A Consoling Disorientation

As the northern hemisphere cools into deep autumn and the world wonders about nuclear annihilation rising out of the war in Ukraine, I am taken back to the fall of 2021 and a more personal disorientation, when I lost my long-held teaching post at Minnesota State College Southeast because I refused the COVID-19 vaccination and weekly nasal-swab testing.

After I was fired, I was stricken with streptococcal meningitis and, according to the doctors, might have died if I had waited any longer to seek aid. When my wife first took me to the emergency room, they thought I had suffered a stroke, because I could not speak properly. I said words that made sense to me but drew uncomprehending facial expressions from the medical staff and from my wife. Meningitis is, it seems, a raging fire in the membranes that surround the brain.

It took me weeks to regain my balance, literally and figuratively. Even now I sometimes feel as though I am a walking accident, like maybe I was supposed to expire in the hospital but somehow didn’t, and thus I must go around haunting my own life like a ghost, surprising myself and others by just showing up. Almost as if I were that rare, barefaced man in the sea of face-masked humanity filling every public space in the fall of 2020, when the COVID panic was in full swing.

That barefaced man was like a dream dropped into a new reality, a kind of confusing cultural memory of something we might once have been and now no longer are. He reminded us—of pulsing blood, and will, and love of life—in a way he could not have done in 2019 had we seen him then, when his face would have blended with the rest of the crowd and therefore failed to penetrate the pre-COVID malaise.

In rural Wisconsin, where I live, the mask-driven civil order of 2020 and 2021 was not quite so lemming-like as it was in some other places. More than half of the 72 sheriffs in the state, including the one in my county, made public announcements to the effect that they would not respond to calls reporting fellow citizens for not wearing their masks. Yet businesses felt the pressure just the same. They didn’t want to risk losing customers who believed the government’s party line, so they followed the diktats from the Centers for Disease Control and their local public health agencies, putting up signs on their doors that demanded muzzled compliance.

But, like the barefaced man, there were a few businesses that did not listen to the fearmongering. One of those was a bar and grill several miles down the road from my house. It is difficult to convey, even now, just how important that establishment was to the sanity of souls in my part of the state. After spending the day in various face-erasing environments, you could drive out to this place among the coulee country hills outlining a twilit December horizon, park your car, and walk up to the front door, where you’d find a scotch-taped sign:

The CDC and our local board of health decree that, in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, you must wear a mask on these premises, unless you have a medical condition that would prevent you from doing so. Therefore, if we see you in here without a mask, we will assume you have that kind of medical condition.

And then when one would step through the door out of the dusk and the cold, one would see for the first time that day a room full of human beings talking and smiling and laughing under warm light and without a mask in sight. The bartender who is also the owner would notice you, having washed ashore there in the vestibule, and would hail you as if you were an old friend.

That place is real. But one cannot recognize its beauty, not in quite so glimmering a state, unless one has been laboring all day in some disorienting unreality, some big-box store or office building or school or hospital.

Perhaps a widespread mandate coupled with a zoned-out, acquiescent populace readies the canvas for divine communication. In a sea of blue, one man’s ruddy face floating on the surface makes you see the world anew, makes you one of “those that would have wept to step barefoot into reality,” as Wallace Stevens put it in his poem, “Large Red Man Reading.” Stevens depicted the dead who came back from “the wilderness of stars” to see and hear exquisite words being read aloud by one whose voice formed the very corners of reality. They wanted to see from the afterlife what they had failed to see while living.

In the hospital with meningitis, I saw things I cannot explain: black dots that pulled away from the wall and moved about the room in little configurations, like squadrons of fighter-jets; endless complicated mathematical formulas written in red ink, scrawled up and down the white walls; countless persons whose images appeared to me at first in shiny objects—a door handle, the water vase—and then, once I perceived their presence, in large-screen images on the nearest lightly colored wall. They always came in groups of two or three and went about their business as I watched in silence, like one would watch a squirrel in a tree or a man in the park with his children.

Were they those from “the wilderness of stars”? Perhaps. But if so, they had not come to see me. It was the other way around. The portals in the room were taking me to them, and they were unaware of my watching from that perch between the worlds.

You may say that it was just the drugs: the doctor had pumped me full of narcotics, multiple high-powered antibiotics, and some other medicines I cannot remember. But such a diagnosis would be to exchange mystery for certainty, wonder for confidence, disorientation for mere explanation. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,” according to Hamlet, “than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

When I returned home, the gift of drink was taken from me. Not only was alcohol ill-advised, according to the doctors, but I simply no longer had the taste for it. Neither could I hear music rightly, nor always understand what I was seeing when I looked at a once-familiar photograph, nor could I sleep through the night. Gradually, these pleasures, in all their small magnificence, came back to me, but it was the time of their absence that piqued my awareness of them. Maybe we need the pressure of loss close at hand in order to catch glimpses of things as they really are.

In the waning moments of the 19th century, right around Christmastime in the year 1900, Thomas Hardy published “The Darkling Thrush.” The speaker in that poem is out for a walk at dusk in the bleak English winter countryside. He sees death and desolation everywhere as he surveys the landscape, and then he turns those images into the corpse and the crypt of the century just passed.

And just as he thinks “every spirit upon earth / Seemed fervorless as I,” there comes from among the bare twigs “a full-hearted evensong / Of joy illimited” from an “aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,” who had “chosen thus to fling his soul / Upon the growing gloom.” The final stanza continues:

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

Perhaps the best thing about disorientation is the sweet surprise that interrupts it now and then, the peephole tear in the fabric of the temporal.

—Michael Larson

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