Notes from 2020

Things to Do in Captivity

Pace the room and look out the windows. 
Watch spring’s warmth slowly green the grass and call buds from the barren tree branches.
Greet birds on their northerly migration. 
Glare at the neighborhood cats making themselves at home in your flower beds. 

Laugh with your partner, cook with your partner, fight with your partner. 
Wonder why you chose this person as your partner, because wouldn’t this captivity be more bearable if it was yours alone? 
Weep with gratitude for how safe you feel with your partner’s arms around you. Make love to your partner. 
Talk until you run out of things to say to each other then say them again. 

Make lists: of meals for the week, movies to watch, books to read, things to buy on that distant day when you will venture to the store again, places to travel when the world becomes safe. 
Scraps of scribbled lists meant to bring order to the chaos and direction to the emptiness of the days will soon cover every surface of your home. 

Reach for music, books, art in any form. Dance and sing and draw and write.
Creativity is our link to an outside world that once contained something beautiful. 
Creativity is our only hope of returning to that place someday. 

Wander around your yard.
Dig your hands into the soil, dirt beneath your fingernails as you plant tomatoes and flowers whose names you’ve already forgotten. 
Take in deep lungfuls of the sweet air, fresh with the smell of the earth opening to receive the morning rain. 
Out here you can move instead of think. 

Sit with your dog. 
The small weight of his soft head on your leg smooths your jagged edges. 
The simple pleasures he pursues in a day — a nap, a meal, a walk around the neighborhood— begin to seem profound. 

Stare at the mirror for hours.
Until you’ve memorized every mole and wrinkle on your face, every dark corner of your soul.
Until you can’t stand to bear witness to the messiness of yourself anymore. 
There is nothing to do but be present. 

Inspired by “Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale” by Dan Albergotti, featured in Laurie Wagner’s wild writing course.

This Poem Cannot Discover the Vaccine

This poem cannot discover the vaccine. 

This poem cannot reopen the restaurants and gyms so people can make a living. 

It cannot deliver masks and keep us protected.

This poem cannot give you a hug, no matter how much you need to feel the weight and warmth of another being in your arms. 

This poem will not post on Facebook to shame the people who don’t agree with it. 

It will not show up at the capitol with a rifle to demand things be different. 

This poem will not reopen the schools or supervise your children.

It cannot pass a relief package, send you a check, pay your rent, or extend your unemployment benefits. 

It will not hord the toilet paper, and it doesn’t stand on the Xs in the grocery store checkout line. 

This poem will not bomb your Zoom meeting or make an excellent point with its mic on mute. 

This poem will not stay 6 feet away, no matter how wide a berth you give it or how many dirty looks.

It will not wash its hands and it refuses to thank healthcare workers. 

This poem doesn’t play by the rules of our “new normal” or any normal.

This poem exists outside the pandemic. It rises from a path through the woods at dawn, as slices of sunlight filter through the trees and disperse little clouds of mist hovering around the highest branches, where solitude doesn’t feel like isolation. 

Inspired by “What This Poem Will Do” by Anne Haines, featured in Laurie Wagner’s wild writing course.

9 Things to Know About Helping in a Pandemic

  1. We have to pass out the food on the sidewalk. People can’t congregate and share air in the community center, so we carry heavy boxes of food to the folding tables set up outside. 
  2. There are too many volunteers, armed with masks and plastic gloves. We breach our six-foot barriers as we mill around waiting to distribute meals and homework packets since the schools abruptly closed. We are eager to do anything that feels like helping or anything that interrupts our new state of lockdown. Mostly we can do nothing. 
  3. Cars line up before the distribution shift starts. Parents pull forward and roll down their windows, their voices muffled by masks as they tell us how many kids they need to feed that week. We count out the plastic grocery bags, each holding seven days’ worth of Pop-tarts, sandwiches, fruit cups, crackers and milk cartons. 
  4. The bags are much smaller than bags of seven days’ worth of my meals would be.
  5. Hundreds of meals are gone in an hour. We pile the grocery bags into their cars, fill the lap of the kid buckled into the passenger seat, cover the floorboards in the backseat, and load up the trunk. “Thank you,” they say. “Have a blessed day,” we say. 
  6. The teachers helping pass out meals sometimes break the pandemic rules and lean into a car to hug a kid.
  7. Fewer volunteers show up as the weeks pass, but there are still too many of us because fewer parents arrive at the new distribution times and locations. We duck behind the cement pillars in front of the high school to get out of the chilly April wind and wonder if there are hungry people who don’t know we are here or can’t get to us. 
  8. Between cars, we talk about podcasts we like and who’s been laid off by the shutdown. One woman debates whether to attend the funeral of a relative who died from COVID-19, knowing her loved ones could spread the virus when they gather to mourn. 
  9. People pull in with their back seats already piled high with meals from other pick-up sites, and they tell us they need more because they’re feeding a daycare or a neighborhood. We count out the bags. We are not supposed to ask questions. “Thank you,” they say. “Have a blessed day.” 

