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Brenda Miller and Julie Marie Wade

Updated: Jun 18


Brenda Miller




Julie Marie Wade




Excerpts from “The In-Between: Letters from Isolation”

Authors’ Note: This piece is an excerpt from a month-long correspondence that sought to bear witness to our individual experiences of the pandemic.

May 16, 2020

Dear Julie,

On the news yesterday, pundits and late night hosts kept repeating the words of a whistleblower scientist testifying before congress: “2020 will be the darkest winter on record.” There were many jokes with Game of Thrones references (winter is coming…), but every time I heard the phrase, I tried to parse its syntax: Did he mean the whole year of 2020 would be winter-like, in the sense of darkness and deprivation? Or did he mean that next winter, several months from now, would be doubly dark because of the concurrence of flu season with Covid-19? But the winter season slips into 2021. It doesn’t really matter which he meant (in the end, it just means things are BAD, people), but I couldn’t shake the sentence from my English-teacher mind loop.

This spring here has been particularly beautiful, maybe that’s why. It’s the time of year we look forward to for months, in particular because of the lengthening days, affording us easy-going evening walks after dinner, the sun setting in a slightly different place each night. It’s difficult to coordinate dark winter with lovely spring. I get a delivery of farm fresh produce every other week, and just yesterday a local farmer (who used to be my student) left an order of two spring chickens at my door. And at the same time I felt terrible that I have so much when others have so little.

How do we reconcile the opposites in our lives? Joy with despair, abundance with scarcity, dark with light? How do we occupy that narrow space in the middle, with a modicum of grace?

Brenda

*

May 18, 2020

Dear Brenda,

How I wish I had answers to your questions! It’s the see-saw of existence, isn’t it, the way we’re always wishing we could balance on the fulcrum without tipping too far either way. Everything in moderation our implicit wish, with the struggle always set against extremes.

I’m writing to you from our old apartment, which I don’t think of as old yet really—it’s the place we still sleep and eat, the place where we shower and dress and live with our kitties until Friday. Then, the movers come to transfer the heavy furniture—bed, couch, cat trees, dining table, et al— from one residence to the other.

In truth, though, I’m writing from an interstice. We came “home” for lunch, and then the sky split open, launching the first of our summer storms. All the boxes and bags we were planning to take back with us to our other “home” are now piled up by the door, but it doesn’t make sense to go out in this rain, the sky streaked purple and gold, lightning like graduation tassels.

Now that we’re both quietly working, the cats have settled, too. They don’t like watching their belongings—for everything we have is theirs—shuffled and dusted, folded and zipped away. Tina, our young cat, rushes to the high-pitched whine of packing tape being torn while Tybee, our elder cat, cannot bear it. The sound induces seizure activity, as does the crinkling of bags and wrapping paper.

I’ve always enjoyed summer storms, though I find them frightening when I’m driving to campus. I lean forward and clench the steering wheel so tight my nail marks are visible now. I suppose since I’m no longer commuting, I should appreciate the reprieve from car stress. Instead, I worry about other things: power failures, my own potential failures while teaching my class on Zoom.

Our building announced on Saturday that tomorrow (Tuesday) all power and water will be shut off for the whole day. An email was circulated; then signs posted in stairwells and on the elevator doors. Management’s suggestion was that people make arrangements to leave home for the day and stay with family or friends, perhaps check into a hotel! I gaped as I read the caveats about staying in a dark, sweltering place all day with no internet or phone. No A/C. No front desk staff. No elevators or lights.

Surely some people sheltering at home are bed-ridden with the virus. Surely some people sheltering at home are sick with other things or fearful that what they have is the virus. Many people in our building are elderly, retired, facing chronic conditions, just trying to rest if not recover. Many others, like us, are working from home, whether for the short term or the long. This isn’t a simple matter of inconvenience, but a matter of safety, of unconscionable risk.

When I wrote to the building manager, he replied only that “These are challenging times for everyone. Please make accommodations accordingly.”

At least one person in our building is scheduled to teach a four-hour poetry class on Zoom tomorrow afternoon. She will now be doing so while sitting on the bare floor of her new home office, computer tethered to her phone’s data plan (with her partner’s help, of course). She will be even more worried than usual about how the technology will hold, but also worried that her worry will show through and contaminate the warm dynamics of her class. She will still give breaks, encouraging her students, and herself, to stand up, stretch, drink some water, have a snack. She will be uncomfortable, most likely, and nervous, too. Still, she knows how lucky she is to have these as her most pressing complaints.

Go ahead—tell me what’s vexing you, no matter how large or small. And tell me what you’re wishing for, too, while you’re at it. Pretend I’m a fountain at the mall.

With love, and evening rain,

Julie

*

May 22, 2020

Dear Julie,

What does it take to love this world completely?

That’s the question that keeps whispering in my mind this morning. Where I’m sitting now—in my guest room/office, too cold to be on the porch—I have other people’s words surrounding me. Like these, from Tina Schumann, a poet I know from teaching at the Rainier Writing Workshop:

From the pea vines to the dandelions

I am making it up as I go along.

Each step

—a worn declaration; be here, love this….

I want to be here. I want to love this. I even want to be follow those ellipses with my breath. But so many un-nameable things are vexing me these days. They seem to alight in the branches of leafing-out trees or waver behind billowing clouds at sunset. I sometimes feel myself in a kaleidoscope, the colors swirling around me, beautiful but chaotic.

