I once had a dog named Spunky. I enjoyed taking her for walks. There’d be days in the house when she’d pace, indicating her wish to be outside. It was always best to honor her inclination. Once outside, I’d take her off the leash and she’d tear away, bounding this way and that for the sheer joy of it. Other times when I’d take her out, no sooner did I let her loose, Spunky would just sit. She’d do nothing while raising her nose to the sky, sniffing the air, as though engaged in some mystical transcendental exercise only dogs comprehend.
One of the pleasures of writing the personal essay such as I enjoy writing is turning my mind loose. I like to let it rip, freeing it to go wherever it will. There are days of late, however, that when I turn it loose, it goes nowhere. My mind just sits there, lodged in the skull where it’s supposed to be, but without entertaining a single intelligible thought for which it was designed. So, it as has been for me these last weeks: I have not been able to muster concrete thoughts or even feel the energy necessary to chase down the kinds of impressions that might be worth writing about. I’m in a funk.
A few weeks ago, Mother’s Day, I was determined to write, to get on with it. Why Mother’s Day I’m not sure. Possibly it was because the day evoked recollections of my mother’s impatience with me when she’d see me sitting around dawdling when I was supposed to be doing something. I didn’t feel the kind of urgency I’d have when having an inspired idea. It was more an unidentified push to get something down on paper, as if during this hiatus, I had to justify my existence by producing an essay.
I took out my pad and my pen, (I still write first drafts with a fountain pen, then transcribe the material onto my computer) sat myself down, tried to release my mind to go wherever it wished. It didn’t go anywhere. Like Spunky, it just sat there. This was not writers block. This was different. I can only assume that the peculiar pall the coronavirus and political turmoil, has cast over our world is getting to me.
This shouldn’t be, really. I am fortunate right now. During the pandemic, I have had no immediate safety concerns for myself or for loved ones. At the moment, all are safe. I am appropriately healthy and can walk a good two miles (now without dog) with little discomfort. I have enough to eat and a functional TV with cable –– in short, the basic staples required to live the American way of life. Still, whatever it is that’s going on, it’s making me edgy. I feel disoriented.
Grief expert, David Kessler writes: “By now we have all lost something. For some it is a loved one, a friend or a job. For many others, it is our plans; weddings and graduations canceled, retirement postponed, the first hugs to a new grandchild pushed into the future. Above all we have lost our sense of certainty…in our safety and our future, in our ability to make plans and control our lives. We may not realize it, but we are grieving.”
Kessler’s observation feels right to me. I’m grieving losses.
Recently our granddaughter formally graduated from Tampa University. Neither she nor any of the family attended a real graduation ceremony. The University held a virtual ceremony while we watched it a half a country away. No one really participated in the graduation in person.
Our first great grandchild was born recently in Baltimore. We received a flood of digital images of her as well as of the happy parents. Even the grandparents who also live in Baltimore were cautious and thought they might have to wait briefly before they went to hold the baby. The hands-on experiences of real life transitions have become, dreamlike, ephemeral and unreal.
The birth of the child is epic in any family life. Reports of the marvel in holding the baby for the first time are legendary. The pandemic has set new terms for this moment and denied us real time to participate in one of life’s most consequential rites of passage. The snapshots of our daily lives are assuming the character of reality shows, robbing us of an experience in reality by melting it down into digital images.
Our grandson is a graduate of Peabody Institute in Baltimore. His fiancé is also a graduate. Both are intimately woven into the fabric of the classical music community. They asked me to perform their marriage in the library of the Peabody Institute. I have never seen it, but I’m told it’s a magnificent space, more like a cathedral than a library. I was thrilled to be asked. Because of their musical connections the event would have been filled with grand music performed by skilled artists. Because of the pandemic the event now has an uncertain future.
I have read, too, how those who have lost loved ones to the coronavirus will not be able to see them even long enough to say final goodbyes. The fears of infections prohibit contact. Their grief will not have the closure that funerals provide. And funerals, like weddings, graduations and births gain significance as communal events. They celebrate life and confirm our common humanity.
When the pandemic is over, will it really be over? Will our world look like the one we left?
It was 1950 and on the day the Korean war broke out. I had been hospitalized with a hernia. Today this surgery is an in and out procedure, but then it was a week in the hospital in another week confined at home. I remember feeling cut off during the convalescence.
I was confident that after my convalescence ended, I’d return to my world, the same one I left before the hospitalization. The thought energized me and I eagerly anticipated getting out to be with friends. It’s different now. I have no idea today how my world will be when the pandemic is finally under control. In the 50’s, my social landscape remained the same and stable during my ‘lockdown.’ Now my social landscape is being torn this way and that by disease and political turmoil. It’s unsettling not knowing just what I’ll be returning to. I suspect next to the prospect of being exposed to, or infected with the coronavirus, the profound uncertainty about the future is the piece of today’s experience that’s the most unnerving.
We grieve a lost past while facing an uncertain future.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.