Some are calling this lockdown time during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020: The Great Pause. We are upended, suspended, like the Hanged Man in the Tarot over an abyss. But with Internet.
For me, though, it’s just an intensification of how my life has been for months. My mom died in November. Exactly one month later, my dad fell, and kept falling, until on Christmas Day, he couldn’t get up at all, and I had to leave my kids and grandkids and half-cooked dinner to fly two states away to help him. I got him a wheelchair and brought him back with me the day after New Year’s, moving him into a retirement home in my town, where I’ve been staying with him ever since. He’s almost miraculously better now, and out of the wheelchair, but the pandemic meant he had to halt physical therapy and the social life he was just beginning to build.
There have been some horribly dark moments in these months, particularly on those nights when he would call me out of sleep because he thought he was dying, rambling incoherently as though half-awake in a nightmare, unable to even reach for the bedside urinal in time. I found myself absorbing his fear and despair, asking what’s the point of all this? Why go on?
Shortly before the pandemic came to town, I saw an article about a rafflesia flower currently blooming in Indonesia that was four feet in diameter, making it the biggest flower ever recorded. Rafflesias are fascinating for more than their size. Also known as the corpse flower, because it smells like rotting meat, the rafflesia is a parasite. With no roots or leaves, it lives off a host plant, eventually taking it over in order to produce one gigantic, unlovely, absurd bloom, a white-spotted red flower that looks like it should grow on the bank of Willy Wonka’s chocolate river. In the center of the flower, a gaping mouth finally opens, after which, the rafflesia lives about another week, then rots.
What’s the point, indeed.
In my mind’s eye I see a time-lapse reel of the rising and falling, inhale and exhale, sprout and bloom and decay of life; I think of the Hindu concept of Maya, the divine play of shifting forms, which is beautiful to behold in photography and contemplation, but when lived in relationship with actual life can be horrifying. It’s hard to see beauty under the fluorescent light of an ER, for instance, or when wiping your father’s shit off the toilet seat, or identifying your mother’s corpse in the weird room that’s a cross between a meat locker and a broom closet in the bowels of the funeral home, behind the welcoming parlor filled with flowers, fine furniture, and fancy cookies.
And after all that, now here we are in the midst of a deadly pandemic.
Day 1: Lockdown
It’s the middle of March, and just at the time I thought I’d finally be getting a break, I find myself locked in even more. My twelve-year-old, Eliana, is here too, and even more unhappy about it than I am. Normally, she spends half the week with me and half with her father, but he’s an “essential worker,” and her going back and forth like that could expose Dad to the virus. So she’s going to stay with us until about the middle of April and then go with her father until it seems safe. Based on my daily scrutiny of the models and projections, I’m estimating this will be the end of May. But who knows.
I ordered four jigsaw puzzles online today. Ordering as an attempt to create order?
Day 5: Spring Equinox
It’s an introvert’s world now, and if I was at home, in my own space, I’d be celebrating the equinox. I’d also be exploring the meaning of this new global village ghost town, free within a socially sanctioned excuse to indulge in solitary creativity, but there is little worse for an introvert than to be holed up with others. No privacy, no escape.
The days are formless, floppy, and go by in a timeless fog. This pandemic is going to shift everything, already is. I can’t make plans for the future; I can’t know what the next thing will be.
I am lost in my father’s house.
Day 19: April Fool’s Day
Grief upon grief. I am flattened by it. This all feels horrifying, and as the days go by, I grow more distant and hostile. I’m so homesick. When I first moved Dad here, I thought things would start to normalize in March. I couldn’t have been more wrong, could I? April Fool’s.
I need to create something; all I can do is keep writing, sneaking it in.
On Instagram, some celebrities, coaches, and gurus who usually post incessantly are silent. Others are posting things meant to cheer people up, create a sense of community, inspire hope, or simply provide an entertaining distraction (to themselves, perhaps, as well as others). Some are bravely sharing how they’re struggling. Some posts shame me because I’m not donating to any causes, sewing any masks for people, or handing out food to school kids. I’m doing good to get dinner cooked most days.
The posts I love the most are those of celebrity performers (i.e., anyone famous who posts stuff) who are doing something simple and genuine, just them in their living rooms, like Paul Stanley of KISS, playing an acoustic guitar and talking about his songwriting process, or Brené Brown holding a fifteen-minute virtual “church” service.
