Our gods are in favour of cymbals.
It’s the other thing that kills us—the field
of uninterrupted grass, the on and on of nothing.
How can you bear it?
-from “The Coronapocalypse Will Be Televised” by Tishani Doshi
I open the back hatch of the car, still on edge from my first encounter with people in a public space in days. I catch my reflection in the window. My long beard is sticking out of my mask in odd, unruly ways. The only masks I have are respirators from the garage, found among cans of paint and varnish, and they’re a tight fit. I panic, start to sanitize my hands and the car door handle, then think, no, obviously I should load the groceries first. There’s no playbook for this; I’m making it up as I go along. That’s one of the worst realities an autistic person must confront, and it manifests, acidic, in the back of my throat.
Shopping is one more routine I cherished that has become its inverse: nerve-wracking, prickly as the clothing tags most autistic kids tear out of their shirts.
I am the grocery shopper in the family, for good reason. I love the familiarity, the logic of the aisles, yes, even the sameness of the Muzak. I know where every item in the store resides, and I take special delight in the hard-to-find. Need rye cocktail bread? Not a problem—but don’t look by the bread. It’s on a small rack to the left of the deli that very few customers notice. It shares space with just one other item: King’s Hawaiian Sweet Rolls.
How about a box of Zingers? Not an unheard-of request in my family. Don’t bother with the cookie aisle, candy aisle, in the bakery, or near their blue-collar cousin, Little Debbie. No, Hostess has its own endcap on Aisle Seven, near the pasta and jars of spaghetti sauce. I could get there with my eyes closed.
I’ve always felt a surge of purpose getting food for my family, the best kind of purpose: at once quotidian and timeless. I long for the halcyon days of grabbing milk and peanut butter and a pound of ground beef on my way home from work.
I miss going to work. I work from home now. I’m not especially a fan; neither is my family. We need the sacred spaces between us in the daytime. We need the sacred rhythms of our days. All of it is gone and no one can tell us when, or how, it will be back.
Loading the groceries, I see our stadium seats still in the car from basketball season. My heart flutters a little. Have you heard of “Hoosier Hysteria”? We like our hoops in Indiana. This winter was a wild ride. Our tiny school in Blackford County happens to be home to the leading scorer in the state, a state that has raised NBA legends from “The Big O” Oscar Robertson, who grew up in Indianapolis, to Larry Bird, “the hick from French Lick,” and still regularly produces college and NBA all-stars.
Not that our guy is necessarily going to join the all-time greats, but: he’s our guy, and he led us to thrilling victories over nearly all our local rivals. Our hard-luck team had been the worst in the area for years: they once lost 61 straight contests. The kids played to an empty gym. Now we pack the house every game. We were 21-5 this (shortened) season, and four of those five losses were well within reach in the final minutes. They had to allot certain numbers of tickets to our fans for road games played in smaller gymnasiums because we showed up in massive numbers.
By mid-winter, I knew every player’s height, points per game, rebounds and assists, and their sweet spots on the floor. Luke launched threes from way downtown in the left corner; Max, a lefty who worked mostly in the paint, also tossed the deep ball, only he preferred the top of the key. Dalton gave up a few inches to most opponents, but he lifted weights, and his bulging shoulders and biceps boxed out taller guys and pulled down boards in traffic. And when he did, he’d dish it to the open man without a second look: either our consummate playmaker Luke, or Brandon, the sure-footed senior swingman who could cut to the basket or pop an easy jump shot.
Bruins basketball in the winter of 2020 became two of my autistic mainstays: both a prized routine and a special interest, an obsession.
It was a glorious season for the state-ranked Blackford team. There were nights in which we were so packed in on the bleachers I could barely move my arms—could barely expand my chest for a deep breath—for an hour and a half straight. I’d often felt the autistic tendencies rise up: the discomfort of the heat in the gym, the throbbing drums and brassy roar of the pep band, alternately thrilling me and throwing me into sensory overload.
As I stand in the parking lot of the market now, what I wouldn’t give for all that discomfort and more. We had come together as a town, we had a renewed spirit and sense of place and pride.
It’s all gone. I barely think it was real, more like a soft dream you dream lying on the beach the warmest day of summer. Such a dream disappears beautifully, as you get up to swim or grab a boardwalk hotdog or ice cream. My hoop dreams have disappeared, too, but in the worst way: they were taken from me, from us. The isolation orders came just days after we won our first sectional title in decades. The state tournament—we had a legitimate shot—was cancelled.
And now? The big empty. “The on and on of nothing,” in the words of poet Tishani Doshi. Day after day, meme after meme, wave after wave of small hurts. The clichés about being in this together, except I don’t really know what that means. Zoom sessions with my classes at the university. Morale is low.
The emails I get are uncannily similar: nearly every one begins by saying the student had never missed an assignment and had an excellent GPA…but now, something has changed. They can’t put their finger on it, and they “don’t want to sound dramatic because I know that others are going through much tougher things….but” they wake up and find they can’t focus. They have no motivation. They can’t bring themselves to even log on. It doesn’t feel real, or important.
They’re describing grieving without using the word. What’s more: they seem to be asking permission to inhabit the grief they’re already experiencing. HelpGuide is a nonprofit mental health and wellness organization. They talk about grief in simple terms, which I think is useful right now—both for young people who may never have experienced it before, and for those of us who aren’t certain that our situation merits the terrible time we’re having:
Grief is…the emotional suffering you feel when something or someone you love is taken away. You may experience all kinds of difficult and unexpected emotions, from shock or anger to disbelief, guilt, and profound sadness….Grief can also disrupt your physical health, making it difficult to sleep, eat, or even think straight. These are normal reactions to loss.
