It is almost midnight on April 23, one month after Kansas City’s shelter-in-place order went into effect. At least I think it’s been one month. Time right now is filled with strange air pockets and dead weight, each week its own weird season.
Still, it’s hard to believe we’re only one flip of the calendar from that fateful week when basketball was canceled and our offices closed until further notice, the downtown Kansas City streets empty except for a few bewildered Big 12 fans aimlessly riding the streetcar.
After work that Friday March 13th, I paid a visit to Caravaggio’s John The Baptist in the Wilderness the day before the Nelson-Atkins Museum closed. I wanted to consult with someone who had been around for centuries and had seen it all before. John looked radiant that afternoon, impossibly young, all shadow and light. But instead of offering comfort or counsel, he just stared at the floor, lost in his own troubles.
That night I met my friend Dave at Grünauer, where I drank several steins of Stiegel Goldbräu beer, suspecting that restaurants, too, would likely be closing soon. It felt like the last night of socializing for who knows how long. “You know, if the world needs to take a time out for a while, I think that’s all right,” Dave said.
But the peaceful notion of a “time out” and the panicked reality of a pandemic are two different things. The first time I went to the grocery store, I almost cried. It felt like such a slow motion waking nightmare. Masked customers seeing you at the other end of the aisle and immediately steering their cart in the opposite direction. The impossibly vulnerable cashiers, risking their lives by doing their jobs, performing an essential service on an hourly wage.
There are other worries. Worry for friends, family, doctors and nurses, first responders. For all the local businesses that began announcing they were closing, first voluntarily, then by city order. For all the people losing their jobs. Worry that I will get sick myself and start “shedding virus,” any public outing or shortness of breath leading to pensive moments at the kitchen counter with a thermometer in my mouth.
In some ways it reminds me of the deadly tornado that struck my wife’s hometown of Joplin in 2011. Some people’s homes were destroyed, others remained intact. Not everyone survived and no one who lived through it would forget. After the initial shock passes, the realization sets in that nothing will ever be the same. But what that will look like nobody knows yet.
Like you, I read a lot of news. If you scroll far enough, you start to feel like you are falling. The words begin to blur and just the images remain: the terrifying roller coaster climb of infection rate graphs. The pathos of a playground spring horse wrapped in yellow caution tape. Pictures of statues wearing masks — clever at first, though pretty soon the statues themselves begin to look weary of being used as props.
“The virus doesn’t recognize borders,” public health officials remind us, leading me to picture a fuzzy, bug-eyed virus ball disguised in a trench coat and traveling without a passport, sneaking past border police at the speed of a sneeze. And every time I see one of those graphics that makes coronavirus look like a spiky chew toy, I want to grab a tennis racket and slap it into oblivion. If only it were that simple.
I worry about the country. The spats between different levels of government feels like watching your parents arguing while the house is burning down. “Are we watching a superpower implode?” asks German magazine Der Spiegel, and though they’ve been writing that same headlines since 9/11, it does feel like we’re at a tipping point. Are we going to place our faith in science and public policy, or light torches and set cell towers on fire? Will we protect our elections, or send those we disagree with out to vote in the middle of a pandemic? These are not hypothetical questions.
Home life, on the other hand, is an oasis of imagination and play. Our situation is a privileged one. My wife and I are able to do most work from home. Our kids do lessons on school-issued iPads and then practice the piano. Inspired by Harry Potter, they conduct “flying lessons” for their stuffed animals. On rainy days they set up Rube Goldberg-esque “obstacle courses” involving dominoes, marbles, light switches, and copious amounts of scotch tape. Eventually the stuffed animals graduate flying school and open their own hotel, adorned with inexplicable handwritten signs like “Party Camels only alowd.”
Life right now feels full of contradictions. I am grateful to have a job, though at times I find it hard to picture ever setting foot in an office again. I am happy to be eating healthy, but fall asleep dreaming of Hana’s donuts. I am fascinated by the fact that we are living through an unprecedented time in history, and I desperately want life to go back to normal.
I am trying to stay present. That is not a new challenge, but it feels magnified now. “So what’s your story today?” Todd messaged me one morning while trying to arrange a phone call. I never closed out the chat window, so each morning when I sign on to email the question pops back up, still bulleted in green. “So what’s your story today? is probably the closest thing I have to a mantra.
Lately sitting on my back porch and bird-listening has become my favorite pastime. I recently read that people have been doing web searches asking “why are the birds louder now?” The answers explain that it’s as a result of the sudden quieting of our cities. But I like the notion that the birds are getting bolder, that they sense an advantage in the species and are now chirping with confidence and singing with impunity. It’s the kind of thing you want to cheer on.
