The World Demands

I meant this first post to be an explication of this site’s aims and intent. That’s an obvious enough start for a new effort. But the past few weeks have taken that energy from me—that intent to explain, to lay out my plans for where I want this place to go and what I want it to be. It has both narrowed and widened my focus. It has placed limits on where my energy feels most needed at the moment.

A week ago I lost a member of my family. Leading up to that, I spent nearly two weeks coming and going from the hospital, a place that, along with so many other people, I do not care for. During this time life paused, tilted, and reorganized itself. When a family member dies, and another suffers it—when you have to watch someone you love struggle through a slow-building grief, the ongoing pile up of impending loss—the world morphs around you. New perspectives settle and for a time it feels as though everything is permanently different, even though you know that in an impossibly short amount of time all will settle back into a new normal.

It is exhausting—and overwhelming in the strangest, smallest moments. I spent my time in the hospital in various places, sometimes sitting at the side of a loved one dying, sometimes comforting the person about to miss her most of all, sometimes talking to a kind nurse or volunteer, sometimes sitting in a sterile waiting room on my laptop, attempting to continue to do my job from afar. One night I worked late into the night in that room, awaiting word from the surgeon to see if she had survived and acquiescing in the early hours of the morning to a short and troubled sleep. A week and a half later, I sat in the same waiting room and marveled at an unexpected late winter snow, flakes falling heavy and the world a momentary wonder.

I held her hand. Told her to do what she needed to do. Wondered at feeling so self-important, as though she needed my permission.

Throughout this, a global pandemic spread and built in the background. When not working, when not visiting with the dying, when not comforting family, when not holding inconsequential conversation while one of the most consequential aspects of being alive on this planet was slowly unfolding beside us—in those free moments, I consumed the coronavirus news. The hospital visibly transformed over those days, but only in small ways: first new signs about wearing masks, then warnings that those experiencing flu-like symptoms were not allowed in the hospital unless seeking treatment, then increased restrictions on the number of visitors allowed except in end-of-life situations, then the large-font Covid-19 precautions on the nurse’s monitors, impossible to miss.

On Friday, a week ago, she went. I was not there, instead stocking up on a few needs at the store, filling out the gaps that had opened in our supplies over the previous two weeks, when we had last filled the gaps from the first stocking up about a month previous. At that point, the country was teetering at the edge of wide scale change in response to the pandemic but our city had not yet closed for business. When the call came—the death arrived—it was a deflation, a relief, a small panic. I knew only that I needed to get to the hospital, to get to my family. To take him from there, away from the death he had been waiting for, that seemed at some point it might never come even though we all had thought at first it would arrive so much more quickly.

He waited at the entrance, intent on escaping that terrible place as quickly as possible now that it was all done—at least, until the next day, until all that would have to come after would begin. We went to a familiar bar. He had not eaten all day. A couple beers and a burger, some kind of comfort before his first night truly alone, and we talked about things important and not, and at different moments struggled to contain ourselves. He was only partly aware of the news while I was tracking every aspect. I understood that something new was about to begin, a wave of an uncertain height ready to break over us. A much broader one than the small but significant individual wave that had broken over our family.

For the past week, I’ve watched that large wave break and in some ways it has swept over and obscured the smaller one. But I can still feel that one lapping, and I know there are more echoes yet to come. Still, there’s something odd in experiencing personal loss within the context of a larger one, of a larger panic and chaos. It does feel like waves breaking on the beach, in the fractal overlap you see as different waves—or different sections of them—crash and overlap, cross at odd angles, create unexpected eddies and sprays. Water everywhere, coming from every which way and creating so many complex and counteractive swirls. Honestly, it sometimes is exhausting keeping track of it all, wondering where the next rush of uncertainty will come from.

And then there are the quiet moments, which are beginning to accumulate as the world slows. There is the reconnection with family and friends, even if at a distance, often over the phone or by email rather than in person. There are the checks ins, the assistance, the found jokes and laughter. Friday night, my wife and I took a blanket and dinner and drinks to a nearby high school. We sat in the grass, in the sun that has given us some solace in this past week, the sun that has arrived in time to welcome spring and provide cheer in a time of uncertainty. Sunday, we took a baguette and a brownie from our favorite bakery—still selling bread and pastries for carry out—to a friend of ours across town. We found her on the porch, in the sun, and we stood awhile and chatted at a comfortable distance, passed off the treats, made sure she was well.

