My grandfather was known as a straight shooter - even with me, his only granddaughter. He taught me venison was Santa's reindeer; described his time in the WWII coast guard as "blood rolling down the decks." He taught me a mantra for when I was anxious: "Bullshit. Bullshit. Bullshit." One of my strongest childhood memories is fearfully walking to school, tears on my face, whispering “bullshit.” It took me many days of trying, but eventually I made it to school by myself.
My grandfather described me as someone who would “step in shit and think she got a pony.” In other words, there was no bad situation I couldn't see good in.
He was right about me: I saw ponies inside mental illness, miscarriages, a stroke at a young age, and two craniotomies. Hardship teaches. I’m better for it.
Nothing though, is testing me like 2020. And I find now, I'm still looking around for the ponies. Hidden in the stables, maybe: but they’re there. We have a chance, now, to ride these ponies where we always wanted to go. Wrapped up in our isolation is reinvention. This is a pony I want to ride.
-Say what you need to say, and do what you need to do.
If this wasn’t clear to you before, it surely is now. Life is fleeting and fast and full of fear. And even if our loved ones survive the pandemic, many of us are marking time without each other. It’s a perfect opportunity to assess where your heart is, and share it. And where your heart isn’t: it’s time to let that part go.
-How do you live?
Many of us spend more time at home now. Because of that, we have to assess our immediate environments. De-cluttering abounds. Sourdough abounds. We create work spaces in creative spots. But beyond that: when you look around your space, what do you wish you had: a certain kind of art? A photo of your aunt? Your favorite necklace on display?
When you look up, what’s on the wall in front of you? What’s to the left and to the right? Do you like looking at it? Maybe something else - even a new order to what’s on your shelf - will make you smile a little more, or frown a little less.
Maybe now’s the time to put up a poster of your favorite band, instead of whatever you’ve got there. It’s your wall. It’s your eyes that have to look at that wall.
And what, when you assess this space, bothers you? What makes you cringe or feel uneasy? The one dish that doesn’t match? The soap you were gifted that you’ll never use? The pile of magazines you swore you’d read?
It’s ok to dispose of, or pass on, these things. When you emerge, you want to live in a place that suits you. Let yourself shape your space the way you always wanted. We don’t need money to do this. Instead, we need to ponder what matters. Keep what matters; let yourself leave the rest.
-Your personal, local, and global economics are laid bare.
Are you thinking, suddenly, about supporting small businesses? The bookstore down the street you always took for granted? The family restaurant who makes your favorite foods?
If you’re not of color: are you supporting BIPOC-owned businesses and organizations, when maybe it hadn’t occurred to you before?
Are you, with what precious little you have left right now, choosing carefully which charities to support? Are you more thoughtful than ever about every dollar you spend and how far it goes? If you can afford a vacation again someday, will you think more thoroughly about where you’ll spend your money and time?
Good. This is where we should have been all along. Now we’ve caught up; we won’t go back. We will all come out more socially conscious. This is nothing but positive.
-Inequity is laid bare.
When in our history have we been able to see so clearly how access varies? To medical care, internet and technology, employment. Transportation. Safety and fair wages at work. Quality school environment and educational resources. It hurts, so much, to look at it, to acknowledge it. It is torture, somettimes. But the only way to change it is to first see it clearly. Does it matter to you more now than it did before? Is it in your face and you can’t look away? Good. Now we are closer to fixing it.
-Empathy is unavoidable.
Everyone all over the world is feeling what you’re feeling: everyone. More than any other historical event - including war, where sides vary and experiences wax and wane - every human wants this virus gone. And more than any other historical event, we can see each other, and share identical struggles.
Every human worries about their family. Even the humans you disagree with politically; even the humans you hate. When you look in the mirror, what you think is what everyone else is thinking: what will life be now? What risks will I take today? How will I keep myself and my loved ones safe?
What could be more powerful than knowing every single one of us shares the same morning thoughts - no matter when our sun rises?
All around us, people - and animals and trees and even the air and the water - suffer, struggle, swing from tightropes. In the suffering is an opportunity. In our cocoons, we get to the core. Who are you? What matters to you? From your personal space to the earth itself: what do you want it to be? We can answer these questions now: we have to. There is no safe place to look, so we must create it. Once we know these answers, we know what to do next. We can start with the wall in front of us, and move out from there.
Shovel the poop, sweeten the grass. Ride the pony. Anywhere you want to go.
Michelle Cristiani is the winner of the Margarita Donnelly 2018 fiction prize from Calyx review, and has been published in Awakenings Review and Oregon Poetry Association's 2015 contest. She teaches reading and writing at Portland Community College in Portland, OR.