A Protective Archipelago: A Covid-19 Correspondence
For four days, from the 10th to the 13th of April, we (Celina and Wah-Ming) took turns writing each other letters in the midst of our experiences while sheltering in place during the Covid-19 pandemic. We had no agenda but to connect via words rather than audio-visually.
Justin has been living in his 6-foot by 10-foot home office for 23 days now. For the first 21 days, Justin took his temperature, and it was 102 degrees. Was his thermometer broken? We sanitized it, tried it on me and Wen—Our temperatures were around 98 degrees, normal. Finally, his fever broke two days ago. It was such a relief. To be honest, it was his shortness of breath—anticipating, from what I read, that feeling of drowning—that scared me. We kept fearing that his shortness of breath would worsen, that we would have to compete for medical attention and a ventilator. Now we’re just waiting for him to feel okay for 72 hours before he can come out and hang out with me and Wen.
He leaves the office just a few times a day, running to the bathroom. (Amazingly, we have a room for him to stay in, and we happened to have a twin-sized air mattress, and it fit. As you know, we just moved here a few months ago, from a 1-bedroom—thank goodness.) The first day of his isolation of the self, Wen ran to him and pleaded, “Up?” each time he left his Covid19 home. He scurried away backwards, wincing and apologizing as he did so.
Now, even when Wen has a present for him, like showing him the nice belt (a scarf that she appropriated from a stuffed bunny I had sewn for her) she has just put on, she knows to knock on his door and then step back six feet before he opens it. Sometimes her instincts aren’t quick enough, and she doesn’t shout “I whoa you” in the direction of his door in time, until after he has closed it again.
The church bells won’t stop ringing. I look up to the top right corner of my laptop screen. It’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon. There’s usually one chime per hour. Why won’t they stop ringing??? Please, please tell me that the church is not mourning the recent dead. It could be a call to mass, but for this long? It’s 3:07, and the church is still ringing its bells. (My apologies. Clearly, I don’t know anything about Catholicism.)
Justin and I figured out a system to ease our routines—We have just enough bleach wipes that, ripped in thirds, he can use to sanitize the bathroom after each use. This way, I don’t have to run after him after each visit, wondering which surfaces he might have touched.
In case Wen and I were also exposed to the virus, she and I weren’t allowed out of this apartment, even into the building hallways, for 14 days since our last contact with Justin. Two neighboring families have left the city; one family remains. They picked up our garbage from our apartment door; they dropped off each package we received. I don’t know how I’d have made it through this quarantine without them and our friend Amy, who dropped off groceries at our apartment door. For two weeks, I hid Wen’s coats deep in my closet, since the sight of them kept prompting her to ask for walks. We went out a couple of days ago, finally, for a walk to Prospect Park. I brought along a mask for her, but she refuses to keep it on. I wore a mask I bought 2 years ago, for subway rides when I was pregnant during the terrible 2017–2018 winter flu season. I held on to Wen tightly as we walked, not only for her protection, but for mine as well. Wen is my armor, my protection, against anti-Asian hate right now. Who could harshly judge the doting mother of a 1-year-old? Or so I hope. It was sunny and warm, but with a cool breeze. I remember thinking about how inadequate language was in describing the air then, that it was just perfect. Wen and I pointed out the magnolias, dogwoods, and cherry blossoms. I almost cried.
Our days feel so very long. She used to sleep 12 straight hours, until 8 a.m. She wakes up at 6 or 7 now, which would be fine if she weren’t also screaming and crying through the night. Sometimes I wish she could read or color or sit still for 5 minutes. She’s not getting enough exercise, and her routines have gone kaput. I’m trying to give her structure, to occupy her for 14 hours, then clean, then try to answer work emails and read Ph.D. dissertations and master’s theses before I go to bed. I try to do so on time, because I’m scared of getting sick like Justin. And Justin and I text from adjoining rooms to schedule our bathroom visits, since we can’t use it at the same time. So now, I actually heed my alarm to eat my elderberry gummies. I started taking sleeping pills; like Wen, I’m experiencing new, intense bouts of insomnia. This misery of mine finds little solace in company, but last night, I imagined you and others I know on your various pillows, tossing and turning or staring at the ceiling, composing missives to one another, bathed in the light of a pink supermoon.
In our quarantine, Wen has become extra clingy, so that I can’t read or write anything except in furtive, 30-second snippets before she snatches away my phone. On occasional, wondrous days like today, she naps for a full hour. She’s napping right now. She fell asleep after an hour of crying, right as I was about to go pick her up.
