COVID-19 through a literary lens
COMMENTARY | My conversations with librarians have been the bright line in a ‘world of words’
Paul K. Haeder | 31 Mar 2020
“Look, we have been on the front lines of all sorts of diseases. New strains of TB. Hep C. Even bedbugs are blamed on us. This virus doesn’t scare me. The people out there — the citizens — that’s what scares me, man, all that toilet paper hoarding and shit.”
— Brooks, as we talked in front of the Waldport library
“I’m preparing for National Poetry Month, not for death.
“See, there I was time I thought I was going to die. I was really scared. And in that moment, no one was scared with me. Doctors didn’t take me seriously; my family even questioned if my illness was real.
“It was then that I was scared of all of you, your germs, your coughs, and your unwashed hands. It was then that I really didn’t want y’all to touch me.
“Doctors told me I needed a nap and that I was just stressed. But I, in fact, had a serious case of Babesia, a neurologically based tick-borne illness that impacted by brain, my speech, my cognition — and my life.”
— Whit Easton, L.A. writer, from the piece “I’m Making Art (and Love) This Go-Around of a Global Health Pandemic — One poet’s response to COVID-19”
I’m talking with John (he prefers this pseudonym) about his own desire that incubated more than three decades ago about becoming a novelist.
“I always thought about that as a career, even in high school.” He is not a 48-year-old “victim of circumstances,” though the average person might see him crossing the Alsea bridge at night with his backpack and bedroll as such.
He prefers to be called a vagabond. We’ve talked about intelligent design, quantum physics, zoning laws, solutions to housing precarity.
He reads a lot. He spends a lot of time inside libraries reading. This pattern has been in his blood way before the seven years he’s been on the road. His own life philosophy is complicated, but in one sense it can be whittled down to, “Here today and gone tomorrow.”
“I am not a loner, don’t get me wrong,” he tells me while we share coffee. “I’ll associate with anyone who’s kind regardless of their station in life.”
Like many on the road, John doesn’t want specifics revealed. But he still is open about some things in his narrative.
He grew up in Los Angeles. He said he was a foster child. He has no siblings. He has no connection to his parents (he has negative things to say about both of them). The effects of a bullet to the lung and one to the hip at age 22 (both removed) are taking a toll on his ability to work long and grueling jobs.
“Yeah, I think when you and I were talking a few months ago about the Influenza A, I figured anything like this new virus would put a kink in everything. Am I right?”
Social distancing is easy for John — he stays in his own tent — and difficult: He shares a bench with Brooks, and they swap tobacco and rolling papers for their cigarettes.
We talk about the concept of story. John and Brooks have a lot of them — stories. John, though, is steeped in the writerly way of framing narrative through his life and a universal lens. Brooks has tales about many dramatic brushes with the law, criminals, courtrooms.
“I still think about it — writing a book. You never know what I might be doing when I turn 50 … or 60.” This is John looking at me pensively but with no regret etched on his face.
We continue talking about surviving and how people on the streets, on the road, have survival skills the average person in the U.S. society doesn’t have. Not just the ways these people can find shelter, tap into resources and be blessed with other windfalls. They have a certain outlook on life that is “not filled with unrealistic pots of gold at the end of the rainbow.”
John’s thrown in as a line chef, as a carpenter, cabinet-maker, and demolishing structures. He was once paid a penny a word for research through an online university. He worked in Arizona picking melons with mostly immigrant laborers.
“Yeah, right out of ‘Grapes of Wrath,’” he said. “We got paid two hundred a week, but the manager kept our first week’s wages. And, we had to pay for food and this crappy shed to sleep in. We paid every time we took a shit.”
He thinks labeling anyone with “mental illness” is incorrect — “we can have mental issues and problems, but it is not a disease” — and a quick way to control people and taking away their rights.
John is skeptical of government services for homeless, saying, “The secular institutions aren’t capable of helping the homeless. When people help me, it’s members of the community. Religious institutions should be helping out much more.”
John said, “It seems like the powers that be want us to freeze to death. Sometimes it’s just a place to get out of the cold that can make the difference.”
Librarians in a time of plague
So many homeless people I interact with see our local public libraries as both nirvana — a place to get out of the cold — and a gold mine of information and killing time with words.
Toledo, Ore., is a small mill town (Georgia Pacific), and the library there is run by the city. It’s pretty large compared to the size of the community. Deborah Trusty has managed it for over a decade. We talk about COVID-19; all the author readings and story-time events for kids were canceled.
Other libraries in Lincoln County had already closed altogether, including Newport. She says more people from Newport were coming in for library cards. The staff saw more people than ever using the Wi-Fi services.
“I’m concerned about people with issues. The elderly. The immunosuppressed. And I know that my patrons who are homeless count on the library. Here in Toledo, we just closed the pool. I am concerned now because that’s where people without homes showered.”
We talk about having online author readings, Skyping and using Zoom for interactive literary events. We discuss other ways the library system can step it up in a time of COVID-19.
“I’ve done those tabletop exercises. You know, disaster preparedness for the big earthquake. There is no way to prepare for something like that. Other than laying in more food. But most likely what will happen is what all those movies have been showing us.”
