Saturday, July 4, 2020

"Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of COVID-19" - Edited by Jennifer Haupt

I still remember the nervousness I felt as I approached Harriet Clare, the co-owner of Indy's feminist bookstore Dreams & Swords. It was a Broad Ripple area icon, a 2-story bookstore in a trendy, progressive area of Indianapolis where I'd first purchased books like Laura Davis and Ellen Bass's "Courage to Heal" that would become essential in my own recovery from childhood sexual abuse and adult sexual assault.

I handed over my first self-published effort, a GBC-bound collection of poetry I called "Imaginary Crimes" that detailed my life experiences that helped me express truths that writers like Etheridge Knight, Charles Bukowski, and Audre Lord had convinced me I was allowed to put out to the world.

I expected Harriet to say "I'm sorry, we can't carry that."

She didn't. She gingerly accepted the book. Over the next few days, she read the book. I'm sure she realized these words weren't written perfectly, whatever perfect means, but she treated these words like the sacred truths they were and she placed my book on a shelf where the world could see it.

I don't know that that's the point where I became a "writer," but I do know that's the point where I began to realize my voice matters and I need to use it every single chance I get.

The book sold. A lot. It sold so much that I ended up having to buy a second GBC Binder to keep up with the demand from survivors who felt empowered by my vulnerable truths and from therapists and professional conferences who sought me out to lead workshops on speaking truth.

I thought about this period of my life a lot while reading Jennifer Haupt's equally sacred collection "Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of COVID-19," an exhilarating and deeply moving collection of essays, poetry, interviews, and words giving voice to what it means to live in this time of isolation and uncertainty.

The central theme of "Alone Together" is how this age, and it indeed feels like an age, of isolation and uncertainty is changing us as individuals and a society. The book is divided into five sections - What Now?, Grieve, Comfort, Connect, and Don’t Stop!.

In response to the pandemic, Haupt has rallied almost one hundred authors and business partners to contribute their work, free of charge, to support independent booksellers forced to close their doors. All proceeds are being donated to The Book Industry Charitable Foundation, a nonprofit organization that coordinates charitable programs to strengthen the bookselling community. The print book contains 69 essays, interviews, and poems. The audio and e-book editions have 22 bonus pieces.

Haupt's roster of voices is diverse, some household names easily recognized while others may seem more obscure but have long committed themselves to the journey of writing. I picture them contributing to the book for many of the same reasons I will support the endeavor - a deep appreciation for indie booksellers and memories of those who've supported the world in which they now live.

Faith Adiele, Kwame Alexander, Jenna Blum, Andre Dubus III, Jamie Ford, Nikki Giovanni, Luis Alberto Urrea, Pam Houston, Jean Kwok, Major Jackson, Caroline Leavitt, Devi S. Laskar, Ada Limón, Dani Shapiro, David Sheff, Garth Stein, Steve Yarbrough, and Lidia Yuknavitch are only some of the names represented here and who give voice to what it means to seek connection amidst forced isolation and how to survive and thrive and make sense of the almost nonsensical. While specific to the COVID-19 pandemic, "Alone Together will unquestionably endure as these voices all seemingly understand that what we endure now is an experience that will change our lives and our systems for years to come.

From Garth Stein's eloquent and matter-of-fact foreword that proclaims, among many things, that "art is the crucial element of humanity," "Alone Together" through experiences that are at times incredibly profound and at other times achingly vulnerable. At times, "Alone Together" is almost jarringly mundane while other times, practically without notice, the tears flow and and my own memories formed throughout the period come flashing back.

It seems weird, almost cruel, to pick favorites amongst such a meaningful collection but I suppose that's an obligation for reviewing a collection that seems to defy review.

Faith Adiele's pointed, structured "The New Vocabulary" adds clarity to unfolding events as if an Outlook Calendar has gone universal and somehow tied us all together. Martha Anne Toll's "Dayenu: Dispatches from the COVID-19 Sick Ward" brought my first tears, a gratitude unfolding within a journey filled to the brim with humanity gut-level truths.

Gail Brandeis's "Shedding" is the first, but certainly not last, poem that sings out my own truths while Scott James's "Ghost Town" celebrates the deep meaning of an ever elusive smile.