She wasn’t allowed any screen time at all before this pandemic, and now I rely on it in order to cook. (Justin is the cook of the family, and a really amazing one. I just hope that my meals are serviceable.) I don’t dilly-dally, so that I can limit her screen time. I wonder if we’re damaging her cognitive or intellectual development with endless loops of Daniel Tiger. And yet, even the lure of the screen isn’t enough to keep her from tugging at me while I cook. I have learned to hold her on one hip and tend to the stove with my other arm, making sure nothing splatters on her.
Every once in a while, I approach the front window. Yesterday, I saw a neighbor being carried out of his home on a stretcher, wearing a mask. I couldn’t see his face well enough to guess his age, whether he has a history of smoking or preexisting conditions, whether he has any signifiers to let me know that he is an other, that we will be okay, or that he reminds me of us, that we should all watch out. It is, for a moment, a Rawlsian mask of ignorance.
Ambulances rush by at least two dozen times a day. “Whoa,” Wen says to the sirens.
It’s 3:37. The death knells are still ringing. They blend with the sound of sirens.
I check in on just a few people regularly—I’m most worried about my father, who lives by himself in Queens. Not quite in what seems to be emerging as the “epicenter of the epicenter,” Elmhurst and Jackson Heights. A bit to the east, in a slightly more residential area. He has every other underlying condition I can think of—hypertension, high blood pressure, a history of smoking. He assured me that he had two months’ worth of food from Costco, but every time I speak to him on the phone and ask when he was last out, he says that he had just gone out the day before. Finally, this week, he has stopped going to banks, to pharmacies. I fear for him, and for his girlfriend. She’s a home health aide, traveling from mid-Brooklyn to the Upper West Side, an hour and a half each way via subway. She dons gloves, a mask, and goggles. I think of how lucky her patient is—She is earning working poor-level wages for incredibly skilled, caring work. (When she lived in China, she was a hospital nurse.) I’m terrified of the risks she’s taking on. I know she’s terrified for her patient. She and my father used to spend each Sunday, her day off, together; they no longer do so. I wonder how she’s managing with groceries, how she’s managing financially. I know that she’s terrified of making a dollar less, and that she’s also terrified of making more, since she relies on Medicaid and has been on a Section 8 waiting list for a long time.
Where is Justin? We live in the same apartment, but in parallel universes. In this upside-down world, affection is the opposite of a tight embrace. It is, instead, a strict withholding, making and holding space for a wish, for continued mourning, for the suspension of expectation.
One “funny” thing about this pandemic is that its scale has given me an excuse to finally say "no" to absolutely everything but what is most precious to me. I know I’m so fucking lucky to be able to do this. I am not being productive. It feels futile, anyway—A few days ago, I spent Wen’s entire hour-long nap on hold on the phone, waiting to speak to the bank holding my mortgage. Towards the end of Wen’s nap, I was thanked for holding; my call is important to them. My estimated remaining holding time was between 27 and 28 hours. What. “I would rather not” hustle, I said out loud, echoing Bartleby. Unlike everyone else in our world, I am not on Zoom all the time, binge watching or watching anything at all, feeding sourdough starters, using this time to read Ulysses. I can’t imagine Wen letting me focus enough to make a meaningful contribution to video conferences. As long as Justin is in self-isolation, I am skipping my usual work meetings on local democratic initiatives. I am not working on my book. I am not working on journal articles I meant to write in 2018. I am not applying for fellowships. I’m so lucky that I’m not teaching this semester, since I have no idea of how I would pull that off—Maybe I’d pre-record lectures in the middle of the night, like my cousin Ben? I’m no Patti Smith or Toni Morrison (duh), waking at 5 to work on my creative practice before parenting or bills-paying work. Besides, for once, I feel occupied rather than preoccupied while caring for Wen. My daily routine is shaped by my needs, Wen’s needs, Justin’s need to recover. Meals to eat, time to eat, time to rest, songs to sing. But those beyond this apartment, beyond the few people I’m in contact with, are also precious to me.
It’s 3:48 pm. When did the bells stop ringing? I hope that I have not become inured to this bleak tragedy, that I have not yet realized that we will not go back to “normal” after this. As if we needed a fucking pandemic to tell us that our patchwork employer-based health system needs a complete overhaul, that “low-skilled” workers like my dad’s girlfriend are essential, that my neighbors’ health depends on my social distancing, and my quarantine depends on their generous help with the garbage. I feel so incredibly grateful for our apartment, but I have to think about how I can best help, especially while barely holding down the fort, especially once this acute crisis recedes into being “merely,” once again, our chronic condition.
I’m sorry that I’m jumping all over the place. Besides, it feels like every time I spend more than 30 seconds furtively texting or reading the news, feeling fury at this fucking shit show of death out there, Wen grabs my phone or tugs at my legs, whining for attention. I re-remember that this cocoon is not separate from but clearly a reflection of the larger world, its riches and inequities. A vanity mirror, maybe, a magnifier of our blackheads and our varicose veins. If only our social ills were so cosmetic.
