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  • Loren Niemi

A Pandemic Solstice



4:02 AM comes - the Solstice moment - I get up to feed the cats. When I go back to bed, I have a dream that begins with me having coffee with Kurt Vonnegut. Our conversation is cut short when a woman rushes in to tell me that they're waiting for me at the theater. Apparently, I'm performing in a play that I do not know though I do know the playwright. Meh, I'm game to try....


I am in the dressing room reading the script. The play appears to be "Our Town" for fifth graders, with dinosaurs. I think I'll have to do this "Spalding Gray" style - sitting at a table with notes. I am trying to write important images, lines, actions on cards as I read the script. The pen is leaking ink, blotches fill the cards.


People keep asking me if Kurt is well enough to come to the show? I don't expect so, I say, he's dead. Even in a dream it is possible to acknowledge reality.


A woman is doing my makeup and tells me it is time to fit my red nose. I say, "no, Emmet Kelly's "sad hobo" is wrong." She starts again and when I look in the mirror, I've become Joel Gray in "Cabaret".


A guy comes in to say that the show is going to start in ten minutes. I still have pages of script to crib to see how this thing ends. It appears there is a lot of dancing but it is not clear whether it is me or the dinosaurs. I think to myself, “this is the actor's nightmare. I can't go on stage and improvise this. I'll never be able to go on stage again.”


I wake in a sweat, with a heaviness in my chest. I think, “F**k it's Covid-19.” I open my eyes - the cat is sleeping on my chest.


That dream feels like a metaphor for this plague year. The year as a series of loosely related events, each with its own gestalt of absurdity or anxiety. Joy and grief butting up to each other, odd conjunctions and cross-references with the feeling that there are dinosaurs just out of sight.

I don’t usually send out those Christmas/year-end letters that list the accomplishments and poignant moments of family life which seem to be the hallmark of my Gen-X and Millennial nieces and nephews with young families, or those of my generation whose pride in the accomplishments of the grandkids deem it worth the writing, Still, on this Pandemic Solstice it might be worth reviewing some of what has happened.


On January 1st, I came down with a debilitating flu unlike any I’ve had before. Never mind that I had a flu shot. I was in self-quarantine, too weak to stay upright more than a few minutes. It had many of the characteristics of Covid-19 - sustained fever, difficulty breathing, fluid in the lungs, loss of smell and taste - though it was not known to be in this country then. More than once I wondered if I would recover or if I died alone in my bachelor apartment how many days would it be before anyone would miss me.


I did recover but again, in retrospect, that first week might serve as a harbinger of the year.


The Christine and I thought to amuse ourselves by looking at houses and condos that we didn’t think we could afford and to our surprise found one that we liked and could. Built in 1912 everything about it was “old school: 1550 square feet of wood floors, radiators, a sunporch with a plant so large we’d name it Dan Green, fireplace in the living room, formal dining room with built-in buffet, two bedrooms, a small but functional bathroom and a decently remodeled kitchen with more cabinet space that both of our apartments combined. We made an offer, which was accepted and found ourselves on the way to a closing three days after I was scheduled to return from my Northwest tour.


The bulk of February was that tour of Seattle, Port Townsend, Port Angeles, and a side trip to Eugene. Six performances - including Bad Brother, Fata Morgana and Finding Gregory – and a workshop. It was less work than I would have liked to have done but a lot of the folks I had wanted to see had departed the gloom for warmer climes. My thanks to my cousin Duane and his wife Nancy and to Margaret Read McDonald, Brian Branagan, Lisa Turecek, and Kathleen Kendrick for housing me the 18 days I was there. When I arrived. the evening news was full of stories of flooding and washed-out roads but by time I left the first wave of hospitalizations from Covid-19 had replaced them.


The Christine and I were in Denton in March for the 35th Annual Tejas Storytelling Festival when fears of the rising wave of Covid-19 prompted the City to end the Festival prematurely. The return flight to Minneapolis was the last airplane one I made and there was a palpable unease on that plane about what was next. In the week that followed, most of my scheduled work for 2020 was cancelled or postponed indefinitely. In the face of a fast spreading but still little understood disease America was shutting down in a sensible abundance of caution and an over abundance of rumor.


On St. Patrick’s Day we moved boxes of books and a few pieces of furniture out of separate apartments into one household and four days later The Christine left for Peoria to assist her mother’s final transition to whatever is next. I was left with two cats and the unpacking, or as much of it as I could do with what was mine and the common spaces. We talked of stress and caring via text and Zoom every day while around us the pandemic cancelled the remainder of my work and dictated that she do hers remotely.


Christine’s mother transitioned on Mother’s Day and I went to a masked and socially distanced funeral the following week. On Memorial Day weekend, she returned to Minneapolis as a police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and everything changed again. The masked and socially distanced peaceful protest that followed became chaotic after the police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, became agitators from outside the community setting the 3rd precinct, the post office, and minority owned stores along Lake Street on fire, became days of assessing the damage and nights of fear, hearing the National Guard helicopters with searchlights circling while SUV’s with no license plates played cat and mouse with both police and the neighborhood patrols that sprang up. After Philando Castile, Jamar Clark and a history of Black lives not mattering, it was past time for Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the country to come to terms with our structural racism.


