I expected to enlarge my world this March, attending the CCCC, discovering Wisconsin, and visiting relatives. Instead, my world grew smaller, caught up in the minutia of coordinating quarantine, navigating a pandemic, and fighting stagnation. I’m reminded to be more mindful of continuing to overcome obstacles and to be aware of a larger community of people.
In the midst of the pandemic I am often reminded of the Spanish flu pandemic the end of the first World War—a hundred years almost exactly with almost the same experience, if photographs and narratives are indicators. We share with that world masked faces, transference by travel, peculiarity of time, and magnificent loss. History, doomed to repeat. As I look over my journal entries for the conference, I wonder if, like myself, documentarians or journal writers of a hundred years ago ended up boiling their lives down to holding onto the normalcy of daily routines.
Living with psychological and physical disability and being a writer, often means my life is about doing that next one thing while writing of the world both within and beyond it. So it was with me in quarantine during the canceled conference.
I became ill with flu-like symptoms the day before my state’s first confirmed case from COVID-19. The world was the same then—the ongoing construction of a major roadway through town, work schedules, and meeting and greetings of family and friends. Nobody wore masks. I wasn’t worried. I was only cautious going to the doctor with flu-like symptoms I typically would have waited out, except the virus began to make US headlines. My fear motivated me to be cautious of a disease spreading like the later piling of brown needles below pine trees just beyond my patio for lack of groundskeeping. I was told not to worry because Little Rock, Arkansas is not an international transportation hub. I was told not to worry because at the time Arkansas did not have one confirmed case. I wasn’t worried except, as sick as I ever get, my poor health comes from within my own body—I don’t catch anything.
The doctor’s strep and flu tests were negative. Later, the upper respiratory panel sent off was negative. Regardless, from the day I left the doctor’s office until four weeks and two illnesses later, I remained in quarantine. I was too ill to do anything, but according to local officials I called a couple of times I wasn’t ill enough to warrant breaking quarantine to be tested for Covid19. It was more important to keep others and myself safe whether it was to prevent me from infecting others or it was to prevent someone else from infecting me.
My pets, my cat Ricochet, and a pair of parakeets, Widget and Whimsy, were my only companions, so in one sense, for me, keeping everyone safe from whatever my illness was easy to do. I didn’t leave the house, besides a couple of times, for a few minutes, stepping out in my patio garden lush with new growth and colorful pansies and removing bags of trash. I didn’t touch the outside of my door, giving those friends who gave much more of themselves, putting themselves at risk with my needs, time to knock and walk away before I pulled supplies inside. No faces. I saw no faces—masked or not, for almost every minute of a month, except by division of a computer screen a couple of times. I didn’t pass anything outward to anybody. I was fortunate that both of my classes were online. It was still a week and a half away from the conference time, and I didn’t want to give satisfaction to any thought that I wouldn’t attend. I will be well enough to attend for the first and last time before graduation with an MA in December, I thought. However, I struggled to have the strength of mind and body to even do simpler homework.
Not only wasn’t I well. The world wasn’t well. My birthday passed without the usual round of sharing lives over a meal or coffee or the using of retail rewards. Then the conference passed through a time of the world and my shared illness, and regardless of sharing an illness spanning the globe, my life boiled down to mundanities. Despite depression and being an introvert, I try to be as active as possible. I am a high-functioning, high achiever. I socialize, go for coffee, make errand runs for myself and my little family of pets. I am in therapy, see doctors, get treatments regularly. All that stopped as if a lifeline sharply cut. The only way I survived in my four walls was through kind friends. Within my four walls very little was done. I was content often to just lay down and stare up at my smooth cream ceiling staccatoed by the shadow of my fan blades. If not the conference, I was supposed to use spring break getting ahead in assignments or at least catching up, or I was supposed to blog, work on my memoir, take advantage of a gap in class to catch up with people. What I didn’t act as if what I was supposed to do was work on getting well. I did write, but only for my record of events as Documentarian during the time I should have been on site.
What did I write? I wrote of my air conditioning, which ended up being out for 5 weeks; pet interactions; fighting with my landlord over the ac; grief of my lost opportunity to travel; the rainy weather; and all the things I was trying to make into accomplishments and that were accomplishments, because accomplishment mattered. The New York Times headlines spattered at me on an hourly basis told me all I needed to know about the world. You don’t realize it until you are in the midst of it, as I was before then, that as easy as it sounds letting a bunch of other people do and get stuff for me takes a lot of time coordinating. Social media also told me on an intimate level what people were doing—driving toward working from home, coming up with a variety of ways to make masks, businesses shutting down with a lot of jobs lost, people spitefully coughing on others to get them out of the way, and a growing online way of life for everyone—from museum exhibit to workshop video.
Each entry I did for 4C, I propped the laptop on my leg and torso as I reclined on the sofa trying to recover. My parakeets chatted and chirped with each other and Ricochet slept on my legs while I typed my missives.