I ride my bike around the neighborhood, collecting images as I go. The painted banners in front doors reminding us to “stay strong KC.” The unicorn piñata that dangled from a nearby oak tree for over a month, surviving frost, hail, and multiple thunderstorms, never surrendering its smile. Red tree blossoms carpeting the street at night after a heavy rain. New parents out for a stroll, looking perplexed. An elderly woman wearing a mask and riding to Wal-Mart on a very slow motorcycle.
I read meaning into signs that are probably not there. The black trash barrel in the park with “COVID-19” spray-painted on the side is ostensibly a warning to stay home, but it looks like gang graffiti from the 19th Street Covids, a shitty gang that terrorizes old people and keeps kids home from school. A friend sends a “save the date” postcard but forgets to include the wedding date, just the address of an event venue and “five o’clock in the evening.” Instead of a mistake, I prefer to view it as a statement of determination to celebrate whenever it’s possible to safely do so again. And the Community America billboard featuring a smiling Patrick Mahomes and the slogan “We’re Just Getting Started” has taken on an ominous new meaning. But I love that people are displaying the “Keep Calm and Carry On” sign as a profile message, devoid of any alteration or irony.
Without sports, shopping, concerts, or social events, I mostly turn to music. Making coffee and blasting Joy Division’s “Isolation,” which is more uplifting than it sounds. Playing trap remixes of the Caillou and Peppa Pig theme songs to amuse the kids. Grilling burgers while listening to Magic Sam. Lying on the floor listening to Joni Mitchell’s “River” and Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain” before the kids go to bed. Listening to Low’s “Silver Rider” on a sleepless night, pondering the question of God.
Music also connects me with friends and with the city. Instead of an album release concert on April 3, Kansas City group Fullbloods (the mostly solo project of Ross Brown) hosts a live streaming event during which we chime in via chat and he narrates moments of doubt and inspiration behind the songs. It lacks the sensory impressions of a live show, but somehow all of us sitting at home listening on our headphones feels no less intimate.
My favorite anthem of hope during this time is KC native Kevin Morby’s “Congratulations” from his newest album, Oh My God. Congratulations / You have survived / Oh, you stayed alive / This life is a killer / But, oh, what a riot / Just to wake up each morning / Just to open your eyes. It sounds like a triumphant message from the future, the kind of thing you can’t wait to play at a party for all your friends once this whole thing is over.
Though who knows when that will be. Driving down I-35 one night, I see that the Mahomes billboard has been replaced by a picture of the skyline with the words “This is our 3rd-and-15,” a reference to Super Bowl LIV’s pivotal play. But as much as the crowd loves a hail mary touchdown-cure, the only clear play call in this situation is a months-long timeout. So in a world in which leadership is lacking and sports metaphors fall short, what do we do?
My short list: Stay home. Wear masks. Donate. Reach out. Listen to the experts. Stay balanced, no matter how much things continue to shift. Recognize that there is only so much you can control. Take things one day at a time, accepting that some days will be better than others. Keep on living as much as possible. Don’t kill yourself worrying about things that haven’t happened yet.
I try to take joy where I can, calling friends or setting up Zoom calls even if they quickly devolve into contests of who can create the weirdest background. I hug my children close and try not to lose patience. I find it can help to get a bit drunk, but not too drunk, and not too often.
I am curious how you are dealing with things, too. Each day I see entertaining videos, livestreamed music, improvised meals, rambling hikes, autobiographical comics. I hear people discussing new habits, things they are ready to leave behind, the ways they are beginning to imagine living differently in the future. At a time of relative confinement, I am curious what new spaces are opening up for people mentally, creatively, and spiritually.
While the most important thing right now is to take care of ourselves and our loved ones, it also feels like an opportunity to consider what changes we’d like to see in ourselves and in society. And as we experience those changes on an individual and family level, the world will begin to shift as well. The micro becomes the macro.
For now, with the traditional calendar exerting less pressure than usual, we are free to assign the days and weeks their own unique identities. The Night of the Pink Moon. The week of Ruby’s Birthday. The Weekend of the Tent, which we set up in the backyard in late March, stuffing it with sleeping bags, coloring books, and a cot, thereby creating an oasis for naps, reading poetry, and listening to the wind.
I would like to close with a short poem by Alejandra Pizarnik that I read that week, knowing full well that no lines of verse can make a sick person well, or a loved one get their job back, or a city burst full of life and commerce again. But words can affect the way we feel, think, and deal with reality, and it is in this spirit that I share this entire lengthy message and these short closing lines:
though it’s late, though it’s night,
And you are not able.
sing as if nothing were wrong.
nothing is wrong.