Aimless: Writing Poetry in a Pandemic

When April 1st came along, and I remembered GloPoWriMo, my first thought was, Oh, of course I can’t participate this year. I was in shock from the sudden school closures and the transition to work-from-home, and I was exhausted from two weeks of overwork. Then I realized: this is what poetry is for. If I cannot write during times of extreme challenge, then I’m not writing when I need it most.

So I took up the project, not as one more challenge or goal, but as a lifeline. After all, during the first April I participated, in 2018, I was also moving through a hard time, and writing poetry saved me then. It saved me this year, too.

Writing poetry helped me pause, process, and prioritize. Each night, I’d look up the next day’s prompt, think on it as I drifted to sleep, reflect on it when I woke, then write it during the day. Sometimes, I’d jot down lines on a scrap of paper while fixing breakfast. Other days, I’d bring a pad and pen with me on my garden time. Sometimes, I’d just let the ideas swirl, then carve aside a few moments during or after the workday.

I don’t feel the poems I wrote this year are good (with a few possible exceptions), but they were all important to me. They were therapy.

Here’s what I learned:

  1. What matters to me most is my home, our garden, our family. All choices are made to protect, enhance, nourish, and secure this. As a result of this realization, I feel clear about the future: If my work requires me to return on-site before I feel it is safe to, I will simply use up my ample leave time and then retire.
  2. My work–and the efforts of all the thousands of people I work with–matter. We contribute to health and well-being of the community, and our leaders have a big impact in providing local leadership during this challenging time. For this reason, even though I’d enjoy retiring immediately, I won’t. I’ll keep working remotely from home as long as I’m able, because the contribution I make is significant and it would be hard to replace me while we’re all working off-site. If I am faced with the situation where I feel I need to retire (see #1), then I’ll attempt to do so in a way that allows my supervisor and team to have a smooth transition.
  3. It’s possible to sort through misinformation, wade through chaos, and find actual, useful, helpful studies, predictions, and accounts. Spending time thinking about information and interpretation is time well-spent.

There may be more things I realized through writing poetry during this challenging month but these three points of processing and prioritization and the ones that stand out to me and help me feel secure in my approach and, even, towards the future of the next 18-24 months.

I realize, too, how incredibly lucky and privileged I am. I have two jobs–both of which can be done remotely. I work for supportive institutions, with acceptably supportive supervisors. I have Wi-Fi, a beautiful and peaceful and loving home environment, a restorative garden, and plenty of food. I am so grateful for the shoppers and delivery people who allow us to stay home and stay safe. I am in debt to their service.

My privilege doesn’t mean it’s always easy–it’s hard. I am often overworked. I’m only now developing a structure, and structure is something I require in order to cope. But my privilege means that I’m making it and I’m able to support our home and both of us. It is so much more than so many have, and I hope I never abuse or discount this privilege.

Poetry provides, for me, emotional and cognitive clarity–it’s a way to sort things out. The structure of a poem helps, as does the daily practice of writing it.

My writing will be moving on to Thruhiker and Spectrum this month–and I really hope that during the summer I’m able to return to some of my other SimLit that I want to finish! I always relish writing prose after a month of poetry!

GloPoWriMo – Day 30

“Saturday is taking back communities and parks – going out and living life. And Sunday is the big ‘rev it up’ event where everyone from all corners of Arizona are going to come upon the capital to march in a peaceful movement.” — Ryan Ryker Martin, qtd. here.

What Will Return?

Return
to the tattoo parlor and the inker behind his mask
the beauty salon and the girl who does your nails
the ice cream shop, cafe, the mall with its crowds
to the park, go out and
rev it up, take it back, return to
normalcy, return

to life?

Return
to SARS COv 2, COVID-19,
ventilator shortages, bodies in U-Hauls,
suicidal nurses, closed-space incubators,
retun to infection, contagion,
spikes in charts, return

to death

Daily Prompt:  “write a poem about something that returns,” from Na/GloPoWriMo.

Author’s note: Some states and countries may be opening, but it’s not the ending. As infectious disease expert Michael Osterholm claim, it may only be “the second inning.”

I began GloPoWriMo on April 1 thinking that this project would see me through the stay-at-home time, and when the project was done, I’d return to work and life-as-before. I’m seeing now that, instead, this project has ushered in a new life. I won’t be returning to what was before.

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GloPoWriMo – Day 27

The Speech I Want to Hear

Neighbors–and we are all neighbors,
if we live in San Francisco or New York,
Grand Rapids or Fort Myers,
Wuhan, Paris, St. Petersburg, Berlin,
Cape Town, Thika, Erbil, Salvador,
Busan–wherever you live,
on this bright and threatened planet,
we are neighbors.

