Scenes From a Pandemic: 61

21 07 2021

This is the final installment of what, since April of 2020, has been our continuing series with The Nation on life as experienced and observed in pandemic times. We are so proud of and grateful to everyone who has contributed, and our thanks go also to everyone at the magazine who every week helped make the series happen, especially Ricky D’Ambrose, Robert Best, Sandy McCroskey, Anna Hiatt; and to Don Guttenplan and Katrina vanden Heuvel, who gave this collaboration a go. We hope you have enjoyed these weekly installments and our Bonuses. If you can, please support us by pressing the Donate button (above) on this site. The pandemic is not finished, but neither are we. (See Bonus.) Thank you all!

by Patricia J. Williams

(photo: Brianna Santellan on Unsplash)

Untethered, or The Year of Living Virtually

New York City

When baseball legend Ted Williams died in 2002, it came to light that he had directed that his body be cryogenically frozen so he and his children would “be able to be together in the future, even if it is only a chance.” At the time, it seemed strange to me, a desire for immortality so intense that one would slow the body’s decomposition to molecular silence, the breath held in wait for the perfect cure.

Global pandemic has helped me better understand that determined longing for biostasis. In mid-March of 2020, friends began to die, and I began to lose my mind. Today, post-vaccination, and nearly 4 million global deaths later, I am slowly waking up, like Rip van Winkle, much more than merely a year older, and not at all the same. I feel as though I have been preserved by a shock of flash-freezing, and I am thawing now—slushy and watery and uncertain in my body.

It was the sensory deprivation I found hardest to bear. Early on in this plague, as my contacts with the outside world had retreated into the numbed realm of the “remote,” I vowed to try to find grace in isolation. I would meditate and listen to what I imagined might be some lost store of poetic inner quiet. Like so many, I was determined to “make the best of it”; I would gussy it up as a writing retreat, a prolonged snow day, a space to hibernate for a bit.

But the sequence of death derailed the project. More people sickened, more friends passed, more relatives of friends, more acquaintances I no longer thought of as “casual” but essential. How are you? became an existential question. I Zoomed, I Skyped, I learned to use Teams. Images of other human beings were delivered in digitized boxes, algorithmic animations with sharp rectangular edges recalling The Hollywood Squares, the flesh tones odd, and no smells of the living. I watched the incense at a Zoomed funeral; I watched the bitter herbs at a Zoomed seder; I watched a bouquet of white roses tossed at the livestream of a Zoomed wedding.

I experienced all of this as fictional, surreal, perhaps because my sense of reality depends on the echo of how a real voice in a real room hits the ear. Or how a happy person smells. Or how a handshake or a hug stimulates the nervous system. Or how looking directly into someone’s eyes reveals small inflections that enhance the meaning of words as they are spoken.

The architecture of Zoom requires that in every encounter I had to watch my own face. It was the material enactment of double consciousness: watching myself as I watched others watching me.

I make my living as a teacher. In a bricks-and-mortar classroom, I rely on the presence of students to read the room, on subtle expressions—a head tilted in questioning, a slouch of boredom, an excited buzzing among ones who’ve made an important connection… On Zoom, their tiny heads were lined up like figures on an Advent calendar. When they wished to speak, their little yellow hands, like cartoon Mickey Mouse mittens, went up and down. Their voices were muted and unmuted, on and off, like a sound faucet. When I divided students into problem-solving subgroups, there was no collegial hum. Using the chat feature, everyone just dropped out of sight, out of sound and existence, a timer at the bottom of the screen blipping down the seconds till they would reappear, bursting to the surface like divers from the deep. (I have a friend who, while his students disappeared into their 15-minute chat-worlds, would hop on his treadmill for a refreshing workout.)

I felt diminished by the disconnection. In order to perform myself, I had to stand within an exoskeleton of myself, a prosthetic, a platform, to translate myself, to project the three-dimensionality one takes for granted intra personas. I felt as though I were manipulating a marionette of myself, trying to get my limbs to work just right, to avoid getting tangled or lost in the strings and buttons, the lighting, the filters. Worst of all, the architecture of Zoom requires that in every encounter I had to watch my own face, sallow and flattened, in a constancy of self-regard. It was the material enactment of double consciousness: watching myself as I watched others watching me.

Yes, it was better than nothing, and we all made do. But a year of such mediation was disembodying in all those literal ways.

The word “parasocial” occurs to me as I survey this year of lost-minded time. Parasociality is a one-sided relationship with another who exists at a distance—most often a celebrity. The relation is not only one-sided but illusory, an attributed sense of intimacy or proximity, such as a crush on a pop star, or the daydream of an imaginary friend. Parasociality is the projection one places on someone who does not reciprocate, or who may not even know you exist. I am co-opting the word, I suppose—it’s a technical term in media studies—but there is something powerful about the idea of life imagined as living among others, while without them in reality. In that way, a year on Zoom was sometimes like talking to the dead. Some days navigating the geography of our miniature screen-world was like floating through gardens of computer-generated ghosts. Sealed in my home office, I would toss a bottle of my ideas into that imaginary sea, trusting that it would find shore, and be released like a religious revelation upon the screens of extant others. A clutching neediness sustained my reaching out to partial people through this ritual Zoom communion. I call them “partial people”; I mean people who exist somewhere in the present tense but whom I could apprehend only as bumblebees captured in a jar; wings beating against the glass, they buzzed with the threat and the promise to break through as real.

As the days grew darker, as the economy spiraled downward, as the political scene grew more disordered, I too grew scattered, anxious, sad. I bought a stationary bike. I wore masks and plastic gloves to collect the mail. I studied the instructive dictates of astronauts, and hermits, and Oprah Winfrey. I forced myself out of bed in the morning, I updated my will, made wish lists and to-do lists—things that are supposed to inspire a sense of purpose. I counted my many blessings. I wrote down what I had eaten, and what I should be eating. Too much Twitter was in my head to think, to feel, so I switched off all electronics for five hours a day.

Of course, it’s impossible to turn off the world entirely; the sounds of catastrophe leaked through the walls. Ambulances streaked through the streets; I wore earplugs to dull the overhead thwumping of medical helicopters. As the months rolled by, medical helicopters were joined by police helicopters, and chanting filled the streets. The National Guard materialized, and personnel carriers mustered round the city.

To the extent that there is the promise of vaccination, at least for now, I am aware of how much my watery, pulsing interior rejoices at having survived to see this moment.

Last June, I hung a picture of Nelson Mandela’s stone room of a prison, where he passed some 25 years in solitary confinement. If he could do it, maybe I would make it to whatever future lay beyond. In September, I added a portrait of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And after January 6, I completed the gallery with a drawing I made of a bright happy balloon that was well-tethered to a stake in the ground. This was in response to a dream that I was a balloon that had lost its mooring. A child had let go of my string, and I was being carried away by a strong, angry wind—blowing away from everything I knew, disappearing higher and higher into a dense fog, the sky around me a grey and endless opacity. I woke up with the need to draw myself down to solid ground.

The whole world will need a lot of mooring post-pandemic. I fear that one of the costs of sustained parasociality is inability to come back down to earth, to stop and listen to what real others are really saying. Perhaps the perpetual state of emergency has unhinged us all. Awakening into a changed world, I am wobbly and in need of repair. I fear the wobbliness of others—particularly the great and growing numbers of lives given over to slushy accumulated moral panic. The pandemic has been a horrendous rupture of time, a trauma requiring reinvention of purpose. We will need some link between the fear-pod of deadliness and the redemptive reassurance of regeneration.

The threat of contagion is far from over; the virus mutates and disperses itself inequitably through the lacunae of bad public policies and cultivated fears. But to the extent that there is the promise of vaccination, at least for now, I am aware of how much my watery, pulsing interior rejoices at having survived to see this moment. I open my door early each morning. I look up at the dawn sky and remember how big and how beautiful and how unimaginable the world truly is. I taste the air. I set the table and reheat the uneaten dinner that has been waiting for you, my friends; I have missed you all. I settle anew into an embodiment of vulnerable exposures, pain points, and joy, a body absolutely certain that she, this lover of life, this I, this infinite ontography, will carry on and on and on without end.

Patricia J. Williams, a regular contributor to The Nation, is University Distinguished Professor of Law and Humanities, and director of Law, Technology and Ethics Initiatives at Northeastern University. She was a guest speaker at Kopkind in 2000 and 2009. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on July 14, 2021.

Bonus: We’re Having a Party…

Save the Dates: August 27-29.

Kopkind has not been like the parrot tulip above, wide open with our usual activities, but at summer’s end (a few days after Andy’s birthday, traditionally a high time at Tree Frog Farm) we’re having a festival of free outdoor events in celebration of life, wonder, meaningful work, social solidarity and carrying on. Here’s what’s planned:

  • What We Don’t Talk About: Sex and the Mess of Life, a talk by JoAnn Wypijewski, in coordination with Everyone’s Books, on her “daring essay collection…thrilling and cathartic” (TLS), just out in paperback.
  • Potluck barbecue at Tree Frog Farm!
  • Film screening of The Faithful: The King, the Pope and the Princess, a fantastic new documentary on pop icons, fandom and memory“ruminative, haunting, and strange” (Boston Globe) — with filmmaker and Kopkind/CID Film Camp alum Annie Berman.