But Deborah sees COVID-19 as an opportunity to do things differently and to ask, What can we do to change? She’s thinking of slowing down, stopping to smell the proverbial coffee and listening. Part of that denouement is reading more.
I ask former Stockton, Calif., resident and now Portland resident (since 1975) Leanne Grabel what she thinks of these lockdowns, public cancellations, and quarantining due to a virus.
“Let’s face it. There is a thrill in crises, and I feel it. It’s an abandonment of routine, which has an excitement to it. Is there fear? Yes. We are over 60, and my husband has lung issues. But staying home, watching movies, working on projects, and now having a snowstorm, it has its sweetness.
“Now, if we get sick, it won’t be so fun. And of course, there is huge concern and disgust over the current administration’s handling of it all since their first priority is not people but money. It just piles up the disgust that was already up to the sky. But local communities — schools, restaurants, stores — are being generous and people-focused.”
Her pedigree is long and varied, but most interesting to me is she’s worked in the Portland Public Schools focusing on language arts and special education. Much of her time concentrated on teenage girls in a lockdown residential treatment center: Rosemont.
“As a writer, and a victim of trauma myself, I knew the act of writing one’s ugly story — could help — just help.” From that work, she published “badgirls,” a chapbook based on her experiences with the girls.
Poetry and music
I was on my way back from Spokane last week, plugging my new literary work, a short story collection, “Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam,” when I heard an interview featuring Peter Sears’ poetry. Sears served as Oregon’s poet laureate from 2014 to 2016 and was active in the state’s literary community for more than 40 years. The story produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting was about fusing Sears’ poetry with classical music.
Teddy Abrams is one of classical music’s “biggest proponents of collaboration and breaking artistic barriers.” He is the music director of the Britt Music and Arts Festival in Jacksonville, Ore. In 2014, Aoife O’Donovan, a well-known songwriter, was asked to help him write a suite of music based on the work of this now deceased Oregon poet.
“Of all the human values we hear about that are wonderful — drive, resolve, insight, charm, empathy, whatever — we don’t hear much about imagination and it’s really, really critical. We live there a lot more than we know. Whether there are any results, that’s another matter. But if a person has an opportunity to engage that imagination, as they do in writing, things can happen that they never saw coming.”
– Peter Sears
Writing in a time of crisis
As the old adage states, a rolling stone collects no moss. Now that the stones of society and gearworks have come to a halt, and all public gatherings in many states across the U.S. have been “banned,” we have a crisis of more atomization in our society, more social dislocation, and more isolation.
My conversations with dozens of librarians, from big universities where I’ve taught to small towns where I’ve lived, have been the bright line in a “world of words.” These professionals support writers and books. Community libraries function as computer-based assistance, warming places for the houseless, and clearing houses for local information and bulletins.
As a bookend here, I want to chisel in the words of one of our Central Oregon writers, Wallace Kaufman. His bio is varied and diverse, the fuel of myriad of written forms. He has been a wrestling coach, museum curator, high school biology teacher, college professor, land developer, property appraiser, licensed construction contractor, conflict mediator, journalist, land-use consultant, adviser on housing and land reform to the government of Kazakhstan, Spanish translator, president of three statewide environmental groups, and economics researcher for World Bank and USAID projects.
He lives in Newport and is the author of seven books: science fiction, nonfiction, memoir and poetry.
For him, the power of the word and why he writes are intertwined:
“As a shy kid who could not sing or play an instrument and wondered what life was worth, I was seduced by the music of words that could also bring into focus the wonders of the world and engrave in memory important facts and enduring mysteries.”
I ask librarians and people like John and Brooks many questions tied to the “new normal” of COVID-19 and fear.
Brooks tells me he sees “more people on the streets coming together, talking, sharing things.” John believes under the virus hysteria, things will get more draconian. “And people like me will be targeted more than we already are. Treating us more and more like lepers.”
The published author Kaufman sees the virus as emblematic of a modern world gone crazy:
“Humankind has mastered most of the powers of the natural world. This new pandemic makes clear that bio-engineered weapons can create more economic and social havoc and death than any other weapon, and that created viruses can be spread faster and farther with less effort than other weapons. Our powers are now god-like for both creation and destruction. We have met the Titans and they are us.”
While John is pragmatic and road-toughened (and weary), he said he enjoys this part of the world for its amazing forests meeting the sea. Kaufman echoed the same: “Now is the time we should be celebrating the wonders of the natural world and the genius of humankind.”
For 32-year-old Whit Easton, this crisis of the pandemic is a blossoming cherry tree: “This week, in the wake of a society inundated by fear, an impending sense of doom, and a full-blown global pandemic, I find myself pensive — cautious yet calm — as I reflect on the journey I am about to undertake as a young entrepreneur. I’m on a mission to launch a digital platform in psychology and wellness that will be revolutionary for the diverse audience I aim to reach.”
Leaving behind baggage is Whit’s lesson now during this isolation:
“In 2019, I walked out of just about every damn closet that you can possibly walk out of in life. I came out as a transgender non-binary lesbian in nine months’ time. Once I knew I was gay, I figured why not get all the coming-out over with? I launched my freelance writing career and said goodbye to the 9 to 5 office life, published my first work of creative prose, and began to build a writing business.”