IT IS THE FIRST WEEK OF MARCH WHEN WE CROSS THE BORDER INTO MEXICO, continuing the long drive from the temperate rainforest of the Pacific Northwest and head down the California coast, where the land is roughened into arid boulders. We are now cruising the thin split of the Baja Peninsula, this new lover and I, escaping the heft of Oregon clouds, looking for something as bright and wide open as we wish our hearts to be. We are bumping along roads, lifting dust behind us, driving through plains of saguaro cactus that push up long fingers through brush and white-branched shrubs.
It has been a challenging trip so far. All the ways in which travel surfaces the habits that push us into our separate corners, our ways of trying to anchor stability amongst all the newness. There are some challenges we don’t yet fully understand. The last news as we hit the border (before the unreliable phone coverage and the infuriatingly slow 3G network) is that this virus with a name vaguely reminiscent of royalty and saints has fully infiltrated both coasts of the United States.
Cases in Washington have spiked the earliest, and while there is still confusion about the levels of danger (“isn’t this just like the flu?”), a fear has been drifting along like a wicked wind behind us all this time. We feel an unease we assign to the other’s shitty way of managing travel stress. It is not until we arrive at our rented casita on a hill in the desert between the mountains and the Pacific Ocean, after five days of post-border-crossing travel, that we hear California has issued its first shelter-in-place directive.
Then we see the dust of fear and agitation, how it has gusted along just outside our rolled-up windows, whisking into us subtle as a sigh. It has been hovering in the air and, even as we quipped two days ago about our lucky timing, we understand now the very act of our breathing has tethered us to this collective gasp. There is no escaping air. And that is the thing about pandemics: wherever in the world you go, there they are.
(The Harmattan wind: dusty, north-easterly or
easterly, blows from West Africa across the Atlantic
all the way to Barbados; known as “the doctor”
because of its invigorating dryness compared with humid
tropical air. Up the soft red rock of a desert mountain,
what I breath is thin, might be called Aether: pure
upper air breathed by the gods; might be called Silla:
the stuff souls are made of; might be called prayer:
this gasping made from my heavy lungs.)
II. Community Spread
THE CORONAVIRUS GUSTING ACROSS the globe is actually one of many types of coronaviruses, we learn. By we, I mean those of us who are not scientists and who have not been paying attention. Coronaviruses belong to a group known as single-stranded RNA viruses, apparently notorious for copying errors when they replicate, and for fast evolution. They mutate often, and therefore evolve quickly. Many scientists believe that if this coronavirus spreads as widely and infects as many people as the seasonal flu, it could kill twenty times as many people.
According to the CDC, symptoms include fever, cough, shortness of breath. Complications include pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), and kidney failure. Risk factors include advanced age and serious underlying medical conditions (e.g. heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, etc.).
These risk factors quickly shift as the virus spreads. At first we are only worried about our elders, folks who already display weakened immune systems, those who belong in what we refer to as “vulnerable populations,” which meant who, exactly, in these early days? Maybe people we already deem to be in poor health: those houseless, in active addiction, or constantly surviving chronic illness. But how quickly it shifts, this understanding of who is most vulnerable, as quickly as the virus moves on the air. Because suddenly we see it is the poor who are rapidly succumbing; those without healthcare coverage who are flooding the emergency rooms; the caretakers and service providers we are all depending on to support us in our quarantines taking the brunt of the exposure risk.
And what constitutes a serious underlying medical condition swiftly demonstrates where we have been failed. Asthma from decades of inhaling the dense air of a populated city after a forced migration, or hypertension and heart disease from the stress of a life under constant threat, or poor nourishment from living in a food desert, or compromised immunity from decades of medical neglect and/or incarceration which keeps you in inescapable quarters of contagion, or lack of access to the lands that nourish you. Nearly every pre-existing condition shows up in a melanated body, a queer body, an impoverished body, a body campaigned openly against as having no worth.
Other than my melanin and my womanness, I am not currently high risk. I understand my low risk as the embodiment of several privileges, including access to nature, healthy food, work that is not dependent on an organization that I can do safely from wherever I am. There is a pit gnawing and growing in the place that holds my guts, as I consider how to walk with this privilege of wellness, how to walk with the grace of being in the middle of the desert, Sierras to the east and ocean to the west, and a long broad view of the horizon with few neighbors in sight.
(I walk into the desert the first time smoking at 18,
out the slipping glass doors of the Albuquerque Skyport
into a warm blue gaze, package of tobacco in hand.
