april 20, 2020—field notes: grocery shopping in the time of coronavirus

I pull into the quasi-empty parking lot mid-afternoon. Still too full for my comfort, at least it’s not log-jammed like every grocery store, uber-Target and co-op in the tri-county area was over the weekend, and unless I want tuna and dry raisin bran for dinner (“you’ve had worse…” my inner poor-kid survivalist tries to reason), suck it up, buttercup. Get in, get out, get yer ass home.

I’ve memorized my list and strategically mapped my route through the store. I double, triple, quadruple check my purse for the world’s tiniest bottle of hand sanitizer—the only one I own—along with a handful of Handi-Wipes, that I’m rationing like beans in the depression, thanks to the assholes who wiped out the world’s supply back in March, along with rubbing alcohol and Clorox wipes. I use my meager bottle and wipes for just such outings; the overwhelming urge to rub my eyes never seems to happen except when I’m in a grocery store these days. I slide a doubled-up, filterized bandana over the lower half of my face and check my purse one last time to make sure the hand sanitizer didn’t mysteriously leap out when I wasn’t looking. I take a deep breath, slip out of my ol’ Jeep, scurry across the lot and into the store.

I glance around for wipes to clean off a cart. A young man in a company-issue polo shirt stands guard with a spray bottle and paper towels, wiping down of every last inch of every last cart that’s returned. Nice touch. The sharpness of my breathing softens a bit. Tape covers the quarter slots, umbilical-cord keys that used to link the carts together dangle without purpose from cart handles. Another nice touch—one less thing to have to touch. I thank the young man from behind my mask, take a freshly-wiped cart and slip through the automatic doors.

Goddammit. They’ve rearranged the entire store since I was last in, maybe a couple months ago. Instead of beelining, I wander aimlessly, dodging other shoppers like they have a disease or something, haphazardly crossing back and forth through the store (shit-ton of boxed mac and cheese, I notice, no quinoa anywhere), haphazardly ticking items off my list. I hyper-tune in to shoppers committing various acts of social distancing violations. My breathing intensifies again. 

I stand in front of the refrigerator case, scanning the rows for eggs, when I feel an unsettling sensation of energy behind me. I turn to find an unmasked shopper practically breathing down my neck as he reaches around for a tub of yogurt. Over my bandana, I glare and hiss, “Excuse me—” He doesn’t notice. Or care. He snags his yogurt and meanders on. A young woman cavalierly weaves her maskless way through the aisles, pushing others’ shopping carts out of the way with her own filthy mitts to get at what she needs. Another’s arm and mine reach for the same bag of spinach. Hands recoil at lightning speed, bodies pull back as our eyes meet. I think we’re both smiling, but it’s hard to know for certain when half of our expression is covered in handmade masks. “Go ahead,” she gestures. I grab a bag, wave a quick thank-you at her, and continue.

An older gentleman sneezes, not into the crook of his arm, but aerosol-blasts his microbes right into the store’s atmosphere for God and everyone to breathe. I spin around and head down another aisle. My heart is flopping against my sternum, frantically trying to leap its way out of my mouth, breath comes in shallow gulps, a slight headache begins thudding at the base of my skull. If I despised grocery shopping before, now, it’s a literal exercise in agony. I read the news, I listen to my governor’s press conferences, I know what’s going on. 

I snag the last few items on my list—dog treats, coffee, cereal (I rediscovered the versatility of cereal—cheap, effortless, every-meal food—though a minor win that hardly offsets the growing list of transgressions flaring up around me). In spite of not working for over a month and not knowing when I’ll go back, I decide that this kind of stress calls for an unessential not on my list: emergency ice cream. Salted caramel to the rescue.

