climb out of them, but we will find ourselves infected by the virus if we hastily run across “no-man’s land” thinking all is quiet like a character in Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front who, “… fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front. He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.” The war with Covid-19 is not over just as WW I was not over when it was fought to a standstill without a peace treaty. We do not have a vaccine or herd immunity – we have a tentative hopeful cessation in some locations brought about by safeguards put in place but not an end to the pandemic. People not abstractions are still dying just like they still died in WW I when it may have seemed that the guns had stopped firing and the mustard gas had stopped floating over the trenches. This brings us back around to Hemingway and his novel, A Farewell to Arms where he writes about the abstractions of war, “Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.” 

As I am writing this Minnesota has had the largest one day increase in Covid-19 cases and the deaths have risen to 200. Two hundred lives not abstractions on a spread sheet, not percentages but faces of humanity. This is the situation Donna leaves home every morning fully cognizant of as she walks into a place where the virus lurks looking for both the weak and the strong, the old and the young to infect as it is no respecter of nomenclatures placed on humanity. 

Hopefully, we can find solidarity and hope in our shared experiences and discover meaning in our decency of doing our work to help others. That is what I see in Donna and her colleagues in healthcare doing – finding decency in helping other while fighting not only the Covid-19 virus but the viruses of ignorance, selfishness and forgetting pride.  

“The knowledge that the whole of humanity, from Thailand to New York, shares our anxieties about how and where to use a face mask, the safest way to deal with the food we have bought from the grocer and whether to self-quarantine is a constant reminder that we are not alone. It begets a sense of solidarity. We are no longer mortified by our fear; we discover a humility in it that encourages mutual understanding.”
~ Orhan Pamuk, What the Great Pandemic Novels Teach Us

Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

The cost of this pandemic is not in the percentages – either of the survivors or the dead. But, in the actual human lives lost – the family member, the friend, the colleague, the neighbor, the lover, the child. A human life gone because of ignorance and lack of vision. 
Canal Park, Duluth, MN

“There’s a grief that can’t be spoken,
There’s a pain goes on and on.
Empty chairs at empty tables,
Now my friends are dead and gone…”
~ Les Misérables, Empty Chairs at Empty Tables 

Wait Without Hope
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.
~ T. S. Eliot, East Coker

Pandemic and Pop Culture

“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

Sustainability in Liminal Spaces

“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…
This world…
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
So, walk…
Walk on…
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

The Metaphor of Plague

“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: (…/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

Words for a Pandemic

Paris Cafe Spring 2011

“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 

Kiss deeply

Walk barefoot in the rain 

Interpret life

Be creative

Be subversive

Be art

Paint your story

Sleep in


Read books

Write what you heard in the silence


Notice beauty 

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)


Sigh deeply



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

Be passionate

Be strong

Be weak

Ask for help

Fall asleep by a fire

Listen to music

Dance wildly

Dance slowly


French kiss life

Take risks

Hug often

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

Fear not

Don’t worry


Smile at a stranger

Give away what you love the most

(It will return in a mysterious way)

Sleep alone

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

Be present

Know yourself

Believe you are worthy of love

Accept your own acceptance

Life is fleeting

Live without regrets

Make poetic memories

Life on a Beach in Cuba, 2018

Scenes from a Pandemic

“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.”