I hear dogs barking outside. I hear songbirds chirping. On the radio, a botanist confirms that it is not my imagination—The birds are singing more loudly this year, emboldened by our retreat from their habitats. The clouds look like happy little clouds.
Wen is waking up from her nap. She is crying. As she should be, I suppose.
Please send news. I send you love.
How I wish I could come by and hold Wen while you and Justin get some rest! I am looking forward to and grateful for when Justin will return to full health and for his exceptional curiosity to be put to good work. I am grateful for Wen, who must be a source of both comfort and anxiety for you right now. Whenever I call for a FaceTime session, she asks, “Papa? Papa?” Where is Justin? He is there, dear Wen! I’m sure it’s become almost a game of hide-and-seek in her mind, to think about him living in his study for this past month. A game, certainly. And it is through games in childhood where imagination shapes itself most powerfully, most lastingly.
Markus and I have kept close contact with our neighbors downstairs: grocery shopping for each other, exchanging cooking supplies, helping to clear their yard of our dog’s poop. Now and then they leave their daughter, N, with me for half an hour. N was aloof before her second birthday. She preferred to stay by her parents’ side, frowning at the faces I made to try to lure her out. But when she turned two in mid-March, a little after our self-imposed isolation began, her cognitive skills jumped and she began naming everything around her quite precisely, including me: Auntie Wah-Ming. This opening up of language opened up her trust in me too: she now greets me with a smile instead of with suspicion, and she shows me things that interest her, like her rocket ship and her blue horse, and she takes my hand confidently to lead me from one room to another, and she mimics my speech, especially if it’s a monosyllabic warning to the dog, and she jumps into my arms when she wants to be picked up, and she makes her eyes go coy and flirtatious when reaching out for a goodbye high-five. This turnaround happened in the span of a day or two, during our isolation. With daycare unavailable for the moment, and with the bonding between her and her parents more intense than usual, she explores her house with the people who inhabit it. Her attention is a hard-won triumph, though I had done nothing but continue showing up, and this by virtue of being her neighbor. Still, I feel like this triumph belongs exclusively to me, because I’ve been so persistent about winning her over. I remember experiencing a similar ecstasy with my niece three years ago, when she was around a year old. Her father, my little brother, encouraged me to stay in her room one night, where she slept among a fort of pillows on the floor. Her process of falling asleep looked restless to me, yet also inevitable: her body, still so new to the world, kept fidgeting, seeking to prolong the day’s stimulation, even while sleep was so clearly descending. As she tried to find a comfortable position with her cheek on the floor and her butt high in the air behind her (babies often sleep on their stomachs, a habit that makes me nervous but which their parents always shrug off), I lay beside her and, with sudden tears, marveled at her trust in me. I spoke to her and rhythmically patted her back. This was a gesture I remembered from my grandmother when I was a child, although my grandmother’s harsher touch felt like she was trying to knead sleep into me. In this gesture I inherited, in trying to calm a baby’s senses so that she felt 1,000 percent safe with me—and which I’ve repeated on my nights with Wen—I thought I had an understanding of what it was like to mother a child. Understanding is too presumptuous a word, of course. This understanding—a kernel of an understanding, really, this intimate glimpse into parenting—came from a mere nanosecond of a moment, after all. As the auntie to my siblings’ and friends’ children, I am witness to mostly their laughing fits and adventures in curiosity, their undisguised charm. Even during the tantrums (desperate tantrums as when I babysat Wen for that second time), I am aware of my patience, of my full energy level, and of my imminent departure from this environment of ever proliferating toys and picture books and the bewildering maze of lessons of survival. I am also aware of time—how it is on my side, while the parents, who have gotten away for a little while, must be equally dreading and eager for the return home.
My niece, who is now four and a half, voices a multitude of desires, some of them contradictory, and does not turn herself off until it is time for bed. Even then, at half the force, this multitude is relentless. I wonder about my mother having borne three children, two of them in a country where she did not speak the language; about my grandmother’s four in Taiwan; about families in the double digits; about single parents. All these parents—you among them, dear Celina!—face and manage this relentlessness daily, these bundles of unbridled energy and id. I guess this letter has turned into one of appreciation and awe for you as we are forced to keep separate from each other, as I worry about how you are managing the care of a bright, rapidly developing child. This letter is also one of compassion for parents, in particular for my own.
I have been calling them nearly daily for the past few weeks. Before this isolation was imposed on us, I would call them once a month, if that. Sometimes my silence would stretch out for so long, only to be broken by my mother when it took on the whiff of neglect. But now that the option of riding the 7 train to Flushing to see them in person has been removed, I call them almost every day. In this call is a desperation. In this call is a confirmation that the virus has not entered their older lungs. In this call is a way to force them to update me about their health, because otherwise they remain silent, preferring not to disclose anything about what they consider nobody else’s business.
