M.S., 44, a poet and editor in Jersey City, NJ

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I still remember the afternoon of March 13, 2020, when I started following the official site of the New Jersey Coronavirus Dashboard and the number of cases started to climb up like mercury on a hot thermometer. I was anxious due to the fact that my nine-year-old was in the school playing and socializing with his peers with no fear and awareness about the pandemic. I requested the school for a day off as I was too paranoid to send him to school the next day and my fears were realized when the mayor ordered a state lockdown the very next Monday.

What happened after the next three months was nothing anybody was prepared for, not at least in the span of the last 100 years. First, it was the sudden realization of the lockdown and coupled with the anxiety of the new insane normal we all had to get ourselves prepared for. Then the school shifted to remote schooling and my husband’s work shifted to our little make-believe office in our high rise apartment in the densest part of the city.

Though as a poet and an editor I mostly prefer to stay indoors near my writing space but sharing the same house with three people in different rooms screaming over their virtual screens has become a constant battle for all of us. Initially, my son was really excited by the prospect of remote schooling and the idea of getting up later than usual for school. But spending eventually four to five hours of screen time started causing him digital saturation. I could see the frustration in him popping at unusual times for unusual reasons. He started having more meltdowns. I contacted the school to cut down content as it was nearly impossible to achieve the same level of productivity in remote schools versus actual schooling. To my surprise, the school agreed and reduced the volume.

This pandemic also came as a mixed bag of emotions for me. The negative aspects of it are the cancellation of the local poetry reading events, which were a great source of networking for me and also gave me a platform for my content. The cancellation which I regret the most is the week-long poetry festival in the neighboring town which I was headlining for the first time. Now in retrospect, I think that It was the right decision as it would have become the next cluster of infection.

Poetry in the time of coronavirus has been a blessing and curse in equal proportions. Though the cancellation of my events did cause me sadness it is negated by the deluge of the poetry events and opportunities since they all have moved online. Reading poetry in front of a zoom screen never gives me the same level of satisfaction as compared to a room full of cheering and a live audience. I compensate for this fact on my zoom sessions by snapping fingers and typing positive comments in the chat window. A performer thrives on appreciation and feedback.

Also, there is a deluge of submissions to the anthology I’m co-editing for my literary journal. The anthology celebrates the 100 years of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States. This gives me the necessary distraction from the pandemic news. I was immensely affected by the stories of people going through the pandemic. My poetry gave me that essential cathartic release and as a result, I started writing poems as a way to document my emotions.

My several poems became my creative outlet to my anxiety and fear about the pandemic. I also collaborated in various crowdsourced projects, and my involvement in the poetry events increased by many folds as more of my literary contacts shifted to the virtual platform.

I am now able to attend and meet more people through this virtual platform which earlier was not possible either due to locational disadvantage or time conflicts with my son’s extracurricular classes. I was also selected twice as a panelist for the Jersey City Theater Centre online series “ Voice Around the World” and was able to share the space with world-renowned theater artists. I also crossed the 400+ published poems count in poetry journals in April.

This pandemic has been nothing less of an emotional rollercoaster for me. There are days when I am really excited about poetry acceptances or my winnings in State and National level Poetry contests and then there are days I am really sad and depressed. Someone losing a family member to coronavirus in my writing community becomes a personal loss to me and instills an unknown fear of losing my own. I have been calling my mother and my siblings more often than usual. All my phone calls have been switched to video calls from the regular voice calls. Anxiety morphs and molds into a new shape every day.

April being the National Poetry Month was extremely productive and busy. WNYC Studios gives prompts to their listeners as part of their annual #PausePoetry contest to celebrate National Poetry Month. One of the prompts was “Lessons learned“. I was really finding it hard to articulate something of value from my pandemic experience. Then the next day I received unfortunate news of my close friend’s mother passing due to cancer and him not being able to visit her due to the flight cancellations and border closure. I was dreading making the condolence call but I finally braved my fears and made the call. What came out of that 30-minute call was the response to the prompt “Lessons learned”. The poem luckily got selected for the prompt and was mentioned on the Morning Show of the WNYC Studios.

Also, I cook more often now that my family stays home at all times. Bored with the monotony of home-cooking I also have started trying new recipes from my mother’s cookbook. Looking at the satiated smile of my family after a well-cooked meal has been one of the good things that have happened recently. I get to spend more time with my son compared to the four hours I would normally get. We also have started going for walks in the morning, weekly hikes, and have started exercising together as a family. This has added a new level of bonding between all of us.

I also gave a haircut to my husband and my son and to my surprise it came out pretty decent. I have heard the horror stories of the bald spot but I successfully managed to avoid that. That first haircut gave me such a sense of achievement. I realized that I’m now capable of doing small fixes around my house for which earlier I was immensely dependent on the handyman.

Enraged by the systemic oppression of African American communities, I also started reading more about its history and how it made its way into the system. How it all started the day Mayflower touched the shores of Virginia, to bloody Civil War, to police brutality, racial profiling during the traffic stops, and finally leading to the death of George Floyd, which led to the marches and protests around the country. I started writing poems about it, donated money to the bail funds, and signed a petition. I also made and donated posters for the local protest march in Jersey City against police brutality along with my son. One of the few things I’m really proud of. This pandemic has given a necessary pause in everybody’s lives to introspect and realize the small things which really matters. This pandemic has also taught me how essential workers are real heroes and how privileged I’m to be sitting in my home and not risking my life to earn a living. It has taught me to be grateful for small things right from learning a small skill and to be patient when dealing with a string of meltdowns of my nine-year-old.

As my son’s school was in the last weeks of its school year they asked students to list their learnings and experiences during the last three months of the remote school as a series of one-liners to which my son responded by writing the following, “Everything comes to an end, Good times will come”. Since that day this has become a daily mantra for me. Now I strongly believe in the saying that children are the best teachers you ever get in your life.

I hope we all will come out of this stronger and kinder than before.

Stay Safe and Stay Healthy.

A Condolence Call (Poem)

Poem written as a response to the prompt “Lessons Learned” by the #PausePoetry project of WNYC Studios in honor of National Poetry Month 2020

Grief sits like a day old soup in my kitchen unless the anger stirs it 
rattles and boils it. Grief rises to the surface and chokes me 

I hear the loss of a mother. My friend’s mother, over the phone. 
It’s a condolence call yet I can’t seem to join in his grief

Sudden loss disjoints your body, the pieces don’t seem to fit anymore 
Body and language are extricable. Our tongue moves in the way 

our body can’t decipher in grief. I can’t seem to form a legible sentence 
our conversation keeps coming back to the grocery, the loneliness of 

being stuck in a condo looking over the lush green deserted parks. 
I don’t want to bring back the conversation of the dead and dying.

The whole thread of conversation is about feeding the ones we love. 
Loss is pouring through the thin sluices of this city. Every damn day. 

Which starts again the same way it ended yesterday Or was it tomorrow?

With sidewalks pitted with the bones of the dead.

I can’t seem to fathom the desperation and anger in his voice of not being

able to visit her mother during her last times, the pain and the grief carry over

like a failing enjambment from one meaningless conversation

to another till we ran out of the small talk. The silences between

the pauses take the shape of the unsaid condolence, as I slowly hang up the phone.

There is no defined language for grief. Lesson learned.

[submitted on 6/24/2020]

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Life in Quarantine: Witnessing Global Pandemic is an initiative sponsored by the Poetic Media Lab and the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis at Stanford University.

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