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Lisa Bickmore

Pandemic Episteme/Techne

Knowledge of the pandemic, for me, is occurring in waves. Like light, the discrete events and data points are particular, but they collect and dawn on me as forms of realization: waves. 

Mid-March, we had planned to fly to Missouri to see my son and his family. The pandemic was ‘happening,’ but it seemed to be happening elsewhere, or if it was happening nearer and nearer to me, I found it exceedingly difficult to rectify my intake of information with my felt sense of what action was required, was advisable, was absolute. The day before we were to fly, we decided that we’d drive, so I canceled the flights, took the flight credits, and my husband the historian readied the car for the long drive. I drove down, the day before we were to drive to Missouri, to Payson to see my father, who is living in a well-run care facility for veterans. After a good visit, as I was leaving, I saw signs posted on the doors, indicating that there would be no more visits from anyone—family members, friends—no one. 

I’ve thought a lot about that day. About how I read that sign as if it were a distant omen instead of a present fiat. About how that was the last day I would see my father for the foreseeable future. I texted my mother with a photo of the sign, asking if she had heard about this. As if, somehow, it were provisional, open to negotiation.

There was the before, before the sign at the VA, and the after. Before we drove across Wyoming, Nebraska, and into Missouri, and after. The weird stay in a hotel in Kearney, Nebraska, where we ate, late, at an almost deserted restaurant; the even weirder stay in a hotel in Denver, on the way back home, where it was clear that, in a week, everything had changed, drastically. 

In the middle of that, we were in Missouri with children and grandchildren, making homemade doughnuts and hand pies and English muffins and bread. Watching movies. Reading Harriet the Spy with my two grandsons, cherished book of my youth. Talking about two massive swoons in the stock market and literal earthquake back in northern Utah. None of us could stop reading the news, looking up from our phones to share the latest alarm.

We got home to find our house had no evident damage from the quake. I got up very early that next day to buy groceries during the hour set aside for vulnerable groups, to which I, being in my 60s now, I guess, belong. I felt lucky to find flour.

Then the settling in. Experiencing my knowledge of the pandemic, coming in waves.

How am I? I regularly find myself wondering what my writing is for. This, of course, is just a more intensified species of the my regular consideration of the same question. I don’t think, to be honest, that it’s a bad thing to wonder, and regularly. It’s part of any artist’s job, to address, however directly or obliquely, why she does what she does, for whom, what its value is outside the crude economies of money and exchange. I have a manuscript in progress, and I know that the shape of it is in some way I can’t yet articulate being altered by these circumstances. Even my attention—my intention—which feels somehow shattered by a still-forming pandemic epistemological vector—seems fitting: I work on a poem, one that has been in progress for sometime, a vexing but somehow necessary (to me) poem. I work on it and then set it aside, feeling like maybe I’m a little closer. Then, in the walking away, maybe after I’ve done a Zoom Pilates class, I realize one thing that is entirely wrong in how I’ve shaped the poem’s argument. This, again, isn’t so different from my usual process; but the radical uncertainty of everything—it gives this reconsideration a novel (coronavirus) flavor.

One thing I’ve been writing more of is letters. To friends, to children and grandchildren. This genre of writing has no pall of doubt lingering over it. I know why I’m writing: I’m asking Will how his work in Legos is going. Suggesting to Carter that he write a novel set in a medieval pandemic. Wondering what Gwen is reading. These missives sent into the world—walked to the Post Office and mailed in the outdoor box, slipping the envelopes in as if we were spies, making a drop—feel direct, even if they are communications that must travel a very great distance. 

Some dragons I’ve painted and sent along the way:

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