Meditations in a Pandemic
[My husband] Joe told me early on, back in March, that if our local hospital became overwhelmed he would volunteer to go back to his pre-retirement job in the lab . . . me, I'm not so brave or selfless . . .
By Suzanne Hudson
The other morning I was out running errands when I saw a jarring sight: knots of school children waiting for the cheese wagon, masked and backpacked, as they returned to public school. I remembered how the skies overhead had been so oddly silent in the days following 9-11 as planes were grounded and we faced that trite scenario, "the new normal." And when the droning sounds of plane engines and the piercing squeals of jets were gradually returning, at first, it was like being confronted with UFOs, they were such rare sights. And now, it had been months and months--more months surely than a summer--since I had seen any school buses on the roads of Baldwin County. Like the post-terrorist return of jets to the friendly skies, as the wheels on the bus went round and round I did more than a few double takes, squinty-eyed wonderings about what might be wrong with this picture. Even more strange for a retired public educator, a veteran of over thirty years, who has spent who knows how much of a lifetime riding the cheese wagon with her charges, those kids.
To say that we're in the midst of a long, strange trip is an understatement. This jaw-dropping Bizarro World where down is up and up is down keeps us shaking our heads in amazement, at those who disdain and discount science, those who behave aggressively towards folks who wear masks, those who insist that their freedom is somehow on the line and how that is more important than the public health, those who quote someone's statistical assertion about how very rare it is to die from Covid-19, while we are at over 170,000 deaths and counting. To those unfortunately ignorant mouth breathers and those otherwise reasonable yet willfully ignorant Kool Aid drinkers I can only say that I fervently hope your own mother or child or friend isn't among that death number, that "stat."
Our friend, author Susan Cushman, invited us to contribute as guest bloggers on her web page, where she invited assorted contributors to the anthology she edited, SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, to also guest blog, specifically about how they were passing the pandemic days of social isolation. My contribution went like this:
Dark humor is how I cope. A bit twisted with a dash of sick. Somebody has to do it, add that layer/aspect to the world of words. Takes all kinds. And so:
Oh, I have to isolate? Be a solitary creature? Please don’t throw me in that briar patch. I’m not agoraphobic like Corey Mesler, but I lay claim to some sort of unnamed condition that is first cousin twice removed. I live in his mental neighborhood, so to speak. I’m socially adept because I had to learn to be, but is butterflying around to flitty soirees my preference? Far from it. Introverted for sure, but give me just cause, a reason to stand up for myself or my people or some or another underdawg, and I don’t mind getting in your face. Oh, so an aging nemesis/sometime stalker of mine is stirring some snark in literary world, doing that pop-up whack-a-mole thing? Giving me even more material? In the midst of a health crisis that failed to provide perspective, let alone insight? Please, pretty please-please-please, don’t throw me into THAT briar patch. Let me bring out the razor strap and sharpen my blade until the edge is glittering, and I’ll cut like a diamond with words that slice true. No, I don’t need no stinkin’ pandemic snark sowing. I don’t need no stinkin’ social life, neither, even though I can navigate one pretty well. What I do need is to write, from time to time, play with pretty words, tell dark stories, and settle the occasional score. And I’m married to a man, author Joe Formichella, who is even less inclined toward people than I am—and way more consumed with writing. We happily pass these virusy days together without any need whatsoever for emptily chattery chit chat. Silence is truly golden until you have something worthwhile to say. And when we do, we converse, and laugh—a lot—and dance (on our stationary bikes), and sing, and make silly rhymes, and play, and cook while we listen to the smart people on NPR throughout these quiet, absurd days of the covidpocalypse. We share flabbergasts at a nation in which a chunk of folks have chosen to eschew science, and we marvel at how a virus could ever be considered in any way political, which is the single most truly bizarre aspect of this entire situation. We are amazed at the trifling pettiness that pops out of shallow, fearful folks along with selfish, universe-of-one creatures who lack the wherewithal to look an existential threat in the face—to thereby see themselves and/or appreciate their responsibility to others, as contributing citizens of the U S of A and beyond. Finally, ultimately, though, as for the cumulative and divine briar patch of social distancing, staying at home, avoiding the marketplace, having tons of creative time and space, and honing the ol’ knife skills, well, in the words of the late, great Warren Zevon, this is “Splendid Isolation” indeed.