I didn’t see any six-foot spaced x’s on the floor at the checkouts as other grocery stores have done (that’s not to say they weren’t there, I was too distressed to notice), but the store has the stretch-limousine-version of grocery carts, which help keep shoppers appropriately spaced. Still, I stand another couple feet behind the shopper in front of me. The man behind me does not extend the same courtesy to me. Usually, I’m ridiculously Minnesota Nice! in the grocery store and at least smile at the person behind me should we meet eyes, sometimes even chit-chat a bit. I can’t help it, it’s my Dad in me. Today, I keep my back turned and seethe as his cart creeps closer and closer to the backs of my ankles. Swear to god, if that thing touches me…

The masked checkout clerk sits behind a shield of plexiglass that’s usually seen in casinos and sketchy convenience stores. Another new protocol in place. After ringing up my items, she slides my cart out of the way, I slide it to a long counter and quickly bag my things up, dropping apples on the floor in my frenzied packing, which sets loose a string of expletives that would have made even my father, King of the Foulmouthed, cringe. I loop all the bags all over my body like some kind of strange peddler, awkwardly steer the cart back out to the Keeper of Carts with one hand, and waddle out to the Jeep with my wares—god forbid would I make another trip back in to return the cart. 

My body practically implodes as I heave a sigh of relief once I’m safely ensconced in my car. I dig out the tiny bottle of sanitizer, splootch some on my hands and scrub them together furiously, taking several long, deep breaths as my blood pressure settles down, before heading back home, where I don’t think I’ll leave, ever. I can totally live off tuna and raisin bran, I think. I wonder how agreeable my landlords would be to a couple of chickens, a field of quinoa and spinach in my yard. 

A friend summed up my experience wisely—no one’s winning here. You’re an asshole if you don’t wear a mask, you’re an asshole for judging other’s maskless existence. If I hear the phrase “new normal” one more time, I swear…There’s not a goddamned thing normal about any of this. If and when this virus is ever chased out of town, mental health workers (and hairdressers) will be our new front line.

april 14, 2020—not a hugger

6A161F56-4058-44A6-A64F-3E54C93E761EFor someone who’s not a hugger by nature (who truthfully, kinda inwardly flinches when someone boldly announces “I’m a hugger!”), one of the things I miss most right now is hugging the people I love most…I’m remembering a time when I could hug those people with unabashed abandon, and in spite of the shitstorm swirling around us, I believe in a day where we will be able to hug again. I mean, if we want to.

I spent Sunday alone (was it a holiday or something?), which is how I spend every day in isolation, one day smearing (now, there’s a funny word, smear, that used to only be used behind the word “pap,” but here I am, getting all resourceful in a pandemic, finding a new use for it!) into the next. Not that it’s much different than PP (pre-pandemic—I’m also getting good at making up acronyms!), but there’s a big difference between being an introvert by nature and being forced into isolation, which is completely unnatural even for a non-hugging introvert; to say there will be significant fallout to this unnatural state is the understatement of the moment, given the way shit changes every second of every minute of every hour of every day.

I rearranged my living space (again), made a handful of t-shirt masks, scratched out 3ECA1E85-1206-4FA6-ACE4-CC6AAE8A058Asome strange, sloppy writing, about which Joe and I discussed the other night—he believes the most important art is happening now—the raw, clunky shit plunking out of keyboards or slapping onto a canvas, sometimes running uncontrollably like diarrhea, other times thick and sludgy, barely moving, if at all— who has time to edit when it’s old news by the second revision? I can agree; my writing (and drinking) career began in earnest, in the middle of a personal shit show, when every hour of every day brought new, more horrific news than the last…I’m observing so many strange parallels between that myopic experience and this pandemic one…still, I know that for many people, their creative process and a whole lotta other shit has come to a grinding halt, and I’m no expert, but I’d say that one is as common response to crisis as the other. Brené Brown talks a awful lot about this phenomenon of our reactions in crisis—some become hyper-mobilizing, others sort of implode, many of us do both on an unpredictable rotation…check her work out, if you aren’t already familiar.

The sooner we recognize that for all the funny memes going around about “The ‘Rona” and over-eating and bad hair and other trials and tribulations of self-isolating, this experience is fucking all of us up to some degree or another, the better off we’ll be in the long run. Thanks or no-thanks to social media, we can observe the multitude of responses (that change with the breeze), and I can’t help but feel some sort of strange, I don’t quite know what the word is—comfort? vindication? camaraderie? compassion and grace? fear? knowing now, that what I went through with Bob was completely fucked up, and the only, right response to witnessing something so fucked up, is to end up fucked up, for a while, maybe forever…dear John Prine was a masterstoryteller of this phenomenon…when the shitstorm finally passes, mental health workers and hairdressers will be the new front line.