I think about your father’s health.
When I found out that my father had a cold and a slight fever, the news about Italy was starting to flood the news. Against my mother’s orders, he stepped outside one morning to buy more milk. My mother was furious. She was so furious that she even told me about it—she shared their business. This was before the reports that young people were just as susceptible to falling seriously ill from Covid as the elderly. My father is in his mid-eighties. I don’t like thinking about his age. I don’t know the exact number. He’d lied about it when he left China at thirteen pretending to be sixteen. In May this year, he will be either eighty-six or eighty-nine.
On March 29, a week after he stepped outside on his own, my parents stood in line for groceries for three hours, and then for another hour to pay for their items. The residents of Flushing had been told that their grocers’ delivery trucks wouldn’t arrive that Monday, and so everybody, my parents included, went to buy supplies on Sunday. The store opened at 9:30, and my mother left the house at 9:15. The line was already two blocks long. The store had limited the number of customers to ten or fifteen at any given time. It was impossible for me to imagine the neighborhood cooperating with this rule, and I wanted my parents to avoid another such morning. My brother suggested Invisible Hands for their ethical mission statement. His wife tried to push meal kits. My sister berated us for putting delivery people at risk, given that our parents were neither in need nor vulnerable because two of their children were nearby and could drop off groceries. My sister’s husband sent us a link to where you could donate 7 percent of your net salary. My brother, who lives in California, defended his suggestion: “I figured you would all be staying at home, so the delivery service makes sense.” This entire conversation took place over text. I could hear the exasperation and frustration in their typing. I texted them all: “It’s OK. We’ll find something.” I told my parents that they should have their groceries delivered from now on. This advice was given before I had done any research about the scarcity of delivery windows. That night my mother texted that she had tried to order from Amazon Fresh but they wouldn’t let her complete the order. She sent me a screenshot. There were no delivery windows. I explained this to her and promised that I would secure one for her. After trying various options, I found all the items on my mother’s grocery list at Instacart—including bananas, Lactaid 2%, and Doritos—and clicked “Pay.” No delivery windows. It was ten thirty p.m. I stayed up until one thirty, hitting refresh on the page every fifteen minutes. Finally I set my alarm for four a.m., lay down on the sofa, and shut my eyes. It is easy for me to sleep for short periods without interruption. When the alarm went off, I hit refresh on my computer and a few delivery windows popped up. I chose the “flexible” one, which would deliver between Tuesday and Saturday. There are five stages in Instacart’s ordering process: Received, In Progress, Shopping Complete, In Transit, and Complete. Three days after I succeeded in placing the order for a delivery to Flushing, the status has yet to move from Received to In Progress.
What you say about the death knell makes me wonder about our various modes of communication, any one of them having been created when another needed updating or was unavailable. In the case of the death knell, it was to inform the community of a death. I wonder about this need to communicate this news, and also to commemorate it, how the need evolved as something experienced privately to a collective experience of mourning. In all that we’re going through today, we are coming upon a hinge in the way we communicate. Nostalgia exists as an exercise to remember a “simpler” time, but we see that it is also a useful mobilizing factor to reinstate that “simpler” time. Bells. Telephone calls. Staying home with your family, if you can. But other habits have to be adjusted, like shopping for groceries. Still, there is somebody doing the shopping, and somebody doing the delivering. Perhaps drone delivery will be the next phase to be normalized in this new life.
If my parents had raised their three young children during a pandemic, I can’t imagine them shutting down their store in Chinatown. My father would continue driving his delivery trucks or go to the office to fulfill orders for restaurant supplies. My mother would stay at home, I think, with a phone and calculator set up on the dining table. My sister, the eldest and who would be the most sensitive to the change, would be asked to help our mother with the orders. I would probably be watching television. And our younger brother would be playing with his toy cars.
I like to picture our mother in this scenario learning a new language with us, or teaching a new language to us.
Tell me news of Justin’s breathing, of Wen’s latest words, of your moments with Bartleby.
with deepest love,
There’s too much to respond to in your beautiful letter, and I won’t be able to do so. But now, always, above all else: I’m so glad that you’re well, safe, and, selfishly, in my life.
I’m also glad that you are one household and one family with the downstairs neighbors, that N has you as her precious Auntie. What a gift that is. I can’t imagine what my household would be like right now if both Justin and I were sick, who could take care of Wen full-time, though of course we would manage, as everyone else has to and hopefully does. But every once in a while, I dream of co-housing communities, and your letter reminded me of that.
