So much of this time has felt like an ebb and flow that has been easier to process with words but somehow lies outside the realm of language. It is experienced in the body—in the breath and pulse, in the seeing and hearing, in the movement and stillness—and also in the heart and mind, in the listening to self, others, and world. My recollections of the time I would have been at CCCC’s, and the days after, feel like a composition, with many movements, that is still playing out.
In some ways, time has stopped for now. I spend so much time away from my family, life moving quickly, just trying to get from one thing to the next, all the while telling ourselves it’s so we can have a nice life together, but we don’t really get to have much life together…not together like we are now. This is the first time we’ve eaten dinner together every night, the first time my kids knew their dad would be there every night when they went to bed and every morning when they woke up, the first time being together has taken priority over all else.
The older I get the less willing I am to waste my time. I’ve spent so much of my life instinctively trying to please and meet the expectations of the world around me, and not nearly enough time understanding what would fulfill me. Women are expected to give. More and more, I understand that I am not here to be a mirror, reflecting back an image of female passivity, an archetype that gives but never receives, a system out of balance. What I have to come to give is in service of my soul and therefore, my community.
This time has been marked by a desire to know the appropriate way to feel and cope. To know how to pandemic. I knew that my kids would feed off my emotions and look to me for how to react to this disruption of all normalcy. Unmoored from all of normal routines and from any sense of what the future will bring, I felt conflicting emotions all of the time and together. I felt guilty for struggling to cope since the pandemic not only brought serious illness and death to so many but also highlighted and exacerbated the systemic inequalities of our American life. How could I complain about the rather fortunate position I find myself in? But guilt really is a useless emotion much of the time. It is also a somewhat easier experience than surrendering to whatever the experience is in the moment.
Instead of a conference hotel room, I’ve spent much of my time in my newly constituted bedroom. After moving into a new home a few years ago, my partner and I slept in a makeshift bedroom on the third floor, in-between my children’s bedrooms, who were too scared to sleep on that floor by themselves. We just finished making a room of our own in January and it has since doubled as my workspace. It has four windows and is filled with natural light, in contrast to my windowless office at work. It’s the only room in the house decorated entirely to my taste and it feels peaceful and calm.
In it, my immersion in thinking about the main issues that I am concerned with professionally—the work of antiracism and the work of teaching students to engage deeply with the world through reading, writing, and listening—look different. This time away from the space of work, where that work is often not enough not very valued, has reinforced its centrality to who I am and why I do the work that I do.
Those early days of the pandemic had an atmospheric shift that I felt most strongly in the way I heard the world around me. Gone were the laughter and conversation with colleagues, students, and friends. The very nature of laughing seems to have changed. There is no polite chuckling at badly told jokes. Laughter is less frequent but more genuine. Something must be truly funny, often in a way that highlights the irony of how we spent our pre-pandemic time and how that aligns with what we value now. When I laugh now it is more real somehow, coming from the gut and bringing with it a momentary surge of joy that interrupts the constant worry.
The snippets of tutoring sessions I would overhear in the center, the trivial and deep conversations of the staff, were all gone. The absence of that community felt most present in the separation from the constant thrum and rhythm of it.
Out of my windows, I can see the birds who are chattering all day long. I had always noticed the doves in my neighborhood, but I had not heard them cooing all day. There is a dove who frequently sits outside my window, perched on dead ivy on my neighbors’ wall. She meets my eye every now and in that moment I feel seen.
My kids yelling, crying, laughter, and the chatter of their Zoom meetings with classmates are perhaps the strangest new sounds that I hear as I work. I find it hard to stay focused with their voices so near and present. I often interrupt myself with thoughts of what they are learning, what they are missing, and how well I am teaching them to be with others in the world.
The city itself is speaking differently. I live off a major thoroughfare in Philadelphia, across the street from a subway station, a public library, and a health center. There’s no more roar of Septa buses, no cell phone conversations, hardly any conversations at all. I wonder about the prostitutes, drug dealers and users that are somewhere in the vicinity most of the time. I wonder who, if anyone, is caring for them.
