Joy During the Plague

Pandemic Positives

For everyone reading this, it has been an unique experience, the past eleven months, being in the midst of a global pandemic.

Some of us had parents who were born in the last one, like myself, but they are long gone and I have no way of knowing what they heard from their parents and relatives about how they coped, found small joys and flickering lights on a dark road. In fact, I had no idea, absolutely none, that the 1918 epidemic in India called the “Bombay Flu” killed almost 16+ million, the most of any country in the world. Even Gandhi was infected. And I’m a history major!

The language of this pandemic is of incarceration, of separation, of isolation and a healthy dose of fear -—lockdown, quarantine, infection, super-spreader, isolation, social distancing, mutant strains.

To equate the notion of joy, that which gives us enjoyment, pleasure, delight, gratitude  to these times isn’t an ordinary response. Yet, we, in our own ways, and by the millions, have endured, accepted, handled and abided by a dystopian killer all around us. How? I will venture that it’s the joy that we have known in our lives.

And what is that joy? I asked a number of people ----some whom I know and have known for years and some whom I’ve never met in person except on a digital screen. Here are their reveries, unedited, in their own voices and styles.

As I was getting ready to write this introduction, Amitav Ghosh, the writer, popped up on Twitter with what I consider to be a serendipitous quotation from Giovanni “Gianni” Rodari, an Italian children’s book writer. It was in its original Italian. Oh for efs sake, I thought, and turned on Google Translate to find the perfect opening. That’s been one of my greatest, singular joys during the plague year ---to use the digital highways responsibly and be amazed at how thrilling the sights are ---poets, writers, artists, comics, commentators, playwrights, musicians, academics, film directors, actors, museum and gallery curators, curious and serious individuals, teenagers from hardscrabble slums of India learning English with whom I spend 60-90 minutes each week ----are all part of my hamper of joy.

By Gianni Rodari

“Giovannino Perdigiorno

ha perso il tram di mezzogiorno,

ha perso la voce, l’appetito,

ha perso la voglia di alzare un dito,

ha perso il turno, ha perso la quota,

ha perso la testa (ma era vuota),

ha perso le staffe, ha perso l’ombrello,

ha perso la chiave del cancello,

ha perso la foglia, ha perso la via:

tutto è perduto fuorché L'ALLEGRIA.”

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“Giovannino Perdigiorno

missed the noon tram,

he has lost his voice, his appetite,

has lost the will to lift a finger,

he lost his turn, he lost his quota,

he lost his mind (but it was empty),

he lost his temper, he lost his umbrella,

lost the key to the gate,

he lost the leaf, he lost his way:

all is lost except JOY. "

This is a small record of our joys in the year of the plague, 2020.

Amit

[NOTE RE: COPYRIGHT: All writers have agreed to be published and they own their copyright. If you quote or use any portion of these writings, please do the right thing and credit the blog and the writers.]

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Sarah Wright, Arlington, MA

This morning I exited my home to move my car – a cautious pedestrian roundtrip of 20 yards, max, in the raw air. I wasn’t going anywhere, as has been the case for almost a year, but the ritual would have been exactly the same if I were. I’d be a minor dancer in a harried ballet of gestures, sounds, and a huge machine.

These were the steps: Find key; open car door; clamber into car; haul seatbelt across chest; slam car door; turn key in ignition; drive somewhere important; do stuff; repeat steps one through eight, many times each day. Also repeat to self, “I’ll just run out and get …”

For almost a year, one of grim, wide suffering, “run out and get.” hasn’t applied. Wonderfully, the American choreography involving car keys, car doors, car sounds, has stilled. My street, which has a school at one end, is quiet. The calm mirrors and nourishes my own. Freedom from motor rituals delights my six senses. Below, some quick notes on new joys:

Visual delights: I walk every day on a designated bike path beside a New England pond. I have seen the seasons change; trees greened; blazed; went bare. Skaters occurred on the pond where it froze; geese, swans, and wood ducks, where it didn’t. I know all the dogs, if not owners. Just before my mother died in December, the dog she owned 50 years ago appeared on the path. This is the other eyesight that comes from stillness, the sixth sense of connection.

