On Navigating the Crisis, from Grief to Gratefulness

It’s not as if we need another word about grief. But here goes.

An old friend of mine died in April. He didn’t have the novel coronavirus, but cancer re-emerged in his body and made its final move. I dug out a picture I’d made more than 50 years ago. Roger stood in the woods near Walden Pond. At least that’s where the memory took me, buttressed by the trees and the water in the distance of this faded photo I’d made. Thoreau’s refuge, a symbol of isolation and introspection, seemed to be a fitting touchpoint for what we’ve been living through the last few months.

There is personal grief and there is a collective grief. The best we can do is navigate around those feelings and maintain a hold on whatever feels like a normal life for now.

For those of us in the arts, that has meant connecting in inventive ways. Live-streamed concerts now come with views of musicians’ living rooms. First-run movies and theatrical performances arrive compressed onto small screens. Our friendships take on eerie, jerky rhythms via chat sessions and cocktail hours on Zoom. Writers and artists hunker down and face the stirrings in their individual consciousness.

There are moments I pile guilt upon grief. In recent weeks, as I write, the news of three suicides filtered up through my digital networks. I worry for so many people I know whose jobs and businesses are teetering. Depression as a state of mind is an understandable response to so much heartache and uncertainty.

Maybe my radar is tuned this way, but the number of musicians who have succumbed to the pandemic seems inordinate. Nevertheless, we must celebrate the outsized and influential careers of those who have left us.

Mostly, I’ve burrowed in. I read and write. I can’t escape the news. I don’t want to. But I feel somewhat helpless. I fling support to good causes. I order takeout from my friends’ restaurants. I listen to musicians and poets as they assert their presence and their art in precarious times. An online book group gave me some focused attention and smart, though distant, conversation for a few weeks.

Our cultural landscape — as well as our social and civic ones — can’t help but be transformed permanently, in ways we still can’t really know. As I write elsewhere in this issue, creative people and organizations may very well need to redefine and reinvent.

Many of us will conclude that living more simply, perhaps as Thoreau aimed to tell us, is a proper response to chaos, catastrophe and uncertainty.

Simplicity sure beats living with the kind of fraying nerves and brain contortions the populace is prone to develop when leadership failures and negative energy consume so much daily oxygen.

So here’s to Victor & Penny, Rex Hobart, Beau Bledsoe, Stan Kessler, Jeff Harshbarger, Lauren Krum, José Faus, Mike Stover, Fritz Hutchison and so many others in our local cultural landscape, who brightened our days, who countered the bad vibes, with music, with poetry, with art on the fly.

There’s a fellow in my neighborhood who took to his porch from time to time with a trumpet. I could make out the melodies of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” and the late Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” straining to be heard among the missed notes and wonky tempos that issued, over and over again, from down the block. But the recital was, in the moment, a comforting connection. A gesture of human existence amid the social apocalypse. And it reminded me that I really did need to sit down more at my piano and practice, practice, practice.

Leaves on the trees, flowers in the garden, joyous birdsong at dawn.

We don’t ask for much. Our grief, if we contain it, makes us stronger.

Some nights, for entertainment we sit in our yard and stare into the heart of our little chimenea, glowing with the embers of those damn, spiky sweetgum balls. A moon and bright celestial objects above. Tell me why we should not feel grateful for what we have.

Above: Lauren Krum sang to more than 50 people in a front-yard, socially distanced neighborhood concert in May. (photo by Steve Paul)

Steve Paul

Steve Paul is the author of “Hemingway at Eighteen” and a biography of Evan S. Connell. He has been a writer and editor in Kansas City for more than 45 years.

  1. Erin McGrane says:

    Thank you, Steve. You’re a gem and I miss seeing you. I miss listening to music with you. I miss discussing current events with you at small gatherings of friends with a glass of wine. Thank you for your comforting words.

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