camus header
Photo by Terry Tempest Williams of Albert Camus's "The Plague"
dispatches from the desert
The Curative Power of Stories
Terry Tempest Williams is a Utah native, writer, naturalist, activist, educator—and patient. Here, Terry shares the many ways artists and authors are responding to the full range of emotions of life during COVID-19.

 

7 April 2020
Castle Valley, Utah

 

I

t’s easy to get lethargic staying at home and listening to the barrage of bad news. My husband tells me to ditch the headphones and not fill up my mind with the latest figures of coronavirus cases and deaths. But I want to be informed. I want to know the status of Utah in relationship to the country and the world. The patterns of surge and decline on the graphs interest me. Viruses have their own natural histories and that piques my curiosity. I show up and listen each day to the Coronavirus Task Force briefings, even if they make me angry, even if they make me doubt what is said, especially when the information we are getting from our government feels more like grandstanding than covering the ground of a pandemic.

Where we find our information is important. I trust the New York Times and The Washington Post. I read The New Yorker and The Atlantic. I am wary of what I see online and we haven’t owned a television since 1998 when the Utah Jazz lost the NBA championship to Michael Jordan’s game-winning jump shot of Game 6 of the NBA Finals played on June 14.

What I do trust are the personal stories of doctors and nurses. When they tell us they don’t have adequate supplies and protective clothing I believe them. When they tell us they are exhausted and scared, I am scared for them. I believe their first hand accounts and they move me. Dr. Mert Erogul, a physician at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York, shared this story:

"So today in the middle of all the madness there was a one hundred year old Hasidic lady with Covid pneumonia and I was desperate to send her home so she wouldn't die in the hospital, but she dropped her blood pressure and we had to keep her. And then for an hour her son kept calling me to find out how she was and I finally told him look, she's a hundred years old with pneumonia in both lungs. She's not good. She's not going to do well. And then he wanted to talk to her and I said you cant I'm too busy, and he called back ten minutes later and I said, listen sir, your mother is not conscious anymore. And he said that's okay, it's very important that I do a prayer for her, could you hold the speaker to her ear. I had ten other pressing things to do. But I stopped what I was doing out of respect for this 100 year old woman and put the cell on speakerphone and told him to talk. He started the prayer of the dead and he began to cry and could barely get the words out. And I saw she had numbers tattooed on her arm. He was crying for his mother and praying the shema, the verses of unity and it woke up some emotion in me that I had forgotten about. Time slowed down and I felt restored to myself. When he was done he thanked me and blessed me and I said thank you to him."

Here is another reflection shared by Dr. Priya Srivasta regarding the pressures she experiences building around her day by day as a fourth-year resident specializing in adult and pediatric endocrinology in San Francisco:

“…I’m not scared of dying. No of course not. Medicine has taught me that there are things far worse than death. What I am afraid of is waiting in a line of doctors to sign death certificates of patients I will grow to care about. I fear I may have to choose who lives and who dies and having to analyze the chance of survival instead of seeing the human in front of me. I am troubled by the moral dilemma and distress I may have to live with for the rest of my life when all of this is over. I am anxious I may spread the virus to others and be the underlying cause of their death. I am terrified that my family never having the closure of being able to hold me if I were to pass away, alone on a hospital bed. I am fearful that the sacrifices I made in my early life will have been in vain when I have martyred myself in this process.”

These are human responses by doctors on the front lines of life and death in the midst of a global health crisis. The personal becomes the universal. One doctor’s story speaks to the humanity in each of us. And we are the beneficiaries of their commitment and courage to carry on.

In times like these, each of us has a role to play and no role is too small or insignificant. The full range of emotion in action is available to us. There are those who say art, music, and literature belong to the realm of the elite and yet, where would we be right now without the insights of Albert Camus’s novel, “The Plague” or YoYo Ma “The Swan” by Saint-Saëns on his cello as part of #songsofcomfort or the provocative paintings of nurses by Richard Prince (brought to my attention by a friend who lives in Las Vegas) where two portraits of “Las Vegas Nurses” circa 2002 are now hanging in the Palms Casino. The film, “The Biggest Little Farm” reminds us renewal follows fire, rain follows drought. And the photographer Karen Halverson is taking pictures of her home in the Hudson Valley documenting what it means to stay at home, including a recent image of a large turquoise vessel that she puts outside in early spring on the bare soil after the last frost, before her perennial garden surrounds it. It is a portrait of beauty and momentary isolation. Meanwhile, poet Ariana Reines is conducting a collective online reading and discussion of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Duino Elegies” and celebrating the sensuality of figs on the page and in the world.

I am reading “The Plague” now. Camus’s words are strangely comforting. These lines stir me:

“I have no idea what's awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.” 

We may not have a cure yet for COVID-19, but there are many forms of healing available to us from the caring response of a doctor or nurse who takes the time to listen to those who are suffering, and dares to hear the trepidations of their own hearts; to the artists among us who are making offerings of solace and comfort; to a dear neighbor like ours, who dropped off a homemade shepherd’s pie with a dozen farm eggs and a single role of toilet paper. Her note read lovingly, “Dear Ones: You have now been egged and tp’d!”

Contributor

Terry Tempest Williams

Writer-in-Residence, Harvard Divinity School