Photo credits, clockwise from upper left: Kristine Wook, Cristina Eisenberg, Nathen Domlo, wusa9.com
By Allison Hedge Coke
Lisbon, Nikšić, Mānoa, three stops had nourished me, given me peace of sorts in the nine months before lockdown. When it came, Mānoa still cradled me, gave me hope in a time of sudden despair. Enraptured in her exquisite beauty, slinking up and down slopes lined with ferns high in mimosa canopy. Waking to spotted and barred doves, mynahs, rose-ringed parakeets, egrets, java finches, red-vented bulbuls, warbling white-eyed mejiro, white-rumped shama on and under mango, papaya and the long established hala, of the puhala the road was named for, and just blocks away an ‘Auk ‘u, the black-crowned night heron stationed over a small park counting cars. Here, returned to wake amidst these comforting songs for another long stay, whoever could guess the extent?
We were teaching, friends, colleagues, me – working. Went into Zoom, just as we would class. Kept it as close as we could to the week before, and weeks before that. While our students, or our sons and daughters lost jobs, access, and if we are older, lost our presence to turn the day round when down. And their children all joined them at home, at least safe from school shooters and maybe bullying, as well, for some. For others caught in the thick of it unable to leave an abusive home for the safety of campus.
The wonder of what it might be like if we didn’t have to leave every morning to work, to learn, to teach, to commute, to travel, was finally revealed, to all, at once. I began offering regular prompts on Facebook and Instagram, hashtagged #poempromptsforthepandemic as something I could do, from anywhere. What else?
It was incredible, the reach of this stranger, the newly unknown. The lack of us transforming work into carbon footprint in multitudes. I heard that a few weeks in, at home in Riverside, coyotes, skunks, raccoons began freely walking down the streets, suddenly vacant of passing cars. Some fascinating brink of possibility in the collective quest to remain whole, safe, free of danger. At least, the goal for most of us. The planet suddenly had breath, animals, range, in the midst of malady, freedom.
I’d just begun to recover from six or eight weeks of pleurisy when the world woke to new need. Was ‘awa that brought me up, loosened my lungs, let pain subside and companions taking me to urgent care and bringing me soup and the old red rubber hot water bottle, my closest friend. Now all susceptible to an unwelcome and fearful stranger, awaiting opportunity to wreck our insides.
It was the year of malevolence anyway. Vile presidential horror. The fourth year of it, or was it the 231st? The first one a bloody townkiller, Town Destroyer, who asked to be called “His Highness, the President of the United States, and Protector of the Rights of the Same.” A vicious, genocidal racist and slaveowner backing devastation of people, forests, waters, land for the sake of some newly invented country based on nothing that existed naturally or historically in the ravaging place. They called it expansion.
This one just as vile and deluded in grandeur, as well. Instigating hate, violence, racism, nationalism on a nation ill-conceived and primarily ill advised. For four years now all of us living in some reality show his party threw upon us to take the spoils left before the whole of us ever learned what it is like to have plenty. Abundance a captured thing.
He began instilling DAPL and ended pushing whatever would rile the incitable and sully reason and in the last long year of it, pushing a disease and any diabolical act against the planet he could marshal and blaming anyone he could deem enemy.
Back in the midst of birdsong, leaves unfolding into reach of sky, mornings brought beauty and we knew some of our beloved would not make it through any of this virus and more wounded, or worse through the diabolical violence, the white supremacists invoke and wield wildly, always.
Once, early on, during a virtual pandemic reading, a poet exclaimed they wouldn’t know anyone affected by the virus because of their lifestyle, they supposed. I ‘d stayed up all night furiously writing “Viscera” and sending it off to land somewhere those of us knowing we would know somebodies who would be ill, who would perish, as we have always known, in anything that comes through, enemy like, stealing lives, loves, waters, lands, the very air we meet in every breath in every hour of our lives, and those before and after us as well. My concern for my children, theirs, for friends, for companions, for all the frontline helpers in the world, for all the struggling to survive most any day, for all the poets and writers who continually show love and necessity throughout time. For our students, our dearest fostering, for all those oppressed, shut out, forgotten, endangered. For the forests, the oceans, each stream, my concern deepened, again and again, with every slaying pen on paper from DC and every single act of violence against the people. Outright onslaught, we witnessed, once again from the capitol.
