We are landscape for the virus, the place where it does its virus thing…At every moment of suffocation since this started, it’s been art received and art made–words and music–that has saved me.
I’ve thought a lot about Boccaccio since February. The social disruptions of the Black Death made room for episodic secular tales written in the vernacular. Prior to the Decameron, tales like the ones he wrote down were told (probably to some degree in song) but not written largely due to class assumptions about who should read.
The above is literally academic and does not require 2020 experience to understand. However, what the experience of the last few months has helped me see is what drove Boccaccio’s writing of the Decameron. I said at the beginning of all this that the fact that we are dealing with something that cannot be seen aligns our psyche’s with the medieval psyche in a way that something like the pervasive fear of sudden violence or nuclear war that I remember as a kid growing up in the 80’s did not. Being afraid of humans is mitigated to some degree by the knowledge that it is possible to communicate and reason with other people and that person to person violence always comes with a degree of mutual destruction.
Add to that, recommendations that appear to shift based on resources and economist predictions, and we’re in this perfect artistic storm of broken authority, broken routine, and life that is brilliant and visceral because its tenuousness is close to our consciousness instead of hidden beneath the anesthesia of modern life. Some truly great art will come out of this.
Knowing that doesn’t make me less afraid to sit in my classroom, a closed ventilation system where 150 students pass through each day, let alone walk hallways that see 1700. Many of my students have been, and will be, working as well as going to school. At the bakery where a lot of students go for lunch, every employee was Covid positive at the beginning of the summer. We don’t know that we’re in building in my district, but DPS announcing they plan to go business as usual, the need for schools to be child care for young children, the difficulty of ensuring appropriate remote learning, and that health recommendations are currently being driven by economic desires rather than health necessities, all mean I have to be prepared to start school as usual a month from now.
Also, teaching is hard, even under the best circumstances and no matter what, this year won’t be that. No matter what school looks like, kids are going to be asking us how to carry the weight of the present and worry of the future.
At every moment of suffocation since this started, it’s been art received and art made–words and music–that has saved me. I’ve been too much on the inside of even small-scale politics to place any faith in the structures that wrestle over power. Art is the one true through-line for human beings–which is probably why its the first thing attacked in power struggles.
All of these pressures can become either weight or fuel–that’s what I now understand about Boccaccio and what I’ll tell my students. Familiar structures are often not adequate for new needs of expression. We are reinventing ourselves as writers searching for constructions of words able to carry the depth of our feeling. Our personal fates will be what they will be, but our contributions make up the well of art that has sustained us and will feed others.
That doesn’t make it easier to imagine going back to school, but it makes it possible.