Neighbors, when your futures
are uncertain, you fear the loss
of dreams, of hopes, of plans,
of the surety that you
will be safe and secure.

And in that loss, we have now–
this moment. it is the same
moment that we had before
the virus. It is the same
moment we will have
when this virus is no
longer a threat.

And it is from within
that moment that I speak
to you, neighbors.

I see your strong spirits,
your goodness, as you
help each other through
service, through connecting
across distance, through
staying home, keeping yourselves
and others

safe.

Let’s acknowledge the sacrifices
made by the graduate who
stays home from the stadium,
the bride who doesn’t walk the aisle,
the teacher who reaches
through the computer screen.

Let’s honor the bravery of our
grocery store clerks, our sanitation
crews, our custodians, delivery
teams, food industry workers,
factory workers, the production line,
the healthcare aids in urgent care
who adminster the tests,
our nurses, our doctors,
our first responders, our
police officers, our firemen
and women.

Essential

workers, you keep us
alive.

Neighbors, let’s recognize you.
Whether you are on the
essential line or whether
you have lost your
employment or made
changes to work
from home.

A crisis points toward
our weaknesses, and we
can see so many, in
social justice, equity
the food industry,
our infrastructure,
our healthcare systems.
We have work

to do.

A crisis also posts towards
our strength–which in
this case, is you. You
have made the needed changes–

quickly, without coercion or
revolt, to protect
yourselves and serve

others.

This shows
we can do what
we need to do.

Neighbors,

this is just
the beginning. But

through your strength

through your sacrifice

through your resolve

you show we
can do
what we need
to do

when faced with the greatest
crisis of all

the crisis of our damaged climate

You show me
we can change.

Daily Prompt:  “Write a poetic review of something that isn’t normally reviewed,” from Na/GloPoWriMo.

Author’s note: I didn’t really complete the prompt, though when I thought about reviewing the daily briefings from the White House on coronavirus, I decided to write this poem. You see, for the past week or so, every night, as I lay down to sleep, I imagine what a true leader might say to us during these times: sharing information; recognizing our strength, sacrifice, and suffering; helping us to contain our feelings and interpret events in a way that motivates, comforts, and inspires. (For more about a healthy approach to leadership, see Gianpiero Petriglieri’s “The Psychology Behind Effective Crisis Leadership.”) It’s been a valuable exercise, allowing me to comfort myself and find some order and priority, instead of chaos.

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GloPoWriMo – Day 26

Heatwave in Phoenix

Surrounding counties hunker down
under an excessive heat warning.
Residents all stay home, anyway.

Lettuce wilts in the garden,
endosperm melting into soil
Our stucco house squats

beneath the sun,
tightening walls and windows
to keep in the shadows.

Jim is healthier with me
at home. Good food all day.
He walks in the early morning

down the middle of the road.
In a usual late spring day,
dried corpses of lizards, horny toads

and spade-foot toads litter the
pavement, near the wash. This quarantine
season, with fewer cars, they have

safe crossing. The air shimmers
from heat and moisture. I am
liberated–barefoot,in shorts and t-shirt

like the summer I was ten
when the hills, creek, and our quiet lane
formed my universe. I wanted

then to be a friend to lizards,
as I am now. Can you be
happy, in the middle of a

pandemic? The Atlantic Monthly ponders
“What to ask instead of ‘how are you’
during a pandemic?”

I ask “how are you” anyway. Because
I want to know. “We are both well,
and adjusting to this new life,”

writes my mom’s husband from Florida.
I think of the city to the north,
Phoenix. After summer’s heat,

will it rise again?

Daily Prompt:  “For this prompt, you will need to fill out, in five minutes or less, the ‘Almanac Questionnaire.’ Then, use your responses as to basis for a poem.” Find the questionnaire on Na/GloPoWriMo.

Author’s note: Today, I let myself not feel guilty about being happy. It’s summer, I’m barefoot, and I’m home!

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GloPoWriMo – Day 25

Never Return – Remain Here Now

“The doves are in the nest,” he says.
It’s so late. It’s hot already,
it’s so early.

“They’ve been acting weird.”
They dance in the garden, in family flocks, not pairs.
By now, usually, they would be
on their fourth brood.

“Why didn’t they nest earlier?”
The Cooper’s hawk predators the garden.

I love this hawk–his eyes.
His sharp call. The way he
stares at me, and cocks his
head when I chat with him.

Is this the last week for pansies?
I will miss their blue.

I imagine the garden without them.
Pink of gerbera, orange of calendula,
yellow of rose.

I want flowers always.

Lately I have been feeling my toes.
A tiny pebble pushes into that tender spot
between two toes. I press harder.
I press the keys in my pocket until
they jab my thighs–this is at the office
before the pandemic when I am
always surrounded by people

who ask or don’t ask.
who stare or don’t look.
and I am always alone
and scared and trying
to fit in. Now I press my toe
on the pebble and the tiny pain
is joy,

with doves and hawks and
hummingbirds and sparrows.
A lizard eyes me–I storm back
at him.

