Art In The Time Of A Global Pandemic

Reflections on creativity in the midst of fear

March 31, 2020

Daniel Lyons
No Fear
photo by Danny Kantrowitz

ear World,

I’m not freaking out right now, but I’ve got a question: Am I allowed to be this way? Do I have permission to remain calm and not join the hysteria?

I’m not terrified; I am on quarantine. I’m concerned less about your germs and more about catching your hysteria.

I’ve done a lot of work to not live my life in fear — especially in regards to my health.

I live with Lyme Disease and I am Queer. Lyme Disease threatened my life on a number of occasions, as did the closet(s) I was living in.

Could my steadfast resolve to live and stay calm — from the middle of this crisis — lead me on the path to death? Because that, at the end of the day, is what we’re all scared of, isn’t it? Dying.

I get it; I’ve been scared of dying before, too. Yet, Googling “How many people die of Lyme?” “How many people die of homophobic related violence?” late into the night never assured my safety. On my quarantine — which lasted on and off for a year, I had to learn a different way to walk through the fear then panic and hysteria.

My solace? A creative awakening. So profound it was, my quarantine with Lyme Disease led me to come out of every closet I was living in. Fighting for my life — thinking I might die — I suddenly became willing to walk out of every closet I was in — I came out as gay, transgender, and non-binary in one year’s time, as a result of my self-quarantine.

While you were off living your lives, working your jobs, and I was holed up on my couch the better part of a year chronically exhausted, what did I do instead?

My creativity saved me. I couldn’t stop typing. I couldn’t stop writing. I couldn’t stop rhyming. I learned to play the guitar again. I sang — sometimes with my chihuahua. (The right classical piano song is known to start him howling.)

And here we are now, socially, on quarantine — lock-down. Me, Myself, and I (and my confidant, my beloved chihuahua Wally, once more). Back on house arrest that is all too familiar, while my creativity is blossoming.

The world offline is quiet. I can think.

My pen, my friend; my keys, my solace; my fingers, an instrument.

Am I an asshole — if I choose to flourish, in the midst of a global pandemic? If I finish my chapbook of poetry? If I finish my memoir? If I move back to the Bay and found my start-up when things calm down? Am I allowed to be at peace with this all; while taking sane and reasonable precautions?

Because if I’ve learned anything from having my life — and my health — threatened before, it’s that freaking the fuck out doesn’t serve anyone and it’s bad for the immune system.

I’ve stopped checking the news. I’m writing my own stories. I’m making art.

I even bought my first typewriter; I’m learning how to load new ink. In the midst of COVID-19, I published my first poem in the Los Angeles Press, which goes live for National Poetry Month this week.

Before I stocked up on groceries, I went to Staples to buy five reams of paper and three moleskin journals. Because my worst nightmare as a writer is running out of space for my words, my solace.

My solace, my escape from the world, the place where I make sense of the illogical. The senseless.

I’m preparing for National Poetry Month, not for death.

A part of me, angry at the world: that y’all are just catching on to the terror of having an illness that threatens your life. When my neurological system was hijacked by Babesia, a neurologically based tick-borne illness that impacted by brain, my speech, my cognition — and my life — it was then that I was scared of all of you, your germs, your coughs, and your unwashed hands. It was then that I really didn’t want y’all to touch me.

So I hid and I wrote and I wrote and hid some more. You invited me on hikes when I could barely walk to the end of my driveway and I bit my tongue as I turned down your well-meaning invitations. You tried to hold my hand while snot ran down your faces and I squeamishly declined.

When I couldn’t walk, I wrote. And so write, I did — like many poets gone before me.

And here I am, armed with an old yellow Olivetti typewriter, a stack of Moleskin journals, a cup of coffee, my reading glasses, my Wally, and my gluten-free brownies I spiked with day-old French Press coffee.

My last day of normalcy before the world halted was a date at the Pacific Ocean with a fellow butch. We sat at the water’s edge and didn’t talk about COVID-19; we talked about internalized homophobia and discrimination on the basis of gender — the other pandemic that threatens my people’s livelihood.

I’ll call her J. We took a walk at the edge of the Pacific Ocean just before the world shut down. It’s my last memory of normalcy — I’ve been locked down since that day and I don’t know when or if I will see her again.

In quiet moments of meditation, I find myself drawing upon the memory of that day. The fresh sea breeze. The flurry of people — before our mayor scolded us (understandably so) and told us to stay home and shut the Pacific’s parking lots.

Homophobia and transphobia scare me more most days than global pandemics. Can we talk about that pandemic? It’ll get you killed in a lot of the parts of the world. Don’t believe me just, Google it. I Googled “Can you die from transgender violence?” just now and it has over 60 million hits. I wonder if a young Queer teen is more likely to die from coronavirus or from a losing battle with their own mental health. The numbers suggest the latter; perspective is an interesting thing.