These changes echo and spread. I have been in greater communication with friends and family the last few weeks than I normally am in months. There’s a certain delight in it, even if it is at times tiring, a little overwhelming. It brings a new sense of community. It brings a new sense of responsibility. It’s a reminder of what the world can be like when the world demands our attention and refuses, at least for a time, to let it go. It makes me wonder where we will stand when we come out the other side of this. What of these changes will we hold onto and which will we let slip away in our return to normality? Which ones might we want to hold onto and which ones will we want to jettison as quickly as possible?

I have no real answers. Not yet, anyway, and I have no idea if I will have answers later. I know only that the whole world feels poised at the edge of something new, and I can’t help but wonder if it will take or if it will slip away from us. Has the world caught our attention well enough yet or are we still too distracted to see, still too determined to run hollering with joy and certitude into the abyss?

I’m curious to find out. And in the midst of it, in the weeks and months to come, I plan to be here, chiming in now and again on the crazy of our time and, more importantly, finding my voice in stories. Sometime soon, as I better get my legs in this new world, I’ll tell you more about what I plan to do here. But for now, know that it will be an outlet for my voice, sometimes in fiction, sometimes in essays, sometimes in simple blog posts, but always of this world, crazy as it can be. I’ll be adding much more to this site in the hopefully near future and I would be gratified if you would bookmark it, check back, and most of all subscribe to the email list so I can send you the occasional update on what I’m writing here.

I hope all of you are well in these crazy times and please don’t hesitate to jump into the comments with your own stories. Thanks for being here.

P.S. I have comment moderation on, so all comments will be screened before appearing. Don’t fret if you don’t see yours immediately—I’ll approve it shortly!

14 thoughts on “The World Demands

  1. Thank you for your post, Joel. I am in Olympia, WA and one of your occasional readers of Into the Ruins. I look forward to receiving your continued thoughts and perspectives as we all try not to be smothered by the news of “All virus all the time”. Yesterday on my birthday (22 March) I noticed the first sprouts poking through the soil of one of the raised beds in our vegetable garden, a hopeful harbinger. Stay hopeful, stay well.

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  2. Hi, Joel –

    I’m very sorry to hear of your loss – it’s never easy, but perhaps there’s a small comfort that it happened just before (rather than after) they have shut down on visitors in hospitals and are switching to live-streaming funerals so that folks don’t congregate. You did, at least, have the chance to give physical presence and comfort to the dying and the grieving. My mom is 89, quite compromised, cared for at home with 24/7 shifts of low-paid careworkers… I can’t imagine she’ll survive this, and I probably wouldn’t be able to fly across country for her funeral. That would devastate my sisters, who need that kind of physical presence for comforting (I think, as an introvert, like many writers, I’m okay with distance-connections).

    It’s hard to digest the changes that are happening, more so because many of them are out of sight (except on TV or internet)…and I find myself in disbelief that the crisis I’ve long been prepping for has arrived – and it’s nothing like I imagined. (Very similar to my divorce; long anticipated, totally unexpected at the same time.) I’m having a hard time writing anything, because there’s so much going on (in the news – all is quiet and ordinary on my little half-acre). At some point, I hope I can process and write about this. I’m finding the poems of Mark Doty very helpful – he lost a partner to AIDS and “documented” the crisis in NYC in his poems… really wonderful writing!

    I look forward to reading your blog and stories! Good luck!

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  3. Ride the wild ocean:
    There come times of grief,
    long waves of emotion
    that beggar belief.
    On a board of light
    memories cast body and soul:
    they will keep you afloat
    as you steer towards a goal
    of calm, centered courage
    as good as a boat.
    That weight at the core
    that feels like a stone
    will not sink you under:
    you are not alone.
    Though none seem in sight
    as you finally reach shore.
    Know this: there are many
    who’ve trod here before.
    whose footsteps erased,
    as the tides wash the sands.
    We are just over yonder,
    reaching towards you our hands.