The city has switched tempo. The birdsong comes to the foreground of the city’s soundscape, but it’s in concert with the wailing of sirens, the squeak of our gate when the mailman comes, the murmuring of the line of people that winds down the block in front of my house, six feet apart, every Monday and Thursday. It’s a line for a food bank. I am grateful for the timbre of human voices, the sound of strangers socializing with each other. I don’t need to look at the line to know there won’t be many people who look like me in it and that absence also speaks.
The sirens ebb and flow in their frequency. I wonder if the sound of them correlates to the charts of positive tests and deaths per day that I compulsively check on the New York Times website, the ones that look like the rising and falling lines of heart rate monitors.
I find myself focusing on the soundscape. Sometimes it leads me to an unexpected train of thought but many times it allows me to escape from thinking. This is old and new, a familiar meditative practice but one that doesn’t usually integrate into my workday with such regularity. I don’t usually do this, but I always do this. I’ve never done this in this way. Though I am distant from my professional networks—my colleagues I see every day and the colleagues I see a couple times a year at conferences—I feel very connected to them and the world around me through this residing in the moment, in the soundscapes of a world gone soft but not silent.
On March 26th, Nine Inch Nails released a free double album as a gift to their fans and a way to experience connection in isolation. The statement released with the album cited their vacillating feelings of hope and despair induced by the state of the world at this time. The album seems to embody those contrasting feelings that many of us feel in these days. Listening to it allowed me to release some of what is beyond words but resides in my body. It’s gifts like this that help to counter the ever-increasing feeling that our world is wasting away, starving for empathy. I am struck by the ways we can gift each other, send out into the world what we have to offer and touch the lives of many we’ll never know, reverberations of care. I cried while listening and it felt like a long exhale.
Maybe it’s weird to want time alone when we are all in isolation, but that is just another example of the strange and conflicting ways life is playing out at this time. Conferences are often a time when I get to immerse in certain parts of my professional identity. I love the experience of learning that happens in that time. I also get time away from my family. It feels like an indulgence to have a whole hotel room to myself, to be able to shower without being interrupted, to sleep a whole night without being awakened by a child’s nightmares or a partner’s snores. Time in a new city, away from familiar surroundings, allows me access to another part of myself that exists outside of all the roles that I play. It allows me to be with myself so that I can better be with others.
I’ve always needed time alone, time spent with myself and my thoughts or with no thoughts at all. I feel the loss of that time acutely. It’s magnified by the constant, overlapping, and competing demands of being mom, partner, writing center director, instructor, and colleague all of the time, every day. I do not miss the many meetings and interactions of academia that feel inauthentic. In this blurring and blending of identities, some things fade away and fall off. There must be a center from which to move. I find that center must hold the quality of my relationships with myself and my communities. It must stand on the ground my values create. It’s the birdsong and the laughter of my children, the murmur of food bank line. It is the sound of my partner breathing, and it is antiracist work with peer tutors. It’s the blurring of boundaries between love of self and love for others.
Weeks later, as I edit this essay, the sirens screech all of the day and night. The frequency has changed but more significantly so has my impression of the sound. My first thought is no longer of front-line health care workers, coming to the aid of people struck by Covid-19. The screaming sirens might signal help or they might announce harm. Are they coming to protect or to desecrate the bodies of my fellow citizens? The world on pause has ended as the sirens screeches to a crescendo.
But the streets echo with the sounds of protest:
Black Lives Matter.
Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.
No Justice, No Peace.
No Racist Police.
Whose Streets? Our Streets.
At night, the chants give away to the boom of explosions we’ve been told are ATM machines being blown up by looters. Many report hundreds of these explosions each night and word on the street is that they are sonic booms created by the National Guard to keep citizens fearful and inside. Serve and protect, indeed.
The other night, I woke up to a woman outside somewhere calling out in distress, “I don’t know where I am. I just want to go home. Please just take me home.” I looked out of the front window but there was no one. Then it sounded like it was coming from another direction. I looked but couldn’t find her. I laid awake with my heart pounding with fear for her. When I woke up in the morning, I wondered if I had dreamed it. Or if, perhaps, she was all of us.
There is a realignment happening that is continuing to bring to the forefront the sound of what we must attend to, the place where our work is needed. It is hard to imagine ever going back to what was before.