On [trying to] write a memoir during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last week or maybe yesterday, my writing teacher, Anne, asked for a paragraph on what it is like to write personal essays while quarantined at home. Four pages and a glass of iced Effen blood orange vodka later, this is what I sent her. Noting after the fact the “a paragraph” stipulation. She graciously accepted my piece, which follows:

Found Object, 2020
d. jennifer dawson (b. 1963)
Vocabulary card, tea bag, graphite, gesso. 3 x 6 inches (approximate)

You have no events scheduled today.

You have no events scheduled today.

On March 12, 2020, late at night, I returned home from a week in Scotland.  One night later and The Officials would have kept me in Amsterdam due to the quick spread of COVID-19.  Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, the place I was changing planes toward Charlottesville. In the hope of staying away from home a bit longer, and hearing many passengers panicked about getting home at all, I’d offered my seat via a conversation with a lovely multi-lingual gate agent.  By the way, this gets you through security much faster than the other 300-plus guests waiting out into the concourse speaking languages I half-studied 40 years ago in high school. A little French, a little Spanish, a lot of German or whatever they speak in Amsterdam.  There was too much Texan and Floridian and some loud gum-snapping Jersey-ites, too much for my liking.  Taking a later flight would be better, nicer.

My offer went unused and I boarded the massive Boeing seated with a petite woman about my age. She appeared sniffy and erudite, annoyed.  Over the eight hour flight I learned she did not know English, preferred wine to liquor, and took no hot beverage with her meals.  She watched American children’s movies and slept quite a bit.  We never spoke.

The morning after coming home, Scotland announced their first COVID fatality and plans to secure and protect their citizens and any remaining visitors.  It has been two months and I still imagine staying there during this time.  I’d be fine, safe.  I would have made a new friend and, perhaps, a heavy flirtation or new lover.  That last part would not be shared with my current partner, were it to occur.  Or, maybe it would as I am always testing his loyalty and honesty, even after seven years.  We are not married but own a house together. We have a good thing, despite my abandonment quirks.

Two days later, the private school where I am employed decided to close both campuses and move to distance learning.  I still have a job, though 95% of my job description is tasks that are performed solely on campus.

You have no events scheduled today.

1130AM virtual meeting with Jif and Chase (my officemate and our shared boss, the head of the Upper School; he is more her boss than mine, right now. Not their real names, by the way.)  Sweet liquor in coffee with cream. The meeting is upbeat, efficient and we laugh. When we sign-off, I cry. Strange.

You have no events scheduled today.

0830 online faculty meeting.
Should last no longer than 25 – 40 minutes.  Bailey’s Pumpkin Spice liquer in strong black coffee.  Graduation is still taking place on 5 June, as a drive-through event.  Think of a drive-through safari park but the wildlife are destinations along the route:  Welcome, Goodie Bag, Diploma, Photo-Op with the head of School, and Exit.  Someone has scheduled me at Welcome paired with the Dean of the Upper School students.  We’ll be the first they see as they snake around the outer roadway of the Lower School campus in a slow, celebratory loop in their cars.  I am hoping they wear masks and respect the fact that us older-and-wiser’s know how disease and virus behave.  I am hoping their parents model smart public behavior when it comes to longevity and conscience.  We, the good and loyal staff, will be masked, gloved and wearing Sunday Best, if not Sunday Betters.

This Class of 2020 has experienced much this school year, starting with the gross and untinkable murder of a student who graduated only last May, just one year ago.  A very young woman, beaten and stabbed to death in an uptown Manhattan park by wild, feral gang children 13 years old.  Thirteen.  Maybe fifteen.  An unthinkable event for any parent.  And now, with their brethren classes around the world, have the invisible terror of a life-threatening virus to navigate from their households.  

You have no events scheduled today.

Even so, I zip off an email to the diploma printer in the far north and hope our order will arrive in a time frame greater than “no less than four days prior to your graduation date.” This morning, unsettle settling in, I request an actual order number, so with what little work I do have, I continue to appear efficient and accountable, worth keeping on the payroll.  Present.  An order number. It’s something.

You have no events scheduled today.

Monday through Friday, my partner goes to the vineyard to maintain wine-making processes and contribute almost 15 years of experience to his much-awarded and well-known employer. He, and the few cellar rats (a centuries-old name and oddly kept tradition in the industry) kept on the payroll full time, address a long list of jobs from tedious to paramount. Without them, the rats, there would be no saleable product.

Some mornings, after he leaves, while his teenage son sleeps until 10 AM or later, “brunching” on peanut butter and saltines by 2PM, I have that blood orange vodka over ice, or grapefruity white wine, in a ceramic coffee mug that says, I *heart* to Fart.  A gift from my daughter when she was about 14.

You have no events scheduled today.