Aural delights: Also by the pond: Birds! Calls, songs, honks galore! Inside, music and more music. The voices of my friends on the phone, that fluid affection, over miles and years. The harmonics of love: My brother, 68, in Maine, “Yes! I remember that time. You were fourteen. I was twelve.” We’re laughing again, again.

The tactile pleasures: Human touch with a partner; mindful touch of my cat, Archie; of Terry’s dog; brief urgent shoveling fetes; cutting a friend’s long hair; cooking foods that require holding and handling.

What smells wonderful: Coffee. Garlic. Limes. Curry.

What tastes like heaven: Anything my mother cooked, minus the vermouth. Oh, and very, very strong coffee.

But why coffee? In stillness and quiet and calm, why the jolt of caffeine?

Because it was what my mother drank, what she gave us to drink in the morning – espresso reheated from the night before. Because when everything slows down, and there’s no “just run out and get,” there is only, sit and receive; keep watch on the sky; be prepared for strange and comforting visitors.

(Original art by Sarah Wright)

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Lena Chen, Pittsburgh, PA

PASSSENGER SEAT

Six weeks on the road, crossing 13 states in the passenger seat of a Toyota Tacoma, a journal on my lap, a finger on Google Maps … I threw out my calendar. I refused to conform to the norms of the screen. Zoom in. Zoom out.

In Lebanon, Kansas, a one-room chapel stands at the geographic center of the United States. An Apache minister has been giving a sermon every evening at 6pm. We arrive halfway into the story of Job’s sufferings, and he tells us about his conversion in his late twenties, when he heard Jesus calling to him while he sat in jail. He’s been ministering ever since, traveling the country in a white truck gifted to him by a woman who said she felt called by God to do so. He’s told his own people to abandon their sun dances to turn to Christ and I wonder who am I to judge his idea of liberation, but would I feel the same way if he were white? I think of the whole sermon as a kind of performance art. 

In the unincorporated community of Cope, Colorado, a single child with their parent rides a carousel in the memorial park. We pass houses with peeling paint, a shuttered steakhouse, a motorcycle racetrack, an one-room post office in operation since 1889. It’s America, but might as well be another planet to me. 

Idaho Springs, Colorado used to be a mining town. Now gift shops sell tie-dye t-shirts and paintings by local artists. The most popular restaurant has 5,785 reviews on Google and a 45-minute wait. In 2008, the town closed their last gold mine. The local high school football stadium is getting torn down this year to make room for condos. Like other species, humans adapt to survive. Some adaptations will save us. Others may doom us. History is layered on top of history like rock formations. An old mine becomes a tourist attraction. Better for the environment, but the tourists bring real estate developers.

Every choice is a contradiction.

The texture of my days changes, along with my skin which has become dusty and mosquito-bitten. I have given up Internet access and a mattress to travel across country without any goal in sight, in order to cultivate insight, stillness, and peace. In order to be present in the here and now, instead of being imprisoned by my schedule. In order to zoom out on a map and see not destinations but possibilities.

I have witnessed artists transform abandoned storefronts into tree farms. I have held fragments of prehistoric pottery freshly dug up by archaeologists from ancient mounds. I have thought about how and if it is possible to do performance from the road, in the middle of a pandemic, as I drive through places in my supposed homeland, which feels as strange as any foreign country. I have thought that for art to survive, it must adapt itself, just like cities, just like the rest of creation.

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Lauren Jones, Miami, FL

When my university’s gym closed last April, I turned to my bike for exercise, anxiety relief, and respite from studies. I’m fortunate that I live in Miami and can ride my bike nearly all year round, enjoying fresh air, trees, flowers, and beaches. I started riding after class, beginning by travelling a couple miles from home and eventually venturing out 10, 20, and 30 miles roundtrip. Through the summer, I battled suffocating humidity and dodged the seemingly incessant rain showers that descend on muggy South Florida afternoons. More recently, during the fall and winter, the oppressive sogginess has given way to pleasant breezes and clear skies.

