March 14, 2020
I write to you from my front porch in Florida, on a day that dawned cool and quiet but grew so hot that I gave up on my run when I went out at noon and walked all the way to the Alachua Sink to visit the alligators, the owls, the sandhill cranes, the clumps of frat boys gone feral, drinking beers as they squinted into the sun’s glare. The University of Florida has converted to online classes in the slow catastrophe of the coronavirus; our excellent public libraries are shutting down, my sons’ elementary schools are shutting down, I am self-isolating, which looks exactly like my regular life as a writer with no real other job. From my porch, the day looks almost too beautiful. It is the time of year when the pine trees drop their pollen, making everyone puffy and wheezy, and it’s hard to tell what is simply allergy and what is far more dangerous sickness. And yet, everything—the air and furniture and even the dog sitting with her elegant posture in vigil at the screen door—is so bright with pollen that, in the sideways light, it all looks gilded. The neighbors pass a safe distance in the middle of the street and raise a hand in solidarity. They are beautiful, too.
There is panic in the world now, I see it in my friends’ emails, in the stock market, in my elderly relatives; and yet there is no panic in me, which is curious, because my anxiety serves as a backup generator to power my house during normal times. The curse of being a catastrophist is closely tied to the blessing of being a catastrophist: if one has spent all one’s life dreaming about the horrible things that can go awry, when a true disaster strikes, one is almost calm, because reality is frequently so much less awful than what passes in the anxious imagination. I’m writing from a calm place. We are as prepared as we can be.
Part of the calm is perhaps because I have been alone all day with the dog, because my husband and sons are gone all weekend, camping at a dark sky campground in Georgia. I woke up at three this morning, because insomnia is a catastrophist’s best friend, and imagined the velvety black of the awesome spread of stars above them and though I knew that they were all asleep at that moment, I felt wonder at the wonder I imagined in them and felt they were closer then than if they had been in the house. And then I stayed awake because the town was so quiet and solemn, which it never is on a Friday night. At last I got up and made myself coffee and sat down with the stories of a student I’m teaching through a low-residency MFA program. I broke at breakfast to do my own work and finished the morning with my reading project. It sounds silly, but I’m trying to read all of Shakespeare’s plays in the order of composition, which is already a fraught experiment because there is no real consensus about the order, and because it is something I have attempted to do at other times in my life, but have always failed. I’m still in the early plays, some of which aren’t great. It’s a comfort to read a bad play by Shakespeare and to tell oneself in solace that no matter one’s own failures, Shakespeare was also capable of failure.
Perhaps it’s exactly this work I’ve been surrounded by all day that is filling me with uncanny peace: my student’s fiction, Shakespeare’s plays, the excellent novel I listened to on audiobook as I went for my three-hour walk. Isolation isn’t isolation if our minds are touching other people’s minds, and it feels excellent to lose myself in someone else’s words. I have been thinking of all the pandemic literature I love the most, among others: Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter, Kyrie by Ellen Bryant Voigt, even A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, and feel immensely comforted by them. These texts are testaments to survival. They remind us that what we’re experiencing now is something that other humans have come through. Each text insists, loudly, that even if we’re isolated, we are not alone.
Now, one of my favorite humans just walked by with her dog, and we had a long talk from the sidewalk to the porch. My husband has known this friend since childhood, and all three of us went to the same college but didn’t know each other well then. When my husband and I moved to Gainesville sixteen years ago, we discovered she lived a half a block away. We have raised our children together. She is one of the best humans I know, a doctor who takes care of people at Planned Parenthood, and every time I talk to her, I am in awe of the resilience and overwhelming love and profound empathy it takes to be an abortion provider in the United States these days. When she sees patients, she often sees them drive down in desperation from Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, as well as from throughout Florida. She’s a hero, a person who takes care of the needs of desperate people, and she will continue to do so even in the time of coronavirus, even at the risk of her own health. People, she said, are not going to stop having sex because of a pandemic. Women aren’t going to stop needing abortions. To wake up and commit to the everyday act of care that doctors and nurses do seems to be an act of profoundest empathy; an act of loving imagination. But to do it in a time of pandemic seems downright noble.
I think maybe the same light passes through these caregivers that passes through the literature that is keeping me afloat. It has something to do with the collective, something like a quiet corrective to the loud, blaring individualism that is rotting our country. To self-isolate is the smallest gift one can give to the larger human experiment, and one I’m glad to do.
I hope that you stay well. I hope that you refrain from traveling, and make sure your elderly neighbors are all right and aren’t suffering from the financial hit so many people at the fringes are going to take. If you have enough set by to get through, I hope that if you get food delivered, you tip enormously, that you wash your hands, that you donate cash to your local food bank, and find other ways to take care of the people around you.
I’m here in solidarity with you.
In lieu of payment, our friends and contributors to the Corona Correspondences are dedicating donations to nonprofits and independent businesses in their communities. Groff’s contribution will be directed to the Bread of the Mighty foodbank.