Robin Black's "Needlecast" simply took my breath away. There is never a time when Nikki Giovanni's words don't sing to my soul and the same is true here. It is immediately followed by Devi S. Laskar's remarkable "State of the Art, State of the Union," an essay that speaks to chaos and accountability and meaning and ends with what may very well be my favorite sentence in the entire collection.

No, I'm not placing it here. You need to read it for yourself.

As someone who has spent 30 years of my life on an event called the Tenderness Tour, I seemingly always get chills with writers who can meaningfully explore the world of touch and tenderness as unfolds in Paulette Perhach's "Skin" and Michelle Goodman's extraordinary "Touch," the latter being an essay where I outright sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.

Having lost my own younger brother during this pandemic, I resonated deeply with Caroline Leavitt's "Sibling Estrangement and Social Distancing" and with Susan Henderson's "Quarantine" nearly as much.

I still have images in my mind from Laura Stanfill's "Breathing Lilacs."

I feel every word in Julie Gardner's "The Last T-shirt."

Andrea King Collier's words acknowledge survival and privilege; Jane Hirshfield's "Today, When I could Do Nothing" danced around my heart with the tininess of its wonder and beauty.

Abigail Carter's "The House with the Mossy Roof" feels familiar as I reflect on my own experiences being a 50+ disabled adult living alone in a house without family around. Porch drops have become a form of human connection, while any semblance of "checking in" has become desperately sought intimacy.

In a collection so immersed in grief and isolation, Jean Kwok's aptly titled "Searching for Grace during Lockdown" felt like grace during lockdown. I would have been happy with the title put forth by Kelli Russell Agodon and Melissa Studdard - "I Kind of Want to Love the World, But I Have No Idea How to Hold It."


Lidia Yuknavitch, an author I didn't know for far too long, feels like a long lost sibling with "Ecstatic States," while Sonora Jha's "Alone and Awash in Desire" splashes like waves over my wounded psyche.

I know. I know. It's weird to keep mentioning individual essays. I simply can't help myself and, indeed, I simply won't help myself. There are others. Admittedly, some resonated more than others as is nearly always true in a collection of essays.

Sommer Browning and David Shields's "Pandemic Date Night" made me laugh with a hint of melancholy. A conversation with Luis Alberto Urrea is easily among my favorites of the book's interviews with its call to life and fierce optimism.

I can't even explain why I loved Pam Houston's "Stamina (Memorial Day Weekend, 2020), but I feel it still holding a special place within my heart. The same is true for Shana Mahaffey's "Don't Stop Believin'.

Near the end of "Alone Together," Haupt herself reflects on "Why Get Out of Bed?," a meaningful and insightful question at a time when for many of us there is no place to go and when even working means only moving to a different room in the house.

In mid-November, I was hospitalized at St. Francis Hospital here in Indianapolis. Dehydration had overwhelmed my system and infection had practically taken over a body that has lived far longer than anyone expected. I'm a 54-year-old paraplegic/double amputee with spina bifida, a birth defect that killed 95% of those born with it in 1965 and a birth defect that largely means I will be at the back of the line for critical care should COVID-19 come my way.

That scares me.

I survived yet another amputation in late November, my left leg going from below-knee amputation to above-knee amputation. I subsequently spent over 3+ months off work recovering and learning how to transfer to a toilet, a bed, how to dress, and eventually how to get back in my car. I was alone for much of this time, though certainly grateful for one month of home health and the occasional visit to my urban home where I live a quiet, introverted life. I had returned to work for one week, quite literally one week, when COVID-19 sent us all to work from home and where I remain having spent the better part of the last seven months alone with very occasional visits, now non-existent with the virus, and occasional visits to the local Target or Meijer to replenish supplies while masked up and befuddled by those who choose rights over the survival of those around them.

I laughed during "Alone Together." I cried during "Alone Together." I reflected and meditated and prayed and remembered and hoped and grieved and connected during "Alone Together."

"Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of COVID-19" is scheduled for release by Central Avenue Publishing on September 1, 2020 with all proceeds to benefit the Book Industry Charitable Foundation.

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