In June, I was thrilled when “What Haunts Us” - my collection of (unusual) ghost stories - was awarded the 2020 Midwest Book Award for “Sci-fi / Fantasy / Horror / Paranormal” fiction. I now have copies with gold “winner” stickers on the cover. It still remains a good read and a lovely gift for those on your holiday or “Three Kings” (the 12th day of Christmas) shopping list. It is available from the usual on-line sources or myself directly.


That was followed in July by Ted Parkhurst (Parkhurst Brothers) publication of “Point of View and the Emotional Arc of Stories”. Co-authored with Nancy Donoval, it summarizes several key aspects of our 17 years of teaching those topics and is the companion to “The New Book of Plots” which in turn summarizes more than 30 years of my teaching the permissions and limitations of oral and written narrative structure. Both are, in effect, how-to texts with exercises and examples geared to making the reader (you) a better storyteller.


I will note here that I am going to be teaching two six session on-line storytelling class beginning in January and again in March. Both classes will walk you through the Plot and Point of View texts with practical exercises as you craft your own stories. This is another result of Covid-19, a shift for myself and for most of the storytelling community to try to teach and perform digitally. Here’s the Eventbrite link: https://www.eventbrite.com/.../loren-niemis-illustrated... They are also available from the usual on-line sources or if you want to buy the pair at a discount for the on-line class, from myself directly.


The tragedy of August, as Covid-19 continued to rage, was that there would be no Minnesota State Fair. For the first time in over thirty years, I could not eat my “Walleye in a Boat” or get myself in a boat traversing the watery dark of “Ye Olde Mill”, (AKA the “tunnel of love”), the oldest ride on the fairgrounds. There was an attempt to do a "drive-thru" version but really it is the walking from joy to joy of the fairgrounds for hours amid a crowd of 50,000 or more people a day that is as much the gestalt of the event as anything.


In September, my second poetry chapbook, "Vote Coyote!" came out as a response to the vagaries of the political campaigns and the hyper-partisan nature of this year's contest. It did not sell well, mostly because as a 100 copy limited-edition chapbook it is not available on-line. But the beauty of Coyote’s commentaries on elections is that these poems will remain relevant for as many years as we have two parties nominating candidates.


10/10/2020 saw the publishing of The Christine’s “The Book of Snark”, a witty mix of pointed commentary and hard-won wisdom for any woman on the bus and in the workplace. Since then, it has sold steadily and is a great “stocking stuffer” or as it says on the cover “makes a great re-gift”. As is the case with most of the books from this household, it is available from the usual on-line sources or from The Christine herself. Unlike "Vote Coyote!" it is selling.


After The Christine returned from Peoria, we ordered a table large enough (8 feet of white oak / 10 chairs) for the dining room. The first (there’s some foreshadowing) guy who was going to make it came down with Covid-19 and after three months refunded our money, saying he wouldn’t be able to build it. The second guy, said, he’d have it to us by Thanksgiving. And it was, but as the pandemic was now in a second wave (and here’s my prejudice) thanks in part to all those who think it’s a hoax or that wearing a mask is an imposition on their freedom rather than putting others as risk, we ate Thanksgiving dinner by ourselves.


The truth is that I am as sick of isolation and distanced interactions as anyone, but since I believe in science and the common good, I understand that there is no quick ending to this pandemic year. Even with vaccines, the necessity of masks and limited social interactions will remain well into 2021. I also understand and am deeply appreciative that I have a house, that I have a partner, that we are not facing this pandemic year alone.


Now it is December. Hanukkah, the Solstice, Christmas, Boxing Day, Kwanza follow one another in these dark days. New Years and the Feast of the Epiphany / Three Kings in early January with the inauguration of the next president on the 20th. The pandemic year does not so much end as continues in the fevered dream of uncertainty - not enough work, not enough money, not enough social contact, not enough safety. Folks are crying out for a return to “normal” but the fact is that normal cannot and should not come again.


The one thing that Covid-19 has shown us is where the fault lines of the American economy and health care systems are. The top 1% have made billions in the crisis while the bottom waits for what? The fact that millions are out of work, that there is no living minimum wage or national health insurance, and Congress is debating whether $300 a week in supplemental unemployment or $600 for individuals is enough, is bordering on criminal.


The conversation about what is needed is long and for some, difficult conversation I will not venture into here. It goes beyond left and right, beyond whether Republicans have become the party of White nationalism authoritarianism or the Democrats are Socialists or worse. It goes to a real consideration of the permissions or limits of personal liberty and our responsibility as citizens and as human beings to each other. As Paul Wellstone said, ""Politics is not just about power and money games, politics can be about the improvement of people's lives, about lessening human suffering in our world and bringing about more peace and more justice."


But let me end this missive on another lighter note. I do not remember what was said in my dream’s conversation with Kurt Vonnegut, but I do know that he once said, “Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning do to do afterward.” Not bad advice for the uncertainty of living in a Covid-19 year. He also offered this, which I think is the fundamental statement of hope in the dark winter’s night, “And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.”


Be well.