I loved reading about N’s sudden development—I’m always wondering whether a new development of Wen’s signifies a developmental milestone, or a reflection of her personality and being as an individual, or a reflection of our current circumstances, this particular moment. Last week, she suddenly consistently said “thank you” (well, more accurately, “juju!”) without prompting, but now she’s gone back to sullenly mumbling “juju,” and only when prompted. Wen has her own language, and I am constantly deciphering it, to add words to my Wen-Celina dictionary. I have no idea why her word for “milk” sounds vaguely, but not quite, like the Mandarin word for “cow’s milk,” since I speak so little Mandarin around her. But I sometimes wonder whether she has a sign language “accent,” whether she pronounces “water” “awe” because that is the sound her mouth makes when she makes the ASL sign for water. I wonder, especially as we shelter in place—how are she and I shaping each other’s language?
I just put her to bed for the night, and she is screaming. Again, this didn’t happen before the quarantine. I hope that she soon feels secure enough again to easily fall asleep each night.
What strikes me most about your letter is how I’m hungering for the specificity of individual experience, maybe even more than usual, in order to glimpse at the systemic, to accompany the awful statistics in the news. Of course I loved your anecdote about your family’s attempts at grocery shopping. But why should you have to worry about the safety of delivery workers? About 7 percent of our salaries or wages? I keep going over my budget by giving small amounts to different families’ funeral expenses on GoFundMe, to bail funds for ICE detainees, and it all feels reactive. I give more than 7 percent of my income, but that, too, feels pitifully insufficient. Maybe I need to solely volunteer for mutual aid networks as best I can right now, and think about saving funds to give more strategically in the fall. I’m so upset about these impossible choices. Justin lost his job, and I told Wen’s daycare. They generously offered a 50 percent reduction in tuition while we follow social distancing instructions to keep Wen home. Justin and I accepted their offer. But we feel terrible about it, since they’re a small business, and they need to pay their two workers and stay afloat. We want to keep a spot for Wen to go back to. So… we’re paying almost $1,000 a month instead of the usual almost $2,000 a month, for three days of childcare a week that we are not using, and no one is happy, exactly. (We will manage; if needed, we’ll dip into our retirement savings, especially since I hear that they’re suspending early withdrawal penalties.) Our individual decisions do nothing to address such systemic issues. What would it mean for me to keep my eyes on the prize? Beyond November, I mean. It’s so fucking basic; I just don’t want any of us to worry about this shit.
In some ways, it feels like we have more of a shared reality than usual, that you and I, Marina in Milan, friends and strangers all over the world are staying inside. But of course some of us are hit harder than others. It feels so strange that you and I are 3.2 miles apart (I just looked it up on Google maps), but I feel so isolated from the city, unable to recall my usual sense of rootedness, even as I shelter in place. That we are able to be so. After all, it doesn’t feel like a coincidence that both your parents and my dad live close to, but not quite in, the epicenter of the epicenter, that they are partly making do because we can advocate for them vis-à-vis utility companies and get them groceries somehow.
The only disruption to this eerie, unmoored feeling, to the constant sound loops of birdsong and ambulances, is at 7 o’clock each night, when the street explodes with the clatter of pots and pans, and I see kids wearing costumes and performing cartwheels on the sidewalk. An urban gamelan, as Justin calls it.
I do savor our conversations. Inside our homes, for those of us who are lucky enough to stay inside and access fast internet, how life during this pandemic feels distinct from the typical alone together feeling of the internet, how we are, perhaps, together apart instead. FaceTiming with you doesn’t feel like a replacement of our usual correspondence, a virtual simulacrum—It is its own thing. For Wen is always with me, and not in daycare, for she is allowed screen time now, as it is her main portal to the larger world, for she has discovered the animal (“ah-mal”) effects on FaceTime, and so her main way of talking to people is as a cartoon owl or tiger.
And your beautiful Zoom reading parties—how they allow Wen and I to sit on the couch and listen, or Wen to play the piano (muting us, thankfully), or to go fetch yet another snack and come back. It enacts a wholly different relationship between performer and audience, as if we were soaking in the shadow puppet plays in Java, coming and going. It’s such a different experience from passively sitting in hard-back theatre seats or a designated audience zone, staring ahead. I admittedly only catch the readings in snippets, but even individual lines—the musicality of intonations, voices—move me so. That someone would wake up at 4:30 a.m. in Sydney in order to bestow upon us the treat of a passage of To The Lighthouse in our late afternoon. What a gift these parties are, how you create and hold space for us to quietly be together, to share different lenses of experience and interpretation, abrupt shifts in tone, all with the connective tissues of curiosity and compassion.