I don’t think it’s going too far to call these works of art. Beautiful because they are raw, spontaneous, heartfelt; no polish. Unproduced. Production value is like a frame, and often it overpowers the very beauty and meaning of a piece. Instead now, there is this new depth of what strikes me as hospitality. It’s one thing to run around on a huge stage with an expensive light show run by a crew, wearing a full face of makeup, seven-inch heels, and an elaborate glittery costume, and perform to a crowd of thousands. It is quite another to sit in your bedroom in your casual clothes and sing to a single camera while your kids walk in and out in the background.
Contrast this with the shrill blame-mongering of Facebook, where someone who tries to pose a thoughtful question to the “community” is immediately jumped on, as though they had blasphemed, shot down for betraying the accepted narrative, whatever that happens to be. And there’s the equally shrill round of funny and “inspirational” memes. I left Facebook months ago because of all of that. I returned at the beginning of the lockdown because, maybe hidden in the midst of the noise, was the possibility of community, of sharing, of connecting. But after a few days of scrolling and wincing, I remembered why I left in the first place. It hurts the ears of my heart.
It is good, and a necessary thing, to question narratives, and an essential factor in our collective evolution, as evidenced by movements like Me Too and Black Lives Matter. We live in a new age of inquiry, which is excellent. But we have to be willing and courageous to examine ALL the narratives, even and especially the ones we hold most dear.
This isn’t going to happen unless we feel safe to do so, though. There has to be a deeper, wider truth we agree to abide in, a foundational narrative that is strong and flexible enough to hold all the others, all the questions, all the crumbling.
I hope, more than anything else, that this is what ultimately comes out of the pandemic, that we learn to sing a shared song of mystery, to be good and flexible dance partners.
To do that, we have to first be good at dancing alone, and enjoy it. This time of being physically apart is teaching us to be social in a new way, to dance alone and share that solo dance with others. To dance like no one’s watching, and then deliberately let them watch. I was already seeing a lot of this on Instagram prior to the pandemic (e.g., AOC’s Q & As while cooking her dinner), but now there’s a new urgency, a greater pervasiveness.
I’m remembering Annie Dillard’s question of what could one write for a dying person that wouldn’t offend. That’s all of us right now. Even if we avoid literal death, of ourselves and those we love, all of us are experiencing a dying process right now – of the world as we knew it, of our plans and expectations, our social lives. At the very least, we’re going to have interesting scars after this.
Grief upon grief, and so, as I’ve been trying to lay hold of the thing I want and need to contribute, I find that it’s to hold space for grief. It’s the thing I can offer that doesn’t offend me, and so what can I do but offer it to you?
I want to step away from getting embroiled in trying to understand, in the shrill accusations and jokes and warnings. This is not a time for argument and false levity; it’s a time for stillness, for emptying, for grieving, and sharing that grief. But to do that, it has to be a safe space, where we can simply listen and take in the losses people are experiencing, without argument or criticism, and without trying to fix anything.
Day 21: Grocery Shopping
I made the mistake of telling Eliana’s dad that my first masked and socially-distanced grocery store trip was traumatizing, when he came later in the day for his equally traumatizing masked and socially-distanced backyard visit. From 6 feet away, he asked, “Why?”
Because it’s usually something I enjoy, and now it’s fraught with danger and discomfort, and I dread it. Because of the amount of thought and preparation there now has to go into it before I even get in the car to go. Because I feel bad for the employees. Because the homemade bandanna mask I made was distracting and claustrophobic, stuck up under my glasses so it impaired my vision and I couldn’t touch my face to fix it. Because even though I went early, the store was packed, with an air of chaos and anger, and everyone was in each other’s way. The empty shelves. I forgot to even look for some of the things on the list because I was so disoriented. In my Albertsons, my comfort store. And because of the assiduous package-wiping, disinfecting, and handwashing afterwards.
Because it feels like the damned apocalypse.
Maybe I’m more triggered by this whole thing than others. Part of it is just my sensitive nature, but also, I have fresh, raw memories of death and hospitals, because of what I’ve been through with my dad. And I really don’t want either of us to have to go through it again.
Day 29: Easter
I did not attend my church’s Easter service via Zoom this morning. Thinking about Easter at all was too depressing. When a friend texted that she hoped I have a good Easter with my family, even though it’s going to “look different this year,” I was irritated. I texted back that we had nothing planned and that it would be “just another blursday.”
