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Paula Cisewski

Updated: May 18, 2020

Laurie, I was just in our shared office yesterday. The entire English department hallway felt like a long-ago memory, though of course the semester continues online. I had the impulse to clear out my half of the office instead of taking just what I needed. Who knows how many adjuncts will have work next fall?

I rejected the impulse and took just what I needed. It was an action--or an inaction--of hope. 

Thank you for this invitation to share how I am. It is unlike me to say with such candor as I do below, but I think I am unlike myself now, perhaps permanently, and so here is a little window from my journals into a dozen of my cloistered days:

April 1.

Today was the day my online therapist could not stop herself from explaining The Tiger King to me for I’d guess five minutes. 

I wrote the phrase “they stuff the snakes full of drugs” right above the therapeutic homework she gave me: Savor something every day. 

When my session was over, I closed my laptop and went to the basement where I threw away a seventh load of the garbage my husband left behind when he left me suddenly, two months ago. 

It’s day 24 of my self-quarantine. I’m mostly well. Was it the virus? There are no tests. I was often bedridden with a fever, a headache, a cough, and a lost sense of smell. A swab weeks ago tested negative for the flu.

But I am mostly well, and it was sunny when it wasn’t supposed to be. I worked the afternoon away in the bare garden. As I hung laundry on the line, a red-tailed hawk coasted by. 

April 2.

I taught English Comp in my dining room in sweat pants and took breaks between virtual student meetings to clear out more basement. 

On a walk at dusk, I passed a spot where a child had carefully colored the words “We’ll get through this together” in orange sidewalk chalk. 

April 3. 

When I saw that child’s chalk drawing last night, I thought, “Are we together now?” 

Today was dreary, rainy, and yet:

I opened my campus email to find a former student had messaged just to say she still does the tiny pleasures exercise I give around midterm and finals weeks, when stress peaks for most. 

It’s this: Just list any small thing that makes your days a little nice. For example, I told the class: it’s pleasing when I’m filling a bottle in a public fountain with a display that counts plastic bottles saved and the number goes up one. It won’t make it into my memoir, but it’s nice. 

My former student wrote that she is pleased by the way country singers pronounce the word “July.” 

When I read that this practice is helping her shelter in place, I cried a little. I thanked her. 

This sweet gesture from a person I will likely never see again. 

I had just watered my houseplants. I wrote back that it pleases me to water my houseplants on rainy days, so they don’t feel left out. 

April 5

Am I useful? Do I have to be useful to exist? Do I understand what useful means/can mean?

Even a dandelion is useful. Makes pollen, is one hundred percent medicinal. Is cheerful early on when people and other creatures are starved for color.  Frustrates lovers of too much structure. 

When I mean to grade essays I find myself painting flowers in a hall. When I mean to fill out divorce papers I find myself in the bathroom with a pot of Manic Panic dying my hair purple.

Have I ever been so frivolous? Such a dandelion seed on the wind?

April 7

I performed my personal full moon erasure ritual: dump every shitty thought that bubbles up onto a page, then cross out words until what few remain are worth keeping. This time: “Whatever new future connects my source. Strange and unseen.” 

April 9

Today I learned the governor extended the shelter-in-place edict almost another whole month because it’s working. 

I made a to-do list for tomorrow. It reads, “Thursday: finish Wednesday.” 

April 12

Today was Easter and I lit every candle in the house to keep the cold of the April snowstorm out. My grown son and I FaceTimed Easter/Ostara brunch from our respective homes. Then I went back to my mural. I’ve been painting dandelions tall as me in the hallway. Some blooming. Some gone to seed. 

April 16

For a few days I couldn’t function, but today I could a little better. I felt busied by work I can do at home, and grateful for it, and mostly able to concentrate when it was required of me. I did not go outside. I tried not to look out the window at a third day of now-and-then snow.

Weekly I wake to the sound of my garbage being carried away, am texted an alert that my grocery delivery has arrived. Semi-monthly I have a therapy session on my computer screen with a woman I’ve never met in the real world. So many ways strangers--and money--are making a healing solitude possible. 

April 20

Today is the day my mother describes her hallucinations to me from the hospital. She is suddenly suffering from a condition none of us has ever heard of, caused by a serious underlying condition none of us were aware of. Hearing her describe her hallucinations is better than hearing her live in the liminal space and narrate from there. Because of the pandemic, no one can visit her. 

April 21

It’s Paula

I don’t know

It’s Paula your daughter

Oh thank you

Can you turn the light off?

Can you turn the light off? 

Can you turn the light off? 

I can’t from here. But I’m here. 

Can you just turn everything else off? 

Can you turn everything off?

Can you just turn the movie off?

Can you turn the movie off now?

Turn off everything else?

Can you just turn the nurse off?

Can you turn the nurse off now? 

I can’t from here. But I’m here. 

Well, here we are.

Here we are then.

Well here we are then.Wellhereweareherewearethen.

April 24

Today was the day The President of the United States of America suggested injecting disinfectants to cure COVID-19. What is it any of us feel at this point? What is the next feeling beyond outrage and grief?

May 15

Today, the day I received your invitation to write about how I am, Laurie. I’ve gone back and forth between grading and yard work. There’s this path my husband and I put in last year with gravel and stepping stones that doesn’t work, so I’m digging it out to set it better. As a poet, I resent that I’m living an obvious metaphor.

My mother starts radiation therapy Monday. We’ll speak on the phone again in an hour.

I’ve dried the first batches of stinging nettle, which grows wild in my yard. There’s rhubarb and lilacs and blossoming fruit trees. I’ve got seeds in the ground, some are sprouting, and more seedlings on windowsills. I’ve foraged dandelions and eaten the leaves. I’ll make syrup from their yellow blooms.

At least one friend or my son or my sister checks in every day.

What is there to do but hope, and then lose hope, and then forget about hope or lost hope and find the world as it is? And reach out? And make more work? And grow something? And let something wild take root?

How are you, Rachel Mortiz?

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