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  • Writer's pictureLoren Niemi

Elvis Has Left the Building


The astronomical calendar says Spring is sprung. My sense, or perhaps our collective sense is not “sprung” as the blossoming of new life though I am sure that has appeared in some quarters. Daffodils rise from wet earth, blue bonnets dot the edge of Texas highways, maple trees sap and oaks finally push off their winter dry leaves and cactus sprout soft petals amid their spiny points. Rather I am thinking of “sprung” as in come apart or escaping the bounds that hold the machinery in place. In that sense, it is not simply the season but the “ordinary of living” as we know it.

Suddenly we are in a pandemic crisis with all the panic and denial that such a crisis propagates. It really doesn’t matter whether anyone saw it coming. Those who did were not heard or empowered to act because as a culture we don’t think too much about investing in worse case prevention. It didn’t matter in the short term whether the Federal or state or local governments were prepared for such a crisis. We had (and have) political campaigns, stock markets, and industries to run.

Here’s a historical fact, that between 1347 and 1351 the various Kings and Cardinals, landowners and merchants had their own realms to run yet they were unprepared and powerless to stop an estimated 75 to 200 million people from dying in the pandemic commonly called the Black Death.

In the space of four years, somewhere between 30 and 60% of Europe’s population died and the world as they knew it was gone.

This is a curious historical fact that we treat in the abstract until we begin to think about disease vectors and the ease with which a virus we have no immunity to can be spread. We think that we are different, that something like that could not happen today. But really little has changed except for the speed of infection. The first case in China has been traced back to Nov 17th and then the first case outside the infection zone was January 13th in Thailand. It was January 20 when a 35-year old man in Washington is diagnosed. February 12th South Korea spikes via a church congregation trigger followed by Iran on the 19th and Italy on the 21st. One month later 303,000 cases are reported worldwide and over 24,000 confirmed cases in the United States.

This pandemic is here and denial will not prevent its spread. Being in a rural community will not prevent the spread but the lack of hospitals will make treatment more difficult. Pretending you are immune or at little risk based upon your age does not remove risk for a virus that has a two-week window before being fully symptomatic. It makes you an unwitting carrier. Praying or hoarding toilet paper will not prevent the spread of a virus that knows not race or class, gender identity or religious affiliation. What the virus wants is a host and the mechanism of transmission is contact. But you know this or should.

The call for self isolation, staying home if you are sick or told to work from there, social distancing, wholesale layoffs of workers and the shuttering of industries were abstract strategies to “flatten the curve” until in the space of a week or two their necessity is a fact. The cancellation of sports, theater, museums, and shopping malls is a fact. Closing restaurants, bars, churches and schools, laying off workers and telling people not to congregate in groups or shelter in place is a fact. The upending of plans and the economic, regulatory, social and more importantly, the personal dislocation that comes is a fact.

We do not know how long these strategies will be in place. Not for a few weeks. Two months, three, perhaps the whole of the summer are offered by those who do not want to say that the world as we know it is gone and that the life described by that despicable phrase, the new normal, is here to stay. Years before infection or immunity changes the fact. But until that happens life as we knew it is gone.

What was that life?

That is a difficult question to ask oneself and to answer. What was chosen from habit or for convenience? What relationships count? What is required for self-care or that of another – be it parents, siblings, children, partners, friends – now?

What is faith now? What do we believe in? A loving God who will work miracles if we pray? A vengeful God who brought the plague to smite “the gays”? How will we explain the death of those who pray like us or believe like us? Is this a “Rapture” of a kind?

What is Capitalism now? Entire industries want “Socialism for the rich” to remain profitable in the midst of shelter in place while their long-time condemning of financial support for the workers rings hollow. Those who have argued that health care is a right or for a living wage or a guaranteed basic income can now ague the case for expanding the social net as a political and economic necessity for if there are no workers there are no consumers. If there is not hope for the many in the plague recession, the poor will say, we have nothing to loose in taking up torches and pitchforks. When that happens it will not be the immigrant who “took your job” but the bankers and landlords who took your house who are blamed.

How do we pay for bread and butter and the roof over our head? How do we make money when our work is gone? That is actually something of a misnomer for artists as the work we do is still the work we do or want to do, but the times and places we get paid to do it are gone.

My sister Barb is on the phone to me. She lives in rural Wisconsin and says she looks out the window seeing the same fields, the same woods, and the same husband as she saw every day in the last year and a half since she retired, but she feels so sad.

Rightfully so, for the natural world is not changed but the one we have constructed in the name of progress has.

Does this feel too dark? The truth is that I have written and rewritten this, trying to lighten it up each time. There is no getting around the darkness of the plague. Stalin is reported to have said that a million deaths are a statistic but one death is a tragedy. When we think about Covid -19 as a pandemic it is easy to see it as something that happens to others but the fact (yes once more, the trouble and terror of facts) is that even in the best case scenario we are still at the front of this plague and very probable that every one reading this will know one or more who will infected before it is done. It is hard to lighten up when I already know two. They are not dead and I pray that they do not succumb to that end. I would wish for no one I know to succumb but given how varied my community by age and location the probabilities are not great.

After all it could be me.

It is hard to acknowledge that I am as susceptible as any. While my health is good for a man of my age, the fact is I am a man of that age – a high-risk of death or serious consequences if I survive infection age – and therefore have an incentive to self-quarantine and maintain social distancing.

I do intend to spend my quarantine organizing my life and the artifacts of my life. Books, papers, photographs are all subject to review and purging. I intend to use these months without public performance or workshops to make art. I intend to do more writing. Though I am just one degree of separation from being a Luddite I am learning to love Zoom and am increasingly open to doing on-line, coaching, teaching, performing and of course, selling a few books. You tell me what you want and send me a check and I’ll venture out to ship you books as long as the US Postal Service operates.

Such is my intention in proximity to the Vernal Equinox. That and to say to you as I do at the end of every missive: Be Well. It is said with all my caring and respect, with all my careless love for you. Be smart and careful. Wash your hands. I cherish your place in the world and your place in my broken heart as I say: be well.


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