But this morning when I got on Instagram, the first thing I saw was that the completely irresistible Nadia Bolz-Weber had posted a video Easter sermon. She said maybe Mary Magdalene thought Jesus was the gardener when she saw him after the resurrection because he still had dirt under his nails from being in the tomb. Her point was that the Easter story is messy, not all clean and spiffy like it is in church. That we are not made “better,” we are made new.
And just like that, something has shifted, and I am made new. Within the grief and not despite it, I’m experiencing something akin to jubilation. In a sense, this whole collective quarantine is like one big Holy Saturday, waiting in grief, but somehow also Easter has come. It’s Saturday and Sunday at the same time, which actually kind of works, since no one knows what day it is anymore anyway.
Day 31: Gravity
I saw a post today about Isaac Newton discovering gravity while in quarantine during the bubonic plague. What a fitting discovery for such a grave, heavy time.
Everyone wants someone or something to blame for this pandemic. But how can you blame a force of nature? Conspiracy theorists give people too much credit, too much power. Fundamentalists give it all to God, despite the troubling question of suffering. But it really comes down to how one experiences things. Is gravity felt as imposed?
Is it something to protest?
Blame is a killer of inspiration. Anyone focused on blaming someone or something in this pandemic is wasting its Newtonian opportunities, its invitation for questions.
Day 33: Not Quite Home
A liminal time, a place between. My apartment is not quite home these days; I cannot attend to it, cannot stay there. In some ways, my father’s house is more like home now because he and my daughter are here, and it’s where my everyday stuff is. Home is where my journal is.
When the increasingly warming sun of spring is out, it makes all the difference, and I’m glad for the seductive comfort of the backyard, since all I have at my apartment is a balcony that sits in shadow most of the day. Being able to sit out here and soak up the warmth and listen to birdsong is saving my life. I’m social distancing with the junkos and finches that come to the feeder beneath the juniper tree; if I sit closer than about six feet from it they stay in the safety of the branches.
I caught the end of The Wizard of Oz on TV yesterday: “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard.”
Day 34: Cloudy
Then there are days like today. It’s cloudy, cold, windy, and all I want to do is cry and scroll and flip TV channels. The day is good in proportion to how much sunshine there is, inversely proportional to how much wind.
We’ve done all the puzzles, so we broke down and restarted one today. It occurs to me that their current wild popularity is not just for entertainment or distraction; they’re a way to create order, to protest chaos. Something we have the power to make tidy and complete amid the Big Uncertainty.
Puzzles point to the lesson that to see the big picture requires the utmost scrutiny of details, to find their proper place in the grand scheme. I would love to write a coherent synthesis of this strange time, a sort of Pilgrim at Pandemic Creek, but the puzzle isn’t finished yet; all I can do is work on it piece by piece.
Besides, I don’t want to bypass the greatest gift in the midst of this Great Pause, which is its opportunity to “rest in mystery, uncertainty, and doubt, without any irritable reaching after fact or reason,” as Keats described the artist’s vocation.
Day 35: The To-Do List
This morning as soon as I’d gotten up and was making my first cup of coffee, Dad asked, “What’s on the agenda for today?” It irritated me, as pre-coffee questions generally do, but especially because of its absurdity. I was able to consciously choose to take it lightly, though. (Thank you, Easter.) I answered, not unkindly, “Well, let’s see. . . I guess I’ll do some breathing and some sitting, and preparing and eating food. . .” He laughed, and I breathed, and made his tea.
I’ve started to hear the whir of hummingbird wings, but haven’t seen one yet. Oh, when will the feeder I ordered arrive? I’d like to add “Watch the hummingbirds” to my daily to-do list.
Day 36: Doves
My 1977 edition of The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: Western Region doesn’t include the variety of dove there’s now a pair of at the feeder. I go to the Internet to solve this puzzle, and discover they are Eurasian collared doves, which have spread like a virus around the world. In North America this began in 1974, when fewer than 50 escaped captivity in the Bahamas; today they are found in almost every state and Mexico.
An outbreak of birds, their eggs disperse like seeds. Everything spreads and radiates; the Big Bang has never ceased. To amaze and delight.
I read that these doves can be hand-tamed, and am pierced with a longing to do so.
