i went for walk yesterday and saw a deserted street while a child walked along a beach in the sun bars and churches with lights out jesus in the grave contaminated by death will he ever wake up?
i went for a walk the other day and saw the juxtaposition of commerce and life one sacrificed while the other saved blue eyes and black bodies dying in the poison rain will love dance in the field of lilies will we ever know what to do?
i will go for a walk tomorrow and see what i saw yesterday and the other day playgrounds closed to children’s laughter the white noise of humanity quieted for a season to love another like ourselves and be our sister’s keeper embraces distanced by plague but not forgotten will there be meaning in decency?
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
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
“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