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.

Sitting in the ER

Sitting in the ER, waiting to hear my name called, with a female tag team wrestling match playing at high volume on the TV hanging behind me and the people across from me wearing their masks on their chins was not the way I expected to spend last night.

I know no one expects to end up in an emergency room. It’s a reminder that things can change slowly, or in the blink of an eye. This trip turned out to be less serious than we feared, which was a great relief. My wife had a fall in the yard and did not end up with a broken rib or anything requiring admission. Scrapes and bruises, and she will have several days of hurting like hell, but we were in and out in three hours. This morning we hit the pharmacy to get her prescriptions filled as soon as it opened.

The fact that I was in a room filled with people in medical distress, some of unknown origin, and I had to ask the people sitting across from me to put their masks on was difficult to understand. We are at over 600,000 dead from this pandemic, it’s finally, after over a year, starting to recede, and the emergency room has signs saying that masks are required. If there were ever a place where wearing a mask would be a no-brainer, I would think that an ER would be it. Most people were masked up, but a few were sporting the below-the-nose option, and a couple were bare faced.

There is nothing, including wearing a mask, that is an absolute one hundred percent guarantee of protection against the virus. Masks do tilt the odds in favor of avoiding infection, and, more importantly, helps reinforce the fact that we’re all in this one together against a threat that is no respecter of any of our occasionally arbitrary lines of division. I’m more than willing to mask up when necessary. It’s one way to express both commonality with and concern for my fellow humans. Like I said, a no-brainer. I’ll probably continue with many of the hermit aspects of life that were necessary during the worst of the pandemic due to my deeply ingrained introversion, but it will be nice to have options again.

The Worst and the Best

Last night we went out to dinner with a couple of friends and I experienced what for me are the worst and the best aspects of returning to society, all in the space of a few hours. Fortunately they occurred in that order.

We arrived at the restaurant they had suggested a few minutes after they did. We were, they said, second on the list for an outside table with a 20-30 minute wait time. We waited, unable to have any kind of conversation because of the noise level, watching people stream in and out of the front entrance. Some were masked, most weren’t.

After forty minutes or so I had to step out, and walked around the parking lot to clear my head. By the time I got to the lower level lot the music was loud instead of deafening and after a few minutes I made my way back to the foyer. Twenty minutes later our friend went in to ask about the delay in seating and was told there was a trivia game going on that wouldn’t end until nine or so, and many of the tables would remain occupied until that time. At that point we decided to give up on the possibility of an outside table, ordered our food to go, and followed our friends to their house nearby. We had a very pleasant meal and a couple of hours of equally pleasant conversation (which would have been impossible at the restaurant unless we were willing to shout). 

The trip to the restaurant reminded me of many things I dislike about socializing, and my visit with my friends reminded me of the things I’ve been missing, the important connections that feed us and remind us of the value of human contact. I’m glad we bailed on the restaurant, and I’m wondering when or if I’ll be willing to put up with the crowds and the noise to share a meal with friends when all I really want to do is have the kind of conversation that flows from topic to topic, allows us to touch base with each other, laugh or commiserate, tell stories, and share our triumphs and setbacks both large and small with folks we care about and who care about us. That’s a big deal, and I think this past year or so has reminded us of how essential it is.


I’m waiting for the call that says my new glasses are ready, and for the proof of Following Frankie to arrive so I can give it one last look before publication, and for whatever winter this is to blow on through and let spring settle in, and for the results of the blood test I was supposed to have had done seven months ago except for this pandemic. I’m waiting for my first in-person meeting with Kavya, and for my first steps back into the world to be a little less hesitant, and for the next project to suggest itself to me, and for musicians to start gathering again at the community center so I can join in, and, as the poet said, I am perpetually awaiting a rebirth of wonder. 

And I’m thankful that I have yet to be disappointed by that last one.

End of the Rope

We were at a friend’s home for dinner the other night, the first time since the pandemic hit that we thought about venturing out. Since the vaccine became available and more people are getting their shots, it’s becoming possible to do some things that in the past were ordinary but right now seem special.

The conversation meandered around from one subject to another, as it often does when friends get together, and at one point our host was talking about a young couple he knew who were dealing with an overbearing in-law/parent. He said that the father-in-law tried to provoke the young woman, but she didn’t take the bait. The phrase he used was, “She wouldn’t pick up her end of the rope.”

What great imagery that is. If you visualize ego-driven confrontations as a tug-of-war, then by far the best and easiest way to counter them is to refuse to pick up your end of the rope.

He grew up in the Midwest — Wisconsin, I believe — but I didn’t think to ask him if that was a regional idiom or one he picked up somewhere else (or made up himself). In any case, it’s good advice for all of us, I think. If we find ourselves being provoked into a confrontation, it’s a good technique to try, and an easy solution if it works.

We don’t have to pick up our end of the rope.