While I Breathe, I Hope?
“At the beginning of ‘the curriculum that will be COVID,’ I read whatever I could find regarding the influenza pandemic of 1918, an experience that has all but vanished from contemporary memory with the deaths of the last of us who were affected by it. I wanted to educate myself about how viruses jump from animals to people, how they adapt to become transmissible from human to human, how they mutate and how rapidly, and what potential certain viruses have for ‘antigenic drift.’ I wanted to know, I still want to know, whether COVID-19 has it up its sleeve to become much more virulent, as it passes, wave after wave, through the world population. I wanted to know, I still want to know, whether an initial infection accords someone like Alice with lasting immunity, or whether she can be infected, in the fall, again, with another, equally virulent strain of the virus.”—Elizabeth Boleman-Herring
By Way of Being
By Elizabeth Boleman-Herring
“‘The idea of preventive medicine is faintly un-American,’ the ‘Chicago Tribune’ noted in 1975. ‘It means, first, recognizing that the enemy is us.”―Eula Biss, On Immunity: An Innoculation
“The final lesson of 1918, a simple one yet one most difficult to execute, is that those who occupy positions of authority must lessen the panic that can alienate all within a society. Society cannot function if it is every man for himself. By definition, civilization cannot survive that. Those in authority must retain the public’s trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one. Lincoln said that first, and best.”―John M. Barry, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History
“The dogs bark, but the caravan goes on.”―Turkish and Azerbaijani proverb
PENDLETON South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—15 May 2020—Dear Ones,
Even before the virus we’re all calling COVID-19 jumped the hair’s-breadth caesura, the lark-wide hiatus, between some unfortunate prey animal and the animals that hunted it, people, I had gone largely silent. I’d been so stunned by my own long, multifarious illness as to be rendered mute. And that was before the pandemic. Long before. I had two years to practice groveling and trembling before COVID-19.
At 58, I was described by a New York surgeon as “an elite athlete”: today, I can no longer roll over in bed without significant pain. Some days, I limp. All days, I hurt.
On paper, in print, I have struggled, since January of 2018, to respond to the cascade of subtractions that have re-made me, physically. If I am still, largely, who I was, before that date, I am no longer what I was. In almost every imaginable way, I have been taught how fleeting are our physical gifts and abilities. Mine has not, yet, been death by a thousand cuts, but it has been diminishment. There have been moments of crisis, too—weathered in small, ill-prepared local hospitals—when I thought I would not recover. I was compelled even then, by my body, to contemplate imminent death. Now, I contemplate my death, and yours, almost every moment of every day. How can I not? How can anyone with even half a brain not?
For me, with my idiosyncratic palette of autoimmune responses, becoming infected with COVID-19 would prove fatal. But probably not quickly enough. I would so prefer not to die of this particular, cruel disease; suffering the first, miserable symptoms alone in a small bedroom; then, lying in an ICU (if lucky; if there are any free beds, by then), unconscious and on a rare-in-South-Carolina ventilator; for the course, further exhausting already exhausted nurses and doctors; and, at the end, unattended by those I love; consigned, immediately, to the flames.
I would choose another death, if I had a choice. Amazingly, I do have a choice, but not unless many of those around me behave in certain ways. Not unless most people in South Carolina, in the United States, behave in certain ways.
And they, we here, are not behaving in those ways.
How I go forward, how we all go forward, depends upon our willingness, now, to sacrifice for the public good.
Frankly, while I have breath, I do not hold out much hope.
Every time I see a South Carolina license plate, I mouth the Latin for the state’s motto: Dum spiro spero. While I breathe, I hope.
This phrase—in my face, every time I venture out in a car (rarely, now)—is particularly poignant in a time when to breathe, in and out, is to share the breath of others, willy-nilly; at a time when to breathe at all, among others, is to risk contagion.
Having taken the measure of my red, red state’s response to the pandemic—jammed boat ramps, diners crowding outdoor restaurant tables, un-masked and ungloved shoppers in grocery stores, blithe schools of un-masked cyclists roaring past pedestrians—I know the numbers of the ill and dying, just here in South Carolina, are about to take off. And I grieve, in advance.
The first of my close analog friends to succumb to the virus, and seriously, was my longtime physician. I will call her Alice. Alice is one of the fittest, smartest, savviest Homo sapiens sapiens I have ever known. In her mid-40s, she runs 10k a day, has no bad habits I’ve ever been able to discover, and takes no risks. But . . . she does see patients, and says that, exposed to enough COVID-19-laden breath over a short period of time, almost anyone will, does, fall ill. Especially health workers. The more airborne COVID-19 one inhales, the greater one’s chances of experiencing severe illness.
Alice lost her sense of smell, then, other symptoms, tested positive and went into quarantine at home. And suffered. Exquisitely. Fever, racking body pain, fainting whenever she tried to sit up. She was home for weeks, being taught by “Professor COVID,” being schooled in how this new-to-humankind entity would lay low even the hardiest of us on its rampage through the population.