My bike rides have taken me through botanical gardens, public parks, and peaceful mangroves I had never known about, much less visited. I’ve discovered small, hidden coves that open up to the Atlantic Ocean, where I’ve watched birds, fish, and other wildlife interact uninhibited with their surroundings. Coronavirus has brought on the unwanted burdens of anxiety, stress, fear, and fatigue, but it has also driven me to explore South Florida’s natural spaces and beauty. Before the pandemic, I only used my bike to get to and from my university’s campus, which is about a mile from my home. Now, my bike is my vehicle to see the world under the green canopies, alongside the canals, and against the backdrop of the powerful sea.     

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Susan Hagner, Arlington, MA

BREAKFAST FOR DINNER

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Subodh Mathur, Bethesda, MD

Suchi, my daughter, and Dan lived in an apartment in Manhattan, NY. They were planning to get married in May 2020. However, when the pandemic arose, they rushed to the courts, and got married in March 2020. No family members could join them – sad. But, heck, they were married – happy news.

A few months later, they found life in Manhattan had become very restrictive. It was tough for two people to work in their apartment,  even though it was spacious by Manhattan standards. And, after that, there was nothing to do. Manhattan had lost its charm.

So, they wanted to escape to something more workable. Within walking distance to us, we had a vacant, furnished home of a friend who had moved to Delhi some years back, but kept the home. Suchi had known these people since birth. So, Suchi and Dan moved into that home in May.

Dan’s mother, Esther, had moved in 2019 to our area. So, she was delighted too. One of the first things Suchi and Dan did was to get a rescue dog, named Archie, for Esther, whose dog had died some time back. Now, the fives of us – my wife, me, Suchi, Dan, Esther, and Archie – formed a bubble, and did so many things together.

Suchi and Dan went back to Manhattan in June 2020. But, life was no better. So, they quit Manhattan, and came to live in our area in September 2020. They stayed until early December 2020, when they went to Los Angeles to escape the East Coast cold.

We had a great time together in the same bubble. And, my son came from his college occasionally. So, it was family time – thanks to the pandemic.

Now we are alone again. But, the vaccine is around the corner!

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Anonymous, Concord, MA

PROTIEN FOR MY SPIRIT

Being asked to write about what brought me joy in 2020 flipped my

thinking and the unconscious accrued assumptions I had absorbed about how

"bad" the year was.

Being invited to write about the joys I experienced during the year brought

so many happy memories. I have received a great gift to my spirit in writing

these down.

In early April, a niece of mine wrote every adult in the family asking if we

would like to have a family Zoom night. YES was the resounding response

from all the adults [20]. The 8 grandchildren came and went. Our first Zoom

was on a Monday night. This began a weekly time together ---usually an hour but

sometimes longer. Somehow spontaneously we found a way not to interrupt

each other. I've never felt closer to each person in my family. We have always been

very close but this has been, and continues to be, "over the top"!

I learned to make a sumptuous apple sauce with skins on, clove, cinnamon and shaved lemon zest.

During the summer I returned to oil painting. One of my grandson's had

a great idea of screwing long hefty screws into a tree with two trunks.

It was supreme as I like to work on a large canvas [5x3']. It was blissful

to be under a tree with the opera playing and painting!

One of my sons created a surprise Zoom for my 80th birthday with all

the family and very good long time friends, including a couple from

England and France. Totally delightful with lots of laughter. Everyone

was asked to tell a story about something we had shared. My son also made

a video of the whole thing and including videos from people who could not

attend. It is a treasure!

I got into doing puzzles, mostly of reproductions of artists, Picasso, Gauguin

et al. I was talking about it on a family Zoom. Two of my siblings and a niece

got into it too which began a round-robin of puzzles.

All the times I was with my grandchildren ---weekly--when we would stretch out

our arms as large as we could for hugging.

The most intimate and hilarious joy was having coffee with my best friend in

her Small Car each week. We met in 1986 going to the Soviet Union on a “Peace

and Politics” mission with the League of Women's Voters. [In contrast to

all the joys I have experienced this year, being in Russia was NOT a joy.]

My niece is sober today.

I look forward with great anticipation to reading what everyone has written.

Joy begets Joy begets Joy.