More information, precise details, coming soon!





Scenes From a Pandemic: 60

12 07 2021

by Mary Lewis

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

The author’s honey-roasted salmon (photo: Becky Rinehart)

The Art of the Meal

Martinsburg, West Virginia

Laughter, good conversation and by all means good food nourish the soul. I learned everything about that, along with setting a lovely table and entertaining, from my mother and paternal grandmother. In adult life, I maintain this passion for effervescence at the dinner table whether in an intimate setting or among large groups of 100-plus.

Of course, not everyone loves to cook, and pandemic times have raised a series of questions and contrasts. Are people grabbing anything simply to eat, or have they embraced culinary invention? Do families take their plates and dine at separate workspaces? No talking, only texting? The eternal optimist, I want to believe many folks took advantage of these times to try something, anything, creative and soulful.

I realize it’s not so easy. My friend Satish recently texted me a picture of boiled confetti new potatoes in a bowl, asking, “Do these look done?” They looked beautiful (though slightly overcooked). “How long will they last?” he queried quite seriously.

Satish is a doctor. He, his wife, Sujaya, and I have become quite close over our shared love for our hometown Buffalo Bills, food, flowers, flowing conversation and politics. When he fretted about the potatoes, Sujaya was stuck in India; she’d gone to be with her ailing mother but then, though vaccinated, she tested positive for Covid and was, with the rest of the country, on lockdown. Satish was stuck for a very different reason, namely, what to prepare for dinner as Sujaya’s one-month absence stretched to two.  

The whole dining experience had become a distant snapshot in time—the social aspect of exchanging ideas or simply enjoying food dissolving with his darling far away. His attempts to line up weekly meals from his freezer and refrigerator, good in theory, became difficult to coordinate with his fluctuating hospital schedule. Food frustration was building for my friend. 

The potato quandary spurred regular phone conversations between us about what to cook—usually while I was concocting dinner myself, oftentimes toasting fennel seed, coriander, cumin, turmeric; or a Mediterranean blend of basil, oregano, rosemary, sage; whatever struck my mood and would coordinate with what my pantry or refrigerator held. Legumes figured prominently; garlic, onion, shallots, scallions, played supporting roles. To me this is just habit: the aromas alone are fantastic, and welcoming. “What’s cooking?” I’m often asked by neighbors out on their exercise walks. Toasting spices, roasting nuts, were not Satish’s strong suit, though he liked and missed them terribly. Ham, sauerkraut and potatoes were more like it. My suggestion once of a quick sauté of kale from his garden met with laughter, as Satish could only imagine yet another pan to clean. Plus, he’d be reminded of how Sujaya prepared kale using spices and nuts. One night as we chatted, I was making a marinade for salmon. Satish perked up; he wanted the recipe.

Voila! This one is also good for chicken, tempeh or pork tenderloin. The marinade keeps in the refrigerator. Quantities can be multiplied as needed.

Honey-Roasted Salmon

• 2-4 salmon fillets or 1 piece (I prefer skin-on unless serving a large group)

• 6 Tbsp. low-sodium soy sauce

• 4 Tbsp. rice vinegar (seasoned or plain)

• 3 squeezes honey (adjust according to taste)

• 2 cloves garlic, minced

• 2-4 scallions, chopped, white & green parts

• 1-2 Tbsp. fresh ginger, minced (or 1/4 – 1/2 tsp. powdered ginger)

• 2 additional scallions, sliced, for garnish 

• 1-2 lemons, cut in wedges, for garnish 

Combine soy, vinegar, honey, garlic, ginger and scallions in a glass jar and shake. Place salmon in glass or ceramic dish. Pierce with fork. Spoon marinade to cover salmon, reserving remainder in the jar for later. Marinate 30 minutes. 

• Preheat oven to 450-500, moving rack to upper position.

• Prepare baking sheet with foil (easy cleanup) and spray with grill spray.

• Place salmon, skin side down, on baking sheet.

• Roast 10 minutes (for moist, luscious texture).

• Remove from oven and cool 5 minutes; remove skin.

Toss some peppery lettuce like arugula (or baby kale, an assortment of spring greens) with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. Plate that, and top with fish. Using a clean spoon, sprinkle the reserved marinade from jar over the salmon and greens. Garnish with lemon wedges and scallions.

Accompany with Satish’s boiled potatoes, or with black japonica rice with mango, diced red onion, EVO, the zest and juice of fresh lime and orange, salt and pepper and chopped cilantro. Experiment!

This recipe has been a favorite among Kopkind “campers” in Vermont, where, until the pandemic, I had lovingly prepared summer meals since 2011. I think of myself as Kopkind’s culinary artist, but the art of the meal involves more than the balance of flavors, nutrients and visual pleasures. It has to do with the truest meaning of sustenance, a holding up of what’s needed to be fully alive. Andy Kopkind, The Nation’s brilliant political writer from the 1980s and early ’90s for whom Kopkind is a living memorial, could whip up a fragrant pesto as deftly as he delivered a canny pun in print. His kitchen table swirled with lively conversation, amusing banter; ideas were born there, for stories and projects.

Deep in the pandemic, when friends or family texted me photos of a dish they’d just made, I recalled the pictures and menus pasted in scrapbooks Andy and his partner, John Scagliotti, had made; the handwritten recipes left by their friends, some, like Alexander Cockburn’s chicken bastilla, complete with drawings; the digital images of dinners prepared by Dave Hall or me and memorialized by new generations of guests engaged in the political life of their communities.

From a Tree Frog scrapbook (original photo: John Scagliotti; page photo: Christopher Dawes)
From Tree Frog recipe book (photo: Christopher Dawes)

I will miss Vermont again this year, and look forward to summer 2022. Here, the fog is lifting as we begin to enjoy life again, whatever form that takes. Sujaya is back. Her surprise arrival relieved Satish of his dilemma over her homecoming dinner: bucatelli and meatballs? goat curry? 

As vaccinations progress, I am more hopeful. I liken our re-emergence to the arrival of Brood X, the cicadas that lived underground for 17 years and appeared in profusion in our town square in May. Each of us cracks our pandemic shell individually, at our own pace, and also together, quite similar to cicadas shedding their exoskeletons. Imagine if humans had the cicadas’ lifecycle. “Cicadas,” my amateur entomologist brother texted, “are here to eat, sing and find love during their short lives.” As we cautiously embrace what we hope is the post-pandemic era, find bits of joy through laughter, loved ones and all that can come from the deeply human art of cooking and sharing food. Bon Appétit!

Mary Lewis is closely involved in the political and social life of the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. As noted above, she has nourished Kopkinders with beautiful meals since 2011.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece orig-inally appeared on The Nation‘s website on July 7, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: Summertime … — a Picture Gallery

Since the subject this week is food, and it’s summer, our thoughts run to all the summers, the tastes and talk, the people and radical relaxation, that have made the magic at Tree Frog Farm. Here, some photos of summers past, as we look forward! (All photos of the scrapbook pages were taken by Christopher Dawes. Thank you, Chris!)

“Something delicious to eat!…” (photo: Alexander Cockburn)
Birthday feast (photo: John Scagliotti)
Mary Lewis presents lunch, Kopkind, August 2019 (photo: Susi Walsh)
Dave Hall presents shrimp! August 2017 (photo: Susi Walsh)
Cheers from Film Camp, Kopkind, August 2017
A dip at Green River and now on to dinner! Kopkind, July 2018 (photo: JoAnn Wypijewski)
Gregg DeChirico and Andy with fish from Weatherhead Hollow Pond (photo: John Scagliotti)
Angela Ards and Darnell Moore, pre-dinner games, Kopkind, July 2015 (photo: Taté Walker)
Make a wish, August (photo: John Scagliotti)
La dolce vita, Carla Murphy, Kopkind, July 2018 (photo: JoAnn Wypijewski)

Next week will feature the last installment of the Kopkind/Nation series, “Scenes From a Pandemic.” If you have been enjoying the series and would like to support Kopkind’s work of bringing people together for seminars, workshops, free public lectures, movies and more for summer 2022 and beyond, please click the DONATE button at the top of this site. Thank you!





Scenes From a Pandemic: 59

5 07 2021

by Bri M.

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

(photos: Prerna Sampat)

Maybe We Shouldn’t Go Back to Normal

Los Angeles

I have never been normal. As a black, disabled, trans person, my life exists on the margins of society. So when I hear people talking about “getting back to normal” I want to ask, What exactly are we expecting to return to as things continue to open up? Understandably, so many of us want to return to some semblance of what once was before the pandemic started. Normal, however, has always been a perilous reality for me. 