I sit helpless and heartbroken because I can’t do anything for Joe and his dad, Jesse, during their sacred time in hospice; the divine way that things played out for them to be together is breathtaking, but the backdrop in which it’s happening is cruel and unusual punishment—no one can visit, hospice services have been whittled to bare essentials…one of endless secondary and tertiary effects of this virus. Thank god for Skype, FaceTime, Zoom and other video chat/meeting apps that are getting record use in this time. If we can’t hug, at least we can connect with each other in all our uninhibited, “I frankly don’t give a shit anymore—what you see is what you get” video chat glory. I’ve sent and received more real olde tyme mail these past few weeks than I’ve had in the past few decades, though I do wonder about my neighbor downstairs who gets at least 3 Amazon Prime deliveries a day. Not judging, just wondering, is all.

Spending Easter Sunday alone wasn’t all bad. I’ve got a good eight years under my belt—I think of it as a residency in grief— I’m an expert at entertaining myself, which is kind of the hilarious irony about this mess—just when I finally figured out that eight years of self-imposed exile wasn’t doing my mental health any favors and I decided to quit drinking and really get to work on some shit I’ve been neglecting for quite some time, a pandemic comes roaring across the country and shreds my newfound “I need to build community!” proclamation. Who was it that said life is what happens when you make other plans…

I was motivated to clean and rearrange by the brilliantly eclectic Spotify playlists created by genius Mix Mistress Nasty G-Spot (that’s Gretchen Hildebrandt, to the tragically unhip—I don’t think even she’s aware of her new crisis-inspired DJ handle). She created two lists—one of socially distant appropriate titles, the other of isolation no-no’s, like Exile’s Kiss you All Over and The Ramones’ You Sound Like You’re Sick. I laughed out loud as each song outdid the last: Georgia Satellites’ Keep Your Hands to Yourself, the Divinyls’ I Touch Myself, Motley Crue’s Don’t Go Away Mad (Just Go Away), Tony Orlando and Dawn’s Knock Three Times, Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb—curiously, almost prophetically, the 80s has an abundance of pandemic-relevant material. Leave it to Generation X…one of our new pastimes is calling or texting each other with new songs to add to her lists. Find and follow Gretchen on Spotify for a big hug from her, in the form of pure music joy for these hard times.

IMG_2348Yesterday afternoon, Jill R. Hildebrandt and I met halfway-ish, in Jordan; she had some Easter treats she wanted to give me, I had some t-shirt masks for her and Gretchen. We parked in the lot of the Holiday station off 169, six spots away from each other. Like a strange deal going down in broad daylight, the exchange was made: I tossed two bags of sanitized face masks out my window at her, she crept out of her car, placed her goods, bound up in a plastic shopping bag, on the pavement between us, then scurried back; I hustled out to retrieve then retreat. She held up the Ziplocks and whipped out a bottle of spray disinfectant and hosed the suckers down. We waved and snapped pictures of each other, choking up and laughing at the same time. How fucked up is everything about this, I think (a thought that plays on repeat throughout my days). We exchanged a few more words, waved and blew kisses through windows, before taking off in different directions. If you’ve been a recipient of a spee-dee delivery from this sister of mine (or a dee-lux version—a personal tap dance performance), consider it a big hug from her.

My sibs and I were able to gather for a video call on Sunday, which basically consisted of two hours of nonstop Hildebrandt kids being kids again. Our parents would have been so proud…

Someone recently said to me that she’s ready for thing to return to normal again. I’m not a scientist or economist, psychologist or historian, but I don’t think that’s gonna happen, that we’ll go back to how things were, but it’s also kind of a sanctimonious, asshole thing for me to say. In spite of what I think or what I’ve gone through, who am I to say that things will never, ever return to the way things used to be? All I have is my own experience to go by. Still, there’s evidence all around us: people are returning to their natural hair color (I just read that in eight weeks, thanks to covid-19, 80% of the world’s blondes will be extinct…look it up if you don’t believe me…), we are being forced to let go of old habits and pastimes, and discovering that they no longer serve us, if they ever did…skies ovetr cities that were tinged sepia are clearing, wildlife is returning to their habitats, people are connecting with each other in wildly creative, unprecedented ways…that’s not to say that there’s not some scary awful shit going down—there is, there’s too much to say about that, that’s why I sometimes can’t stop these posts —still, if by “going back to normal” means going back to a broken system, that those other glorious things suddenly go back to not happening again, then I’d have to say I’m kind of a proponent for rewriting the script…