Here is the sanction we need. Grief is no respecter of persons—or of losses. It doesn’t know that it “shouldn’t” visit you as harshly if you’re merely sad about not living in residence halls and walking across the manicured quad of your bucolic college campus…or wearing a badly-fitting mask to the grocery store. Grief hits where and how it hits, and we are helpless to overpower it with acts of will or business-like competitive analysis. I wish it didn’t hurt me so much to have no sports to watch; it’s a somewhat embarrassing fact that some would seize upon for ridicule. But the impact on me is no less for that. In fact, when grieving gets mixed with a dose of shame, it seems that things get worse for everyone.
There are many layers of loss at play. Sarah Wells aptly records our dilemma in her blog post “In the Wilderness of Coronavirus.” Writing in mid-April, in media res, she reflects, “The individual injustices and disappointments have rained down almost daily, let alone personal losses, job losses, the suspension of freedoms, the loss of human life, and perhaps what is most unmooring, the collective sense of security that cushioned our daily lives.”
As we endure each new round of having our most life-giving occasions cancelled, each surge of “injustices and disappointments,” many of us are stuck in a loop of grief with myriad causes, big and small, pinpointed and unrecognized, and can see no way out.
And while it’s a very hard truth, I don’t think we should be looking for a way out—at least not yet. We should probably distrust those who want to move too quickly to the other side, who are striving to exert a control that denies the veracities of our impasse.
One of my favorite autistic writers, Katherine May, has called this period one of individual and collective “wintering,” which is also the title of her recent book. As The Guardian writes of the memoir, “It is a personal, original and wayward examination of the idea that, as humans, we have–and need to have–our fallow seasons, that we must learn to revel in days when the light is low (one of her convincing thoughts is that we live in an overlit age).”
How, then, shall we live, much less “revel”?
I’ve also been pondering a metaphor about light, though a slightly different one.
A few days ago, our teenage daughter, like many isolated people—the ones temperamentally given to such tasks—cleaned her bedroom from top to bottom. She found a cheap old table lamp with no shade attached, one Beth and I had when we were first married, back in New York in the late ‘90s. Everything we owned then was old and cheap, and it was funny to see that this unremarkable object had survived. Una didn’t want it or need it, so I figured it would end up in “the Rose Room” upstairs, the regally named playroom-junk room-storage room called so because of the design on the 1950s wallpaper.
Later that evening, though, I saw a strange glow coming from my own bedroom. It startled me, not because it was totally new or overwhelming or even all that intriguing…it was simply a different light source, illuminating the contours of our Victorian downstairs in ways I’d never quite seen. In a rut of the mundane, the peculiar radiance of a naked 60 watt bulb was enough to grab my attention.
Beth was lying across our bed reading, which she does on a rare break from tending to kids and home—a few minutes on a Saturday afternoon when sunlight streams through the windows. But this was no sun, just our old forgotten lamp on her nightstand.
“Oh,” I said. “I thought we would toss that upstairs or throw it out.”
“No,” she said without looking up from her book.
“Didn’t you used to have a different lamp on your nightstand?”
I turned to leave, feeling vaguely like there was a lesson for me somewhere in the exchange, in the image of the old-new lamp making a way. Days later I still don’t know what the moral is.
Perhaps because I’m a poet, I don’t mind leaving an image to mostly stand for itself. Let someone else explicate. Besides, any image worth its salt, accessible though it may be, will resist confident, singular interpretation. I’ll simply keep watch, follow the rays from that bulb in my mind’s eye as they clear an unexceptional path forward.
If I have anything to add to the anecdote (allegory?) of the lamp, it is only another mystery, an invocation also observant of a logic larger than my own: I woke up this morning with the words of the Serenity Prayer on my lips. That makes sense, as I’ve been wrestling with giving up control.
I’ve meditated on the words for years, have sat beside the prayer like it was a beloved old book on my shelf, a world unto itself, both familiar and other. The prayer, by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, is well-known and therefore likely suffers from over-exposure and attendant under-estimation. It deserves to be seen again, in the unusual new light of isolation. Here’s the popular version that has been adopted by twelve-step recovery groups and could be spotted on kitschy wall hangings in the houses of relatives when I was a kid:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
and Wisdom to know the difference.
I would like to offer this, too, without much discussion or explanation, not because I have nothing to say or, God forbid, subscribe to a strand of faith that is anti-intellectual. No, I hope my impulse runs deeper. Woody Guthrie sang, “You gotta walk that lonesome valley/You gotta walk it by yourself/Nobody here can walk it for you/You gotta walk it by yourself.” I appreciate the repeated line—in case you didn’t get the message the first time.
To let the prayer work in you, transform you, you must practice it—live it—for yourself. Its words are a truth, and a truth is altogether different from a salve, or a tool for fixing things; a truth is perhaps more like an illumination shining in a small corner, making some things possible while precluding others, all the while modest, unobtrusive, profound.
I seek to live the prayer’s truth now, in the middle of an international pandemic that is shaking the structures of the world, including my own frail, autistic crux in east-central Indiana. May its curious light shine on our grief, however large or small, whatever the cause.
April 15, 2020
Hartford City, Indiana
Daniel Bowman Jr. is the author of A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country: Poems (2012) and Notes from the Spectrum, a memoir forthcoming with Brazos Press in 2021. His poems, essays, and fiction have appeared in The Adirondack Review, American Poetry Journal, Books & Culture, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal,The Midwest Quarterly, Rio Grande Review, Saint Katherine Review, Seneca Review, Volume 1 Brooklyn, and many others. A native New Yorker, he lives in Hartford City, Indiana, where he is Associate Professor of English at Taylor University and Editor-in-Chief of Relief: A Journal of Art & Faith.