Was six or seven months later I fell ill, for nine or so weeks. Friends had taken me in five months before, when my visiting job was done, and I was scheduled to return to the continent but could not. Allowing me a beautiful live-in 8’-14’ studio with kitchenette and bath, they’d just remodeled to invite guests to stay with them a few valleys away, high on a ridge, Kaimuki. Here, I was, the first guest, unexpected, on a remarkable family home space, in a studio that was once a rite of passage for four teenagers in their respective senior years. Here with one of my dearest friends, Diana, just steps away up a slope and available for short, masked walks through birdsong most any day, occasional gardening, and a weekly movie. It was hard to believe their generosity. Or the fact I would not be completely alone, save the downtime fighting virus that would visit upon me. The fact she is Kanaka, inviting and welcoming me, made it doable, for me. All of it.
One afternoon a mynah took up with us. Obviously hand-raised and lost outside, it called out and then lighted upon Diana’s arm and moved right in, keeping us company and gaining strength until we found their new home with a lovely family and two other mynahs waiting. A day or so before I fell, sickened.
Later limited to the one beautiful room, with windows completely closed to keep the world safe from what plagued me, vile as it was, the inhabiting. Birdsong still came through. An occasional millipede or moth appeared. Mo‘o clucking not far away. Maybe a spider, ants, or giant roaches who became so accustomed to me sweeping them out a door when I’d grab a broom, they would make a run for the door avoiding straw whisking. Their consciousness stunning. I nicknamed them Brads.
In truth, I was so ill, I’d packed my bags and awaited the inevitable on several occasions. Clinically presenting every symptom, I tested negative. If not for the hands of Rupa Marya, MD, during the thick of it, brain inflamed, if not for meals and medicines, for Rupa, Diana, Brandy, Noelle, Michelle, Diane, a place to stay, care, love, friendship, the birds outside, supplements, medicines, food, music – without which, I honestly don’t know if I would be here. The illness was overwhelming.
And this too passed, but not for millions across the world, not for millions. Our collective grief met out with pop-up violence, with hatred, greed, control-seeking sycophants hovering around to resurrect that period now ended, we hope, we pray. Our wanderlust finally able to sleep in the year of resist leavings.
Stillness in isolated lockdown, incredibly ill, I’d lightly caressed each leaf and stalk of every inside plant. Welcomed morning full of winged and, moreover, the multitudes crawling on earth just outside. In the small space suddenly and entirely limited, peace found me again, as always. She our ever-closest friend, companion, protector, liberator, ally, mother. I blessed each bird outside and every trill or call that lifted me. And what is left of it, this year, their song pouring through this very moment, even now.
Now, too, the nation-state held in the hands of Secretary Haaland, and Becerra, Harris, Biden, with crimes against nature rescinding, overturning, and vaccinations rolling out, with some sense of mercy arriving in the exceptionally late hour despite continual concern that this country wages wars and its inequities know no boundaries. The world awaits, maybe wishing we’ve learned we can be still and let its music bring us joy, no matter the dire moment and many of us committed, still, to all the essential work there is to do to ensure justice, replenish harmony, to find peace, to cherish life, to take it in and relish the beauty, wherever we might find it.
Tomorrow, each leaf turning upward receiving rain, our promise. Every song in air delicious nourishment of all that troubles. Let the birds lead us, while we witness. Let the most common reptile passing by have its glory and every single insect, a full natural life. Let morning come through with news of peace, of accord, of justice for all and let the hate cease, desist, and the planet become, what it once was, the singular most important factor in all of our lives. Let the sickness of our bodies, and minds, dissipate and let the people sing in peace while witnessing each blade of light, sunray, allowing us life be cherished.