Normal birthed me, yet normal actively wants to extinguish me. My day-to-day life before the pandemic was marred by inaccessibility: a series of doctor’s appointments, unending piles of bills, the complex map of phone numbers to services I desperately needed. In New York City, where I used to reside, navigating life was extremely difficult. Many times I would stand at the bottom of a series of subway stairs, feeling frozen at the thought of not only the impending physical pain I would experience but the many layers of oppression I had to shoulder to get to where I needed to go. The stress of it all led me to move across the country to Los Angeles.    

In the early days of the pandemic, as a person with an autoimmune disorder that is treated with immunosuppressants, I feared the worst. If I got Covid, would I end up in a crowded emergency room (a place rife with medical trauma for me)? Would the virus trigger another relapse of my MS? I started quarantining a month before the official lockdown was ordered, feeling lost and confused about how the world was going to prepare for being isolated for an unknown amount of time.

Luckily, I am part of a community of brilliant people who know what it is like to live in isolation, who support one another and actively envision a world where everyone’s needs are accommodated. That’s not to say people weren’t also anxious. On social media, many feared that the needs of disabled people would come last, that we would watch our friends and loved ones die. As that very thing happened, I pleaded with others to do the minimum for our safety: just wear a mask and practice social distancing. Members of the community did the work of alerting people to our struggles, but it often felt as if we were screaming into the ether.   

In December, my partner and I were diagnosed with Covid. It shouldn’t come as a surprise. Although we meticulously took precautions, others did not. In the late fall and winter, Los Angeles became the US epicenter of the virus. Analysts said people had just got tired of being careful. We watched, incredulous, as the property management company’s electrician entered our apartment without a mask. I ended up with a mild case, and rested as the virus ran its course in my body. My partner was not so fortunate. She had all the typical symptoms: chills, fever, a loss of taste and smell. For days, she was nauseous; she vomited. I remember looking down at her on the bathroom floor one night—seeing my tall, usually vivacious caregiver the smallest she has ever been. For what seemed to be the first time, she was in need of physical support.  

Role reversals with my partner weren’t the only changes that rocked my world. As the virus wracked the country, and corporations and schools began adopting virtual spaces, I felt resentful thinking about the times I was unable to work because I was refused accommodations around my disability. I’ve been without a salaried job for seven years and receive government benefits. I long ago gave up on the idea of being conventionally employed. As with so many disabled people, that hasn’t stopped me from doing cultural work. Knowing that society deems us both dangerous and fraudulent, alternatively weak, needy and unworthy, has emboldened me to flip the script: to tell the rich stories of disabled people of color through my podcast, “Power Not Pity.” When doing that work, I feel I am never truly alone.

Yet the experience of the pandemic leaves me with a bitter question: Would I have been more employable if accessibility had been prioritized in the same way it is today? Virtual spaces are now more easily accessible because they have to be. It only took a pandemic to change the way we conduct accessible communication. It only took a pandemic to realize that our collective survival is wrapped up in societal change. Normal has always been controlled by the systems that keep my communities without the resources that we need to live and thrive. “Going back to normal” would mean going backward. As if on cue, just last week LA County registered its highest daily rate of Covid infection since May.

This pandemic has turned so many facets of my life on its head, and I can never look back and desire what was deemed societally important only a year and a half ago. Being sequestered at home gave me so many chances to be introspective. Like many people during this time, I began coming home to myself. I began to understand my own priorities and values as significant and non-negotiable. I came out as trans during this pandemic. I finally felt open enough to accept the language that described my spirit.  

I find myself bringing my whole self to everything I do more often. The pandemic has upended the meaning of authenticity in my life and has made me reconsider my own resilience in the face of hardship. I used to hide who I was, trying my hardest to fit into the boxes that systems of oppression savagely created. Now, I lead with my identities first. I am a podcaster. I am a disability justice advocate. I am a loyal community member and your favorite hype prince. I am very black and very trans. Every day I wake up and I choose to reimagine and shape what future worlds will look like. I don’t want a new normal; I want a new era.


Bri M. (pronouns: ze/zir) is a podcaster and political agitator with a fierce desire to change the way disabled people are regarded in mass media. As the executive producer of “Power Not Pity,” Bri has contributed to many conversations about disability, race and gender. Ze was the 2019 Stitcher Breakthrough Fellow, a 2019 Werk It! Festival presenter, and was featured at the Afros and Audio Festival 2020. Bri is and will always be a proud Jamaican-American, queer, nonbinary, disabled alien-prince from The Bronx. Ze was a participant in Kopkind’s political camp in 2018.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece orig-inally appeared on The Nation‘s website on June 30, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: Mmm…

Kopkind party table (photo: John Scagliotti)

Summer’s here, and the eating’s al fresco! Although we won’t be doing camps again this year ‘out of an abundance of caution’, watch this space for news of a Kopkind events-and-outdoor-barbecue weekend in late August. In the meantime, next up in our pandemic series with The Nation, Mary Lewis, who has been preparing beautiful food for Kopkind campers since 2011, writes about ‘The Art of the Meal’, complete with a fabulous recipe! Check it out at thenation.com on Wednesday, July 7, and on this site the following Monday, July 12.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 58

28 06 2021

by Divad Durant

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

Still image from the author’s film Goodnight Sun. (photo: Yera Dahora, iPhone timer)

Work in Progress

Or, Making a film together, alone, on two continents, in two languages, in a pandemic

Sunset Park, Brooklyn

Who hasn’t come to terms with their own mortality over the past year and a half? So many people had life-changing realizations. Like others, I made a decision based purely on impulse. I went back to school. I hated the idea, in a way. Don’t get me wrong; I left undergrad with a deep appreciation for learning but understood that education can’t be bounded within an academic institution. The pandemic shifted my perspective. I needed a safe space to learn. My job with the New York Fire Department allowed me to stay home with my family for longer stints as I attended school virtually. Most important, I had something to do besides worry. I entered the screenwriting track at CUNY’s Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema. I was processing what was happening in the world, and what was happening with me, and my family. And though communications about our works in progress were remote, I wasn’t alone.

February 22, 2021, 6:13 pm

Divad: I think the father should cry tears when he calms himself down. Not like happy tears or sad tears, more like repressed tears that have escaped. Like one or two tears.

Yera: I tend to think less is better in general. I think when we try to enhance, to point out that there is an emotion going on, it might kind of take the emotion out because the emotion is already there and it’s too much…

Divad: I was just thinking about masculinity and the performance of hiding emotion, but you’re right; the story makes that apparent in the last scene. There’s no reason to double down. I’ve also been listening to a lot of sad songs today, which may be influencing my judgment. [Insert: Kansas, “Dust in the Wind”]

Yera: Laughing out Loud with your depression song.

Yera Dahora is a talented director from São Paulo. For one of my classes, I wrote a short script that got thrown into a metaphorical hat from which first-year directors had to choose a story. Luckily, Yera chose mine.

[Insert: picture of the beach] Yera: Yes, you should be jealous that I am working on the beach.

Divad: You read my mind. I am jealous.

[Insert: picture of a mound of dirty snow] Divad: Greetings from New York.

Yera was based in Brazil and couldn’t travel to the United States. The film would be shot in Brazil, with Brazilian actors and crew. Almost all of our discussion took place via WhatsApp.

March 18, 2:41 pm

Yera: Things are tough in here. Really bad … we are not shooting on April 2 and 3. Lockdown is supposed to end on March 30 but they might extend it. We don’t know. The thing is, we can’t go on with preproduction while we are in the red phase in lockdown. We have to wait to get back to the yellow phase…. I don’t want to be pessimistic … we may not be able to shoot it within this term. On Friday I was like OMG OMG OMG lol, but in case we cannot do it this term we are going to do it, OK. Because I’m super into it, you’re super into it, the little girl [actor] is super into it, the cinematographer is super into it, the production designer is super into it. Everybody. The editor is super into it. He just read the script. So, we are going to do it. Eventually. I just don’t know if I’m going to do it in April, May, or maybe June, July…. So good news. But it’s bad news and good news at the same time. I don’t know what you think about it, but we’re going to do it.

I gave Yera the nickname Captain. She had control of the ship and was leading us to shore on the stormiest of nights. But before I received that message from her, I was a little shook. I had listened to harrowing reports on NPR. Doctors from Brazil spoke of the shortage of oxygen supplies. People with Covid were dying of asphyxiation. The new strain in Brazil was more contagious. I asked myself questions like, Is this right? Is it really possible to execute this safely? Am I the mayor from Jaws right now? We weren’t the only students experiencing setbacks. Scores of Feirstein students were not able to finish their thesis films. CUNY protocols enforced far more restrictions than film industry standards. All of the students experienced a collective anguish. From the outside looking in, these preoccupations seem kind of childish in the context of a pandemic. But creating art is more than just producing an object. I had a cathartic experience writing the script. The story was inspired by a conversation with my daughter—when I was trying to put her to sleep, and accidentally gave her an existential crisis while answering her questions about the universe. I called it Goodnight Sun.

FATHER: The star light we see comes from distant suns in galaxies far, far away.

