Our organization (Lit Cleveland) wrote a collaborative essay about living through the pandemic by soliciting writing from our members and collaging them together into a single work.
The result is a piece written in the collective voice showing how our city has reacted to the crisis. It is creative nonfiction, not reporting, but our hope is that it captures truths about our shared experiences. We hope you enjoy it.
Signs of Spring
We lived for centuries on this great lake.
We forged steel and bridged valleys, harbored ships and hopes. Over the course of generations, we came to know springs of stiff winds and snow, cold and coats and scarves. The only knowns were unknowns—sun and heat and sleet and snow the same afternoon. We came to expect the unexpected.
This spring, we stand by the window or the front door with an uncertainty of a different kind.
During the day, in the early stages, we checked things. We checked our phones for email alerts and Facebook posts, our flowerbeds for spring buds, our sleeping cats for signs of movement.
Then, we didn’t bother anymore because we knew that checking did not give us the power to speed up, slow down or change anything. The situation was the same as the last time we checked. Time has melded together into one fluid stream of uninterrupted thought and in this space we drift, untethered by the clock, the calendar, even geography, as the old rules are suspended for the expandable present.
These days we move to the rhythms of our dogs, mostly. We eat what we will, drink what we will, sleep when we will, do what we will. What we can. We wake up and start our day on a walk. We go on a long walk mid-day. At night we walk again. And again. We give each other wide berth on the sidewalks, except when we don’t. Sometimes, we forget or we stop caring enough to step aside. In those moments we make each other scared. Soon we are tired of walking.
The weeks are broken up by the grocery delivery or the grocery run. A systematic sanitizing of gallons of milk and packages of chicken. A soapy washing of apples and peppers.
We sit in our rooms, listening to birds begin to chirp again, watching daffodils sprout from the ground. We turn our cheeks up to the slivers of sunlight and it powers us so strongly we risk our safety venturing to our front porches.
We stare out at our empty street and the shut-up houses on the other side, watching the calendar, wondering about things unseen but menacing, listening to the far-off voices—some reassuring, some self-serving—waiting for the all-clear, ready to take off our masks and muster the courage to show our naked faces to family and friends and the world.
We look out the window and hope we will all survive intact.
We know some of us already have not.
We dream much harder, we mourn much deeper.
We light candles in the darkness on Sunday nights and post pictures of them online. We forget to light candles and we say self-deprecating things, as though the candles were required of us.
We find ourselves frightened too. Scared that the fleeting phone call—the call that we never received before—informing us of the finality of someone we know. Knew.
Sometimes, forgetting our masks, we smile as we pass a neighbor. For now, we only see each other's tears.
We cry in the car on the way to the grocery store. We cry in the car on the way home from the grocery store. We cry in front of our spouses. We cry in front of our kids. We cry in front of roommates. We cry alone. We cry in the shower so no one would hear us. We cry into t-shirts and towels because we were afraid of wasting tissues and toilet paper. We cry while our partners slept at night, hiding our faces in the sheets and trying not to wake the people next to us.
And when we can’t cry anymore, our faces dry and hollow, we cry inside, filling our lungs with a despair that pollutes our sealed homes with every exhale.
We want to be normal.
We have been blessed with the opportunity to question what normal even means.
We try to stay cheerful. We do what we can to help. We donate money and send cards. We drop off cookies at each other’s side doors and we pick up lost dogs from the kennel. We sew masks for each other and tape pictures in our windows for kids to find when out for walks. We take out our chalk and travel carefully, vigilantly, beautifully, down our driveways and around our blocks, pausing to leave words of hope for our neighbors should they also tumble onto the neighborhood sidewalks. In this way we become the ocean and the moon.
Once, we set our alarms to 4:00 AM and gather in the hazy light seeping out of the double glass doors to our local elementary school ready to help run an election, ready to risk contact with hundreds to protect the right to vote. And when the election is canceled, when no one shows up to unlock the doors, we elbow bump each other and return home.
And each day we make deliveries. We stock groceries. We work checkout counters and answer phones and run curbside pickup. We distribute food to families and provide care for those in need. We are caretakers and helpers, teachers and aides, doctors and nurses and first responders. We wear masks that leave bruises as we tend to the sick. We work ten, twelve, fourteen hour shifts through the day and overnight, fighting to save our lives.
But today, we stay home to hang rainbows in our windows.
We cut strips of construction paper and fold them and link them together to drape colorful chains across the front of our homes. We scribble crayons like SOS messages that hang in bedroom windows, paint rainbows on white paper and tape them to the glass, where the sunlight sets the colors on fire. We color our neighborhood in red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.
We walk the sidewalks with our children, who point with little fingers at each rainbow they spot. “There's one! Over there! That house!” They count the rainbows on their hands until they run out of fingers.
We used to walk these neighborhood streets and see nothing. Was that house even there before? We sheltered on our own, without orders, living colorless lives of isolation.
But today—on this spring day on this great lake where we have lived for centuries—we will walk our street and look for rainbows.
Contributors include Lori Ashyk, Theresa Göttl Brightman, John C. Bruening, Leanne Drain, David Hansen, Sujata Lakhe, Brandi Larsen, Maureen McGuirk, Steven Pryce, Aaron Schmidt, Sarah Stoner, Toni Thayer, and Jill Zimon. Edited by Matt Weinkam.