I believe that when all of this is said and done, the world will be divided into two camps—huggers-bordering-on-gropers and those who run screaming when someone gets within six feet…don’t be surprised when we’re finally released from house arrest if this anti-hugger comes up to you and hugs your livin’ guts out. Stranger things have happened.

april 7, 2020—catch you later, John Prine…

Pink SuperUltraAngelFromMontgomery moonTook Rocco out tonight for our last walk of the evening, kept scanning the skies for the mythical pink moon. We walked for blocks, but it was nowhere to be seen. Strange… eventually, we turned the last corner toward home, when a glowing orb shimmering through night branches snagged my attention. “There it is!” I thought, and held up my phone to take a picture. At the same time, a text from Joe flashed on the screen.

“Aw shit…John Prine gone.”

I snapped a blurry pic as my eyes blurred with tears. Aw, shit, indeed… Even if you don’t believe in such things, you can’t help but think, “Whew…the largest and brightest moon of the year and a millions of pair of eyes resting on it, is one helluva celestial exit, Mr. Prine…” Rest in peace. xo

april 5, 2020—sunday morning confessional

It is Sunday, right? Once a Catholic, always a Catholic, though this one is of the fallen variety….). Long and rambly alert: this is long and rambly.
This morning was the first morning in 96 days that I woke up and thought, “wow. It’s quite possible that the only thing keeping me from heading down to the liquor store today for a bottle or two of wine today is fear of exposing myself to a fucking virus, and today that might be the only thing holding me together, and it feels pretty flimsy, at best.”
Until today, being AFAF has felt like a real-live superpower, and I’ve been singing my anthem loud and proud, “I recognize know, too well, what alcohol does to me, especially in crisis, and I don’t ever want to do that to myself again—” and blah, blah, blah… Today, I am quietly humming the same lyrics to a new/old melody—”I recognize, too well, what alcohol does to me, especially in a crisis,” and today, I’d love nothing more than to numb this fucking nightmare shitshow that’s burning down around us, to dam up the never-ending current of terror, isolation, fear of the unknown that now dictates our lives in various, infinite verses. Mine is: I have no job, no income, I’m alone, I haven’t physically touched anyone—not even a goddamned elbow bump—in over three weeks, my dog wondering when I’ll leave so he can finally get some sleep again, my modest savings is fast shriveling up before my eyes, and no one knows when this nightmare is going to end…”—that’s been coursing on repeat through my veins for the past few days.
I want to get in my trusty ol’ Jeep and drive to where most of my loved ones live, about an hour and a half from me—and perform a one-car parade past everyone’s house, to see them in-person (not on a goddamned screen), wave and honk the horn from afar, then turn around and come back home. But then, I start thinking, will seeing them in person but not be able to touch them break my heart even more than simply being alone? And what about the logistics and wisdom of that seemingly innocent act? where will I go to the bathroom? what if my car breaks down or I get into an accident (this would be the day for either or both to happen, the way the gods have been acting like moody, unpredictable sons-of-bitches lately)? what if I put a tow truck driver or first responders in jeopardy (I feel fine, but…)? what if I breathe in the virus through my Jeep vents? what if I breathe out the virus through the vents? What if, what if, what if…
I’m a fellow in the Loft Literary Center’s Mentor Series writing program here in Mpls, and like the rest of the world, we’ve resorted to online meetings; for yesterday’s session, our visiting author-mentor is a magical woman,Junauda Petrus, “a writer, pleasure activist, filmmaker and performance artist, born on Dakota land of Black-Caribbean descent. Her work centers around wildness, queerness, Black-diasporic-futurism, ancestral healing, sweetness, shimmer and liberation.” She is absolutely all that, and a sweet bag of stockpiled chips to boot. Yesterday, we were given a writing prompt where we were to riff off a few ideas she’d tossed out and string them into a poem, a short essay, story or just some loose, strung-out thoughts, whatever. I started writing a fairy-tale like story, as though I were talking to a child about things I was missing: “and there was a time in the world where children went into an actual school building with their friends to learn, and we went into restaurants and sat right next to each other as we ate, and went over to friends’ homes for parties, we hugged and held hands with our loved ones, and sat at their bedside as they lay dying, and walked right past strangers without darting across the street and our faces were not covered in makeshift masks—sometimes, our shoulders even brushed against one another…”
I started crying and couldn’t stop—this isn’t a fairy tale, it’s goddamned reality—and I couldn’t participate in the rest of the meeting. I kept my laptop camera and mic off and just cried and wrote. After the online class, I continued to write, and the hopeless story began turning into one of, I don’t know, not hope, really, but something else kind of like it, but different, because there was something very familiar about it.
