Artists and the Pandemic

Difficult as it is to see clearly when we’re in the middle of something (Einstein once said that a problem cannot be solved on the same level it was created), after a year and a half of pandemic some things are starting to show up.

One of the early clinical directors of Peninsula Village told us that people in crisis tended to “go back home.” This is why, she said, that some of the coping skills of the teens we were serving seemed primitive and ineffectual; they had gone back home, to their emotional roots, to the coping skills they employed years ago, to the needs they experienced then, to a state of being when things made sense on a much simpler level.

Faced with a global pandemic that was/is no respecter of class, race, region, state or national boundaries, or any other structure we had created to order our lives, we sought and are seeking refuge in the basic elements of life as we understand them.

Some of us retreated, hunkered down, tried to become invisible. Some became defiant, refusing to have their routines disrupted by a disease they’d never even heard of before. Some entered a state of denial, either about the existence of the virus or its severity. Some cast the crisis in religious terms, as a battle between Good and Evil, characterizing the virus as a tool wielded by a supernatural power. Some looked for others who had similar fears and anger, and banded with them, looking for someone or some group or organization to blame. Some saw these groups banding together in fear and anger and saw opportunity for power, political advantage, or wealth. Some turned to the scientific method or to those who understood how to apply it, trusting in them to solve the problem as they had so many times before. Some, like me, used a combination of tactics, like retreat and trust in science. And every group looked at all the others and thought they were missing the point entirely.

In her response to the crisis, the poet Amanda Gorman took a blank page and created art. Her book Call Us What We Carry gives voice to the complexity of the crisis and finds in it, in addition to struggle and despair, hope and resolute spirit and opportunity. I’m about two-thirds through it and it is a fine piece of work. Much of the book focuses on the pandemic; her take is nuanced and spot-on. Her perspective as a person of color is given both from historic and contemporary points of reference, and is a significant but under examined facet of what we’re going through. And she sees the connections between the pandemic and the larger, longer-term issues facing us. 

This kind of unexpected, eye opening insight is a counterpoint to examination and analysis that barely touches the surface or the easy, often self-serving explanations. Ms. Gorman is not the only person doing the hard work of seeing, of expressing what is rarely said and more rarely understood. There are others; there always are. This is what artists do. This is what art does. This is why it is essential.

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A career working with teenagers on the fringes of society has made me both sensitive to and appreciative of the complexities of character and the struggles, inner and outer, that we all wrestle with in one form or another. My writing emphasizes character development over action, and, as a lifelong Southerner, the rhythms and cadence of the Southeastern United States influence both my spoken and written voice.

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