Drawing The Wisdom Out
September 17, 2020 § 3 Comments
By Cameron Steele
At first, I thought I might be able to get away with romanticizing all the not writing I was doing during covid. After all, I reasoned with myself, almost no one wrote about our last great pandemic, the influenza of 1918 and 1919 that killed more people across the world than did all four years of the first world war combined. Unlike the explosion of narratives that have explored illness, human suffering, and pain in the centuries since, scholars agree those early 20th century writers didn’t have either the model or the impulse to make sense of pain the way writers have in the decades since the emergence of HIV/AIDs in the United States. “How to bring the  pandemic and the narrative form together?” Ann Jurecic writes in the introduction to her book Illness As Narrative, “It is as if the project were unimaginable in the early twentieth century.” See? I thought to myself when I began Jurecic’s book in the late spring, it makes sense I can’t write right now. Those other writers couldn’t either. Ignoring the “flood of texts” since “those other writers” that have offered a path forward since then—offered ways to make meaning of, from, through, and against illness—I clung fast to the not writing. My body hurt, I did not sleep, my new baby was sick.
For a long time, my very small, very new baby was sick.
For a long time, I did not write.
Until I did, and here is how I started.
During the coronavirus pandemic, I, a woman living with mental illness, a mother with a new baby who appeared, by the accounts of his pediatrician and a battery of specialists, to be unfortunately, worryingly ill, have not been able to write.
Though I ostensibly have made my living from writing nonfiction about violence, illness, and pain, first as an investigative crime reporter in the deep south, and now as a graduate student teacher whose work examines those years against the backdrop of my own struggle fight diagnosis bulimia, (here the language always fails me, I don’t know what to call this thing I have been doing with food and puke and my body all these years or why the mind suggests it, even after all the books, all the rehab, all the medication, all the meditation, all the therapy, all the drugs), I haven’t managed to write a thing about covid since I locked down myself, my husband, and my new baby six months ago. The words fail me. The desire to read what other people are writing right now fails me.
What I read, I read out of obligation to my college best friend in Detroit.
She DMs me links to articles over Instagram and mails me essays clipped from her favorite magazines: Roxane Gay cooks through the pandemic, David Sedaris walks the footprint of New York daily, Toni Locy, our legal reporting professor from Washington and Lee University, rails against our alma mater’s mythologizing of Robert E. Lee in The Nation.
“I’m fascinated by how writers have been keeping themselves busy during this time,” she texts me. “And what they’ll have written at the end of it. I think it will be really important.”
“I totally agree,” I text back and feel anxiety and shame flame up against the mastitis in my left breast.
The baby shifts in his crib on the monitor. He’s finally started sleeping through the night, but his GI specialist in Omaha, during our last telehealth visit, was talking about feeding tubes, weighing the pros and cons of one down the nose (pro—it’s temporary, it doesn’t require surgery, con—it could actually make his reflux and feeding aversion issues worse) or one surgically inserted through the stomach (pro—less reflux and more sustained results, con—an invasive procedure requiring anesthesia and a hole in my baby’s stomach). I worry about karma, about his Virgo moon, about passing my own chronic mental health and digestive issues onto his new, perfect, tiny little body. I can’t write any more about this. It doesn’t feel good or enlightening or, to borrow a line from Maggie Nelson in The Argonauts when she refuses to discuss her baby’s early illness, “precious or rich to me.” But because my baby’s feeding struggle fight issue is truly the center of my life, the inflamed sun around which my days revolve, with no opportunity to meet up with friends, or escape to my office on campus, or even see my therapist face-to-face, this is all I can think about.
Also I think about a Twitter fight I observed with more than a little casual interest in my seventh month of pregnancy. Novelist Lucy Ellmann gave an interview in The Guardian where she laments the force of motherhood on new mothers, how the needs of the child winnow the mom’s attention down to only them, whittles away the capacity for focusing on much else. (“People don’t talk about how tiring, boring, enraging, time-consuming, expensive, and thankless parenthood is,” she said. And: “illness, worry, conflict, overcrowding, the relentless cooking, the driving, the loss of privacy, the repression of your own sexuality, the education dilemmas, the lack of employment prospects, and all the wretched insanity of adolescence – these are big deterrents”). So many women writers on my timeline were outraged—oh, the indignity of another woman saying that, what a retrograde opinion, I published three books while I raised my three kids under the age of five and got a divorce—that kind of stuff. I was frustrated then, reading the response to what seemed like an honest interview from a woman who’s done both her fair share of publishing and of having children. And now, during the pandemic, not writing anything, trying to raise a baby who’s been ill for the first four and half months of his life, trying to keep myself from relapsing into my own illness in isolation, I find myself living out Ellmann’s words, my attention narrowed down to a red breast, a baby scale, a hypoallergenic formula, a hospital bill, a tarot card and a few sentences scrawled out each morning to keep me sane, to keep me from feeling completely silent.
“Compassion can only flounder,” Susan Sontag wrote In Regarding The Pain of Others, when confronted with mass suffering like a pandemic, like a war, like state-sanctioned police violence. And yet, Jurecic argues (and models) in her book published six years after Sontag’s death, compassion can radically attend to the complexities and needs of intimate, everyday life. I want to say it was reading this, it was reading Jurecic that got me on the page again. But in truth, I had begun to write—more and more, every morning, for myself, in my journal—weeks before I encountered her book, and how it felt right and real to me. “Like any good book,” Lauren Slater writes when she encounters the work of philosopher Williams James in her own illness memoir Lying, “it did not teach me something new, but draw out the wisdom that was already there, inside me.”
The baby began to get better. The doctors disagreed over what went wrong. They still disagree about how to feed him, when to start solid food, what kind of weight he should gain to be healthy.
“I guess you can say this is where medical treatment is more of an art than a science,” our pediatrician told me. I guess so, I think I said, needing something more than that.
I hung up the phone. The baby cried, hungry and finally willing to eat, and I, finally willing to draw the wisdom out, rocked him, thinking : gotta start writing all this down later.
Cameron Steele is a writer and instructor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her essays and poems have appeared in SFWP Quarterly, Poets.org, Great Plains Ecotourism Coalition, Entropy, The Fix, Bluestem Magazine, Red Paint Hill Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. Her poems won first place in the Gaffney Award for the Academy of American Poets in 2019.
This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.