A fully functioning miniature steam engine sealed inside a glass case at St. Louis’ Union Station Hotel. There seemed to me something poignant about an object designed to travel and breathe finding itself confined in this way. (I grew up on Rev. W. Awdry’s Railway Series books, the best known character from which is Thomas the Tank Engine, and it stamped the idea of trains as living entities on my mind forever.)
Looking at the picture now makes me think of our present state of mass quarantine. I’m an introvert who is used to spending a great deal of time at home. I find a lack of social interaction comfortable. I love to travel and have new experiences, but I’m also happy to “sit quietly in a room alone.” (I don’t actually live alone, but I wanted to use the Blaise Pascal reference.) I am, therefore, blessed to say I don’t find social distancing overly difficult. I miss church, I miss sitting in a restaurant, and I miss having the option of a road trip, but the feelings don’t rise to the level of real discomfort. There are many, however, for whom those statements are not true, and I’m sure many people must feel like the engine in the above picture: suffocated in tight glass walls.
I’m thinking specifically of those in nursing homes or other care facilities. Isolation and loneliness among the elderly and infirm is a massive problem at the best of times. How much worse must the desperation be in a time when even the possibility of visitation is cut off and there’s no telling how long it will last? (I’m not necessarily disagreeing with the measures needed to reduce the risk of patients catching Coronavirus; I’m only discussing an adverse side effect.) What not only saddens me even more but also scares and enrages me is the first hand knowledge that many nursing homes cannot be trusted. Sadly, our healthcare has fallen into a state where patients are often no longer seen as people, and many of the people we trust with our health are more a hindrance than a help. In some cases the outside influence of family members or friends is the only thing that ensures the patient gets the care they need. What will those patients do now?
Notice I’m not saying this is always the case. There is still good in the world – we do still have good caregivers, and they have my sincere admiration – but there is bad, too, and it will do damage if goes unchecked. That gnaws at me, and I had to express it.
I feel there is little I or anyone can do about any of this in the present situation, but as a writer, I can write, and that is something. We can write our legislators about improving the quality of care. We can write stories and poems that provide an escape for those struggling with isolation, or help spread awareness about issues. We can also write personal letters, to keep a sense of communication and connection alive.
That’s why I signed up to participate in the Alabama Contemporary Art Center’s Postcards from Quarantine project. The ACAC has put out a call for “volunteers to write postcards to the community’s [this project is localized to Mobile and Baldwin Counties in Alabama] most vulnerable residents: individuals quarantined in nursing homes, homeless shelters, half-way houses and the like.” They are also calling for artists to submit designs for the postcards on which those letters will be written. I believe all designs submitted will be displayed in an online gallery, and the 10 designers whose work is used on the cards will receive a cash prize.
If I have readers who live in Mobile or Baldwin County, I’m asking those readers to please consider taking part in this program. Artists who live elsewhere can also submit designs and be featured on the ACAC’s online gallery, but are not eligible to win the art competition. I don’t know if those outside Mobile and Baldwin can sign up to be pen pals, but the website I’ve linked to above provides contact information for enquiries. Wherever you are, if an agency in your area is running a similar project, I’m also asking you to consider taking part in their version of this. The service is very needed.
Thank you for reading.