Thursday, September 24, 2020

Pandemic Meditations: Crucial Connections by Freesia McKee

This week's Pandemic Meditations continues with words from writer Freesia McKee. In today's post, McKee covers the pandemic, her life, and how those interact when place in two different parts of the United States. Learn more about McKee and her work at the end of the essay.

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~ E. P.


Crucial Connections

by Freesia McKee

In the first six months of the pandemic, I watched Miami become one of the COVID-19 epicenters of the world. My present to myself for my thirtieth birthday was a digital subscription to the Miami Herald. My morning ritual of checking the website for virus updates involved bracing myself for bad news. 

I could joke that as a third-year graduate student, I was already used to not having a life in South Florida. But seriously, I already spent a lot of time at home. You learn to make do when you don’t own a car in Miami. I used to take the bus and ride my bicycle to get around, but the idea of bussing during COVID terrifies me. And one bicycle ride through a nature preserve teeming with people experiencing cabin fever induced by the stay-at-home-order put a stop to most of my perambulation. Instead, I took masked runs and walked the dog near our apartment. That was about all I did.

When I turned thirty in April, I hosted a birthday party on Zoom. I graduated later that month without much fanfare and embarked upon the post-grad life I’d been looking forward to. 

Many of us tell our own particular versions of COVID fear stories. Mine involve the fact that I’m a lifelong asthmatic. The profound stress of grad school spurred severe eczema and other skin conditions that are autoimmune-related, and I’ve been struggling with these on a daily basis for a few years. COVID interacts with pre-existing conditions in all sorts of ways. I have no interest in seeing how it would interact with mine.

My neighbor Dmitri was workout buddies with the first person in Miami-Dade County to die of the virus, Israel Carrera. Israel also lived in North Miami and, like Dmitri, was gay, young, and very fit and muscular. Dmitri told me of his connection to this death when we crossed paths walking our dogs one early morning. Dmitri seemed distraught, in disbelief. According to the news, COVID was just reaching South Florida, and I’d read of Israel’s death in the newspaper. But a couple months later, Dmitri said that COVID wasn’t a big deal because his family kept “getting it over and over again” and they were all fine. I never saw Dmitri wear a mask. 

Besides the neighbors on our street, my partner Jade and I socialized with only one friend, Rebecca, kayaking together three times. Rebecca brought her own kayak. We chatted through our masks across the water. And I felt a high every time we did this socially distanced, in-person activity. Seeing Rebecca was the feeling of drinking ice water after being parched.

Because many of us were isolated, Jade and I became extremely close with the neighbors on our street. We all helped each other, a true demonstration of mutual aid. Jade assisted a neighbor who didn’t have internet with all sorts of online tasks, including applying for unemployment through Florida’s famously defective system. Others helped this neighbor move from one building on our block to another after the first landlord kept pressuring her to let him enter for non-essential tasks like painting a wall. 

Neighbors shared food, money, moral support, and flowers. Meanwhile, the South Florida Mutual Aid Network of which I was briefly a part got inundated with requests before they were even off the ground. This has been one of my biggest lessons of the pandemic: that there are always ways to help. It’s up to us to build crucial connections our government has decided to ignore.

The first six months of the pandemic held their share of loss for Jade and me. The death of my aunt and uncle, the loss of our beloved cat, job loss, and the persistent feeling that something in our immediate sphere was about to go terribly wrong. I am still brought to tears thinking about what my students faced during the spring semester. Society still tends to think of college students as young people supported by financially stable parents, but this generalization leaves many of our students dangerously behind. 

All along, there were horrific daily headlines in the Herald, refrigerator trucks full of bodies, elected officials concocting bold-faced lies, worried phone calls from my mom, and not-worried-enough phone calls from my dad.

And then there is the other hand. At moments, the first six months of my pandemic felt like a retreat. I suppose I should be ashamed to admit this. Part of it was that after the finale of my graduate program, a huge source of stress evaporated from my life. I felt my trajectory could return to a manageable pace with a new, useful credential, better critical thinking skills, and a more informed perspective. And I gained a profound vocational clarity that writing and teaching is what I was put here to do. Another positive effect of hardly leaving my apartment was that I no longer worried whether an early bedtime was uncool. I didn’t care about missing out. I got a lot of writing done through assigning myself daily prompts and tricking myself to do creative work through journaling. 

For a few months, I cooked elaborate meals every day. Vegan paella on a Wednesday, that kind of thing. I’ve loved cooking since I was a teenager, not just the food, but the act of cooking itself. In 2020, I comfort-cooked until I burnt out and it felt like a chore to clean up after baking a frozen pizza. It’s hard to describe, but I feel I have now ventured to the farthest islands of my culinary abilities and interests. I have felt out the entire coast of what I am capable of in the kitchen. I know my edge.

Part of burning out was the realization that I could have spent all that time writing. A worse realization was that I didn’t know how long it would be until I could cook for my friends and my family. Jade is vocally appreciative of my food, but as any happy home cook knows, it’s satisfying to feed a crowd. During grad school, I’d cook when we’d occasionally have friends over and sometimes, I’d get comments about how long it had been since someone had eaten anything homemade. Cooking for friends is another act of building community and mutual aid. 

Sometime after I stopped cooking and moved to the boxed pasta version of dinner, Jade got a job in the library at Purdue-Fort Wayne in Indiana. The leaving-Florida part of the pandemic is blurry in my mind, and because I didn’t journal during that time, perhaps it will always be. I wonder in general about delayed grief. Maybe I am not done mourning my aunt and uncle even though I have stopped crying. I wonder if the death of our dear cat will hit me once all of this is over. Leaving Florida was both a sadness and a relief, something I still need to unpack. As fascinating and beautiful as I found Miami, I never thought it was an easy place to live. 

