Tuesday, March 17, 2020

#SOL20 - Paralysis: Notes from the Pandemic

House by the Tracks (M.A. Reilly)

p. 1, DublinersI. 


Years ago I taught a study of literature course to graduate students at Teachers College/Columbia University. That summer we read James Joyce’s Dubliners, a collection of stories.  I asked the students to select one word from the opening page of the book that exemplified the whole work. Most selected, paralysis, which is a motif that runs through the text. In each story we meet a character who is  powerlessness to act. For example, in the opening story, "The Sisters," Father Flynn is dying. But rather than death, Father Flynn is paralyzed and as such, caught between life and death.

I haven't thought about that course or the text in nearly two decades. Tonight, I found myself remembering both and the defining term, paralysis.


My office colleagues are working from their respective homes in this time of Covid-19. We are separated out of necessity and meet most mornings through a Google hangout. Our conversations feel clunky, somewhat disingenuous as if we were newly meeting.

And perhaps in some ways we are.

One of my colleagues called me tonight to see if I was okay (yes, I have that kind of dynamite team).

Hey, are you ok?
Yes, I am. Did I not seem to be?
You seemed off this morning.

I am.

I’ve been having trouble focusing.

I’m making lists.

I’m creating forms and agendas and with each one I am bored and yet somewhat more settled. The banality soothes.

A professor I would like to hire for next school year reaches out to me via a series of emails and I have read each one, followed the links he included and watched two lectures, and somehow I cannot return an email. This is not like me and yet it is me.

I'm fearful of making commitments past a week. I want to say that I see the near future clearly, but that would not be true. Most mornings, I cannot see beyond the end of my hand.

Last night I dreamed of Maslow.  We sat a distance from one another in park grayed by winter. A loud humming chased away the ends of his words.  And I was content to sit and and not understand what he was saying.

Not understanding is a balm.


I don’t care for turn taking at meetings. I like a more spirited discussion. I work with a group of very independent thinkers who normally have few, if any, hesitations to say what they think.

Now we take turns.
Now most of us start talking with mikes muted.  Then we fumble when we unmute the mike and the pause makes me wonder if the person is still with us or has she abandoned the meeting for a cup of coffee? Some mornings I am rooting for the coffee.
It's so much stuttering. And I am an ineffective director, dutifully calling on one person after another.

It’s all so weighted down with a banality that accompanies overt politeness. It's like we have forgotten the skin we barely wear and have no time to mourn what we are losing and have lost in a world turning so damn fast that we can barely hear the ends of our words.

Hello. Are you still there?


The colleague who phones says something simple and direct.
"You need to learn new ways of working."
She mentions something about rewiring neurons, but I am stopped: I need to learn new ways of working, new ways of being in a world that makes less sense than it did a week ago.

Now I know more people will die.

And what about those rituals that accompany the dead? How will we soothe one another during loss if we cannot come together? There is solace in body near body. There is kindness in touch. Earlier, I read a tweet by a woman I do not know and likely will never meet. She wrote that today her sister died alone in quarantine.

How will we bury our dead?
How will we grieve?
Through what new language will solace be offered?


We are past denial.
We are past wishful thinking.
But we have little language to categorize where it is we now stand.

No wonder we are polite.
Inside we are breaking.


"Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis."


  1. Thank you for this.

    It is all the things your pieces tend to be--lovely, concise, well-written, and haunting, with incredible photographs.

    But this one is also vital to (and for) me.

  2. This is beautiful even as it is stark and terrifying.
    I'm struck by your perception of the awkwardness of nontalking communication. We are confronted by our inability to imagine the outcomes of what we are confronting. Paralysis seems pretty rational to me.


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