Day 37: Bones
My last day with Eliana until….?
The news this morning made me cry – and it wasn’t even about the pandemic, but the demise of songbirds in Indonesia because of some weird competition for which people torture them to make them sing. A cross between The Voice and a cockfight.
Is that what this pandemic is doing to us – torturing us to make us sing? You’re just an empty cage if you kill the bird, sang Tori Amos. Some of us are clearly seeing how empty our cages have been and are learning to fill them with song again.
Yesterday I saw a meme saying something to the effect that when everything falls apart we should dream bigger. I’m dreaming smaller, but deeper. I am the camel writing my way through the eye of the needle.
I’m reading up on Newton’s laws of motion and gravity, and how birds fly, how their hollow bones factor into this ability. I love a story about bones: Ezekiel prophesying, Skeleton Woman singing, flesh onto bare bones. As I write this, Dad is streaming the TV show Bones in the background.
We live in a cage of bones. Song and flight are the marrow. There is gravity but there are wings.
I look up from my reading of Newtonian physics to see a huge bumblebee, the first of the season. O protestor of gravity, bless me.
Day 38: Going, Gone
Today Eliana goes with her father. I feel off-kilter and low-level panicky, like a pair of binoculars whose lenses aren’t aligned with each other properly; raw like exposed bone.
I haven’t seen the doves today, but a hummingbird came to the feeder for the first time. Immediately after it flew off, a raven landed on the fence and let me take his photo.
I’m folding her laundry and crying. And I feel rising panic at being stuck here without her for who knows how long, just Dad and me. I know I can start looking at ways to take breaks from being here, but not tonight. Right now I just want to feel my feelings. One of those feelings is anger at this impossible situation, having kept Eliana here, away from her dad for over five weeks, and now her going with him for at least that long, presumably. “For the foreseeable future.” As though any future is foreseeable.
I want to go home, by which I mean I want my old life back. But do I really? And which version? I want to go home, by which I mean I want to feel safe, comfortable, free to be myself and do my own thing. But that thing is shifting in this time, back to a simpler, more essential version of it: Writing. And I can do that anywhere that has a good chair, pen and notebook, and laptop. Maybe a little wine and sunshine.
What is essential? That is really the only question during this Great Pause, collectively and individually. Any other question is derivative or irrelevant.
Day 39: The Essential
When people speak of the essential they usually mean what’s needed for survival and/or quality of life. Which are two very different things, and their definitions shift when applied to collective humanity vs. individuals vs. the life of the planet as a whole; and short-term vs. long-term.
If you remove all the contingencies, a perfectly reasonable answer to the question, “What is essential?” is: Nothing. The universe doesn’t have to be here. We don’t have to be here.
The current emphasis on “essential” workers is presumably about what’s essential for survival. It’s frankly surprising how little this is being defined or questioned; in other words, how much collective agreement there is about what’s essential. Although there is some discussion, it’s really not much when you consider the foundational nature of the question.
If survival isn’t essential, quality of life still might be. Yes, obviously, quality of life is dependent on survival. But only survival NOW, and all things necessary for survival are either in the past or the future: I am here because I’ve eaten, and I will eventually need to eat again, but right now I don’t. Even if I suddenly ran out of oxygen right this very moment, it wouldn’t be a threat to my survival until at least a few minutes from now. And, theoretically at least, I could still have some level of quality of life right up until that very last breath. What would that be dependent on, though?
This line of inquiry may seem ridiculous, but it is in fact essential, because the central question whose contemplation changes everything and creates the very foundation of a human life is this: Is quality of life dependent on circumstances? Is freedom?
I have spent the greater portion of my life wanting to believe they are not, and striving to prove that to myself. Failing. My recent utter dependence on sunshine and birdsong is a final, glaring exhibit of evidence.
Tom Robbins once wrote that one should “never underestimate how much assistance, how much satisfaction, how much comfort, how much soul and transcendence there might be in a well-made taco and a cold bottle of beer.” In one of my favorite movies, Stranger Than Fiction, Bavarian sugar cookies are endowed with a similar significance. And God’s answer to Job’s persistent questioning on the purpose and value of suffering and how one is supposed to deal with it, is basically: Check out the joyful flight of birds, the intricate way I designed their wings; how cool is that?
