covid era letters vol. ii / may 2020

(Author’s Note: This was penned toward the end of May but I held off on sending due to the Black Lives Matter movement and messages, which I didn’t want to distract from. More on that in my next missive.)

Hello again friends,

Lately some of you have been asking: Is Luke OK? Last I heard he had fallen through a trampoline, he was in his parents’ backyard crying into an empty fireplace. He was in the garage hand-painting inspirational messages on plywood, talking on his headset to his friend Alphabet about the way our brains are collectively changing shape. He was walking through the park at night, mistaking an upturned tree for the shadow of the Buddha. 

Some of these things are true. I can admit to the trampoline incident at least. The kids and I were playing “fireball,” a game in which I jump high and they leap just before I land to avoid toppling at the bounce-impact of my landing. They are good at this game. But this time I bounced too close to the long-existing tear in the vinyl, and the next thing I knew I was in the dirt beside a couple springs, unhurt but dazed.

To be honest, that fall had been in motion for some time, through nearly ten weeks of ceaseless remote working, digital learning, anxious newsphoning, zoning out on zoom meetings, generalized ambient uncertainty. But also life-sustaining fire pit hangs, long walks, quiet hours of sitting on the porch after the kids go to sleep and only the owls and distantly partying neighbors are out.

I wrote my first covid era letter to you all one month ago. It was so nice to hear back from people, to feel heard and connected and understood. I had nearly finished up my May missive when the bottom fell through my inspirational closing statements. Keep your spirits lively, I had written in my head, but the next day I found myself exhausted, impatient, confused, so sharing any positive messaging felt fake. We all have bad days, but right now bad days can be extra bad.

Last Friday was better. I took a half day, cheered on the WWV sixth grade graduation car parade down our street, got ice cream, had a talk with my mom. Stress feels inevitable right now, but I was letting it drive me, working every night and by day doing endless risk assessments until my brain basically shut down.

By this point I sense a general desire to step back from constant alertness and controlled panic, to let our guards down just enough to move a bit more fluidly through our lives and around each other, even while operating within strict and necessary limits. You won’t find me at the Lake of the Ozarks, but you might see us on a slip’n’slide on a neighborhood lawn.

The contrast in realities right now is surreal. One neighbor wears a mask even when mowing his backyard, the house next to him is filled with dozens of recent college grads having a party weeks before the stay-at-home order ends. On Cinco de Mayo, people line Southwest Blvd. for food or drinks. You could drive around this city and be forgiven for wondering whether Covid-19 even exists. Out in public or in our personal conversations, we always seem to be asking each other, what do you believe?

I’m not super comfortable with our half-opened society, but it felt like things were going to open up one way or another. By the end of April I could sense a palpable mania, a pent-up energy, an agonizing collective horniness for proximity and contact. The recent college grads down the street throwing the football, the girls out on the fire escape of a West Plaza apartment dancing and yelling along to pop music, everyone getting collectively more drunk and prowling their property lines.

For me the backyard campfire has been the ideal social situation, the right place to exercise our natural human tendency to huddle. To hear from each other in person, to see people’s face muscles as they speak, to be reminded how more speech is than just the words we are saying. I travel with a folding chair in my car at all times.

The kids get restless and miss their friends and cousins, but are mostly fine. They are flexible and resilient. It feels important to keep them happy, occupied, carefree beyond the inevitable sibling scraps and whining about clothes, dinner, bedtime. My daughter started a collaborative newsletter with the girl up the street, which they write things in and pass back and forth. They first called it The Covid Newsletter, but after the moms nixed that title, they renamed it The Adams Street Newsletter with a special section called “Time of Covid 19.”

It can get gloomy if you dwell on all the missed moments with the kids and their friends and family members. But we play games and go on bike rides and read books out loud. At the end of Prince Caspian, when Peter and Susan learn from Aslan that they will not be returning to Narnia, I could see the impact on my son’s face, a six-year-old’s sudden understanding of loss and change.

Instead I try to remember to appreciate what we do have. So far I have my job and my health and those feel like enormous blessings. Sometimes I like to press my head between two pillows, breathe deeply, and just listen to my lungs, to become my lungs, to be grateful for my breath.

Jenn challenged me to write about the future as if it is the present. At first it feels like an impossible assignment, but bit by bit I get flashes of what that essay, or that mental exercise, might look like. As we begin to realize and accept that there’s no going back, doors open up, predictions appear, as we learn to live within the pandemic we develop the imagination to think beyond it.

Right now it’s breezy out. It was downright windy earlier. The days blow away, are swept over the fence up into the tree branches, which sway and bend. The nights blur together and it’s not entirely unpleasant.

I have been getting flashes of wanderlust. I want to see the sea, to stare into a lake, to walk beside a wild, natural river. I miss working downtown. I miss visiting cities. One night I had so many drinks I looked up walking directions to Buenos Aires. They weren’t available on that particular application, which I suspect is wary of fording canals. So for now at least I will be here.

As always, music plays a huge role in lifting and shaping my moods. I start singing Blind Willie McTell’s “You Got to Die” around the house, with the lyrics:

Might as well love your enemies, you got to die
It may be tomorrow, you can’t tell the minute or the hour
Just as well live in union, you got to die.

It feels a bit indulgent, or on the nose, but I can’t think of a more relevant message. Other favorite songs include “Human” by Molly Sarle and “Crumblin ‘Erb” by Outkast. Late at night, when the shops and restaurants look closed for the day and not closed forever, I listen to “Just Another Diamond Day” by Vashti Bunyan. I make coffee in the morning and blast “Race for the Prize” by the Flaming Lips, whose exuberant orchestral swells and lyrics about  how “two scientists are racing for the good of all mankind” gives me hope for a vaccine even as headlines tell me otherwise.

Lately people have been sharing things with each other more openly than I remember happening in the past. Songs or articles of faith which are not always pitch perfect but are clearly of deep importance to the person sharing. There’s always a bit of risk with that, in putting yourself out there and admitting “this is what I believe, this is what gets me through.” But I love the impulse to share. It feel like you’re getting a fuller, truer sense of the person who sent to you, to humanity in general.

The faithful have sent me links to sermons, the spiritual have sent me blessings and meditations, artists share new works and techniques, old friends share lists of their favorite albums, musicians play covers by their favorite artists. I listen to and read and enjoy it all.

I’ve especially enjoyed the new Khruangbin music video in which a man with a briefcase full of sand and a green plastic mold walks through London building sandcastles on sidewalks, in parks, grocery store aisles, subway cars. He’s quickly joined by a woman who becomes his collaborator. It’s the perfect music video concept: fun, light, narrative, unique. But after several views it starts to feel like an allegory: two people rebuilding civilization from scratch, then dancing upon it, knowing that sandcastles quickly crumble and we will then need to rebuild and build better than before.

See you in June,




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