Junauda, and everyone around me, is helping me lean into the magic and mystery and opportunity for profound metamorphosis in our fucked up “new normal” (a phrase which I’ve loathed since about 2011), which continually reminds me of another fucked up reality I lived through, which incidentally happened around 2011 (give and take a few years) and survived. Not in the way I’d hoped I would survive, and you bet, if given another chance, I’d change everything I did back then, but still, I survived, in spite of a whole bunch of what I’d call monumental fuck-ups. Last night, before bed, I wrote a message to Junauda, to tell her how much her generous, magical presence in my life means to me, and she wrote back immediately, offering me a welcomed lifeline when I felt I was drowning. And I was once again reminded, it’s that simple, how it works—you reach out for help, someone tosses you a line from their stash. Someone else reaches out, you toss them what you have, and together, in this way, we weave a net to continually catch and release each other, and we get through this shit show, one line at a time.
I recognize the familiarity of these overwhelming feelings: when my husband was diagnosed with cancer in 2009, our lives were upended for nearly two years, without reprieve. While more myopic than pandemic, there are so many eerie similarities—his oncologist was the medical equivalent to certain “world leaders” (sorry, not sorry for making this political, but truth is, every. damn. thing. is political) who spoke arrogantly, definitively of a cure, yet everything he did to my husband resulted in something more horrible than what had just happened, every day living in crawling-out-of-our-skin fear of the unknown—what godawful thing would happen next? When will this end? And then he died. My husband, not the oncologist, unfortunately (yes, I still harbor some unmetabolized resentment about that particular shit show that will probably stain me till I die—I’m 100% certain it’s impossible to scrub ourselves 100% pure again, but I’m finally okay with the stains—I earned ’em). Suffice to say, I numbed, big-time, during those months, and continued to numb, to varying degrees, for years after his death…as I sat and wrote yesterday, I shook loose other memories, reshaped a few thoughts, and was reminded that in the heart of that particular shit show, I did some really hard, astonishing, dare I say brave and wonderful things, fueled by pure love, in spite of things we’ve never done before, that we miscategorize mistakes, that have an uncanny ability to rise to the surface and obliterate the love and other good stuff we’ve done.
I’m reading story after story of others’ “fall from grace” in light of this godforsaken shitshow, and want you all to know I am humbled and reverenced by your brave admissions, by your openness and willingness to reach out, with honesty and vulnerability. And by so many others’ generosity and wisdom, who reach back, to help hold you when you are faltering, and it’s a miraculous thing to witness and be part of…sometimes we gotta do what we gotta do, to get through the hard things, and right now, this pandemic thing? It’s 100% fucking hard, and we will all need help, at some time or other. Desperately.
Today, I am going to do all I can right now to ride this tidal wave of emotion and physical discomfort, and honor it as a necessary part of this whatever we’re calling it. I’ll be honest, I sometimes, dramatically roll my eyes when I say journey or process, or whatever precious euphemism we’re calling this FUCKING PANDEMIC. Whatever we are doing to get through this nightmare are stunning acts of courage; we are all doing badass things that we never, ever, ever thought in a million years we would be doing, and we all really suck at doing it, let’s be honest. BECAUSE NO ONE HAS EVER BEEN IN A CRIPPLING PANDEMIC BEFORE, OKAY? And it really, really sucks that we have to reach out in bizarre, foreign ways, but that’s just the way it’s gotta be for a while.
I had same-but-different kind of support when my husband was sick, and while I didn’t do things in a picture-perfect way (what the fuck even is “picture perfect?” anyhow, I ask/demand now), I did it in the best way I knew how to do at the time, and for that experience and the support I received then, often from the most unexpected sources, I’m beyond grateful, grace-filled and honored for that phase of my life, because it’s helping guide me now, and to say I’m shocked as hell about it isn’t an overstatement.
I’ll be honest—I get sad and frankly, more than a little pissed at whatever construct/system has led us to believe that being fully human is somehow failing—really?? I call bullshit on that line of thinking. How can a human possibly fail at being human? You simply cannot, that’s how. And why do you have to start over and begin counting from Day 1 again?? You don’t, that’s the truth. Jesus, let’s change the narrative, shall we? that is where our superpower lies. Let’s stop keeping score and stop using words like failing, or losing, or falling—as though being AF is some kind of competitive sporting event—and just keep on taking care of one another, one line at a time. Keep on being human. I don’t think of anyone here as failing or letting us down, or falling off anything—we are all doing the very best we can in a really fucked up situation in which no one has ever been before. in spite of all the rules being scrambled on us at warp speed, I’m still of the belief that whatever gets you through the night, is all right, is all right…We have no official shit-show blueprint or guidebook to follow, but we do have each other. We’re learning from and teaching each other, reaching out and holding up (sometimes both at the same time, while on a zoom meeting and homeschooling, or fetching a damn hotdog for the demanding dog, or whatever. Which is all a pretty damned big deal, when you stop to think about it. xo!