Cramped from hours of faking flight and years lived
under skies saturated with clouds, the sigh of this breeze
on my skin, as if my body was new. Ten years later,
my nephew swings his long leg out, foot hitting asphalt,
kick-push-coasting on a skateboard those last few free days
In Brooklyn, inhaler shoved in his backpack’s side pocket.)
III. Incubation Period
THIS TRIP WAS MEANT to be an adventure deeper into our burgeoning relationship. A first and early adventure, containing as much fantasy of romance as trepidation about the emergence of our respective neuroses. Though I experience myself as young in many ways, we are both older than any other time we’ve started relationships, and I can feel the difference. Even in that phrasing, “starting a relationship.” I did not “start relationships” in my twenties or even thirties; I hung out or hooked up or dated for months or years at a time.
But here we are, on purpose, delving into an unknown in which much will be revealed, and we both know that we can’t unknow what we will learn about each other. We’re awake to the possibility that this trip might offer up a clarity with no soft edges; that out here in the bright light and broad expanse of desert, with mostly each other to look at, our vision might prove acute. Such acuteness, such willingness and desire to see each other no matter what, is risky, I suppose. Once we have all the information about our habits, our ways of loving and not loving, we will be in a position to choose. Will we move closer together or distance ourselves across the sandy plain?
The end of our first week in Baja witnesses the closing of all distractions in town. Restaurants, beachside coffee shops, small bars showcasing local musicians, all shut their doors as quarantine and social distancing take hold. It feels like just the two of us scattered on a wind of uncertainty. Though we have chosen this trip, I suddenly feel cast out, so far from home and the familiar. All the learned habits of self-sufficiency tighten quickly in my chest. I shorten my breath to keep in what I’m convinced will be an exhale of fiery fear that could burn us down.
But this isn’t how I first learned to breathe. This isn’t how I first learned to love, either.
These most natural rhythms are born into our bodies with such ease, we barely feel the separation between them and our own skin. The willingness and desire to see clearly may be a mark of some emotional maturity, but the restriction of breath is a holdover scar from inhaling a toxin or being suffocated by a love too heavy.
By the end of the second week, I find myself constantly praying for newness, not out of boredom or avoidance, but because I want to know (I want to remember) what it is to be unafraid to love, to be unafraid to breathe.
(But what can we remember of the first wind
to come rushing to our bodies, our organs
barely flushed with blood, lungs not yet even pink?
This wind streaming to cells, the call
for breath living so deeply in the soma
we rarely think of it. But if we did, would
we marvel? Each inhale, a being-ness unplumbed;
and what was just let go, already traveling
itself out, already expanding the fresh unknown.)
THEY ARE SAYING IF someone has symptoms, isolation is the socially responsible thing to do. This is before it becomes a mandate, or “highly suggested.” Before shelter-in-place is a term. Before Black men are forcibly attacked for not wearing masks (a confusing turn after decades of being detained or killed for wearing clothing that was considered to hide guilt). Before white protestors begin swarming city halls with guns and rage to demand access to their barbers. Before the 45th president of the United States announced he would like to open the country up, get the economy going, even though some people will be affected “very badly.”
What I hate most about all this is the predictability. Such certain and foreseeable violence.
I know what happens to the body in survival mode, real survival mode, like when you are a Black man out for a jog that has suddenly turned into a hunt, being chased down the street by two white men with guns. I know the breath shortens in the body and oxygen fuels systems needed for immediate and urgent use only. I know the rest of the body goes without. I know what atrophies after decades of such deprivation. I have not lost a limb, or a lung, or a brilliant future. But maybe a voice. Maybe a small innocence curled in a corner of my psyche, sipping the smallest bits of air through pursed lips as if buried alive in a cave-in.
Rarefied air. That’s what they call those experiences and places of which only the elite get to partake. Something pure. Something nourishing.
Lately, all I can see and think about is care. What must one do to get it? When I was a child, if I took good care of everyone, sometimes they would feel good enough, relaxed enough, nurtured enough, to then shake some of the extra onto me. It wasn’t their fault, this shoddy trade. They didn’t know they were working from a deficit. We made the best we could with a trickle-down care economy.
Now I know who benefits from such an economy, whose hands were at what tables to create such a system that can deprive and devastate millions. And still, my breath ricochets around in my chest like a pinball. My inhale can’t find a pocket to rest.
(We worked 10-hour shifts near the freeway on-ramps
and the chemical paper mill. We lived only a few miles
from our jobs because we had no cars. We had no cars
because we had no credit. We had no credit because
we had no assets other than these bodies. We were told
these bodies were the only thing of value we had.
We took long smoke breaks to feel like we
owned them again. To remember what it felt like,
in ten-minute increments, to breathe for ourselves.)