The onions, sweet, white and yellow, share an old burnt orange Pyrex Cinderella bowl with shallots and a streaked papery bulb of garlic.  The butter, unsalted, sits next to the bowl in a clear glass butter dish.  The red French press is in the cabinet above the refrigerator [I’d like to replace but the space for that appliance is specific between a wall and the counter/cabinet edge so the choices for a new item are limited unless we wreck/remodel]. In Peebles, in Scotland, in castles and inns, we drank morning coffee from a metal and glass French press and ate croissants with room temperature country butter and local jam or pale, strong cheeses.  At home, that coffee vessel keeps me, somehow, for a moment, in Scotland.  So do croissants from Walmart, brown lump sugar cubes, and good Gruyere I buy three at a time.

You have no events scheduled today.

We – artists writers makers creative minds of whatever ability – “should” be using this great pause of regular routine to make art, to write novels and plays, to design and make clothing, and learn food to feed ourselves and our people with whom we’re home.  To make what we daydream about on a regular day at our desks or counters during working days we commute and join the workforce army and tell office jokes or lunch together, then wave a knowing goodbye late in the afternoon in the parking lot to return home for supper and hearing of the day from our partners and kinfolk.  We, The Creative Tribe, we “should” be LOVING this free time and sucking every bit of creative juice from the fruit of nothing to do.  It’s what I have longed for for years!  What an irony to feel guilty about enjoying something free.  Maybe free has a cost.  It feels like I’ll pay for this free time but how or with what, I do not know. I do not want to feel guilty for wanting to be creative, or for leaning into my natural tendencies to dabble and explore.

Conundrum white in a mason jar while cooking supper. No ice.

For some of us, for me, being isolated and away, being kept away, being separated and having the topic of my writing be about being kept away, being isolated, being separated – this feels heavier than heavy.  On a regular day, even on regular weekend day, I might write something on the fly, catch an inspiration of some wordy thing and throw it down.  Go right to the heavy stuff – go “there” – let it drag me where it wants to, have it’s way with me – then close the laptop or put down the pen and walk away.  Done, for the time being.  Temporarily emptied of whatever it was I needed to say or explore or grieve. I can go there and I can leave there.

But in this forced isolation and separateness, all I can think about is how most of my life has been isolated and separate and these realities suddenly make it difficult to know I can “go there” comfortably, safely, and leave “there” whenever I want.  I fear being stuck “there” in the truth of being not wanted, the truth of being abandoned – and what if I might not be able to leave?  

Bulleit whiskey and Canada Dry ginger ale in a curry yellow plastic stadium cup from the sandwich place.

The truth is that I was socially distanced by my bloodmother when she signed the papers that let her not be my mother three months after I was born.  She chose to put all years between us – as a young woman in crisis with little to no support, I imagine she hoped it would be for all eternity that I never show up or reappear down the line; that I would simply vanish and when the ink dried by the time she walked away, I would not exist any more.  But, I reappeared 40 odd years later in February 2009.  Surprise, I found you.  Sorry, and some days, not sorry.

I have been socially distancing my whole life.  Three months in hospital, then time at foster address number one, back to the hospital, on to foster home number two, and finally, 13 months old, adopted.  My adoptive mother continued the distancing by not being prepared for a baby at all and used the playpen as cuddling and childcare. It’s easier to enjoy your adult beverage, your marriage and your life when you’re not carrying around a toddler or having to nurture.  Such a bother.

You have no events scheduled today.

Maybe I should schedule some event.  Like writing my bloodmother all the questions I ever wanted to ask about why she felt she couldn’t or shouldn’t keep me, about my conception, about her feelings of my search and finding her, about the reactions of her kept children?  Maybe during this great pause from normal living I should jump off a virtual cliff and send her a list of what I would like to know.  She’s retired and it’s not like she’s out of the house much.  If she’s not minding the grandchildren who live upstairs or tending her gardens, she might sit down and give some attention and answer my questions. 


But I don’t want to to ask too much or seem rude or entitled. That boundary is unfamiliar and unspoken but I know it without being told it exists.  It’s there. I will probably never ask if her relatives on social media know who I am or if she told them we’ve met. I was taught never to go where not invited. Asking anything is barging in.

The worst she could do is not answer or partially answer or, as she has done in the past, blame me for us not having a better knowingship (versus relationship) because, as she once wrote, I “chose to stay away and focus” on raising my daughter. That, and being kept at arm’s length, odd child out. Maybe I blindside her while she’s sheltering in place in her Boston home. She can share her isolation with my top 20 questions.

That’s not nice.

If I had stayed in Amsterdam or made my way back to Scotland, to strangers and the mystic countryside, lost myself even more, distanced myself from this life at home, I might be so far from my Self I would be careless or care-free.  It’s hard to be careless when you’re so close to yourself, especially when you’re home.  They expect the real you to show up and play your part.

You have no events scheduled today.

But I might, tomorrow.
Tomorrow, I might be care-less and care-free and I might feel somewhere-else enough to go there, to the dark truths and to swim in discomfort for a while until the truth either drags me to drowning or sets me on fire.

D. J. Dawson – 17 May 2020, from home.

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