But maybe a more helpful way to approach the question of what is essential is to use its alternate (but not unrelated) definition: “of the core true reality.” Then, however, we necessarily (essentially) move into a place where logic and reason and words are asked to do too much. Poetry may be the best use of words to approach it, and therefore an essential thing.
Fitting then that it’s currently National Poetry Month, and perhaps no coincidence? That implies, of course, that there’s an underlying, overseeing, ordering Intelligence, and yes, that is what I believe, although some days I can only aspire to believe it, and some days I can’t even do that.
Sometimes, though, I’m actually able to receive the grace of this Intelligence, to know it in my bones. The felt presence of Being, as Eckhart Tolle puts it. The experience of the sacred.
One might say this is in fact the only essential thing. By extension then, the “essential workers” are those angels and harbingers that bear this grace. Which are: anything and anyone – if I’m paying attention, and not distracted by what Wendell Berry coined as “forethought of grief.”
If you look the right way, you can see the whole world is a garden, says Mary Lennox at the end of The Secret Garden, (which is, incidentally, the only movie that Dad, Eliana, and I ever managed to all enjoy together). Freedom is nothing more than the ability and willingness to see this divine garden, what Glennon Doyle calls the “unseen order” that only imagination can bring forth; and safety is nothing but freedom. To be free as a bird is to exercise the wings of imagination against the gravitational pull of the illusion of safety. It’s no mistake to see Jesus as the gardener or the Holy Spirit as a dove.
Yes, Job, there is meaning, but only if you bring it forth. If there’s hope for anything it is only for this. The thing with feathers, the bird of presence unfurls the wings of creativity. The only worthwhile hope is one that is its own reward.
Right now the little junkos have retreated from the feeder to perch cautiously in the branches of the juniper, because I moved too suddenly and startled them.
It is only the felt presence of the sacred that has ever made me feel safe enough, free enough, to leave my branch. Freedom and safety as concepts, as desires, dissolve together into the experience of flight.
Day 40: Earth Day
Yesterday, there was a whole flock of a new kind of bird at the feeder, five or six of them, with grey and yellow feathers, and goofy yellow eyebrows. They’re bigger than the finches and junkos but smaller than the doves. The field guide identifies them as evening grosbeaks.
When I came outside this morning, there was a mess of grey and yellow feathers at the base of the juniper tree, being blown about by a strong wind. A red-tailed hawk was circling far above. One little grosbeak sat hushed in the juniper.
The winds of change are brutal, but the sky is clear and deep. The birds of prey are energized, playing with the currents, zipping elliptically on outstretched wings.
I was awoken pre-dawn by a vivid dream of losing Eliana, filled with grief and terror. As though on an immaculate screen in an otherwise perfectly dark room, I was given to see: she is not here, and there’s no guarantee she ever will be again.
On the Internet I read that grosbeak symbolism has to do with “the fine balance of situations and connection to family,” with healing family wounds, and with awakening to one’s surroundings.
While the murder of a grosbeak in the family backyard could be taken as a bad omen, I decided instead to treasure the six tiny grey and yellow feathers I carefully gathered as the enduring gift. I arranged them on the tiny altar I’ve mustered in the closet of the guest room I use here.
Yes, they’ll remind me that there are things that want to eat me, things whose teeth have their place in the world. Like a virus maybe. Better though, they’ll help me remember to look for treasure even in the harshest places. If I’m awake to my surroundings, the unseen order will shine through the world, and I will find it.
Hawk medicine is the gift of seeing the big picture, soaring on the winds of change. Earth Day during a pandemic seems a perfect occasion to ponder this, the beauty and lifeforce of the grosbeak integrated with the hawk’s, life feeding on life; to appreciate and celebrate the wonder of it all, the sacredness.
Even so, I whisper to the lone grosbeak in the juniper, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
Susan Carpenter Sims has a diversity of interests and passion projects, but writing is the thread that unites them. She’s a learning junkie who finds researching, synthesizing, and sharing information, ideas, and images deeply satisfying. She’s earned an MA in English with a concentration in creative writing, an MBA, and certification as a ceremony celebrant. A long-time entrepreneur, Susan lives in Taos, NM where, in addition to performing ceremonies, she’s working with a team to open a laundromat that recycles water to irrigate a community garden. The best place to find her online these days is on Instagram as @enchantedcircleceremonies.