It has been a sobering experience for her, and for those of us who know and love her: we have had our hearts in our throats for the duration, fearful on the days when she was unable to add a few words to her Twitter feed.
She is not the only one we know to have been affected. Two other analog friends have been hospitalized; one, long on a ventilator. Other acquaintances in New York city’s intimately interconnected jazz community have died.
In South Carolina, I have fallen out—as we say in the South—with one friend who was in analog contact with strangers and then came back into our tiny fold without first telling us; without giving us the opportunity to stay away from her for two weeks.
Another friend we cannot see any longer as his children and grandchildren have chosen to keep visiting him, though they are out and about, un-masked and ungloved, in the community. His longtime partner told us that he was unwilling not to see his great tribe of offspring, so she, in great sadness, moved out of their shared home, and will not be seeing him, except for short visits, maintaining ten feet of separation.
And I, for just one, believe that “for the duration” will mean . . . years.
At the beginning of “the curriculum that will be COVID,” I read whatever I could find regarding the influenza pandemic of 1918, an experience that has all but vanished from contemporary memory with the deaths of the last of us who were affected by it.
I wanted to educate myself about how viruses jump from a animals to people, how they adapt to become transmissible from human to human, how they mutate and how rapidly, and what potential certain viruses have for “antigenic drift.” I wanted to know, I still want to know, whether COVID-19 has it up its sleeve to become much more virulent, as it passes, wave after wave, through the world population. I wanted to know, I still want to know, whether an initial infection accords someone like Alice with durable immunity, or whether she can be infected, in the fall, again, with another, equally virulent strain of the virus.
My reading—thanks to biochemist Dr. Cynthia K Warner, a member of our eccentric little Anderson, South Carolina church congregation, who has emailed me daily with her gleanings from the scientific literature—has been fairly wide-ranging.
Dr. Warner’s work at the CDC involved the lyssaviruses that cause rabies, and I have benefited greatly from exchanges with her regarding how best to approach the pandemic in mind and body. I believe it was Cynthia who first described COVID-19 as “Professor Virus”—a concept I’ve found most useful, going forward. She sent me this link to a WNYC “On The Media” podcast from which I extracted the following:
“This week, we heard from listeners around the globe about the language used to describe the efforts to contain Covid-19. We learned that the war metaphor isn’t being used everywhere, and in some countries it has a different association than it does in the US. One listener in Germany noted that the government there is steering clear of military language, and another in France observed that the French don’t have a history of social wars against concepts (like, drugs or terror) so the language conveys a different sense of solidarity.
“So, where does the war metaphor lead us here? Susan Sontag once wrote, ‘Abuse of the military metaphor may be inevitable in a capitalist society, a society that increasingly restricts the scope and credibility of appeals to ethical principle, in which it is thought foolish not to subject one’s actions to the calculus of self-interest and profitability.’ Here, Brooke speaks with author Eula Biss about the power of metaphor, and how thinking about disease as an enemy can lead too easily to xenophobia and racism. Biss is the author, most recently, of On Immunity: An Inoculation. She also teaches non-fiction writing at Northwestern University. If we were to think about this pandemic using other metaphors, would we see this as a teachable moment instead of a battle we seem to be losing? And are there other ways of building solidarity that don’t lean too readily on the crisis of war?”
Like Susan Sontag, like Dr. Warner, I have found it liberating to think of our, my, experience of this pandemic as “like something from the classroom,” as opposed to mortal combat; Professor COVID, as opposed to Herr COVID, presiding.
It’s not that concocting a narrative will have any effect on the outcome of my/your encountering this virus in the flesh, but to choose my metaphor has muted the abject terror that attends me on a daily basis.
Since this essay was my own fulfillment of the assignment (read: writing prompt) I posed all of Weekly Hubris’s Contributors this month—to write a letter to . . . whomever . . . as a personal response to the pandemic—this is a letter, written to those of you who know me in myriad ways.
You may, in just two cases, have grown up with me (Christa, Vicki), or have known me as far back as high school in Chicago (Jean). You may be a pair of my enlightened first cousins (Steadman, Alan), or those cousins still attached to the poisoned teat of Fox News and awaiting a literal, any-day-now Rapture (you know who you are). You may have shared time with me during my long sojourn in Greece (Diana, Vassilis, Judy, and so many others), or taught alongside me, somewhere along the line (Claire, Emily) . . . or taught me (Bill, Ellen, et al), or sat in one of my classrooms (Amy, Kim, Mike, Tyrone).
God knows, you may have even been in love with me, at one time or another; or married to me; or be still married to me. Or have lived with me; or are living with me. You may, too, have treated me for illness (Alice, Jessi). You may be among the rarefied group of those whom I love beyond all reason; whom I cannot live without.
Then again, we may never have met, but you may have read me. I may know your names, or not. You may not know me at all, but just happened upon this link by chance.
Still, I am writing to you. I am writing to you all as though it may be the last time I do; or among the very last times I do.
How I go forward, how we all go forward, depends upon our willingness, now, to sacrifice for the public good.
And, frankly, I do not hold out much hope.