Once again, I keep thinking about how our actions right now are both a suspension and a distillation of our everyday norms and perhaps our selves and innards and guts. I can’t think right now; all I can do is feel right now, maybe begin to observe. But I am eager to witness what remains on the other side of this—hopefully in less than 18 months, before a vaccine is widely available—I can’t quite absorb how Trump’s approval ratings are so high right now. I’m choosing to instead focus on how I feel such an intense kinship with folks in geographically disparate locations. I wonder what will remain of this pandemic discourse, besides “social distancing.” If we will tend to the threads of interdependence this pandemic has surfaced and made so bare—as in, both more visible than they usually are and, sometimes, conspicuously threadbare. Will we continue to give recognition to those who place themselves at risk to work, when they are not so conspicuously the only ones out on the streets. Whether a few more Americans will replace “low-income” with “essential” when they talk about food delivery workers, Amazon warehouse workers. If more Americans might still think in November that these essential workers, too, should be unionized, earn decent wages, have access to health care, and have basic protective gear. What do you think life will be like this summer, this fall? Whether we’ll be able to keep these refracted, prismatic, Rashomon, Timecode, Zoom perspectives after the pandemic.
After this is over, I wonder whether I’ll be able to keep you and everyone else in my mind’s eye, going about our days. I’m thankful for the strict schedule and structure caring for Wen imposes upon me, that it forces me to write you quickly, honestly, without a burnishing of the self. But I cannot wait to one day have childcare again, to engage with and hopefully contribute to collaborative projects and spend some time alone each day, and for Wen to be around her peers and caring adults besides myself and Justin, to see someone just a little bit older than her do something she would like to try next, to experience live music again, to feel the exhilaration of being an integral part of a larger collective.
Unless he feels shortness of breath again tonight, Justin gets to leave his tiny home office tomorrow, and Wen, Justin, and I will get to hang out together again. He’s probably still shedding virus, albeit with lower viral loads each day, so he’s supposed to wear a mask and gloves around us for another week. One day, we’ll embrace Wen together. (I have to admit that I didn’t want to start this 4-day letter-writing experiment with you until I knew that our family’s experience would probably have a happy ending, for now at least.)
Wen has stopped crying, thankfully. I know that by now, we all know people who have passed. Please, I hope that we’ve hit the peak. I should go and clean and go to bed. Tomorrow, eye contact, a different future. When will it really hit me. How will we grieve. Tell me, what of this moment might you keep.
With so much love,
April 13, 2020
My parents’ groceries arrived on Saturday, the last day in the “flexible” window that had been provided in my order. This was my first time ordering from Instacart. The relief to be tracking the shopper’s progress—progress that would keep my parents safe at home—is surprisingly immediate and quantifiable. If an item has been found, it is checked off the list. If an item is unavailable, then you are asked if a certain replacement is suitable. If there are no replacements, then the item is removed from the list and you are not charged.
I kept wanting to text the shopper. Thank you so much. I hope your family is safe and healthy. How is it out there? Do you think we should add more items? Or is that more work for you? How often do you shop for others? Do people ask for just, like, three things and call it a day? Is that a waste of your time? How often are you shopping for the elderly? What do you see on these trips?
The app said that the shopper would drop off the groceries by eleven. I called my mother to tell her, but she was out in the street looking for bread. All the cafés were closed, however. I yelled at her for being outside. She showed me her mask and hoodie and clear plastic gloves.
When their groceries were delivered, we decided to make a pancake brunch together the next day via FaceTime. My mother knows how to cook about five dishes, while my father is an expert only in mapo tofu. We settled on plain pancakes. My brother’s family in California also joined the call. We held our phones up to our respective counters and stoves to track one another’s work. The last time my parents came to my apartment, Markus taught my mother how to make fluffy pancakes. But when she tried making them on her own the following weekend, they came out too salty. It was because of the salted butter. We kept meaning to follow up with a FaceTime cooking lesson, but it never happened. Now the planning of such a gathering seems very easy to me, and makes so much sense. And this time, with unsalted butter, my mother’s pancakes were delicious. They were completely misshapen, though. But she was too happy about eating such fluffy pancakes to care.
I had to yell at her only once during the call: to flip her phone upside down so that I could see the batter sizzling in the pan.
This week I will try to replicate the success of the first round of online shopping: again setting the alarm for four a.m., and then lying down on the sofa so that I don’t fall into too deep a sleep.
What you say about our parents is true. I don’t know the significance of this coincidence between us, between them, that we and they should live so close to each other, that you and I should have such a similar language bubbling in our minds, a simple Mandarin so distinctly English-syntaxed that we can understand each other perfectly even if nobody else speaks Mandarin in that way. I can’t quite comprehend coincidence in general, but we have landed on a sort of protective island, I think. It is hard for me to share it, but I have learned to share resources and wonders, often because of you, often because of Justin’s insights, often because of Wen’s new words, like “I love you” and “butterfly.”