The day we left, our friend Rebecca and another friend, Rachel, came to our place to pick up some odds and ends to take to Goodwill in Rebecca’s pickup truck (such good friends!). Roller derby person they are, Rachel arrived on roller skates. I’m not quite sure what the symbolism of the skates is in my telling of this story, but I love this detail. Before we pulled away, the neighbor without internet gave Jade six pairs of synthetic, decorative socks because, she said, they were too small. This neighbor is barely higher than five feet and Jade and I are both tall, but somehow, this act of sharing seemed like the perfect sendoff. 

Before our drive across the country, I’d gone weeks at a time without riding in the car. We hadn’t driven far from Miami in over six months, so it was nourishing to move through various landscapes. I was disturbed by the things I always notice travelling cross-country: anti-choice propaganda, deeply troubling bumper stickers, and a South Georgia plantation site billing itself as a wedding venue with the tagline, “Where dreams come true!” 

Photo by Filipe Fortes
, used under CC license

It took us a few days to get to Indiana. I suppose because we’re sheltering in place here, we’re also sheltered from a lot of Indiana’s pro-Trump vitriol because we barely interact with anyone. The move has been good for both of us. Instead of a tiny one-bedroom apartment so full of stuff that we could barely unfurl a yoga mat, the rent prices here allow for a spacious-to-us rented house.

Though we’d love to make new friends, we can’t go to poetry readings, music shows, bars, or other gathering places. But we’ve tried to be optimistic and look at this limitation as an opportunity. I take long walks through the neighborhood every morning, memorizing tree species and watching birds. We have a backyard and spend hours out there each day with the dog. I’m reading books I’ve owned for years but never looked at. I took social media off of my phone.

There is, admittedly, also a bit of culture shock.

As I walked the dog our first week here, a woman screamed at me out of a car window for wearing a mask.

On a drive to buy something off of Craigslist, we saw a group of twenty or so adults, many of them senior citizens, standing in a church parking lot preparing for some kind of demonstration. From the car, I could see that the theme of the protest was “Pray for America!” I don’t know what crisis in particular they were praying for, though I have some suspicions. 

Many, many homes in this city sport American flags. Stars and stripes seem to be our new neighborhood’s most popular decorating motif, and I wonder in how many cases this is a coded symbol for racism and anti-BLM sentiment. 

As in South Florida, the restaurants are now full of people, though we know this only from driving by the full patios and parking lots.

We continue to witness so many outdoor youth football practices hosting hundreds of kids and dozens of adults, none of them taking COVID safety precautions. 

One of the few indoor places we’ve gone in our new neighborhood is the coffee shop, but only before we were fully moved in and had the ability to make coffee in our own kitchen. After a few visits, part of me still wanted to sneak in every day because I’d been chatty with the barista (he’s friendly, I know, because he accepts tips). It still feels like he is my only new “friend” here. But after we unpacked our boxes, we never visited the coffee shop again. Why take an unnecessary risk?

The most worthwhile activity Jade and I have taken on during COVID was a joint meditation regime we dutifully practiced every day for a few months. The recorded meditations were verbally facilitated against soundtracks of croaking frogs and crickets or rushing water. Eventually, I did feel different, calmer, a noticeable shift somewhere in my body that provided relief to the other anxious parts of me. When my subscription to the meditation app expired this summer, we moved onto other things. Here in Indiana, the sounds of crickets and tree frogs are tremendous. We fall asleep to them each night. I used to turn to my phone for this bedtime soundtrack, but now, it’s part of our natural environment. 

On Zoom, our new yoga teacher said that he’s started to host in-person classes again. I tried to maintain a neutral expression, though I guess I should have asked him why he’s doing such a thing since the COVID numbers in the state are going up every day. Later, I researched community acupuncture as an affordable treatment for my skin conditions but ditched the idea when I read on the website that masks are optional, even though many patients are being treated in the same room! Jade and I have visited the ReStore several times for second-hand furniture. There are always people, usually white men, who walk around bald-faced, and I fantasize about saying something about masks, but I also don’t want to get shot. 

I don’t want to get shot. I take part in a poetry reading online. Afterwards, I realize that I no longer have the fear I had every day in the classroom and at crowded literary readings that someone with a vendetta would march in and pull out a gun. Here, I start to write that staying at home, we are safe from that danger, but I realize it’s just my white privilege speaking when I remember Breonna Taylor. 

When we venture out—and oh, I want so badly to venture out and build community face-to-face in this new home—I most often think about two risks: the virus and its strongest engine, those who deny its reality. Plenty of virus-deniers say, “I don’t want to live in fear,” even though fear is a perfectly appropriate emotion. Fear is a companion, a roommate, a neighbor, an item on the menu everyone receives. I’ve accepted that my charge during COVID is to learn to live with a new-to-me fear. Each day, I try to thrive as much as I can and support the people I love.


Freesia McKee
Freesia McKee is a poet and essayist who writes about apathy, empathy, and power. Headmistress Press published Freesia’s first chapbook How Distant the City in 2017. Her series of post-election poems is called For the Immediate Aftermath.

Freesia’s words have appeared in So to Speak, Bone Bouquet, CALYX, cream city review, and more. She won the 2018 Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry.

Freesia lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She serves as an adjunct professor, a book reviewer for South Florida Poetry Journal, a writing coach, and a freelancer. She is working on a collection of poems about Florida and a series of essays about walls. Freesia has an MFA in poetry from Florida International University and a BA in Gender & Women’s Studies from Warren Wilson College.

Learn more about her and her work at