Stay At Home: Day 8 – April 4, 2020

Duluth, MN April 4, 2020

“April is upon us, pitiless and young and harsh.”
~ Edna St. Vincent Millay
 
“April is the cruellest month…
 I will show you fear in a handful of dust…
 After the torchlight red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying
Prison and palace and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience…”
~ T.S. Eliot, excerpts from The Wasteland

I went to Duluth yesterday to photograph “Stay at Home – Day 8” – last Saturday I photographed emptiness in black and white. This week the sun was out and so were people. I chose to mostly process the photos in color with a few exceptions. It seemed right for the day and my mood. There were more people around and outside than I had expected, and I am not sure what to think about that. People have to get out and feel the sunshine and the wind and move and yet there was an eeriness to humanity moving freely amongst a deadly virus. A few people had face masks on, and some had gloves at Target. Unfortunately, the mask I saw were worn improperly with noses exposed or very loosely fitting. The gloves worn into a store and then back into a vehicle do nothing to protect you. I witnessed two individuals in a car with masks and gloves on and thought of that image of a metaphor for this time of ignorance, lack of preparation and vision. We keep moving without knowing where we are going thinking we are safe. As Jürgen Moltmann writes, “It is in the foreign country that we first come to cherish home. It is only when we have been driven out of paradise that we know what paradise is. Every perception requires detachment and ‘alienation’. That is why all self-knowledge is always a little too late, or a little too soon. In the pressure of events we are blind to what these events are.”

Another aspect to this pandemic is the defining of “essential” workers. I believe some like medical personal, law enforcement, fire and EMS, scientists are essential but the claim that the many of the other industries are essential is more of a comment on the desire to keep capitalism alive and well. Most white-collar workers can work from the relative safety of their homes while that is not the case with the blue-collar work force or low-income workers. It is almost as if a calculation is being made to the percentage of people that can be sacrificed for others to have the life, they expect living in America? As the president said, “The cure can’t be worse than the disease.” As I have written already, I believe there will be a reckoning to come after this when people realize 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. 

Here are some images from yesterday in Duluth, MN: 

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. 

“This is going to be imprinted on the personality of our nation for a very long time.”
~ Dr. Anthony Fauci

Two Poems & Two Photographs

Superior St., Duluth, MN

Crumbs

the streets are empty
the sidewalks abandoned 
as the white horse rides
through God’s country
while on the outskirts of life
forgotten bodies
long to be touched like lepers
eyes waiting for the sun to rise
lips praying for
crumbs from your table
Two Harbors, MN

The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Stay At Home: Day 1 – March 28, 2020

West Theatre, West Duluth March 28, 2020

There is sweetness
In the suspension of busyness
Making space for nothingness
Sublime simplicity
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
Bodies dirt
Memories history
Life an enchanted empty space

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: (http://www.theparisreview.org/…/the-art-of-poetry-no-75-sea…)

INTERVIEWER

“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.”

HEANEY

“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

Breathe

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

Nap

Read books

Write what you heard in the silence

Breathe

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

Cry 

(It means you are human)

Laugh

Sigh deeply

Breathe

Forgive

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

Dance

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

Breathe

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.”

Sex & X-Ianity: The Sacred Collective Podcast

Sex & X-Ianity, Corner Coffee, Minneapolis, MN

Thanks to the Sacred Collective podcast here is the audio from Maria French’s event, “Sex and X-ianity: A new theology of sexual ethics beyond purity cults”, which was took place at Corner Coffee in Minneapolis, Minnesota on February 9th, 2020. The event was MC’ed by Brandon Meland, with music by Andriana Lehr, poetry by Chris Fletcher, and a talk given by Maria French.

Sex & X-Ianity Event Podcast