Did I tell you how the second time I babysat Wen, she paused in her crying long enough to point out one of your Chinese–English dictionaries to me? I spoke to her in my simple Mandarin, and wondered what sort of echo would return to me the next time I came by to babysit.
Of course, the next time I saw her was on a screen. And after that, again on a screen. She had new words for me every time.
This time is incredibly distinct, yes. We are being reprogrammed so quickly inside this suspended state. Or perhaps it’s not that we’re suspended right now—but acting, active, acquiring new shape.
A year ago, during a stretch of anxiety, my body woke itself up without fail between two thirty and four in the morning, and stayed awake until six. By the second week of insomnia, I came to dread the routine for bed. To combat the disturbance of sleep, or to control it, I visited an acupuncturist. I dabbed lavender oil onto my temples and neck. I removed whole milk from my diet and searched for a healthy replacement. I started exercising again. I tried to keep a log of the times I’d wake up, using apps and notebooks with grids. I searched for therapists who took my insurance. I tried setting up a new budget to fit in all these new things, while at the same time keeping out the incredulous voice in my head that belonged to my mother. This maddening habit continued for nearly seven months. Eventually—perhaps because of a change in weather or because time continued to happen, continues to happen—I was able to sleep through the night. But I realized only during the start of the coronavirus spread last month, when the sudden wakefulness at four a.m. had come back, that the way insomnia happens for me is by my anticipation of it. Because I was anticipating rising anxiety, I was also anticipating a return to insomnia.
With this revelation, for the past few days I have been able to shift the hour I jolt awake from three a.m. to at least five thirty.
Before my father retired, he awakened at four thirty every morning, except Sundays, and left the house by five. He drove trucks to deliver goods from a warehouse to restaurants. When my parents owned their own business, he continued this morning routine, and my mother would join him at the office by eleven.
My mother does not sleep well because of lifelong worries and regrets. I think about sending her a text when I’m suddenly awake at four a.m., to demonstrate solidarity. But before I can give in to the impulse, I picture her return text: “Why aren’t you sleeping? Stop taking such bad care of yourself.”
This insomnia is how the reading parties began.
On the first morning we had to work from home—March 16—I woke up abruptly at four a.m. An hour passed before I gave up trying to fall back asleep, and I went searching through my books. I had bought a book the month before called The Fool by Anne Serre. It is a collection of three novellas. My favorite story is the first one, “The Fool.” It is not really a story. It’s about the Tarot card called the Fool, and how the character of the fool is significant to the world and to the narrator. She marvels over the various fools she’s met, one of them her current partner.
Recurring motifs showing up in a narrative without a plot means the writer is sorting through a haunting.
That sleepless morning, I had the urge to read aloud. This urge occurs often, and I give in often. I started on page one of “The Fool” and ended on page two. I recorded myself reading the few paragraphs. I hadn’t brushed my teeth yet or wiped the sleep from the corners of my eyes. The recording is of my glasses and the top of my shiny forehead and also of the dark window behind me. I sat on the step underneath the kitchen window, which is the farthest point from my bed. I posted this recording on social media for some friends. I did it again the next morning: I anticipated insomnia, insomnia happened, I sat by the kitchen window, I read a few paragraphs of “The Fool” aloud, I recorded myself reading, I posted to Instagram, I felt better.
Then a young colleague and I began reading The Rings of Saturn aloud to each other every morning. It was the first week our office asked us to work from home. Alicia picked The Rings of Saturn because she had always wanted to read it, and I had always wanted to reread it. The average length of a paragraph is four pages. We alternated our readings from long paragraph to long paragraph. There are ten chapters. The average length of a chapter is one hour. Chapter 9 is the longest in the book, and we broke up that reading to two mornings. For the last chapter, I recorded my voice during the reading. We learn about the landscapes that were erased so that mulberry trees for silkworm cultivation could be planted. The book is about reckoning with erasure. It is not difficult to read aloud, because the syntax is so precise. But often I found myself reading quickly in order to reach the end of the sentence sooner. Sometimes I tried to slow down my pace to better honor Sebald’s rhythms. Other times I stumbled through a sentence if it contained an unfamiliar word, especially if the word was one I’d never said aloud before or if it was in another language. I felt most at home in the reading when Sebald described an uncanny experience. Sometimes he would describe, at length, an uncanny dream. I underlined all the passages about the uncanny, the unnerving, the dream state. His acknowledgment of the uncanny is an acknowledgment of a deep mourning.
We finished Rings in a week and a half.