OCTAVIA: Cool.

FATHER: Another cool thing is some of those suns no longer exist.

OCTAVIA: How do we see the light?

Back when I was starting to transform the story, I contracted Covid-19. During my recovery and isolation, I lost my aunt Hope Johnson. She had health issues from serving as a chaplain during 9/11; those health issues were exacerbated by quarantining. I had to wait several weeks to mourn with my family. I didn’t need more time to worry. I remembered that Hope and her twin sister, Janice, had borne witness to my transformation into fatherhood. Hope had always shared with me stories of her late father. My favorite was about how he made sure to let his daughters know there was no Santa Claus. “He wanted us to know that a black man bought these gifts,” Hope said, with a cackle. All of these things had been in my head and heart as I wrote.

March 28, 12:31 am

Yera: The governor has extended the lockdown period until April 11…. Two weeks ago we had about an average of 2,000 deaths per day and now we have nearly 4,000 deaths per day which is just crazy. But I’m rehearsing with the kid via Zoom. It is not ideal … but we are having a good time and she’s advancing.

Yera shared casting videos and pics. We talked through each tension in a scene. The script was translated into Portuguese. I worked with my friend Michi Osato, who helped me read through the translated version so that I could continue to share notes with Yera.

May 15, 11:09 pm

Michi: The father says, “You used the bathroom, right? I don’t want you to pee the bed from a tickle attack.” In the translation, it says, “I don’t want anyone peeing the bed.” I don’t know if it matters to you.

The film was finally shot. It is currently in post-production. Yera will be traveling to the US soon. My first year of grad school is over, and even as I rummage through WhatsApp messages, all of it feels unreal. What we managed to do together…

I told Yera that I felt like crying after seeing this.

Divad Durant is a father, partner, screenwriter/director, social media strategist, and a community organizer with Justice Committee. He’s currently obtaining his MFA at Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema at Brooklyn College/CUNY. To keep posted on the development of Goodnight Sun follow the film’s Instagram account, @goodnightsunfilm. Divad was a participant in Kopkind’s political camp in 2011.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece orig-inally appeared on The Nation‘s website on June 23, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: Kopkind Alum Buffalo’s Likely Next Mayor

India Walton outside Buffalo City Hall (photo: Derek Gee for The Buffalo News)

Two years ago, India Walton was at Tree Frog Farm, a ‘camper’ in Kopkind’s summer session for political journalists and activists. The theme that summer was Democratizing the Economy, and India, deeply involved with organized sectors working to establish land trusts and permanent affordable housing in Buffalo, New York, came with the rest of that year’s crew to exchange ideas, learn from one another and experience the combination of intellectual stimulation and radical relaxation that are Kopkind’s hallmarks. On Tuesday, June 22, 2021, she made headlines all over the country and the world, upsetting Buffalo’s four-term incumbent mayor in the Democratic primary—a victory fueled by a plain-talking grassroots campaign, the combined experience of those organized sectors, the Working Families Party, the teachers union, 1199, DSA, a host of newer organizations and the considerable savvy and charisma of the candidate herself. Leader writers have been emphasizing the fact that India calls herself a socialist; more central to her victory, she is also a coalition builder, an organizer, a passionate advocate. This was a low-turnout election won by retail politics. There’s an old saw in politics that never dulls: ‘People want to be asked for their vote.’ India and her team asked and got their voters out. With a mind-boggling combination of arrogance and error, the incumbent mayor did not. (He’s thinking about doing that now, contemplating a write-in campaign being encouraged by an unalluring claque.) Neither the Republicans nor any independents will be on the November ballot, so India is on the cusp of becoming the first woman to lead the Queen City. See indiawalton.com for more. Go India!





Scenes From a Pandemic: 57

21 06 2021

by Malkia Devich-Cyril

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

(photos: Naomi Ishisaka)

Loss Runs Like a River Through My Life

Oakland

Dedicated to my mother, Janet Cyril; my wife, Alana Devich-Cyril, my aunts Sandy and Marion, my godsister Kafi, my Uncle Tony, my cousins Javana, Njuzi and BJ; my friends Margo, Sia, Art, Yulanda, Elandria, Lana, Rahwa; and all those lost but here, unnamed.

Before the bodies overflowed the morgues and required trucks to house our dead, before the ventilator shortages and the mask of vulnerable witness worn by journalists and medical professionals alike, loss ran like a river through my life. It wasn’t just my young adult experience of watching my mother die from sickle cell anemia or, thirteen years later, holding my beloved wife in my arms as she died, at 42, from cancer. It wasn’t just that the pandemic struck only one year after Alana’s death, and one month after I left my organizational role of twenty years as founder and director of the Youth Media Council and MediaJustice. It wasn’t even that in the eighteen months before the Covid-19 virus became one of the ten deadliest pandemics in history, I had somehow weathered the death of seven close friends and family members, with another five dead during 2020, not one from Covid. No, it was about so much more than my dead alone.

It was the fact that before the pandemic ever hit, complex and long-term bereavement resulting from a pattern of premature and traumatic death was already an utterly routine experience for the 46.8 million people who identified as black in the 2019 census. As the pandemic heightened the overlapping crises of resurgent white nationalism, unfettered police violence and the discriminatory distribution of climate disaster impacts, it also split open a vein deep in our collective body politic to reveal a truth black folks have been living with for generations: grief is endemic to the black experience in America, and the effects of living inside a shared context of grief, one in which loss is not simply an experience but a mechanism of racial disadvantage, are often disregarded. The injury is profound—socially, economically, culturally; it can accelerate your own death.

In the pandemic, we have started to talk more about it. One bright afternoon during quarantine, when I finally tired of my failed attempts to cut my own hair, my barber and I claimed the back porch to fade me up. As usual, we got to talking politics. We got to talking about feeling pressed and violated from every direction. As he readied to leave, the conversation turned toward grief. I asked how he felt. Many things from the past year are hazy, but I remember how he shook his head, slowly, and said, “Bottom line, there really ain’t no justice for us.”

There’s no justice in the fact that in April 2020, a month into lockdown, 70 percent of the deceased in Louisiana were black; or that, nationally, black, Native and Pacific Islander Americans have suffered the greatest per capita death tolls. Black people were up to four times more likely to die from the disease, when adjusted for age. For every death to Covid or related complications, at least nine additional people are affected. Nearly one in three black Americans knows someone who has died. Grief could jeopardize black health for years to come. Yet now, in 2021, as we attempt to stem the wave of Covid deaths, disinformation targets black communities, exploiting our long history with medical racism by comparing lifesaving vaccines to eugenics atrocities, such as forced sterilization. Despite our disproportionate deaths, we’re told to reject science, medicine and journalism and to embrace conspiracy theories.

Covid aside, black people are exceptionally acquainted with death. By the time we turn 60, we are 90 percent more likely than our white counterparts to experience at least four deaths of family members. By age 10, according to one study, black children born in the United States were three times more likely than white children to have lost their mothers and twice as likely to have lost their fathers. Debra Umberson’s research concludes that “exposure to death is a unique source of adversity for black Americans that contributes to lifelong racial inequality.”

Malkia (left) embraced at Alana’s memorial by Lateefah Simon, also widowed by cancer.

My pandemic experience has taught me that our collective grief is a morbid symptom of racial capitalism; that the mechanisms of grief’s racial disadvantage are structural, widespread and historic; that deep in our living bones we know that when it comes to grief’s unequal racial burden, there can be no comfort without connection, no relief without reparations, no healing without justice. It also pushed me to move closer to the hollowed-out loneliness of the grief that had become my familiar, to welcome the shadow I couldn’t shake instead of running from it.

In February 2020, when news of the pandemic spread across the country, my wife’s death was so fresh, one year gone; I could still smell her life in our silent apartment. I already knew how the internet could connect people. Our wedding had been livestreamed. Our renewal of vows and Alana’s last time outside were broadcast on Facebook Live. So was her funeral. I knew from the two years that we had spent fighting for her life that the internet could provide isolation’s antidote. That it could democratize care. That it had helped me survive the death of the person I loved most in the world. I turned to it again.

At first obsessively, my fingers and eyes hunted for facts, for deaths, for escape, protection, something. Then I got more intentional. Sitting in the room where Alana died, my silver laptop open and glowing, I remembered how the internet had joined us to a beloved community. To my right, atop the dresser we bought to hold Alana’s hospice supplies, was the altar that held her sparkling red slippers, her ashes, the corsage she gave me on our wedding day. To my left, a wall of family photos, mine and hers. Ours. It was there, suspended in mid-life, six feet from everything I loved, that I decided the internet would help me negotiate survival through the current of black death and resulting collective grief that seemed to shock every community Covid touched.

With the light fading, I upgraded my Zoom account and created a weekly series that would later be known as Pandemic Joy. The third Sunday in March 2020 was our first meeting, just a few squares of people I trusted and loved.

