dispatch from isolation
(After “Strange Light: A Dispatch from Isolation” By Daniel Bowman, Jr.)
Shared on TinyLetter on May 23, 2020.
A few weeks ago, I watched Amazing Grace, a concert film of Aretha Franklin recording her 1972 live gospel album. What I love about the video is the sweat. Everyone’s sweating. The choir, in their sparkling silver shirts and afros. The pianist, weeping into a towel. The audience, moved to their feet, calling back to the choir. Aretha, as she slides up through octaves, takes a deep breath, and glides right back down. They’re all dark and glistening and dabbing at their faces with handkerchiefs and sleeves. It’s hot. They’re all in the room together putting in the work.
I watch the documentary while I paint one night in isolation. For a second, I wish desperately to be transported into that room. Not just to hear Aretha live or be surrounded by other Black folks in a church, but to be with people—to stand close in each other’s body heat and sweat with them.
Here in isolation, it’s now been months since I last hugged someone or talked with a friend in person without a screen door and some distance separating us. I am trying to stave off the loneliness, or at least do things to forget about it for small periods of time. I’ve been painting. Inspired by Raven Leilani’s pandemic paintings she’s been sharing on Twitter, I also decided to start what I’m calling my social distancing series.
I keep painting Black women’s faces in various forms because I want to learn how. And maybe, if I am willing to admit it, I also paint them because I like the company. An eye appears, and then the ears and lips, and then look at that—a person of sorts. The closest I will be to one in a while. When I take a picture of it, my phone suggests portrait mode, which is how I know it must look decently like another human being.
I miss the people and the movement of my pre-pandemic life. The old songs popping up on my playlists make me remember. Their familiarity is a balm in a time so crammed with the unrecognizable. When I listen to “Rivers and Roads” by The Head and the Heart, I am taken to some flat, straight road in rural Indiana, singing into the wind with my roommates. When “Jesus Will Work it Out” rolls around on my gospel list, I am back on highway 31 with my mom and Granny. Boygenius’ “Me and My Dog” reminds me of the wide, low roads of Bowling Green, Ohio. In the song, Bridgers, Baker, and Ducas sing, “ I never said I'd be all right / Just thought I could hold myself together / When I couldn't breathe, I went outside / Don't know why I thought it'd be any better / I'm fine now, it doesn't matter.”
I think about these words often and how aptly they describe how I am simultaneously okay, and not okay, and trying to be okay, and trying be okay with not being okay during this global crisis.
Often, though, my feelings of isolation and powerlessness feel silly. I am in a safe apartment with food, electricity, water, internet. I’m in regular contact with friends and family. I still have a job. If I am sick, I’m asymptomatic thus far. There are many reasons why I can trivialize the feelings of loss I am experiencing. But, I recently read Daniel Bowman Jr’s essay “Strange Light: A Dispatch from Isolation.” In it, he speaks of the grief he and his students are experiencing, saying:
Here is the sanction we need. Grief is no respecter of persons—or of losses. It doesn’t know that it “shouldn’t” visit you as harshly if you’re merely sad about not living in residence halls and walking across the manicured quad of your bucolic college campus…or wearing a badly-fitting mask to the grocery store. Grief hits where and how it hits, and we are helpless to overpower it with acts of will or business-like competitive analysis.
I, too, need this sanction to grieve the small, frivolous, beautiful things I have lost: timing my kettle perfectly in the morning for my to-go mug of earl gray tea; begrudgingly grading papers with friends in coffeeshops; stuffing my backpack full of books from the library; borrowing my advisor’s office; walking home in the cool evening air; seeing my students nod or smile or sleep in class.
It’s all small. It’s all holy. And grief visits me daily when I think about losing these small things and the potential for losing much bigger ones.
I take a walk around the block or paint or sleep or cry or sing or shower or cook or write or text or a million other things. In the words of boygenius, I can say, “It takes so long for me to settle down / and when I finally do there’s no one else around / so I stay down.”
One way I’ve been settling down is through painting. Another, more familiar way, has been poetry. So, I will end with this poem I wrote after Mary Oliver’s poem, “Mindful,” which reminds me that every day is filled with small losses and, simultaneously, “everyday / I see or hear / something / that more or less / kills me / with delight.”
After Mary Oliver
Each day I wake
and look at light
or something small
that thrills my spine
and leaves me
like a child, sprinting.
It is what I have lived for—
to look, to listen
to give myself over
to the trill of gold-spun
delight around each corner
to lose myself
in the soft gaze of the sky
in a spring I prayed for
I say to myself
how can you not learn
from teachers like these
dandelions bursting open
to the world around
trusting that the wind
will carry them to rest?