april 3, 2020—food shelf shift

Driving to the food shelf to volunteer for a shift yesterday—wait, was it this morning?—last year?—maybe I’m making this story up, who knows anything any more? Anyway, on my way to the food shelf, I’m stopped at a red light, when the car behind me pauses a moment, then decides that red lights are complete bullshit and swerves into the next lane over that, pre-pandemic, served oncoming traffic, hooks a left against the red, speeding off merrily (I’m guessing, I know I would be), confirming what I already suspect: we now live in a lawless land. I gotta remember that slick maneuver at the next red light/left turn combo I encounter.

I show up at the food shelf looking more like an amateur bank robber than a volunteer; as I said, we’re living in a land where laws are so 2019, so they let me in anyhow. I would win the unofficial Socially-Distant-Overachiever Award of the Day, if there was one—boxes of disposable gloves and hand sanitizer by the gallons on hand, which I immediately begin using and continue to use liberally throughout my shift, noting the only one (out of four, maybe five total, volunteers and staff) with a bandana strapped across her face is me. I’m aware that my makeshift mask will likely not filter out any possible virus microbes, but I’m of the camp that something is better than nothing. I huddle in my corner, minding my own biz mostly, spending more time than I probably should creating enticing combinations for the fresh fruit and veggie bags I’m in charge of assembling, in hopes that the recipients can make a real meal with the goods, rather than open up the bag and wonder what the hell to do with 3 apples, 2 potatoes, a packet of basil, a papaya and some English cucumbers (though my mom, resilient survivor that she was, would have conjured a helluva goulashy-salady-thingy from those ingredients) and communicating with my eyes while simultaneously backing up in horror, should anyone burst into my Les Nessman invisible office unannounced (google it, kids) and strike up a conversation; maybe, I concede, they’re desperate for connecting, like me, but are having a hard time comprehending this fucked up “new normal” that is anything but. I get it; like when I start chit-chatting with people at the dog park before I remember it’s Pandemic2020, and abruptly cut myself mid-sentence and move along.

My shift goes fast as my produce bags grow in numbers. Very few people stop in to use the food shelf in spite of the abundance of generous donations (from individuals and organizations). I learn from the woman running the subdued show that their numbers are drastically down, though they know there is a drastic need expressed; a lot of people in need are elderly and multigenerational families living under one roof, who lack transportation and/or are fearful, understandably, of going out in public. The food shelves are going to great lengths to keep their doors open, sorely understaffed, while complying with the rules of this no-rules world: shoppers are now separate from the goods/volunteers, allowing only one person at a time to come in for pre-assembled food/personal care bags (people used to be allowed to come in and do their own “shopping” through the facility), constantly disinfecting surfaces, etc.

At the end of the shift, I take one last load of cardboard out to recycling, sweep the aisles, and bid my crew mates adieu with a smile that I hope shows up in my eyes, in spite of my outlaw bandana covering the rest of my face.

If you or someone you know is in need of emergency food service, please check out Keystone Community Services (or other emergency food shelves in your area).