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Linda Ennis, Watertown, MA

Hard to forget those early weeks, when the word “pandemic” was still foreign to our tongues.  Rampant texting & emailing, whirlwinds of feelings, confusion over how to stay safe, anxiety over what comes next.  I found myself frantically rejuvenating old attachments, intensifying friendships and desperately reaching out in whatever way possible, to soothe the internal chaos. 

 Weeks turned to months and, eventually, life slowed down. As the sense of aloneness deepened, a realization emerged that so many of my usual pleasurable distractions, a latté from Starbucks or dinner & a movie with a friend, were now inaccessible due to quarantine. Phone calls were meager substitutes for physical closeness, the aching for companionship, the warmth of a hug. The loss of my mother many miles away entangled in this period exacerbated the isolation & emptiness. With time, a glaring awareness intruded, an awareness of how singular my road is, that the journey through life is indeed an idiomatic one for each of us, despite occasional intersections. This realization soon engendered an expanding consciousness of how I am living my life, often highlighting minuscule moments.

 Sometimes, I watch myself take on new adventures, like that of cooking from scratch, something I have vehemently avoided throughout my adult life. The long-ignored charming footpath along the Charles River a block from my home, has become my refuge. How inconceivable it is to discover how many years I have lived here, oblivious to this sanctuary of luscious fall colors, and bare limbs of winter reaching out to greet me. I spend my days wallowing in the balm of the river waters lining this path, or rediscovering my love of CDs tucked away far too long, or spontaneously dancing to Leonard Cohen with my less-than-thrilled feline friends, all inducing unanticipated joy. Endless opportunities to explore unknown books & unfamiliar thoughts via seminars online, as well as allowing myself to wait more patiently when things go awry, as waiting has become a way of life-- these are also my gems from this pandemic interlude.

 While certainly missing opportunities to travel and explore, this period of quarantine has granted me gifts of time & space, and a chance to appreciate thoughts & feelings which typically inconspicuously glide by. 

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Tony Artuso, Melrose, MA

Obviously, the pandemic has negatively impacted our lives in ways great and small. However, I’ve noticed some positive outcomes as a result of the accommodations we’ve made to avoid the spread of COVID. Specifically, relentlessly local institutions have, thanks to videoconferencing, opened themselves up to participation from outside our region. For instance, the Massachusetts Historical Society, which used to open its doors regularly for visitors for seminars and talks, has had to shut its facility but has opened its events to those outside the Bay State. Hundreds attended a panel of historians talking about disputed elections of the past. This was scheduled well in advance of the violent insurrection that overran our Capitol on Jan. 6, but it allowed people from across the country to help process the suddenly, painfully clear fragility of our democracy. Boston’s Poet Laureate, and all-round nice person, Porsha Olayiwola, started a series of virtual poetry readings entitled “Home,” but this City of Boston series has begun attracting listeners and readers to the open mic from as far away as Atlanta, and even international participants, such as from Scotland. Personally, I’ve connected with like minded folks via Zoom from Maine to Florida whom I would never have met or gotten to know well if the pandemic hadn’t forced my socializing online. I hope, once in-person gatherings become safe, that event sponsors continue to offer virtual participation options. If not, I’ll sorely miss my coronavirus friends.

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Zeb Larson, Columbus, OH

I always hated running. It’s nothing against exercise: I like lifting weights, I like doing yoga, and I like exercise bikes. However, I am also asthmatic, and running has made it difficult to breathe ever since I was a child. I am also clumsy, and 6’3”, and the combination of those things while running has left me with a colorful collection of scars.

And yet, I’ve learned to love running because of the pandemic. COVID shut down gyms and trapped me in a small apartment for months on end, one where even doing yoga meant rearranging furniture. I had no other exercise equipment, and buying it became ludicrously expensive as everybody rushed to buy dumbbells. It was go running or go stir crazy.

None of the things I disliked about it had gone away. I still wheeze sometimes after a run, and I’ve added yet another large scar to my knee since I started. That hasn’t stopped me from growing to love it. For one thing, I desperately needed the exercise, and it delivered the punishing workouts I like. Starting the day with a morning run was a reminder that a world existed outside of my apartment, even if it was quiet and nobody was out. There was a kind of peace to a run through downtown Columbus, a reminder that I wasn’t as alone as I sometimes felt. I’m not sure I could have gotten that from a gym even before the pandemic. 