I acknowledge that the internet can be indecipherable to those who haven’t committed themselves to its study; scary and unmerciful when unregulated and unrestrained. On one hand, I experience it as this amorphous place with no definite rules or rights. It is, in a particular light, a brutal place where my black activist self, my black queer self, our many black selves, are frequently doxxed, harassed and discriminated against; a place where my dignity has been violated, and all the data that comes with me exposed or exploited for profit. As an avid user, especially of social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, etc., I am, in some ways, a digital resident without citizenship in an invisible nation without democracy, owned by distant corporations and some of the richest people in the world.

And yet, less than a month after the pandemic went viral, there I was, at a kitchen table littered with unread books, my hands a poised arc above my laptop, rocking and clapping on a Sunday morning. Singing. What do you know about how a heavy song can lighten a load? My ancestors knew it: homegrown work songs torn from the diaphragm, pushed like a breath from the throat. And there it was, a song bleeding from the mic of my headphones. A red river of music refusing to clot. A melody bled out over computer speakers, across a video platform. And we were somehow together, pandemic survivors, quarantined and huddled each around our own bright screens. Despite the contradictions and dangers, in the chaos of those early days of confinement, we used an often-unaffordable internet to find ourselves and sing—defying the isolation called in by contagion and state neglect. We moved, as escapees often do, through troubled terrain to arrive at one another.

Despite a media ecosystem that drowns us in information but denies us insight, despite the fact that one in three African Americans and latinx people still doesn’t have home access to computer technology, the internet opened a channel through which hidden bereavement was transformed into a visible public health crisis. But to amplify our collective voice, we need the work of organizations: like MediaJustice, Free Press and others in the Change the Terms Coalition that confront Facebook’s failure to restrain violent white supremacists. Like Oakland’s Anti Police-Terror Project, whose livestreamed car caravan protests helped transform our grief into grievance. Like Marked by COVID, which uses social media to lift up the faces of our dead and hold the state accountable. We need the powerful leadership of Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives, which create space for us to mobilize collective loss into collective action.

Quarantined, we sang together, we cried, we remembered. Using digital apps, I created a socially distant swim team, launched online grief groups, an online Freedom Cleanse. This creativity, wielding what cultural tools are on hand in simultaneous service to grief and freedom, is part of a lineage of black radical resilience. Just as enslaved Africans once went to the “meeting place” to build community and plan rebellions, we found our pandemic meeting places. The internet, the one I spent decades fighting for, helped accompany me in loss and to turn toward grief, and turn grief toward life.

Malkia Devich-Cyril is an award-winning activist, a writer, and a public speaker on the issues of digital rights, narrative power, black liberation and collective grief. Devich-Cyril, now a senior fellow at MediaJustice and the organization’s founding executive director, was a participant in Kopkind’s political camp in 2002.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece orig-inally appeared on The Nation‘s website on June 16, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: Oh, ‘Tis Love, ‘Tis Love …

Costume Ball, Berlin (detail), Jeanne Mammen, one of many depictions of the lives and loves of queer women made by the artist before she was banned by the Nazis and much of her work destroyed.

As we near the close of June and the fifty-second anniversary of the Stonewall Riot, which began June 28, 1969, we celebrate not just the pioneers and present-day activists of the modern lgbtq freedom movement but all those who for all time, in all parts of the world, followed their heart’s same-sex desire. Here, below, a few clips from John Scagliotti’s wonderful film Before Homosexuals: From Ancient Times to Victorian Crimes, a prequel to Before Stonewall. For more information about the film, to arrange educational or other screenings and to view the trailer, click here. (Because these clips are high resolution, you may have to pause for a bit after pressing play to allow for buffering.) And now, the clips!

Click here: on Astypalaia’s ancient erotic graffiti.

(photo: Helen Smith)

Click here: on lesbian love spells in ancient Rome.

Still from Before Homosexuals.

Click here: on Florence and the verb ‘to Florence’.

‘I don’t think we’re in Florence anymore’: John with fig-leafed replica of David in Reno, Nevada (photo: JoAnn Wypijewski)





Scene From a Pandemic: 56

14 06 2021

by S. Eudora Smith

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

(photo: S. Eudora Smith)

Democracy on a Ventilator

Washington, DC

I wore two masks this past year—one to guard against Covid-19, another to hide my fear of the political violence that infected the nation’s capital.

Eleven thousand people died from the coronavirus in DC. Nearly 50,000 were diagnosed with Covid out of a population of more than 710,000. And at the US Capitol, five people died when a white mob incited by then-President Donald Trump ransacked the building in an attack on democracy and the sanctity of the vote. As Washington reopens, it’s easy to celebrate survival, though it’s hard to claim real security from Covid and the other virus that has left American democracy on a ventilator. Even if the source of only one of those will be formally investigated—leaving prosecutions the only hope for answers about the unprecedented attack on the Capitol and capital—what happened mustn’t be forgotten.

District residents endured what no other place in the country has—a lockdown for a public health crisis and a crisis of democracy. After January 6, tanks had rolled into town. Twenty-six thousand National Guard troops were amassed. Surrounding waterways were patrolled by federal marshals. Armed soldiers and military vehicles mingled with the monuments and symbols that tell the official story of America, the postcard version that visitors from across the country and the world take home with them. Shortly before the inauguration of Joe Biden, I wrote a friend: “At the request of the Secret Service, the bridges leading to Virginia will be closed from the 19th-21st. (A main bridge has already been closed.) I immediately thought of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York. Manhattan is a penal colony, and all the bridges out are wired to explode if anyone tries to escape.”

We got a taste of living in a state of siege. I’d imagined the nearby on-ramp to the interstate as my escape route in the event of armed conflict … tanks blocked the ramp.

We got a taste of what it’s like to live in a state of siege. I had to go no further than the corner. My home was on the periphery of a sweeping secured zone that included the Capitol and the National Mall, which were cordoned off by a massive chain-link fence. To the south this zone included the offices of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is bordered by a major interstate. I had imagined the nearby on-ramp to the interstate as my escape route if the capital descended into armed conflict, but National Guard tanks blocked the ramp.

Like other Washingtonians, I looked at the troops and worried, “Will Trump leave without a fight? Will there be blood in the streets before it’s all over?” And, as important, “Should we even trust the Guard to oppose the insurrectionists? Might they turn on one another, and then on We the People?”

The first night I drove home from the grocery store, two young Guard members stopped me as I tried to turn at the light to enter my complex. “I live there,” I said, pointing at the complex, ready to provide proof of address. After a brief pause, I was let through, though I didn’t understand why I would be questioned in the first place. As a black woman, I wasn’t the reason the Guard has been deployed to the city.

Today the soldiers are gone. The last of them departed a few weeks ago. The metal fences that cordoned off the National Mall following the insurrection are gone too. I am leaving as well, for an ordinary reason, a different job. It strikes me, though, at this moment of reflection, that so much of what I love about DC has been eclipsed by memories of contagion and these multiple and still-uncertain efforts at containment.

Covid-19 cases have been reduced here. More than 42 percent of residents have been fully vaccinated. People talk of a return to normal, as if the crises we have experienced were just random interruptions in an otherwise predictable stream of events, not the movie trailer of disruptions to come. Health care experts anticipate a rise in cases in the fall and winter among unvaccinated people, and there are likely to be more variants, more pandemics in the future.

But for now, joggers leave puffs of dirt in their wake on the paths along the National Mall. Friends lounge on the bright green grass by the Washington Monument. Tourists pack the sidewalks on Independence and Pennsylvania avenues. People are out, masks off, while our democracy remains in critical condition.

S. Eudora Smith (a pen name) is a writer and editor. She is an advisor to Kopkind and was a mentor in 2009 and 2017.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece orig-inally appeared on The Nation‘s website on June 9, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: Mimi Morton, a Memory

On Memorial Day weekend people gathered at Packer Corners in Guilford, Vermont, just up the road from Tree Frog Farm, to celebrate the life of Mimi Morton, a longtime friend of Kopkind, who died of cancer on January 10. Mimi had come to Guilford in the ‘old days’, visiting from Montreal—where she was a college professor, print and radio journalist—and living for a time at Tree Frog when Andy was alive. Many years later, she moved permanently to Guilford, married Rick Zamore, and the two have been great supporters of our project, regularly gracing public events with their presence, raising incisive points or questions and bringing great dishes to every potluck. Before she died, Mimi completed Before the Age of Reason: A Memoir of Racism, a series of autobiographical vignettes tracing the obvious and not-so-obvious strands of racism growing up white and middle class in Riverton, New Jersey. Below, a lightly edited vignette. The book is available from Onion River Press/Phoenix Books.

Catholics on my mother’s side, Baptists and agnostics on my father’s side, constituted the religious diversity of my family until my paternal cousin and his wife took the trajectory from Agnosticism to Unitarianism to Amyway to AA to Born Again Christianity and the conservative politics that went with it. Eventually they dropped off the family roster beyond holiday emails.

Economic diversity was inevitable during the Depression and the 1950s, when my father quietly supported his indigent mother and brother and a few divorced sisters before more solvent marriages got them back on their feet. 