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  4. Jack, thank you! I am still following news of the virus pretty closely, but am starting to regain my equilibrium. Part of that is reorienting back to getting my daily ritual and meditation in sooner rather than later–or at least not at night–when possible. Kate and I have been taking morning walks, too, which has been nice. And yesterday I did some quick garden work! Pulled the remains of overwintered plants and put in kale seeds, shelling peas, and some other greens. It was quick and dirty, so to speak, and I could have done it a bit sooner, but working in the garden always makes me feel better. I’m happy to hear you have sprouts coming up!

    Cathy, I’m sorry to hear about your mother. Yes, it certainly occurred to me that I’m at least glad our situation resolved right before the Covid-19 situation really blew up. I imagine the hospitals have become more restricted yet at this point and the stay-at-home order issued today for us likely would have complicated it more. Luckily, my father is within very short walking distance, so it’s been relatively easy to keep tabs on him via phone and the occasional visit as necessary (I’m trying to keep it limited for the time being out of caution).

    We’ll see how the rest of this plays out, but I hope that whatever happens with your mom, you’re able to be there with and for your sisters when the time comes. It is indeed crazy times. I think we definitely see it more here in the city, but it still is not too stark from my vantage point. I am so curious to know what is happening in the hospitals, though. I’m keeping my fingers crossed this won’t be as bad as it could be, but these are the sort of events we’ll have to continue to face in decline.

    G. Kay, thank you! That’s beautiful, and I appreciate it. Your work, I assume? I’m always impressed at your way with words. 🙂

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  5. My condolences for your loss. May you be well, may we all be well, as loss, sudden…deep…and close to heart… is now front and center in our awareness. And many other aspects of our wild, beautiful, crazy human lives struggle to gain our attention. May we learn our new lessons well friends.

    Pandemic (by Lynn Ungar)

    What if you thought of it
    as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
    the most sacred of times?
    Cease from travel.
    Cease from buying and selling.
    Give up, just for now,
    on trying to make the world
    different than it is.
    Sing. Pray. Touch only those
    to whom you commit your life.
    Center down.
    And when your body has become still,
    reach out with your heart.
    Know that we are connected
    in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
    (You could hardly deny it now.)
    Know that our lives
    are in one anothers’ hands.
    (Surely, that has come clear.)
    Do not reach out your hands.
    Reach out your heart.
    Reach out your words.
    Reach out all the tendrils
    of compassion that move, invisibly,
    where we cannot touch.
    Promise this world your love–
    for better or for worse,
    in sickness and in health,
    so long as we all shall live.

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  6. Derek, thanks for the kind words and the lovely poem. I actually saw the same the other day posted outside a house while out on a walk, so it seems to be catching. It does sum up the times well, and I’ll remain hopeful that we get some good out of all of this, however it ends.

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  7. Hi, Joel, I’ve been busy making face masks so have yet to read your post. But I am glad to hear you are doing this. You write beautifully.

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  8. Yes, that was written before noon today. Not perfect in form, but heartfelt and drawn from experience. Hang ten!

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  9. Debra, thank you! I hope you get a chance to come back and give it a read when you have a few quiet moments. I hope the face mask project is going well–a nice thing to do in these times. I hope you and August are doing well and both staying healthy!

    G. Kay, well, I would say pretty darn good! Thanks again. 🙂

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  10. Perfection is nice when one can achieve it, but sometimes it is enough just to get across the feeling one wishes to convey.

    That said, I did some line edits to burnish off the rougher spots using off-rhyme and assonance, and correcting footsteps to foot PRINTS which is more accurate. Here they are:

    Though none seem in sight
    as you finally reach shore,
    know this: many others
    have trod here before,
    whose footprints filled in as
    the tides wash the sands.

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  11. G. Kay, you certainly got the feeling across, so thank you. And the edits are good!

    Debra, glad to give you a break from the mask-making, even if it wasn’t of the cheeriest of subjects!

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