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Jess Bailey, Somerville, MA

(Photograph: Jess Bailey)

While the pandemic has brought tremendous hardship and suffering for so many of us, one gift for me has been the chance to spend more time with my best friend. He’s getting up there in years - he turned 9 in July - and I know that this time is precious. Since last March we’ve gone on hundreds of hikes, gone swimming in the ocean, and took a cross-country drive in a rented minivan. He’s taught me to find joy in everyday little things like way the woods smell after the rain, and I’ve gotten to see him face his fears (the ocean is scary!) and learn to swim as a relatively old man. It’s impossible to be lonely when this guy is by my side. 

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Kevin Duffy, Arlington, MA

TORTOISES AND HARES

Like so many of us, the pre-pandemic order in my life has been disassembled, shattered, and scattered. It's routines and rhythms upended. The cerebral metronome which pulsed out the tempo of my days and nights,  uncalibrated and often reversed.

 In my pre-pandemic existence, I often spent my present moments, dwelling in the past or racing towards the future. As though I were driving a vehicle with only two gears, forward and reverse. This imposed isolation has introduced me to a third, hitherto unnoticed gear, neutral. An option allowing me to enjoy a moment in the present unfettered by the urge to rush on, or back to, another destination. The current pandemic situation has caused two of my adult daughters to move back in, with my wife and I. Recently one evening, we were gathered in the same room and the three of them were attempting to fold origami animals. As I watched them quietly fold, unfold, refold, and ultimately transform small squares of colored paper into three-dimensional caricatures, I became totally captivated, by the interaction of their moving hands and fingers with the paper squares. I found myself totally focused within that present moment, nowhere else. I felt a sensation of serenity, gratitude, and joy percolate up from within me, the likes of which I have rarely experienced throughout the course of my entire life. All due to simply putting the shifter into neutral gear and leaving it to rest. Had we not all been cloistered together due to COVID, I don't know if I would have ever discovered that joy of just being, not doing. The origami pieces which they created were of rabbits and turtles. They reminded me of Aesop’s fable I read as a child, about the tortoise and the hare. We all know the outcome of that fable and its moral, "Slow and steady wins the race." But that evening I learned, sometimes the race can be won, by just not moving.

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(Photograph: Kevin Duffy)

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Kristen Beard, Pepperell, MA

This time has stripped away the noise of life.  Dinners out, celebrations, shopping for stuff other than food, conversations in person with friends, art and performance, all the miles that would have been driven to these things.  What is left is the skeleton, the bare bones.

And in this quieter space the small things come forward. The faithful love and physical presence of the animals.  The seasons spelled out in the coming and going of flowers and the leaves on trees.  Spring rain outside the window, summer crickets and thunderstorms, a world of music coming out of the radio.  The way the sunset turns the trees on the west facing hill orange and gold and purple.

There is the act of making: art, music, food, human design, the timeless space of creation.

There is the doing of small things for others, a human connection, giving that gives.

So we are pared down to our essence, that which supports us, our personal foundation and architecture.  Bare bones. The gift has been to receive what is always here. 

(Unfinished watercolor by Kristen Beard)

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Alolika A. Dutta, India

A plague endangers joy. You must find yours and keep it safe. Store it in the kitchen, make it into a sonnet, place it in the sound hole of a guitar, or sow it into good ground.

Locked down in a small apartment, I found joy in poetry. For poetry, this plague has been damaging. As John Hall Wheelock said with reference to age, “as you get older, the urge to write is less because making poems is tied up with what you experience. As you get old and can’t go out very often, being confined to one or two rooms, and all your friends are dead . . . or most of them . . . you see few people . . . you see less of the world . . . there’s less experience; and consequently less of what you do with experience.” The plague has done similar things to us. It has aged us, many years at once.

In these times, I have found joy in memory. I have written about mothers, familial rituals, intimate spaces, and elements of domestic life that I would not have written about had I not been away from the overwhelming outdoors.

Joy in plague, joy in captivity, joy in deprivation.