Wednesday morning, when I planned to start conference activities, I wrote:
The scene around me is none like you ever see in my place due to limited capacity. It needs vacuuming, all the surfaces in the entire house are both cluttered with medicines and supplies and to-dos and need to be entirely sanitized. I never meet people face to face at the door. I have a strict non-touching the outside of my door or beyond my door for me and a knock and walk away policy for whomever delivers at the door besides not handing them anything. My parakeets, Widget and Whimsy, have quieted down with the quiet of me quietly typing without my usual music and my sunning and napping cat Ricochet. I am where I always sit one way or another when I work and that is on my sofa with my feet up. My untouched lunch sits waiting my putting it off besides me. I am comfortable om my reupholstered elegantly wood trimmed and filigreed with wood Edwardian sofa working on finishing this to eat lunch. I hear the hum of the refrigerator and no hum for the central air out these past three weeks which the maintenance won't come repair, but that my friend helped me out with a floor heater that keeps us getting too cool when I keep the bedroom shut. I feel tired and know I need to eat and relax or else I won't be able to do anything else today. Despite Recurrent Severe Major Depression, PTSD, and general anxiety issues, I feel content.
By Saturday, the pandemic and weather had rained me into a real funk, and I wondered what my mundane, monotonous notes contributed to the conference, to other people in the academic and literary community, or to a journal amidst a once-in-a century pandemic.
As student or writer in a pandemic it is easy to get caught up in my own little world as I concentrate my efforts on this thing right now before me. I lose perspective of a global community when it may not have directly touched me. I lose perspective of the global community when I don’t see a representative of the global reach of a disaster. I watched on a television as our own planes—200-ton people-bearing missiles– made the World Trade Center a deathtrap. There was a horrendous explosive roaring as first one and then the other Tower crumbled in a roiling cloud of dust. I was not part of the events and didn’t know anyone who was, but I can’t imagine a pain greater than that which wrenched my heart. I couldn’t imagine the pain of those and their families there that day. So many precious lives lost or affected. Four terrorist plane strikes kill 2,996 people, and wound over 6,000 others.
I thought about that as the headlines bolded New York’s death toll from the pandemic as surpassing those in the World Trade Center. Since then, I heard there have been over 100,000 deaths in the U.S. from the pandemic. I wondered why I didn’t feel about this greater disaster as I still do about the day the lives of those in World Trade Centers, Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania field crashes. Creating narrative is about how we interact with suffering, how we resist its downward pull and strive to overcome it with how we write about the story. The French philosopher Michel Foucault taught me the importance of knowing or taking care of self—personal growth. It is important that, as a writer, I constantly grow my knowledge and experience of myself, the world, and others. Foucault also said that though the aim is always reflecting on how to know, take care of, or improve myself, the result is the care of others. I am responsible as a writer to be aware of myself in such a way that it shapes the way I write about not only myself, but it shapes the way I write about others. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would say that we like the ruts we have made for ourselves. They require little effort. We also camouflage our true intentions behind what we want or have been accustomed to meaning by our deeds, memory, or who we are. So to overcome my presumptions, habits of thought, prejudices, etc., I must have an impetus, an orienting concern that causes me to resolve my own inner conflict over what I know and what there is to know of experiences.
There have been many more days and there will be many more days to come whether from my own illness and disability, such as the upcoming third surgery on just one leg bone that keeps breaking or fracturing, or from a pandemic when I allow myself to be cut off from the rest of the world, when I create my own ruts. The documentarian survey project is, if anything, a wake-up call to be aware, even amid my home, garden, and pets, of the experiences of others. The pandemic spanning over the week of the conference was not just about my illness within my four walls. It was about millions of people around the world touched in ways similar and different than mine. People were separated into hospitals where loved ones couldn’t go without infecting or being infected. Lines of people worried over test results. Millions of people in the US alone lost their jobs and wondered how they would pay electric, water, grocery bills. Battles were fought in government agencies and among government representatives. Supplies, particularly, of all things, bathroom tissue ran short. The creative made masks and patterns for masks. Plans for gatherings and vacations were canceled, enclosing or separating families and friends within the same four metaphorical walls as mine. People were bored. They were angry. They were anxious. They also looked forward to a future when all this is behind us. I was stagnant or anxious or tired or angry in turns.
What I hope is that writers, not just the Documentarians, but a host of writers documented in narrative their lives and the world and that we didn’t all lose sight of our wider community. I hope because of this survey of myself in the Documentarian surveys, I remember to bring hope through my writing to a broader expanse of people—to record how people overseeing the conference found a way to bring the conference to others through these documents; to record how people made the best of a bad situation by celebrating in parades; to record how administrators, professors, parents, and students collectively overcame obstacles to continue the pursuit of learning; to record more beautiful sunsets and sunrises created by lower emissions than generations of people have seen; to record laughter over the unending board games, movie marathons, and, yes, the hunt for toilet paper; and to record how people rallied not just for themselves but for those around them. As a community, country, or world we overcame the impetus of easily created ruts to care or be reminded of the concern for others.
As for me and my writing, I will find out three days before the upcoming surgery whether or not what I was ill from or what I have been exposed to since is COVID-19, because everyone having surgeries must be tested for it. I still wear my mask and practice social distancing when I go out. I still play with pets and tend my garden. I have again picked up work on my portfolio defense to be given in the fall—my graduating semester, and I am yet again revising an independent study I hope to publish someday. All these things I write in and about are groundwork on which to build the rest of my writing life and global life. I continue to learn and try daily to overcome the impetus that is my self in ruts of my own making.