During that time, I found I also wanted to read to a larger group of people. And I wanted other people to read to me. It was a deep hunger, to be read to. The hunger encompassed connection as well, contact, to see people’s faces, to see their expressions, but in a controlled environment (a reading) rather than in a group catch-up session. I had started a live version of this in January, in fact: monthly salons set in my house, where we would eat a simple but full meal courtesy of Markus and his cookbooks, and then each guest would share a bit of their working projects or whatever they wanted to share of themselves. They were all instructed to send me images before the gathering, which I projected onto a blank wall so we could scroll through them and talk about them. The salon was meant for us to work through our enthusiasms and anxieties, our loves and obsessions. That you, Justin, and Wen were among the first to participate, and found so much value in them that we agreed you should attend all twelve of them this year, made me profoundly happy. I had planned on photographing Wen at every gathering, and at the end of the year would present a booklet to you that distilled our time together.
With the live salons now impossible to do (after only two gatherings), a virtual reading party seemed to be the natural step to continue this spirit. I got a Zoom account and then invited friends—some of them in New York and throughout the U.S., others I have yet to meet but have been online friends with for years—to pick something off their shelves or fish out of a crate, words that would make them glad to feel dancing on their tongue. I am lucky to be sheltering at home and surrounded by all the things that give me such grazing pleasure. Some people on the call were away from home and did not have access to their libraries, but they made do anyway by finding a poem online or picking up an abandoned book off a stoop.
I called this gathering “Low-key reading party,” because there is no obligation for anybody to read. They should just stop by and listen to some voices reading favorite lines for a few minutes. That first Sunday afternoon, there were fourteen readers, with a total of forty people on the video call. The following Sunday had twenty people showing up and fifteen people reading. The Sunday after that—my forty-sixth birthday—I hosted a reading party with thirty-seven people attending and fifteen people reading. The numbers are overwhelming; rather, the number of faces separated by boxes on the screen is overwhelming. When they couldn’t all fit on one screen, you had to click to another screen to see the rest.
What sort of reality is that? I anticipate that when I see everybody in person again, you and Wen included, I will try to poke their faces to make them larger or press their foreheads to mute or unmute them. And what will Wen do to my face?
What in fact was so gratifying about the reading parties was seeing people from different parts of the country and the world, hearing accents that were not mine, listening to stories and poems for the first time or to those I was a little familiar with. And what was most gratifying was seeing you and Wen pop up in the corner (muted because she’d be playing with the keyboard), and—for the latest reading—to see Justin come out of your closet!
Here are some of the writers that you and these friends have shared:
Gerard Manley Hopkins
Jacques Prévert (in Québécois French)
Franz Kafka (in German)
Cathy Park Hong
Claudia Masin (in Spanish)
Arseny Tarkovsky (in Russian)
For most of March, I could not recall the phrase “shelter in place.”
When I look at Wen and my downstairs neighbors’ daughter, when I see my niece and my friends’ daughter, both living in California—as I interact with them all through the prism of this screen—I keep formulating statements that start with, “This will be the generation that . . .”
How was our generation observed as our parents raised us? For me, the social fabric back then consisted first of Chinatowns with their rough cadences and then of suburban tree-lined streets that posed their own sort of uncertainties (I’m walking down Dieterle Crescent toward P.S. 174 as a seven-year-old, and wondering, with a little bit of terror in my heart, why all the trees have gnarled wounds in their thick trunks).
People say things like “After this is all over . . .” or “When we vote in November . . .” However, I keep saying things like “But will there be a November?” Yet, since I do echo your sentiment about wanting to remember how this time is incredibly distinct, let me try too: After this is over, these are the habits I’m looking forward to maintaining this summer, this fall, the rest of this eye-opening year:
Waking up early.
Reading books aloud with Alicia.
Low-key reading parties.
Sunday brunch sessions with my family, wherein my mother and I learn how to cook a new breakfast dish each week.
Getting weekly lessons about Star Wars from my friends’ five-year-old daughter, who has become obsessed with its lore.
Being in better touch with those I don’t see as often as I like: my brother and his family in California; the parents of the Star Wars–obsessed daughter, also in California; you and your family, only 3.2 miles away.
Creating an herb garden on the fire escape.
Expressing support and respect for all those whose work is so different from mine behind the computer, whose labor is so visible, if only now because this pandemic has caused its threads, its veins, its strengths and foundations to be seen. Let me not get clumsy in describing this; we reach for similar root words sometimes (like thread), but I like how you put this far better: I wonder what will remain of this pandemic discourse, besides “social distancing.” If we will tend to the threads of interdependence this pandemic has surfaced and made so bare—as in, both more visible than they usually are and, sometimes, conspicuously threadbare.
I keep thinking about a dream I once had about zombies. They were the slow-moving kind and wouldn’t reach our part of the world for a few more years. But the pancakes I was feeding the llamas one morning triggered them to speed up, and suddenly they were on the horizon. My parents huddled together on their twin bed and told me to leave them behind. “It’s all right,” they said. “We’ve seen enough. Go.”
seeing with you,