Racial diversity would have been unlikely had this not been America, where many families identified Native Americans somewhere in their rural nineteenth-century background. By the twenty-first, some families identified African Americans in their genealogy, but my family was not one.

My father was of Scots descent. He spent his adolescence in Jockey Hollow, a nearly unpopulated locale in the Southern Tier of New York State which I have never been able to find on a map. He spoke of Clifford Cellam, a cousin who was, according to family lore, “crazy headed,” my father’s way of alluding to behaviors, particularly drunkenness, which indicated to my father and other relatives that Clifford carried Native American blood. Were alcoholism the mark of First Nation identity, nearly every man and woman in my father’s family could be identified as Indians.

Unlike now, the early twentieth century was relatively easy to ascend in class. My mother’s family was Methodist English until my grandmother married my Irish grandfather and converted to Catholicism. My grandfather worked his way up from bricklayer’s apprentice to carpenter and finally to a partner in a building firm that he ultimately passed on to my father. Like my father, my grandfather supported his sisters when they were out of seamstress work or abandoned in marriage. The exception was his sister Mary, who married above herself, to a dentist. The dentist was South American; the grown-ups never said which country, much as Americans have referred to Africa as a country rather than a continent. Dr. Andrade and his Irish-American wife lived in a four-story brownstone on East 95th Street in New York, where my mother spent several magical Christmases (servants, lighted candles on a towering fir tree, midnight mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, transported in a hansom cab).

But there was the case of Natalie, Great Aunt Mary’s only child, a squat, dark girl with, according to my mother, “Indian blood” via her father from a nameless South American tribe. My mother’s stories of Natalie depicted her as the family scapegoat. “Oh mother, I’d rather die,” Natalie wailed when her mother insisted she wear every one of her three winter coats so as to lighten her suitcase as they returned from a trip to her father’s homeland.

After Dr. Andrade died, the family would never again order additions to their mono-grammed Tiffany flatware and Limoges dinnerware. But appearances must be kept up, and it fell to Natalie to cull the lesser of the family possessions for Christmas presents for my grandmother, such as poultry shears with remains of a fowl still stuck to the blades, and a pair of desiccated men’s suspenders (her father’s?) which, when stretched out, stayed that way. 

I saw the interior of Aunt Mary’s 95th Street house as a small child after she died. We stood in the foyer, the smoke from my father’s and grandfather’s cigarettes swirling in the shaft of sunlight between heavy window drapes. I couldn’t read the funny papers splayed on the floor, but I was fascinated by an object on the newel post at the bottom of the stairs: a plaster camel, draped in fringed and tasseled velvet, atop which sat a little turbaned black boy similarly dressed in velvet and holding in each hand a round white electric globe. This object suggested wealth, in dwindling supply now that Natalie’s father and mother were gone. Years later my mother interpreted for me: “The neighborhood was changing for the worse into Spanish Harlem.” I pictured an elderly Natalie sitting on her stoop with neighborhood women. “She says the neighbors steal from her but where else can she go? She speaks their language.” A non-English language, a language of the conquered. “She was a throwback,” my mother explained. “Not our blood.”





Scenes From a Pandemic: 55

7 06 2021

by Zia Jaffrey

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

(photo: Igor on Unsplash)

A Prisoner Videotaped Covid Conditions Last Year. Where Is He Now?

New York City

Out of one dream, another dream is born:

Yesterday, I heard someone from the West Bank say that denying Palestinians the vaccine is another act of genocide.

I thought of you, Dion, and the video you posted from federal prison last year, in Michigan.

Are you alive? I don’t know what happened to you.

In a green knitted cap, a white mask, and your dreads, you took us around with that contraband phone, saying: 

I fear retaliation for doing this. I’m putting my life on the line

You pleaded for our help, showing us bunk bed after bunk bed, in close proximity; suits and ironed clothes hung neatly on hangers from any rim they could find.  

I got a few little symptoms, but I don’t know if I’m gonna make it—they just sittin’ on us, waiting for us to die.

And the mattress, covered in clear plastic, where somebody had been really sick.

They ain’t sprayed the bed off, or nothing. They just left it like that.

Dion, is that your real name? I have looked for you everywhere. Are you alive? 

Look at these conditions? How can we practice social distancing when they got us all on top of each other like this?

You showed us the nearby area where men lay covered in thin blankets, shivering. The sick area. The men, barely responding. The checkered floor.

Did you meet the fate of the others?

Another image, now: a young man, whose sentence was two years, for possession; eyes closed; on the upper deck of a bunk bed. “Felon.” 

I can’t breathe

The price he will pay.  

Or did I dream that, Dion, from another video? Not from FCI Milan, but FCI Elkton, or Gaza? 

(photo: Phakphoom Srinorajan on Unsplash)

We need you all to be a voice for us.

Your deep vibrato. That cough. The mask.

Had to have a hunger strike to get these masks.

Heads of young people pop in and out of the frame—one, two, in sky-blue knitted caps; matching scarves, covering noses and mouths.

You take us into the bathroom: the unwashed windows, with unknown splatter—beige, the color of who knows what—the few sinks, the few shower stalls. Three stalls, to be precise. For eighty-plus men. Maybe ten sinks.

The showers—look how nasty and filthy it is—they ain’t sprayed it down with no bleach.

We see leftover scum, soap, rivers of it, overflowing from the neighboring stall, and sitting idly around a drain.

We had to go on a hunger strike just to get these masks—and get these little cleaning supplies that we do got.

You show us the SHU, outside the window:

People in there just waitin’ to die.

Out of one dream, another dream is born:

A different video, now. A journalist in Gaza. She explains that everyone was given an hour to leave the media building. Twelve stories high. “Hamas intelligence” target. Lawyers’ offices. Doctors’ offices. The journalists made way for the residents and their children who lived on the six floors below. Two warning missiles, fifteen minutes apart. Time’s up. So they took nothing. Building obliterated.

On the road, the next morning, the car in front of hers is destroyed suddenly. Had her driver not paused to answer his phone, she would not have survived.

What is the name of that thing? A drone? A hellfire missile?

We need y’all help out here, man.

Dion, where are you? 

And what will she tell her children, should anything happen to her? 

“Forgive me … this is my duty … I have to deliver this message to the world.

Another video, now, of a little girl in Gaza. She was sleeping beside Mama, she says. When she woke up, she was surrounded by ash. 

Where the Jay-Z’s at, man? I thought black lives matter.

Ain’t no disrespecting this. This is lasting genocide. 

“We are just an ordinary Palestinian couple. Between us, we have lost thirty relatives.”

I fear retaliation. I am putting my life on the line.

Dion? 

Dion, where are you? 

Are you alive?

I don’t benefit from any of this. My mom always told me, sacrifice is greater than blessing.

Zia Jaffrey is writing a book about the Holy Land Foundation case. The form of this piece is an homage to Mahmoud Darwish‘s Memory for Forgetfulness. Zia is a friend of Kopkind.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece orig-inally appeared on The Nation‘s website on June 2, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: There Is Still Beauty in the World

From California, Kopkinder Josh Wilson sent us some pictures (above and below) that he took in the mountains and at Bassi Falls. “I find myself continually amazed,” he writes, “by the water cycles of California and the West. The snow, the melt, the water rushing in clear, cold sheets and carving out these stream and riverbeds, and tumbling down waterfalls. This in contrast to the incredible drought of the present moment, and the dependence and vulnerability of human civilization in relation to these cycles. Being here, far beyond the city, makes us more aware of our place in these cycles. Observing the infrastructure built to control and channel this water is to glimpse marvels of engineering and hubris. … Bassi Falls, there are two of them, one 130’ high, and fed by Lake Tahoe. It was cold and clear the day we were there, even as the temperatures climbed, hitting 106 degrees just fifty miles west in Sacramento. Even with the water so low, it was early enough in the season that the flow was strong. During a high-water year the whole area would have been submerged.”





Scenes From a Pandemic: 54

31 05 2021

by Hira Nabi

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

View of the Ravi from inside Kamran’s Baradari. (photo: Hira Nabi)

News From Home, and Other People’s Homes

Lahore, Pakistan

I write to friends in India and receive from them messages of fear, of fatigue, narrating incidents of death and helplessness. I write to friends in Palestine, and they tell me that they are not okay, not safe, and they want the world to do something. I receive news from a friend who used to live in Kabul, and he tells me that the school bombings took place in his old neighborhood. I have become an antenna, receiving news of heartbreak and destruction, and the collapse of all sense of order. I transmit what I receive back into the world, not sure who might be listening.

Where there were homes in Deir Yassein, you’ll see dense forests—

That village was razed. There’s no sign of Arabic.



I too, O Amichai, saw the dresses of beautiful women


And everything else, just like you, in Death, Hebrew, and Arabic.



They ask me to tell them what Shahid means—


Listen: it means ‘The Beloved’ in Persian, ‘witness’ in Arabic
.