We are not a brainy species, Homo sapiens sapiens. The Greeks would say we are koutoponiroi, or both thick and sly: “dumbsly.” Too soon dumb; too late smart.
The average IQ for humans is c. 100. Why-ever should I be surprised that so many of us voted for Donald (and sport TRUMP 2020 stickers on our pick-ups)? That so many of us live and breathe magical thinking? (COVID-19? What, me worry?) That so many of us watch Trump-TV and see any precautions taken against this virus as infringement upon “our freedoms,” whatever the hell those are? That we are unwitting cogs in the capitalist, corporate machine, despite any wisdom to the contrary?
In this terrible time of learning—perhaps final learning—for us all, I am reading “on point.” I am re-reading, on point. And I leave you with two quotes from Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power and, at the foot of this essay, a poem by Mary Oliver.
“A human being who falls down reminds us of an animal we might have hunted and brought down ourselves. Every sudden fall which arouses laughter does so because it suggests helplessness and reminds us that the fallen can, if we want, be treated as prey. If we went further and actually ate it, we would not laugh. We laugh instead of eating it. Laughter is our physical reaction to the escape of potential food.”
“The deception is complete. It is the deception of all leaders. They pretend that they will be the first to die, but, in reality, they send their people to death, so that they themselves may stay alive longer. The trick is always the same. The leader wants to survive, for with each survival he grows stronger. If he has enemies, so much the better; he survives them. If not, he has his own people. In any event he uses both, whether successively or together. Enemies he can use openly; that is why he has enemies. His own people must be used secretly.”
I ask a lot of you who are reading these words.
I ask you to wake, and to remain awake; to attend and study and keep learning.
I ask that you distance yourselves from one another; that, if ill, you remove yourselves to preserve the health of those sheltering with you.
I ask you to follow Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, and to read “The New York Times.”
I ask you, if in the US, to vote straight Democratic tickets in June and November.
I ask you to mask and glove and stay at home.
I ask that you do your level best to love your neighbor as you do yourself.
. . . for the foreseeable future.
And I recognize that, despite all the “barking”—of our lunatic politicians, our privileged, entrenched-in-power patriarchs, our state-controlled media, and our chattering classes (of which I am a minor, mostly retired, nearly extinct member) . . . the caravan that is the planet will go on its way. In Turkish and Azerbaijani, the proverb even rhymes—it ürür, kervan yürür and it hürər, karvan keçər—which is a comfort.
With love/με αγάπη,
By Mary Oliver
Our neighbor, tall and blonde and vigorous, the mother
of many children, is sick. We did not know she was sick,
but she has come to the fence, walking like a woman
who is balancing a sword inside of her body, and besides
that her long hair is gone, it is short and, suddenly, gray.
I don’t recognize her. It even occurs to me that it might
be her mother. But it’s her own laughter-edged voice,
we have heard it for years over the hedges.
All summer the children, grown now and some of them
with children of their own, come to visit. They swim,
they go for long walks at the harbor, they make
dinner for twelve, for fifteen, for twenty. In the early
morning two daughters come to the garden and slowly
go through the precise and silent gestures of T’ai Chi.
They all smile. Their father smiles too, and builds
castles on the shore with the children, and drives back to
the city, and drives back to the country. A carpenter is
hired—a roof repaired, a porch rebuilt. Everything that
can be fixed.
June, July, August. Every day, we hear their laughter. I
think of the painting by van Gogh, the man in the chair.
Everything wrong, and nowhere to go. His hands over
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I may have been a teacher to you in yoga, but as I read your writings, I know you are a wonderful teacher to me about life. I am in a similar life situation as you — in the vulnerable age group and vulnerable too because I also have an autoimmune condition. As bleak as your descriptions are of this weird twilight zone time, your descriptions somehow give me hope (I guess because they are so beautifully written). Notwithstanding that I am in an apartment in NYC, I’m too afraid to leave the house to enjoy this wonderful city. Just to get the mail or empty the trash I don my mask and gloves. But I’m also encouraged about humanity by the kindness of my neighbors, for example they often drop off packages at my door that have been mailed to me so that I don’t have to go downstairs to pick them up. Keep writing. And of course I hope you feel better.
Dearest Ellen, I “came to you” after my beloved Yoga broke my back. Like a racehorse, I had trusted my “trainers” on the track, and all but one held me back and protected me. I do not blame, now, the one who egged me on. But you I found when I thought I would never be back on the mat; never be upright and ambulatory again. As it is, many surgeries later, I am not, in fact, back on the mat in any real sense, but your teaching remains pellucid in my mind and body and soul. You embodied for me “other possibilities.” You were my “best” teacher. You showed me that the world IS the mat. Now, we are once again in the same classroom, though far apart. And I think of you up there with so much love, and wish I could drop in. I will be dropping in in spirit. Always, Namaste, Elizabeth
Goodness, Elizabeth. You do know how to push my buttons! Recently, I put my mother’s new license plate on her car (socially distancing, of course) so the motto was a mere three inches from my nose. I could barely contain my scorn that, once again, South Carolina does dumb so well.