My flow of weather. We smile
to each other. The company
of lizards

suits me.

I would rather stand here
than there.

I feel I will never return.
Why? When bother waits. What purpose?
My purpose prowls here: with this
dirt path that wanders between stone
and under tree.

On my back, I see traces, green over
blue. And this is life. This is the
constant I seek. The sky. Trees. New leaves.
My life.

“I love you,” he didn’t say with words,
but with a cup of tea, Darjeeling, in
my favorite cup.

And I reply in cookies.

This life could go on, if we
have food. Money. A home. A planet
inhabitable.

I stop thinking to stay here.
feet on ground. Pebble in toes.
And when I am 10, it is much

the same. Life is barefooting through the park
with lizards and frogs. Saturday morning.
My friends all gone, but the sun shines.
I shine. And the shadow is blue as
all shadows combine. Dancing over
them, I feel substance. To be three-
dimensional over the two-dimensional
ground. That is life.

The other three-dimensionals recede
except for the willow, the oak, and me.
Within is much like it is without
except that terror shifts–with joy.

They say Thoreau was a loner.
What do they know?
One is never alone beneath the sky.
Blue and green is all you need
to know.

Hope and keen, strong and lean.

My circle and yours don’t touch.
And there is the secret of our
connection.

In the not-touching, we connect, surrounded
by all this.

This world. This sky. Like two
cells that never touch.

Daily Prompt:  “an (optional) prompt for you that takes a little time to work through — although you can certainly take short-cuts through it, if you like! The prompt, which you can find in its entirety here, was  developed by the poet and teacher Hoa Nguyen…” from Na/GloPoWriMo.

Author’s note: The prompt asks the poet to write without stopping for twenty minutes, aiming at incorporating elements from a list. I found this prompt deeply satisfying. I love non-stop writing, but haven’t done much of it since grad school, when it was a daily practice for a year or so. Originally, I’d intended to use my non-stop as the prewriting, editing it heavily while still maintaining that raw, loose form and feel that comes from writing in flow. But when I transcribed this, I changed very little.

My current favorite poem is by another GloPoWriMo participant in response to this poem: “Hymn to Life in Lockdown,” by Bee Smith.

On a personal note: I am seriously considering retiring when all this lifts–I simply don’t want to return to the office, and my focus in life is shifting even more strongly towards home, garden, and my own creative projects.

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GloPoWriMo – Day 24

Whose hands, this apple?

Whose hands touched this apple that I wash under filtered water?

My hands, scrubbing its rose-freckled skin.
The delivery shopper’s hands, picking it from the bin,
placing it in a bag, leaving it by our gate.
The checker’s hands, assessing its weight.
The produce stocker’s hands, setting it stem-side up.
Another man, with a label-gun, doing the follow-up.
A customer’s sticky hands, the hands of her kid,
think of the germs that might be hid

from view. Invisible. My hands scrub the apple
under filtered water. This is the fact with which I grapple:
the coronavirus lives 72 hours on a surface.
Still, I am grateful for the service
of the laborer who picked
this fruit as the work clock ticked
and the hands of the orchardist
who planted the tree in the mist

of an early spring morning in Washington,
or J.H. Kidd, horticulturalist, whose discovery, once begun,
led to this apple, in my hand, under running water, a red-freckled Gala.
I try to soothe my amygdala.
Whose hands? An apple a day,
now that my hair is gray,
adds to 21,900 pippins, red delicious, Macintosh
Granny Smith, ambrosia–oh my gosh

if each apple were touched by 50 hands
that’s thousands and thousands
and all the germs and the fingerprints
and all the skin oil and imprints
of feelings. Including the love that my mom and dad
felt for me. Remembering childhood apples, I don’t exactly feel sad.
It’s wistful, yeah, but it’s more the continuity.
I look at this shiny wet apple with ambiguity.

So many hands, to bring it to me.
All those feelings, soon to be inside me.

Whose hands touched this apple?

Daily Prompt:  “write about a particular fruit – your choice,” from Na/GloPoWriMo.

Author’s note: While it is always good to wash produce thoroughly (see 10 Dirty Secrets from your Supermarket Produce Departments), one needn’t be overly concerned about disinfecting them (see No, You Don’t Need To Disinfect Your Groceries. But Here’s How To Shop Safely.) I still wash, wipe, and repackage my grocery deliveries, saying blessings for the Amazon Prime delivery shopper, the grocery store clerk, the produce stocker, the laborers who picked and packaged and trucked the produce, and for the bees, whose tiny hands helped pollinate the flowers, so I would have apples this day. Thank you, all the thousands of hands!