Inspired by “9 Surprising Things Worth More Than This Shimmering Metal” by Hannah Norman, featured in Laurie Wagner’s wild writing course.

You Can’t Have it All

You can’t have it all but you can have an afternoon of kayaking with your parents, paddling across the glass-flat blue water sparkling with the sunlight that finally broke through a hole in the clouds.

You can’t have it all, but you can have protesters fill the streets, children with small fists raised, crowds chanting for justice in the wake of another Black man killed by police. 

You can’t have it all but you can sip wine in a chair pulled up by the bonfire with your brother and sister-in-law, watching the dogs chase each other down the sandy beach while the day’s last golden light fades into that distant line where the sky meets Lake Huron. 

You can’t have it all, but you can have a president who condones white people marching with rifles to demand their right to a haircut and threatens military violence against Black people marching with bullhorns to demand their right to not be killed with impunity. You can have endless social media outrage and people more concerned about the rights of the murderer than the rights of the innocent. 

You can’t have it all but you can listen to your grandmother tell stories from her childhood while she offers you snacks, and you can hug her extra tight when you tell her good-bye.

You can’t have it all but you can have a speechless broken heart for the pain, grief, unrest, division and racial strife in our country. 

You can’t have it all but you can have all this in one day. You can pray for healing. 

Inspired by “You Can’t Have it All” by Barbara Was, featured in Laurie Wagner’s wild writing course.

Thank You

A string of lights wraps around the front porch railing of the house across the street, which has never been decorated for Christmas before, and we say thank you for dots of color and light in the darkness.

Death counts rise and hospitals fill to capacity as the virus continues to spread despite our best half-hearted efforts, and we say thank you to the exhausted nurses and doctors layering on PPE to check on the patients. We say thank you to the scientists who have discovered a vaccine to end all this. 

Another police officer kills another unarmed Black man, and we say thank you to the weary folks who gather in the streets, petition the people in power and post on social media to remind us this is still a tragedy and this is still injustice, but we could choose another way. 

Hang colorful bulbs on the Christmas tree, arrange the carved wooden Nativity set on the shelf, bake great-grandma’s cookie recipes, and wrap boxes of gifts for our loved ones in crinkly red paper. We say thank you for anchoring traditions and finally something to celebrate at the end of this endless year. 

Spend quiet evening after quiet evening sinking deeper into the couch — reading, playing cards, watching TV, listening to music — and we say thank you for these ways to wait out the pandemic. 

Headlines expose more lies and incompetence from our nation’s leader, and we say thank you to the voters who decided this man will soon be out of power. 

Masks on at the grocery store, curbside service at the library and our favorite barbecue spot, and we say thank you for the chance to make brief eye contact with the people keeping our community running. 

Days when we would give anything to know how much further to the finish line of this mandated stillness, and we say thank you for the revelation that we were never in control anyway. 

Slow mornings of prayer and writing and coffee, and we say thank you for peace in the midst of this storm. 

Waves of grief and morning tears, and we say thank you that this fresh loss we thought would overwhelm us has instead opened new spaces in our hearts. 

For 2020, we say thank you. 

Inspired by “Thanks” by W.S. Merwin, featured in Laurie Wagner’s wild writing course.

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