Agha Shahid Ali made an art form of writing ghazals in English. It isn’t lost on his audience that he, an exiled Kashmiri poet, was writing about disappearances and occupation elsewhere—in Palestine. Witnessing becomes a charged act, filled with radical possibility. 

There is nothing else to talk about but Palestine. There is nowhere else to look but Palestine.

There is everything in the world but hope. There is nothing in the world without hope.

* * *

Eid was marked in this way. It wasn’t an occasion to celebrate, and I didn’t leave my house to visit with friends, but perhaps it was enough to be grateful to receive food, and be together with my immediate family. The weather was kind, and we took our tea in the garden. To preserve some shade of normalcy, my mother prepared kheer—made with milk, sugar, vermicelli, khoya, cardamom and slivered almonds. The trick is to keep stirring without stopping while it cooks. The constant movement prevents the milk from curdling; instead, it thickens, letting the sugar bind with it, absorbing and sweetening. 

* * *

(photo, detail: Mariam Tareen)

* * *

A friend recently remarked about the recurrent loop of history: it is doomed to repetition, yet it erases itself at the same time. Is there a way out?

Pondering his question, I went to the oldest known monument of the Mughal Empire in Lahore—Kamran’s Baradari, which was built by Kamran Mirza, son of Babur, the first Mughal emperor, in 1540. Although some accounts state that its cusped arches allude to a later construction date, possibly the seventeenth century. 

What is known for certain is that it was originally built at the edge of the Ravi, but over time as the river changed course, the land on which this pavilion stands became an island, accessible only by boat. BaraN means twelve, and dar means door, hence a pavilion with twelve doors. Its ancient method of ventilation allows air currents to pass freely through those twelve portals, refreshing and cooling the structure during the summer months. Its inner walls have been covered with graffiti. I glimpsed candlewicks on ledges, and blackened arches where smoke from burning candles had risen. A funeral of wishes, I thought idly. 

I stood on the banks of the Ravi waiting for a boatman to ferry me across. A maximum of two passengers: we had our masks on. Even beneath it, I could smell burnt rubber coming off the water. The river allowed a city to rise up on its banks, and swallow it up. 

* * *

Most of Pakistan is currently in a semi-lockdown. My brothers went to buy flowers on Mother’s Day, and it was the most bizarre exchange: formally, the florist had closed his shop, but his assistants crawled beneath the partial shutter bringing out flowers, showing customers images of the inventory on their phones, and illicitly selling bouquets. I had ordered some books to gift my nephews on Eid, but the delivery is delayed. I don’t think they mind; over this past year, long pauses entered our lives and readjusted our expectations. Days and nights pass with nowhere to go. In the midst of this, I try to grow a garden on my windowsill: I watch for signs of overwatering, and underwatering. I am trying to learn plants, to understand them. 

What kind of times are these? Adrienne Rich’s poem comes to mind:

I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled

this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,

our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,

its own ways of making people disappear.



I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods

meeting the unmarked strip of light—

ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:

I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.



And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you

anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these

to have you listen at all, it’s necessary

to talk about trees.

It is not just the trees, the land, villages, rivers and fish that are disappearing at an alarming rate. So are people. Families of missing persons (mainly from Baluchistan, but increasingly journalists from all over the country, and young Pashtun men) continue their vigil outside press clubs in cities across Pakistan, plan long marches to the capital to demand the return of loved ones or their appearance in a court trial. In Karachi, informal settlements at GujjarNala and OrangiNala are being demolished, the people evicted, to make way for new developments. It is a universally established tale of land grabbing and dispossession. The Supreme Court has ordered a stay order until June 1. 

(photo, detail: Awami Workers Party & Karachi Bachao Tehreek)

And so we wait, and watch. But solidarity is not a passive state of being. It is a ringing call to action. Demolitions in Karachi, demolitions in Sheikh Jarrah, and now Gaza being razed to the ground. I recall Mahmoud Darwish’s writing, poetry turned prose—broadcasting pain from Gaza.

The enemy may defeat Gaza. (The stormy sea might overwhelm a small island.)

They might cut down all her trees.

They might break her bones.

They might plant their tanks in the bellies of her women and children, or they might toss her into the sand, into the sea, into blood.

But:

Gaza will not repeat the lies.

Gaza will not say yes to the conquerors.

And she will continue to erupt.

It is not death, and it is not suicide, it is Gaza’s way of announcing she is worthy of life.

Hira Nabi is an artist and filmmaker currently based in Lahore. She was a participant in Kopkind’s political camp in 2011.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece orig-inally appeared on The Nation‘s website on May 26, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: ‘Ah, the Good Old Days…’

Things are pretty terrible, it’s true, but here, as an antidote to any creeping notion that once upon a time, the children were all good, the families all safe and the country not in a state of obsession, scandal and ‘alternate facts’, we present a clip from a short documentary by former Film Camper Immy Humes, about Lizzie Bordenmore aptly, the legions who have done their own research and must tell the tale.

Immy just got a grant from the NEA for her continuing work on a full-length documentary on avant garde filmmaker Shirley Clarke—”one of the great undertold stories of American independent cinema,” according to the NYTimes.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 53

24 05 2021

by Gina Womack

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

Improvising in the shadow of man-made disaster, black residents memorialize the history of what was once the commercial and green-space heart of Tremé and use the underpass of Highway 10 for gatherings and parties. (photos: Gina Womack)

‘We Shouldn’t Have to Be so Resilient’

New Orleans

I have been working at home since the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in 2005. So has the rest of the staff at Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), the organization I co-founded in 2001. One man-made disaster was followed by another, as gentrification raked the city. The building FFLIC was renting in a historically black community was sold, and we were forced to do what has become commonplace everywhere since Covid-19 was allowed to run wild. We telecommuted, since much of our work involved outreach and out-of-office meetings. To maintain connection to the community, we rented a small office in a neighborhood building with co-working space, so staff and families could meet in its conference room. At first, working this way was emotionally and logistically difficult: not to see everyone’s face, to catch up on one another’s life, or pop in for a quick question or support; not to have the physical space that, for many youth and families, had become not just a place to address an immediate need but a home away from home. The chatter, laughter and freedom of our own space were lost, transformed suddenly, just as life had been after the flood, when the streets went silent because people were displaced, some never to return. As native New Orleanians, we are constantly forced to be resilient; true to our saying Laissez les bons temps rouler (“Let the good times roll”), we made “gumbo,” something out of not very much. We used group texts and plenty of emojis and memes to bring levity to working remotely. We scheduled more staff retreats and utilized other community spaces to meet with youth and families. It’s still not the same; “our lives were forever changed.” People say that a lot now.

Some 230 youths, aged 13 to 20, are held in state prison in Louisiana today. More than 90 percent of them are black or brown, and more than 40 percent are there for nonviolent offenses. Typically, they are poor and were burdened by social inequities, lack of quality education, and mental health care, meaning shrunken opportunities and support. (In the pandemic, a Save the Children study ranks Louisiana last in the nation in protecting children from hunger, educational disparities and family economic insecurity.) Parents and other caregivers seek help from government and find none due to systemic disinvestment. Their children feel ignored and invisible, and end up acting out: fighting, stealing, breaking into cars, things not at all unique to these children. If they were the children of elected officials or of white parents of means, they would probably never see the inside of a prison. Such infractions would be regarded as acting out; the youngsters would be sent to diversion programs and kept at home. For children incarcerated for violent offenses, being locked in a cage doesn’t lead to rehabilitation. Prison is a violent environment. Eventually, they will return home, again to little or no support. The cycle is made, and often continues.

* * *

Bottom line: “Try imagining a place where it’s always safe & warm.”

Working virtually over the past year was an easy transition for me. Personally, I am an introvert, so the worst period of the pandemic gave me an unusual opportunity not to worry about going out of the house. It gave me the chance to slow down and hang up my superwoman cape. The March 23, 2020, stay-at-home order allowed me to spend more time with my elderly mother, who lived with me; to care for her safely at home until her death, unrelated to Covid, on December 20.

A month before the lockdown, I had some friends in town. Mardi Gras was early last year, February 25, and my friends wanted the full experience. I took them to all the parades; we walked from uptown St. Charles Avenue to the Faubourg Marigny area, which is on the other side of the French Quarter, about four miles away. At every opportunity, we grabbed good food, took in the scenes, and drank hand grenades—a specialty cocktail served frozen or on the rocks at only two licensed nightclubs. We had a blast. Not long after that, I was blessed to be able to hang out with my daughter, who had flown home from Philadelphia. Little did any of us know then, or even after the lockdown order came, how long it would be before we could see friends and family again, or enjoy the city’s pleasures, or even spend some quality girl-time together, but at least we had those experiences.

