Coronavirus: the unseen cause with visible effects

The following served as an assignment model for a level 3 writing class in the intensive-English program at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

The coronavirus, in my own life, while it has yet to penetrate the sealed door of my San Antonio apartment, has proven to be a powerful driver of dreams and has had strange impacts on my daily routine. Although invisible and mysterious, the virus moved quickly into view in early March. On Friday, March 13, I was walking along a wide, nearly empty beach on South Padre Island, across the causeway from Brownsville, Texas.

There were seashells afoot and plodding horses in the distance. I could treasure the past few days of thinking about and researching borderlands history in the Rio Grande Valley, starting with a visit to the gravesite of Gloria Anzaldúa in Hargill (see blog entry for March 9), then to the Border Studies Archive at the University of Texas–Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg, then to the special collections at the UTRGV library in Brownsville. I had stared at the slow-moving and swirling Rio Grande River, called the Río Bravo in México, and contemplated how we separate ourselves by language, geography, form of government, and myriad other ways.

Meanwhile, the butterflies, birds, and aquatic creatures continued to move back and forth, without paying any attention to this divide.

I did not fully realize how the theme of separation, and attempts to defy separation, would come to such prominence over the next several weeks. The news about coronavirus—the change to online classes at the University of Texas at San Antonio, then the “shelter at home” orders, then the closing of campus—filled my dreams with fearsome pictures. The dreams involve separation: for example, in one dream, I am speaking Spanish, but people do not understand me; I look for Anzaldúa’s tomb and become hopelessly lost; another writer shares his new material, but I remain afraid to share mine. They are not unlike anxiety dreams in other periods, but in the age of coronavirus they seem to consume more sleep time and weigh more heavily on my chest, making my breathing shallow come morning.

In waking hours, I see videos posted to social media about washing hands and making face masks. The effect is that I am sure I am not washing my hands with enough vigor. I wear two bandannas over my face as a makeshift mask, looking like a cliched bank robber on the Old West frontier, and do so just because I do not know enough about sewing to make a proper mask of my own.

Even though the nighttime dreams are haunting, I am not a big fan of the daylight, either. My sleep time has increased. Many evenings I have gone to sleep when the sun is still out, as early as 6:30 or 7 p.m. I am more tempted by unhealthy, comforting foods than I was before. In H-E-B, I see the mountains of Cap’n Crunch peanut-butter breakfast cereal and have to restrain myself from throwing the cereal boxes into my cart.

Then there is the time in front of the computer, in my apartment’s one straight-backed chair. I sit there rigidly from as early as 6 a.m. to mid- or late afternoon, rising on occasion to probe my creaky back, teaching classes while wearing headphones and speaking into a void with students arrayed before their own phones or computers. In this online modality, I no longer can gauge their faces to see boredom, confusion, or the churning mechanisms of thought that signal engagement and interest.

Yet I should not be so fast to bemoan the computer time because this device, along with the thousands of millions of megabytes that stream between us even during months of physical separation, is the only thing that makes possible a semblance of connection. I have recorded videos for students, introducing them to my stuffed yellow Woodstock toy, whom I have given the name Emilio (the character’s name in Latin America) and promoted to teaching assistant.

On Easter Sunday, I experienced the first reunion with my family since my father’s funeral in 2002. There were nineteen of us, brother and sisters, nieces, great nieces and nephews, family dogs, spanning North Carolina to Illinois to Hawai’i, reminding us that we do belong to each other and are part of each other’s stories.

And because I live alone, the community briefly enabled by this reunion and by the virtual church services I have attended, broadcast from Hanover Park, Illinois, and San Antonio, Texas, by the haphazardly planned living-room guitar concerts, full productions of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, comedians riffing on Facebook Live, Shakespearean actors staging Two Gentlemen of Verona on Zoom, and replays of ancient golf tournaments and soccer matches has supported this essential buffer between sanity and the free-floating coronavirus looking to take control of my lungs.

The Plague, the Albert Camus novel about a modern-day visitation of the Black Death on a walled Algerian town, concerns itself with this idea of separation. Does separation brought about by disease mean that we are free or unfree people? Camus, when he writes that townsfolk in Oran, Algeria, “fancied themselves free,” yet “no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences,” seems to say that coronavirus and other maladies that lurk in bat caves or deep in the ground keep all of humanity confined.

Yet there is a deeper message. The unfreedom that coronavirus and plague serve to demonstrate binds us as a species. We are not free—according to whatever fanciful definition of the word “free” that one adopts—but we are together. We are bound to Earth. And, for some more weeks or months, we are bound to our living spaces, trying to survive, yet in the shapeless interiors of our minds and bodies the kinship of human beings with each other and all living things cannot be broken.

Someone once termed this idea “the ties that bind.”

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