This week, poet Dorianne Laux’s poem “For the Sake of Strangers” has repeatedly found its way to my inbox. And for good reason: It reminds us that we are tethered to one another, even when (especially when) we are isolated and alone:

No matter what the grief, its weight,

we are obliged to carry it.

We rise and gather momentum, the dull strength

that pushes us through crowds.

And then the young boy gives me directions

so avidly. A woman holds the glass door open,

waiting patiently for my empty body to pass through.

All day it continues, each kindness

reaching toward another—a stranger

singing to no one as I pass on the path, trees

offering their blossoms, a child

who lifts his almond eyes and smiles.

Somehow they always find me, seem even to be waiting,

determined to keep me

from myself, from the thing that calls to me

as it must have once called to them—

this temptation to step off the edge

and fall weightless, away from the world.

In the context of a pandemic, the poem takes on the weight of melancholic nostalgia. Crowds are a distant memory. And who is this kind woman, blithely touching the handle of a communal door?

While we wait for the thronging masses with their careless touches to return, we find other ways to keep ourselves from ourselves, to stop ourselves from falling away from the world. Prestige (also trash) TV can help, as can Instagram baking tutorials, at-home yoga apps, and home-streaming movies.

But, of course, books offer the most direct route to sustained-but-restrained escape. Poetry like Andrea Cohen’s Nightshade or Steve Healey’s Safe Houses I Have Known dislocate language, asking us to attend to distilled moments in ways we can’t with Twitter. Short story collections, like Lauren Holmes’s Barbara the Slut or Bryan Washington’s Lot, expand Facebook’s promise to offer us an evocative peek inside discrete but connected lives. Easy-reading YA, like Amy Spalding’s We Used to Be Friends, extend us comfort through the familiar intensity of first loves and losses. And, of course, the classics and big books, like Middlemarch or Infinite Jest (god help us), open up an escape hatch onto worlds so comprehensive they can feel like a trap.

I have a two-foot stack of to-be-read books on my bedside table, but pandemic reading seems to call for something special. I’ve ordered Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s lauded first book in her recently completed Thomas-Cromwell trilogy, and My Brilliant Friend, the first book of Elena Ferrante’s beloved Neapolitan quartet.

Starting a series can be as intimidating as starting a heralded classic or a formidably big book. In regular life, I don’t like feeling obligated to read on (and on) to find out what happens. But from my more narrow pandemic perspective, the promise of a future unfolding feels more like a (reading) exercise in hope.

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We’re writing under a NWO here in Minnesota…and everywhere else. Schools are closed, and events, bars, restaurants, cafes, clubs, and anyplace else people want to congregate, are cancelled or shut down to flatten the COVID-19 curve.

It’s a new normal that can be hard to process in the permanent now of Twitter’s micro-moods. Some of us (or just me) are swinging between a fight-or-flight response to the immediate crisis and the more considered calm required to take care—of ourselves, our families, our communities, our jobs.

In this case, taking care may mean thinking through—like thinking through the consequences of choices about self-quarantining, social distancing, and vector-stymying so that we can take care of ourselves and each other.

But we can also take care by thinking through seemingly less impactful choices, like the words we use.

Because language is an everyday modus operandi, words sometimes feel arbitrary and unimportant. But even in their apparent meaningless (see Molly Young’s expose of garbage language, Mark Morgioni’s defense, and George Orwell’s 1946 anticipation of the same), words carry political implications.

The words of the pandemic, for example, have been shaped into weaponry for deployment in infectious warfare. Over the years (errr, likely throughout the history of language), war metaphors have been dulled by overuse. But such metaphors still signal the scale of struggle and the unity required to face and fight a common enemy.

Often, the referent makes the difference: When the federal administration chooses to refer to the coronavirus or COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” for example, it matters. An enemy called COVID-19, for example, requires armament in kind: masks, tests, hospital beds, a systemic and coordinated frontline—and rearguard—response. Since we know we don’t yet have these weapons in effective numbers, we know we cannot effectively fight this enemy.

An enemy called the “Chinese virus,” on the other hand, diverts attention from the weapons we don’t have (and why) by modifying virality with origins. It unifies an “us” against a foreign invader, and signals the need for weaponry of a different order (such as the border closures President Trump indicates have aided the fight). In this way, the racism contingent on and inherent to the distinction may not be considered by its users to be a symptom but salutary.

The challenges inherent to naming diseases are significant: Just ask the WHO. Yet, because language is not “a natural growth” but, as Orwell argued, “an instrument which we shape for our own purposes,” we should take care to think these challenges through. Our words won’t keep us safe from COVID-19, but they can make a difference in how and where we focus the fight.