* * *

When Governor John Bel Edwards put the state on lockdown, emphasizing that to stay safe we had to stay home, the order should have applied to the children incarcerated in state and private facilities. Ironically, when Covid-19 took over our lives, FFLIC was beginning to examine how our children were doing 15 years post-Katrina. In our assessment, it’s as if the laws and policies that were put in place in 2003 to reduce incarceration and treat children humanely were never passed. Despite all the work of advocates, fighting so that our children’s youthful mistakes might be met with programs and treatment in their communities, not with shackles and cages, it’s as if reform were never promised. Promises and reforms don’t seem to transfer from one administration to the next. During the pandemic, we have continued to hear loved ones’ cries for their children, who, instead of being with their families, were held in isolation, unable to see visitors for a year.

On March 25, 2020, we learned that three youths locked in Louisiana prisons under the Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) had tested positive for Covid-19. Our children literally had no way to protect themselves from infection, no way to avoid contact with others. By the summer, Louisiana ranked fourth in the country per capita for all children in prison who had tested positive, almost twice the national average. In juvenile prisons, workers were testing positive as well. They were replaced by inexperienced probation officers, who often resorted to tasing children (an illegal practice) to calm their outbursts of anxiety. Because counseling and education services were canceled, children were, in addition, left with nothing to do. “I don’t want to die here, not in here,” one said.

FFLIC joined with the Youth First Initiative and more than 22 organizations across the country to call for Freedom for Our Youth. We wrote letters to the governor and other elected officials demanding that they follow the CDC’s best practices. We petitioned the governor and made phone calls, lots of phone calls. We organized an emergency town hall meeting to hear parents’ concerns. We continued to provide support and advocacy for parents, who were desperate to hear from their children.

The governor never budged. Children were not sent home. To date, 61 youths tested positive for Covid-19, according to the OJJ’s website, and 61 have recovered; 105 staff tested positive, and 102 recovered.

We shouldn’t have to be so resilient, but we are. Our organization and families continue to love and care for each other. We continue to find places to meet and ways to socialize. We continue to educate our lawmakers. We continue to build leadership of our youth and families. We continue to be community, no matter how many man-made disasters try to separate us.

Gina Womack is a mother of three children, and co-founder and executive director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children. She was a participant in Kopkind’s political camp in 2010.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece orig-inally appeared on The Nation‘s website on May 19, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: A Pre-Pandemic Scene From Iraq

Faisal Laibi Sahi, The Cafe 2, 2014Acrylic on canvas, 124 x 315 cm. (Image courtesy of Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah)

A few installments ago (No. 50), we ran a piece by Vijay Prashad, in which he recounted a phone conversation with a journalist friend in Baghdad, wherein news of the day, of personal situations and the pandemic, quickly turned to news of global affairs. Vijay had suggested this image as an illustration for that piece, but it wasn’t possible to get permission in time. The good people at the Barjeel Art Foundation did reply, though, allowing us to reprint The Cafe 2, which, with thanks, we are happy to share with you now. Barjeel is an independent UAE-based foundation dedicated to the exhibition and appreciation of Modern and contemporary Arab art. You can peruse Barjeel’s extensive collection from throughout the Arab world at its website, linked above.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 52

17 05 2021

by Thomas McKean

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

The morning after: remnants of barflies’ casual violence upon the author’s sunflower garden in summer (photo: JoAnn Wypijewski)

Sometimes I Miss the Lockdown’

New York City

I feel guilty about it, but I still feel it: there’s a part of me that misses the darkest days of the lockdown.

I live in Manhattan, in the East Village. And, no, I don’t miss the wail of ambulances threading their way up First Avenue, day long, night long, rushing north, carrying the stricken to nearby hospitals. I don’t miss walking by portable morgues and their makeshift barriers, erected so we wouldn’t see bodies being brought out a hospital’s side exit.

I do miss the quiet, the strange peace, the empty streets, the feeling of solidarity among those of us who stayed, who don’t have country houses or parents or fancy friends with guest rooms. Perhaps this is because it reminds me of the East Village I moved into forty years ago, when streets were deserted at night; when you could make out on your doorstep for an hour and not a soul would pass to catcall; when you knew your neighbors, knew the shopkeepers. We’re all in this together, that was the feeling. Despite the dirt, the rampant crime (one block west boasted one of the city’s highest murder rates, as drug gangs fought for turf), we were a community. Just by buying bread at the bakery around the corner (sturdy semolina, nothing fancy), I was invited to dinner at Phyllis’s, the counterwoman’s, house and later to her granddaughter’s wedding. The block was bustling with seemingly indestructible old women—Polish, Sicilian, Irish, Spanish—who would, before sunset, drag folding chairs to the sidewalk to watch another day dwindle. Just by befriending one of them, my downstairs neighbor Marie, I was invited to her sister Annie’s for dinner, out in Jackson Heights.

This is how it felt during lockdown. Passers-by might be few, but those of us remaining, we were in it together. Fear of crime might be replaced by fear of contagion, but if fear doesn’t drive people apart, it can drive them together.

There was one figure who brought us together just by his very essence: Ali. He was our pharmacist, and like shopkeepers from years past, he knew and greeted every customer by name. Ali would give advice, deal with recalcitrant insurance companies, unresponsive doctors. It was to him we went for home remedies and preliminary diagnoses. As I said, he knew our names.

It was early days in the pandemic. We were rushing around in a panic, desperate to buy gloves, masks, hand sanitizer. So it was that one Saturday afternoon I went to Ali’s for acetaminophen. None was on the shelves. “I knew there’d be a rush on this,” he said. “But I ordered a massive bottle! It came today. Come back Monday and bring an empty bottle, and I will fill it up for you for free.”

On Monday the pharmacy was shuttered. It was shuttered the next few days, too. Then we heard the impossible: Ali, our wonderful Ali Yasin, had been stricken with Covid. His sons sounded optimistic. He was on a ventilator, but he was strong, he would make it. At 68, his energy had never seemed to flag before. He was in the hospital for months—at one point well enough to go off the ventilator.

But then he was put back on.

He died in May.

A neighbor broke the news. We stood in my apartment crying, too afraid to hug.

Perhaps Ali’s death was symbolic, because life felt harder after that. A new landlord, intent on renovating and increasing rents, emptied half the apartments in my building and commenced dusty renovations as soon as indoor construction was allowed again. Most of my other neighbors fled for more peaceful pastures.

(MetroCard collage: Thomas McKean)

In August the noise from the street began. This had been the bright light of lockdown in a loud city—the relative quiet: fewer cars and trucks, fewer shrieking-into-cell-phone throngs of bar-hoppers stampeding at all hours. By necessity, we were spending more time at home, so at least our homes really were a refuge (if one ignored that endless stream of ambulances). I could sit in my living room, gazing north at the Empire State Building (my calm watchtower for decades), and after banging pots at 7, feel cocooned in quiet, safe in silence.

But, as I said, then the noise began. From across the street. A newly reopened restaurant decided to have a live band play full-blast in its open storefront four hours a night, six nights a week. I couldn’t even make a phone call. The electric guitarist might as well have been on my fire escape: the racket echoed back and forth across the narrow side street, and by the time it stopped I’d be frantic.

I was trapped in the city, trapped in my apartment, cornered by relentless racket. I told myself that being blasted out of my apartment was better than being on a ventilator, the way Ali had ended, but that’s a false choice. We shouldn’t have to fear an invisible foe, a sneaky virus. We shouldn’t be driven insane when home. We shouldn’t have to teach people how to be neighbors. Adding to the feeling of helplessness was the fact that the police, the mayor’s office, our councilwoman, did nothing.

After four months of this, the restaurant had to shut down (Covid clusters). Now reopened, it seems to have got the message: play all the music you want, but keep your doors shut so a few hundred people aren’t forced to listen.

But that feeling of helplessness has not gone. Part of this is due to Covid: although vaccinated and cautious, I see crowds of the merrily maskless tromp by and wonder how long it will be before, as in Mumbai and Marseilles and Montreal, our rates rise again. And I wonder how long it will be until the doors of the restaurant open and our apartments are no longer our own. And I know Ali will never return.

It’s like walking on thin ice, trying to convince myself that those aren’t cracking sounds I hear.

Thomas McKean is a writer, artist, and musician, living in New York. His most recent book is A Conversation with Ruth Pitter (HappenStance Press, Glenrothes, Scotland). He is a friend of Kopkind.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece orig-inally appeared on The Nation‘s website on May 12, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: ‘Music Is the Only Language That Needs No Translator’

On May 14 the new documentary Los Hermanos/The Brothers, by former Kopkind/CID Film Campers Marsha Jarmel and Ken Schneider, began being screened live in theaters and streaming online. The film tells the story of two Cuban-born virtuosos, Ilmar and Aldo López-Gavilán, brothers separated when Ilmar went to Moscow to study violin and then immigrated to New York, where later he became a founder of the Grammy-winning Harlem Quartet. The younger Aldo studied music in England and returned to Havana to teach and play, becoming an internationally renowned pianist and com-poser. The two reunited and played together for the first time in decades as a result of the Obama administration’s opening to Cuba, a policy reversed by Trump. The film tells their personal stories and follows their electrifying performances in New York and on their US tour. Below, a video about the brothers and the film. Click here for more information about the film, including, how to watch it live or virtually, and for the official trailer.