And Joe's entry:
“I Hope You Dance,” is the title of a song our friend Mark D. Sanders wrote, with Tia Sillers, back in the day. Not about dancing, literally, but about joy. Joy I can do. Never been much of a literal dancer, though. Less and less so as I aged. Come to find out, my legs have been going south on me for years, courtesy of CMT, Charcot Marie Tooth, a form of muscular dystrophy, a neuropathy that can develop into any degree of bad. For the wife, it’s a source of play. She’s fond of calling me one of “Jerry’s kids,” or referring to me as a “Weeble” (they wobble but they don’t fall down; well, not yet), or doing bobbing imitations of my attempt at squatting. She makes me laugh, because, hey, what else is there to do? Laughter is always our default setting, no matter how serious the circumstances. It’s a shared sense of the absurdity of all this life stuff. That’s our attitude about isolating. It’s necessary, for all kinds of reasons. Might as well have fun with it. Joy.
“Time to make the donuts,” is what I say, out loud, every morning around 2:30 a.m. when I get up to go to work recording audiobooks. And so the routine begins. Solitary work. I record for a few hours, until the birds wake up, then I edit for a few more hours. I ride the stationary bike every day, around 10:30 a.m., unless I go for an open-water swim in the bay. Keeping the wheelchair at bay, as it were. Solitary activities. But on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays the wife joins me on her bike, beside mine, and we dance. That’s what I like to call it; it’s the only thing like dancing we’ve really ever done.
Well, there’s our grocery shopping dance. We’ve got that down to a ballet. I push the cart and do all the grocery-grabbing. Suz carries the list and scratches off the items I grab. She carries the debit card, which gets wiped down after checkout. We’re both gloved and masked. Haven’t been harassed yet, here in the land of virus denial. Knock wood. Suz opens the trunk and car doors. She produces a Clorox wipe after I unload the cart into the trunk and de-glove. The timing is a thing of beauty.
Turns out, there are all kinds of ways to dance. Mark D. got it right. In the big picture of the human condition, when you can choose joy over doom and gloom, what kind of empty soul fails to pick joy? Turns out, when you’re with a partner who knows when to zig and when to zag (and when to wobble), someone you like being with, someone you love laughing with, then the isolation of the Covid Dance just ain’t a thing.
We kept it humorous, playful, unweighted by the plague, the mysterious, looming death that doubtless hovers just beyond our bubble.
Joe told me early on, back in March, that if our local hospital became overwhelmed he would volunteer to go back to his pre-retirement job in the lab. But how would he isolate from me? From my elderly mother, who has an apartment in our home? Easy. He would stay at the motel across the street from the hospital and isolate there, for as long as he was needed and until it was safe to come home. The guy had really thought it through, had a plan, and I knew not to try to dissuade him. His resolve is unyielding, his stubbornness legendary, and his head as hard as marble.
As for me, I'm not so brave or selfless.
Those kids? The ones waiting for the bus? They could probably use some extra assistance, especially those getting farther and farther behind. The stressed and nerve-frayed teachers could damn sure use some support. The middle school where I worked as a teacher and later a counselor could very likely use some volunteers about now. Beyond that, there's certainly coinage to be made, in this moment of crisis, as a tutor--or even as a teacher to a private pod of the offspring of the well-heeled moneyed ones, who are more than willing to throw cash at someone with my qualifications and experience. And, when I briefly considered the latter as a much safer route than the former, I was embarrassed that extra money was even a blip on my radar. Worse, I was ashamed of my lack of willingness to make that foray back into the helping profession of educating our public school youth. But there it is. I'm sixty-seven years old, with an almost ninety year-old mother, and am not about to re-enter the Petrie dish that is a public school. I won't even consider the private route, not now. Not ever.
Joe is one of the most giving, decent people I've ever known. He is certainly the most rational and calm in a crisis, never fazed by spillage of blood, adept at talking folks down off their hysterical or depressive ledges. He is the most likely to game things out, think things through, have a Plan A, B, C, and D. And I can match his rationality with my own rationalization about being a helper, and that is this: the extent of my volunteering during these Covid-19 days begins and ends with my not digging in my heels and fighting my husband about going back into Hospital World, if it comes to that. So far it has not. But here, where a good chunk of the populace behaves as if the "old normal" is still in place, we know that can change, to quote our late friend, musician-songwriter Larry T. Wilson, "In the Blink of an Eye." And the reality of what a pandemic is comes into sharp focus.
It's life and death. That's all. And all the manipulated statistics in the world mean absolutely ZERO when the lives of you and the ones you love are in the balance. The laborious shudders and contractions, the phases of openings, the retreats into isolation that cycle through our lives mean little when we are residing in an informed perspective. And all the while those yammerers of petty politics, and the shallow thinkers who take as much pride in ignorance as in the big fat chips on their shoulders, and the disinformation bearers who delight in sowing conflict parade around butt-arsed nekkid on their sad stages, bathed in the virtuous footlights of reason, science, and truth.
It's only life and death.
Put on the damn mask. Shut the f#ck up, Donnie.