4/22/20

BY Chiyuma Elliott | | Pandemic Diaries

My friend wrote, “I feel as though we went to sleep in one world and woke up in another, with different rules and a different atmosphere, which requires that we relearn how to breathe.” And then he offered to bring us lentils, sardines, or homemade soup. Before the pandemic, I was writing poems about a new planet. Now, I just want the things that tether me to this one.

I’m not writing poems. But I keep receiving invitations to share the pandemic poems I’m not writing, in print and via Zoom readings. While I’m not writing poems, I’m thinking of angels and laundry and keeping a difficult balance.

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Ruba Ahmed’s new book called Bring Now the Angels arrived in the mail; I quarantined it, then opened the box after a day of Zoom meetings, manuscript revision, and student paper conferences. Here’s what I noticed first: 

For leaving the fridge open
last night, I forgive you.
For conjuring white curtains
instead of living your life.

I am rationing these poems like I’m rationing our supply of oat milk.

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For years, I’ve kept a reading journal. A simple text file organized by month and year, where I list the books I’ve finished, and any quotes or notes that will help me remember them more vividly. This record has crashed to a halt (instead of March and April entries, I’ll probably just write PANDEMIC). But even without it, I know my reading habits have changed, and not just because of limited library access. I’ve needed different books in the evenings. Instead of contemporary fiction, I’ve been re-reading gardening manuals, and Trollope’s Barchester novels, and Václav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless.

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I’m also trying to imagine what it would look like to do a good job at online teaching. The Berkeley semester is long even in ordinary circumstances. By mid-April, my students don’t want to attend yet another online lecture or workshop. They want me to give them lots of written feedback on their paper drafts. And they want to meet on Zoom to talk about writing and revision, and how weird their housemates are. So that’s what I’m doing. I am a developmental editor and a proofreader for many hours each day. I don’t know if this makes me less of a teacher. Each Monday, I email lesson ideas and writing prompts to a colleague whose students are still clinging to her workshop like a life raft.

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 (Explanation)

One day, we watch the laundry: a neon frock
sings itself an aria in the flood. Restlessness
is the last ordinary map. You say, swim
and mean a well-lighted room (not the riptide
of dark linens). Or you mean
direction is gratuitous, and life
is a blank anthem, and the angels
are blue glass bottles, and, goodbye
goodbye
a thousand times,
and only the strange
is true, and the bottles
lift their phenomenal eyes. 

In the midst of this: a full weekend sewing fabric face masks for friends, family, and neighbors, because I am the one with a cache of elastic. Then a week with the sewing machine sitting across from me at the kitchen table that’s also my desk, crowding my husband at meals. He never complains about this. Instead, he wears hoodies and fuzzy slippers instead of suits, and learns to make no-knead bread.

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At some point in the late afternoon, someone invariably loses the plot, and emails me about it. At about the same time, my dogs accuse me of negligence because they like to eat vegetables and I haven’t started cooking dinner.

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My baby sister is an elementary school teacher. Last week, her former teacher, Brian, died after a long illness. Brian was also a yoga practitioner, a master mechanic, an ace softball coach, and a specialist in medieval armor. He and his wife, Lisa, visited Sara’s one-room schoolhouse on a Saturday last spring. Sara got to show him her kids’ work, and introduce him to Pecky, Lemon, and the nine other chickens the students keep in “Cluckingham Palace.” He got to see how much she’d learned from him. They got to say goodbye.

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My mom emailed that he died peacefully. But I’d just read a New York Times headline about COVID-19’s silent victims: the people with other serious medical conditions who aren’t able to get the care, medicine, or supplies they need. I took care of my mom-in-law when she was dying of lung cancer, so this hits me viscerally. I worry about Brian’s last days because I still remember the relief on the face of the very kind St. Vincent de Paul dock worker who helped unload our bags of Depends and wet wipes and gauze: how quickly he suppressed his happiness at having these desperately-needed things because he knew what the donation meant to us. Scarcity was real before the pandemic, but money could insulate you from it.

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Worry and wonder are the flip side of gratitude. My husband is also a professor; he talks about his own teachers this way: “In those days, giants walked the earth.” His doktorvater is John Fleming. Those things are not coincidences. John’s blog post this week is about social distancing parades and keeping busy with the Lesser Ambigua of Maximus the Confessor.

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Last week, my internet connection failed for eight minutes in the middle of a grad student’s MA exam; she and the other examiners kept calm and carried on, but I felt like I’d ruined things.

Trollope’s novels are master classes in narration, and fairy tales about the ubiquitous human failings that don’t ruin the world.

My small dog’s name is Radish, and she weeps as only a Border Collie mix can. She does not endorse my interrupting meal prep to jot down notes about anything, even Trollope, because writing is decadent.

One of my old poems talks about petroleum dependence and overfishing, albeit elliptically. An irony: it defines paradise as doing many things in a small space. 

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Havel wrote, “It [the force of truth] is a bacteriological weapon, so to speak, utilized when conditions are ripe by a single civilian to disarm an entire division. This power does not participate in any direct struggle for power; rather it makes its influence felt in the obscure arena of being itself.”

The President made an announcement about new immigration restrictions, and now I’m worried about my godson’s visa. He’s Nigerian, and training to be nurse, and his name means, “God is With Us.” He texted a picture of himself at work at the Port of Oakland, wearing one of my homemade masks. I take comfort in the fact that he is praying for things. I also take a lot of walks. 

Chiyuma Elliott, Associate Professor, African American Studies, Oakland, CA