Fear for our lives — fear of viruses — is not new to us queer folks.

Just ask my gay elders that were around when the AIDS crisis broke loose in the 80s and they weren’t sure what was happening. They just saw their loved ones dying — quickly. We have a lot to learn from gay folks right now; for some I’ve talked to, COVID-19 has triggered a sort of cultural, queer PTSD.

To those that have been there before, too. Welcome back. I know it’s scary. If you’re new around here, well welcome to the fragility of life.

It’s not unfamiliar. And yet, here we are. I feel stuck in a constant state of deja vu. I’ve been here. We’ve been here before.

I was living in the heart of Mexico City at the time that H1N1 broke out. It was 2009. I was just 22-years-old, a college student on a six-month internship program working at an educational non-profit housed within the U.S. Embassy.

H1N1 broke out right where I was living — my university urged me to come home. My counterpart bailed on the internship and flew back to New York City, immediately. I chose to stay, despite my fear. It was my first lesson in faith over fear.

And had I not stayed in D.F., well guess what? My friend Rachel may not have met her husband. Because once things calmed and it was safe to go outside again, I threw a birthday party at a bar in the Condesa where I lived. Rachel hit it off with a local, a man who is now her husband — and the father to her child, eleven years later.

What if I had panicked and jumped on the first plane home? Things would be different, for sure. I chose faith in the midst of chaos. I’m so glad I stayed — and Rachel’s Facebook comment this week, suggested she’s glad I stayed, too.

Ironically, months later when I was home to the states, I contracted H1N1. At my university. The doctors didn’t believe me and accused me of exaggerating symptoms.

But six weeks later, after I’d recovered on my couch, I got a letter in the mail. “You have tested positive for H1N1.” How ironic I thought, getting the dreaded virus in the very place I was told was “safe.”

I’m not dismissing science and the very real threat that exists; I am asking us to look right now at our collective relationship to fear.

I don’t plan on giving birth to any babies this round of health crisis (for one, I’m gay and it’s biologically unlikely I’ll procreate in the midst of this whole crisis unless I’m the next vessel to the Messiah that comes to save us from this whole wreck). But, I am giving birth to my entrepreneurial dream — founding a company — and am working on finishing my first poetry chapbook on sexuality and gender.

Birth, a theme that is constant in my life — Lyme disease meant leaving a job as the public face of a baby brand. My coming out, a powerful rebirth of sorts.

And once more, faced with health uncertainty at a global level, I’m choosing to make limeade out of limes. I’m birthing new things and new ideas. Speaking from experience of a lifetime of survival, it’s how I know to cope. We all have our ways.

Its how I learned as a little kid in a chaotic household to survive — I took my angst out on the piano keys with a funeral death march I loved by Brahms (ah, to be an artist, fortunately my tastes have lightened).

Creativity is what got me out of Lyme Disease. It’s what got me out of the closet. Creating. Dreaming. I imagined my way out of the mess. It helped.

And this is not something to me alone — there’s no shortage of writing, art, and expression that Queer folks that have gone before me have made in response to HIV and AIDS.

At the very least, I have a rickety old typewriter to show for all of this. My date may not have been explosive and the romance story I was hoping for, but I’m glad that I showed up that day. It was a lovely ending to the chapter of ‘life as I knew it.’

I could be wrong, but I don’t think my number is being called. No, not yet. That would be so very anticlimactic: That I survive everything and die from COVID-19. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong, but if I do go early, I won’t have any regrets. (I hope someone will scour my Google Drive and publish my memoir, my chapbook, a series of short stories about mortality, and a screenshot of me singing on Zoom in a gospel choir as the cover.)

No, my story is just getting started. And I have five reams worth of paper left, waiting for me to fill and two rolls of — what do you call typewriter ink? — (serious question).

I’ll leave you with this: If we’re really all going to die as society would suggest then, what do you wish you were doing more of, but aren’t? Get your mind off death — the fear beneath the surface — and Go do that thing. Now. We need you to. It’s a part of our collective healing process.

To quote Arlan Hamilton, a badass Queer Woman of Color and venture capitalist I am certain knows something about facing fear: “the next time you feel as though everything is broken, as thought you have nothing to give, get creative.”

Be safe and be well, my friends.

Please note, the author acknowledges COVID-19 to be a very real and serious public health concern. They, too, have fear. But Whit hopes by the end of this you may find a glimmer of faith in the bleakness that surrounds us.

If you’d like to learn more about Whit’s startup endeavors with QueerWell, a wellness platform designed for the health and happiness of the LGBTQIA+ community, you can learn more about it here.

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