I’m not sure what will happen next, if anything will happen next, or if we’ll be stuck in this place of in-between forever. Like your computer when it hits the wall and gives you the spinning pizza wheel while it tries and tries to get past whatever stalled it. Sometime you just have to re-boot, start all over again.

Sighing and stuttering this morning,

Brenda

*

May 26, 2020

Dear Brenda,

I can feel the struggle in your words, and I’m sorry it has taken me so long to read them!

The day you wrote was the day our movers came. My students submitted 46 poems, the length of a full collection, all of which I read and savored, though I labored over my words of response. How to strike just the right balance between support and challenge, when to push and when to praise? I have been teaching for eighteen years, and I still don’t know the answer.

Angie’s birthday was on Sunday, a day of prodigious rain accompanied by tornado warnings for our county. We couldn’t even drive to see the burrowing owls she loves, as every road was flooded and muddy, the winds tossing garbage bins, flinging the mailboxes open like a row of gaping mouths.

Now I am sitting at my desk, a warm cat basking in the sun beside me, towering boxes of books all around. Moving out is different from settling in. Outside the tree that lavishes our lawn and car with star-shaped pink blossoms has two names—frangipani (higher-order name) and plumeria (lower-order name). Two such luscious names for a single living thing, yet so many experiences and emotions in this world seem to lack a name at all. If we were fluent in every language of the world, would we find a way to say all that pains and mystifies us? Or is a caesura deep as a canyon carved forever into the hard stone between feeling and saying?

Mary Oliver wrote of the “refined anguish of language,” a phrase which has always stayed with me. I ran at the beach for the first time in two months today, and my heavy breath was its own kind of reverie, its own version of prayer. When I returned home, the news headline read, “U.S. experiences deadliest day of coronavirus as states begin to reopen.” Too soon? Too late? What’s best or worst? I am certain of nothing, not even the questions.

This weekend I learned there’s a word for the space between the attic and the roof, or the top of a kitchen cabinet and where it meets the wall. Soffit. I’ve heard it before, but I had forgotten the context. Tina, our spry feline sleuth, leapt from the countertops into the slim empty space between the cupboards and the ceiling. She didn’t want to come down, though we coaxed and coaxed.

She was being a soffit, bridging a gap. I want to be a soffit too, to place myself in the in-between and fill a longing, ease a grief. Maybe the mask I wear becomes a soffit, preventing an exchange of air with strangers? Maybe the blood I give becomes a soffit, too, as it enters the veins of strangers? Or maybe this is only wishful thinking. Still, I hope this letter might be a kind of soffit, too, closing the long distance between us, an envelope in your inbox that flickers as if to say Open me! I’ve arrived.

With love,

Julie

*

May 27, 2020

Dear Julie,

Today I write to you from a soffit: my attic loft, a long narrow space that is not really a room, not really an attic, but something in-between, a gap I fill with my chair from Ikea, an old futon that serves as a day bed, and myself. My dog—almost fourteen years old now—sometimes makes the trek upstairs with me, though the steps now scare her. She’s figured out an odd, sideways kind of gait that gets her up with a minimum of slippage, and always when her little face appears at the top, she grins with triumph and lopes toward me, tongue out, ready for a treat.

Her bravery in the face of adversity is something to behold. Her faith that something good always waits at the end.

I began this correspondence with you toward the beginning of May from another in-between space, my front porch, and now here we are, almost at the end of this odd month, both of us moving from place to place, finding the landing pads where, for a little while, we can talk. Spring slips into summer, counties and states begin to re-open, and we still don’t know what awaits us out there, in a world that is both so beautiful and so frightening at the same time. Rules keep changing, and we do our best to keep up.

On Monday, Memorial Day, my mom ached to go visit my dad at the cemetery. He was a vet of the Korean war, and this day always meant something to them. She wanted to go and pat his headstone, place a rock to mark our presence. But the Willows—her senior living community—is still on lockdown, and though I called the office and begged them to let me take her there for a quick visit (I promised to sanitize my car, wear a mask, go nowhere else), they said a firm no. They’ve started to ease restrictions a little bit; each floor now has a complicated walking schedule, and my mom can’t seem to keep it straight, keeps being reprimanded for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her skin is looking pale and drawn; she wears her mask low on her face, barely affording any protection at all. I print up her schedule in a way I hope will make more sense, but she flaps it helplessly in her hands.

She’ll get past it, as I know we all will emerge from this hiatus, changed in ways we can’t even imagine right now. We’ll need to contemplate our obstacles, like my dog at the bottom of the staircase, and figure out new ways to move through this world. But for now, I sit and listen to the various tongues of birdsong, watch the sign language of trees, smell the semantics of earth after a hard rain. We are vessels of translation—always open, always arrived.

With love,

Brenda


Collaborative work by Brenda Miller and Julie Marie Wade has previously appeared in Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, The Normal Schol, River Teeth, Punctuate, Phoebe, and Tupelo Quarterly as well as the anthologies The Spirit of Disruption: Landmark Essays from the Normal School and They Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing. In 2019, their first collaborative collection was selected by Hanif Abduraqib as the winner of the Cleveland State University Press Nonfiction Book Award. Telegphone: An Essay in Two Voices is forthcoming from CSU Press in 2021.

Miller lives and writes in Bellingham, Washington, and can be found online at www.brendamillerwriter.com. Julie Marie Wade lives and writes in Dania Beach, Florida, and can be found online at www.juliemariewade.com.

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All images other than author photos and artist artwork ©Matthew Batt 2020