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GloPoWriMo – Day 23

S

Sneaking through borders
Spanish flu steals
souls
some 50 million
succumbed
sons,
soldiers, sinners,
saints, senators.
sometimes I wonder who
survived, and how they
sustained
safety, security,
sanity.

C

COVID-19 crosses unseen
connecting
contacts
contradicting caustic

claims from a nar-
cissistic
cultleader creating

confusion, causing
chaos
coordinating crisis

complacent towards the other
crisis
climate catastrophe, no mira-

cle, unless we resolve to
change

Daily Prompt:  “write a poem about a particular letter of the alphabet,” from Na/GloPoWriMo.

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GloPoWriMo – Day 18

Breathe

to stand
in the garden
and breathe

air clean as
the summer
you were ten
and hiked
in the Sierras

that air
pure

(Your dad was alive then,
remember?)

pure

air carrying
the scent of
the neighbor’s lemon
tree

in bloom

and the bright
promise of
next winter’s

harvest.

the virus
steals taste
and smell
when it first
comes

but when it
comes for your
soul

it steals
your

breath.

Daily Prompt:  “write an ode to life’s small pleasures,” from Na/GloPoWriMo.

Author’s note: Have you noticed how clean the air is these days? Like it sometimes hurts to gaze at intense beauty, it almost hurts to breathe. It’s that pure.

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GloPoWriMo – Day 17

Applesauce, 1918 – 2020

Three cranks forward, one crank back.

My great-grandmother places on the
cutting board, stem-side up
six Newton Pippins, three Arkansas Black, two
Carter’s Blue, five Dudley Winter, one
Winter Queen, and a Maiden’s Blush

to chop, chop, chop–
half, quarter, cook it up!
Green skin, red skin, splotched,
dashed, and dotted,
cores and all in the pot!

Perfumed steam in the kitchen
out the window
through the neighborhood
and everyone sings,
“Grandma’s applesauce!”

Into the cast iron food mill,
crank it one way,
three for the sauce,
crank it back one,
clear the grate

Two steps forward, one step back

Into twelve jars,
the applesauce,

one for Smitty,
whose wife has the flu

three for cousins
whose dad’s out of work

two for the roofers
at Mr. Jones’ store

six for the volunteers
with the Red Cross

One turn forward, one turn back

One hundred and two
revolutions on
our small blue
planet

around the sun

and
again a virus
brings us down
or draws us to each other

as we stay apart

I cut Granny Smith,
Fuji, Gala into cubes,
simmer on the stove,
blend in the blender

and it’s applesauce
sustains us,
just us two,
alone in our house

but thinking of you.

Daily Prompt:  “write a poem that features forgotten technology,” from Na/GloPoWriMo.

Author’s note: When I was a child, my mom had an antique cast-iron food mill she used for applesauce, persimmon sauce, and split pea soup. I loved to crank the handle, and the rhythm of the crank was three forward and one back. The backward crank had a lovely grasping sensation as it cleared the grate.

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GloPoWriMo – Day 16

Over the Top

You’re
in the middle
of a pandemic.

Be Kind to Yourself.
Order ice cream in your next grocery delivery. Chocolate. Get honey, too. Chocolate sauce. Mix it all together. Eat it. Empty the box of your favorite puzzle, the one of the Norman Rockwell painting, not the barbershop one. The fishing one. Pour all the pieces on your kitchen table. Spend five days putting it together. Don’t start with the edges. Stay up all night playing video games. Live in Tamriel. Forget this planet, just for one night. Then eat more ice cream.

in the middle
of a pandemic

Practice Extreme Self Care.
Breathe. Breathe while you do yoga. Stand in the garden. Breathe. Gaze at the mountains. Breathe. Breathe in the shower. Breathe when you take a bath so long that the rough skin on your heels softens and the bath becomes salty with tears. Breathe. Breathe when you stand in your kitchen, olive oil in one hand, cinnamon in the other, wondering what you are doing with each. Where are you? Breathe. Breathe while you pick the dried flakes of skin on your heels, white scales piling up on the corner of the coffee table, trying not to pick until your feet bleed, breathing because for the first time in three weeks your brain feels normal even if your feet hurt when you walk the next morning.

in the middle

Grieve.

Daily Prompt:  “write a poem of over-the-top compliments,” from Na/GloPoWriMo.

Author’s note: Well, I didn’t even try to complete today’s prompt–my mind latched onto “over-the-top,” which this poem is. I considered writing a found-poem composed of Trump’s over-the-top praise for himself (I’d title it “Perfect”), but I don’t really want to feel angry this morning. The poem I wrote is inspired by this article I read last night by Marnie Hunter, published in CNN, “That uncomfortable coronavirus feeling: It could be grief.

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