THE BAJA DESERT IS a long, warm wind from coast to mountain.
It is incredible how much I want to go home.
I don’t even know where that really is these days, having been nomadic the past 3 years. Yet, home preoccupies my thinking. Maybe it is the phrase “shelter-in-place” that makes me want to seek home. Maybe it is just the word shelter and what it means: a structure to provide safety and protection. Maybe it is the notion that such a thing exists. I imagine lying down on earth amidst tall trees and feeling the ground like a grandmother’s embrace.
The desert ground is prickly and sharp, only soft in its neutral pastels—sun-softened tans and pale reds. I am surrounded by light and air here, afloat, feeling challenged by the horizon, strangely claustrophobic.
We begin wearing masks into town, and I feel the closeness of my own breath. I feel words reverberate in my mouth as I raise the decibel of my friendliness toward the grocery clerk to translate beyond my face covering. I say, “Thank you!” loudly, with a gratitude in my voice I hope will reach her. I hope she will hear that I mean, “Thank you for being here, because I know you may not have a choice, because I know you being here without a choice is what helps me to be here, and I don’t know how to reconcile this.” I hope she will hear, “Please, may you be well. Please, may everyone you love be well. Please, understand that I understand you are allowing me to be well.” I hope she will hear, “I know there is no thanking you enough.”
I hope she will hear that she is loved by me.
This virus travels on air, the single element most necessary for our survival. If we breathe, we die? Where is shelter in this?
In the skin of this new lover, I guess, in the smell of his arms warm from the sun. I am lucky I have someone to touch in this time of forced separation. I am lucky to have someone with whom I can remove the cloth covering from my face, who is willing and able to share the same air. Who will risk putting his cheek near my cheek, rub his thumb across my lower lip and breathe into me. Who opens his mouth against mine so that I can breathe back.
This breath, like a bridge between us.
(What happens when you cup your hands
before your mouth and whisper into them
your own name? What happens if you say
the word “grace” into your palms, then brush
them over your forehead, down your neck,
press them into your chest? What in your
body pulls grace in and feels alive
with the word? What song in your body
waits, on bated breath, to sing out?)
NOW IS WHEN WE breathe
VII. Social Distance
BECAUSE THE INSTINCT TO go home lives in my body (my lungs tightening when I think of how far away we are), we decide to return to the United States. Because we can. Because we have work that is moveable and a reliable car and blue passports that make us as mobile and free as a glorified wind.
We pass through roadblocks on the way to the border. Thermometers shaped and held like guns are aimed at our foreheads through car windows. The red pinpoint light checks us for fever, the medical team on the street records our names, date of birth, license plate, destination. We are tracked like the migrating animals we are.
My friends from Northern California send me links to photos of coyotes wandering the near-empty streets of San Francisco. An article pops up about a brown bear venturing into a city in Northern Spain that, while part of its original territory, hasn’t been visited by bear in 150 years. My friend Tiffany tells me she is marveling at how loud the birds seem to be this spring. The human activity hushed and indoors has heightened hearing to catch the decibel of dawn, perhaps. Or, with us contained, there is space enough on the earth for all of her beings to roam.
I think about this as we curve up the San Jacinto mountains, Avii Haunpach in Mojave, a mountain range east of Los Angeles that peaks in elevation at 10,834 feet. I think about what it means that we can go here, to this place where the air might be more clear, where trees outnumber people, where I can sit at the base of a towering Western Red Cedar in the morning and gaze up at its flat green fronds waving kindly in a benign breeze.
I think about this as we stop in the nearly deserted central square of the small town where we will be self-quarantining for the next several weeks. I think about this as I hop out of the car to stretch my legs and my dog’s after the long drive, without a mask on, my lungs loosening. I think about this as a very large and very white man, a mountain local standing outside his own car about 20 feet away, begins to scream at me.
“I don’t want to catch whatever the fuck you have! Put a fucking mask on! Goddamn flatlanders.”
He is screaming at me because he is scared. He is screaming at me because I am Black and the easiest body he can police. He is screaming at me because I will come and I will go, and he has been here, and he will stay.
I think about how, after all these centuries of practice, we struggle still to share the space of the world. We struggle still to be free, and together.
(Arrested. Our range of motion directly related to
how much our lungs can fill. Vessels constricted,
we are sluggish, stagnant, small. We cannot get enough
breath to bellow, to rage against what needs raging
against, to sing and soothe what needs sounds of love.
Who is disproportionately exposed, choked, yoked
within a small range of sound and movement?
Who cannot breathe in enough to breathe out?
