No amount of silence will fix it
A reflection on not reflecting on COVID including forest pictures, Science and Nature Essays, and a poem.
Reader, today I spent many hours in a very gorgeous forest. I spent the morning reading Adrienne Rich's essays, listening to her poems, and learning more about her life. I ate good food. I drank dark coffee. It is a very excellent day. It feels kind of… embarrassing? is that the feeling? to feel good among the terribleness of the world. And, this feeling isn’t new. I’ve realized that I’m no good to anyone by merely feeling terrible all the time. I’m a person of action, and to take action while being a living human, I have to be able to rebound, to feel joy as well as grief and rage. And so, to the forest, I went.
Last week I started reading The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2021. The whole first section is articles about COVID19, and reading them back to back was like… watching a train crash in slow-motion? To read some of the articles - like They Say Coronavirus Isn’t Airborn — but It’s Definitely Borne by Air or the Covid Drug Wars that Pitted Doctor vs Doctor - is to watch good writers explain the science of the virus and how we spread it as the knowledge is unfolding. It’s the long-version explanation of science that I, somehow, got the cliff notes of eventually. Those articles are interesting to me. Satisfying to be able to grasp more of the details about a virus or health system decisions that have marked our world.
For me, the time to read or write an entire essay was deeply missing from my early pandemic life. My young children were home with us for fully 17 months without school to go to or childcare (outside of a handful of hours a week, which are fully, deeply appreciated, provided by my mother-in-law in the second half of that time). I am immune-compromised, so for much of those 17 months, we didn’t go to playgrounds. Or friends’ houses. Or really anywhere. The big feelings about this, and how my decisions seemed to chafe against almost everyone else I liked or loved, got space to breathe when reading the essay The Difference Between Feeling Safe and Being Safe. I imagine my kids will remember these years with an image of us, stressed out, staring at our phones like agitated zombies. You would think I had the time to read essays like that one then. And yet, I rarely had an uninterrupted hour and the consequences on my brain were intense1. It also meant that I couldn’t read the in-depth stories of what other people were experiencing during COVID. I couldn’t read the most up-to-date scientific explanations of what might be happening.
Now, I’m in a two-week break between jobs and have had the time to sit with these articles, to sit with long quiet attention to the pain of others. I was able to sit quietly and take in the fear, the stories of people who died, and the layers of our corporatized inadequacy in how we care for our elders in What Happened in Room 10? Empathy for the immense overwhelm in Helen Ouyang’s I’m an ER Doctor in New York. None of Us Will Ever Be the Same.
In reading these while I try to make sense of my own experience, as so many embrace what I see as scientific amnesia for the sake of moving along, I find myself pleading for us to collectively make sense of what just happened. I used to wonder how we could look each other in the face when we gathered again. How could we say what happened? As I reunite with people outside the six or so people I was close with during these last two years, I find we can’t really hold space to share what happened. It’s too big, the hangout too short, the small, beloved interrupters are too close, they might overhear. The fear of blaming or shaming or being insensitive to someone we care about is thick air between us. We do what we can. We move on. But there are consequences for holding it all behind our teeth.
I’m a poet. Here’s a poem. It’s how I put it in a capsule to look at for now.
No Amount of Silence Will Fix It Today the sun brought its heat to the hillside where the snow rested its burden down into the soil and slid over rocks shaping itself into a wee jaunty waterfall, not even one foot high, but wholly worthy of my delight. I came for the long stretches of silence, which is really the sound of frogs croaking, birds chirping, trees creaking. The breath of moss has no risk for me. Adrienne Rich writes about the rage, the stifling stuck-ness of being a woman, a wife, stuck at home with three children dutifully playing a role, raising humans, and not being able to let her mind swagger into the public sphere and have a chat each day. I have one whole day and two half days, minus the one hour Zoom meeting, to meander, eat, write, and read whatever the fuck I want. May I live long enough, with a brain that can write and talk, a body that can move steadily through the trees, so I can magnify these days big enough to swagger into book-length days an entire freestanding chapter of my life. This week is the first week I have been able to really sit with a steady listen to those whose lives were made up of emergency rooms, extended care facilities, or long covid before long covid had a name. The crises of other people who deserve to be seen. Their weariness heard. Until now, I did not have the space, the brain power, to listen with empathy, a right curiosity. What was spilled? How did it sound? Who was dropped lost buried piled up in a refrigerated truck mourned panicked at in the days that my brain slowly ripped to shards? For me, the months-into-years of COVID-stance were characterized by constant urgency, interruption, the pull of sad children, the pull of a computer where work either needed me or seemed to be one way to put a brick into the dam that might hold off this crisis or that, the phone a portal where I might understand my next right role in this bright crisis after that bright crisis. My eyes are connected to the brain tissue that my immune system chews on, My brain is precious to me and yet, I sacrificed them to the glare until it had all gone too far. Here I am, far off the path, mourning my brain and sad kids and lost art when really, I came here to ask if there is ever a way that the forest or a potluck or a new city a garden or a new president can remediate what just happened when we never took a moment of silence together? A half-mast. A keening. A slow bugle cry. A spade of dirt. A procession. A wall with their names. Some of you went to so many. Some of us none. That grief, with nowhere to put it, feels like rage behind my teeth. When the harm keeps mutating, unfurling its next campaign, it's hard, so so hard, to be quietly, steadily, brave. No amount of private silence will fix it. The collective silence is still far too loud.
In December 2020-January 2021, I wasn’t sure I could go on. My brain was literally not computing. The interruption + stress + MS’s impact on my brain + screen use was too much. I considered taking a medical leave from work or quitting my job. I considered moving to Norway where we believed people would follow some collective standards if a vaccine wasn’t available. Instead, I scaled back work and activism, scaled back screen time, and decided to move cross country and into a home where every action didn’t center around the small kitchen table in our two bedroom apartment.