Who can decide differently?)
VIII. Flattening the Curve
SOMEONE CALLS THE PANDEMIC a portal. Someone says this is a time we can do something different than what we have done before. Someone believes maybe we can take what has been failing the majority of us and create systems that heal the majority of us.
Madagascar finds an herbal remedy to support the health of its citizens, which was distributed for free to the most vulnerable populations. New Zealand contains the virus completely within five weeks by adhering to strict standards of quarantining that limited access to public spaces and closed business. In Ireland, descendants of the Great Famine donate more than half a million dollars to support the Navajo and Hopi nations being ravaged by the virus. This is an offering in remembrance of a solidarity from more than 150 years ago, when the Choctaw peoples raised money to send to Ireland for those suffering hunger.
It is true, at times, I read this news and it feels like hope, which feels something like love.
Far away, but happening. I don’t know if this makes me feel more or less alone. The world is turning and I am here, in a holding, holding and being held, being held and being held in.
As someone who takes pride in a capacity for solitude and stillness, I am surprised when tears spring because I find myself missing the world. I am missing the world of simple exchanges and gestures, the world of slight kindnesses and communion. The world where we head-nod to each other on the street and see each other’s smiles breaking across our faces like wild horses.
When I go to my altar in the mornings, I sit and breathe and try for the longest exhale, the biggest inhale. I am able to get to an exhale count of eight, then a beat, followed by an inhale count of six. About fifteen slow seconds, and at the bottom of the exhale is a stillness that feels dark and soft as the cosmos.
The end of the exhale is the farthest I find myself willing to venture away from the world. Then the hunger for inhale arises, and calmly ravenous, I seek humanity and its company.
(You must become still to pray. To become still, you must
understand your own breath: how it moves and how
to move it. You must be able to call it slow and deep
into you and push it rapid from the solar plexus. With this skill,
you are also able to direct the movement of thought.
Your mind can catch the current for where you want to go.
You can summon your breath to infuse with life force
the words that are most important to you. Now you can
IX. Herd Immunity
BY WEEK SEVEN OF sheltering in place, my sister, my cousin, and I have coordinated the time we spend at our altars. We sit together, our altars distant from each other by thousands of miles, and think about the world breathing between us.
By week seven of sheltering in place, this new lover and I are calling each other partner. We will never know what our relationship might have been without this time bestowed upon us by a virus. Time like a faulty gift, splintered with grief and fear, with such limited contact outside our small circle of two, but we would never return it. To return this faulty gift slings us into an alternative neither of us is truly prepared for or wanting. And anyway, return to who? The gods of plague have already taken so much.
By week ten of sheltering in place, most states will begin “opening up,” language that brings the image of strip mall doors flinging as wide as we hope the arms of our loved ones will open to us. It is still not clear who we will see, who we will touch, who we will sit close to for a meal.
My partner and I will begin our drive north up the coast at week eleven, heading in the opposite direction as when we started out, toward a place we imagine we will call home for some time.
On the way, we will pass my family’s house, where my mom is taking care of my ninety-seven-year-old grandparents, but I don’t know if we will stop to visit. I don’t know if it is safe enough for me to see my grandparents alive again.
In the meantime, I am writing this on the deck of the mountain cabin we have been staying in these past weeks. The sun is moving near its golden hour and the evening stretches close to summer. The breeze is warm and dry, constant, like it has been moving in this direction a long time coming.
I am remembering lines of a Merwin poem I heard read aloud through a computer screen just a few days before:
“Listen/with the night falling we are saying thank you…” it begins.
“we are saying thank you and waving/dark though it is,” it ends.
I know I am one of those who will do this: turn a face of grateful tears towards a god who seems to have not shown mercy, perhaps for years. Not because I love an abuser, but because even the insects with their gaggle of legs and waspy wings move into a pocket of evening light above me and can look like fairies, wicked and delicate. I will never tire of seeing this world, of hearing it everywhere, the tight whimper or sigh or hollow howl from the belly of a hospital or from behind a mask or in a deserted central square. I am so grateful for a noise as animal and human and gashing and gorgeous as I know we can be when we are all the way alive.
This terror of being, and those of us who live.
Oh, some of us live.
(She comes back, the desert, her pastel flowers and
winded being. Even now, in the midst of evergreen
forests, ferns dancing in a ravine’s rustling current,
it is the desert sighing across my heart; an open-
mouthed exhale pushing like tumbleweed any inkling
of smallness, of limited horizon. How far it stumbles,
this which has no limit: the breath: no real edges,
just an expanse that may never be fully traversed.
Bright, porous, weightless.)