The Pandemic Pages (Excerpt)

by Rena Priest



I am doing the dishes for the millionth time. And the word weary keeps repeating in my head. It catches itself on a lyric. I put on Otis Redding, and he sings to me,

Oh she may be weary
Them young girls they do get wearied
Wearing that same old shaggy dress, yeah, yeah

Us old girls do get weary too. But for now, I have Otis, and the dishes, and food. For all this, I’m thankful. I also have TV. Did you know that St. Claire of Assisi is the patron saint of TV writers? How do I know this? I get a little nostalgic for the church every year around Easter. Last month I was looking to go to confession for the evil shit I think about, so I went to the website of the local Catholic church. I saw that they were offering classes for people wanting to receive the sacrament of confirmation.

Before this pandemic, I was feeling pretty lost. Confirming my faith in a church I don’t attend seemed like the answer, so I started researching patron saints for my confirmation name. Saint Bridgette is the patron saint of poets, but I wanted to find a patron saint of writers. I discovered that St. Claire is the patron saint of TV writers because she had illuminated visions projected against her bedroom wall.

I’m taking this disruption in regular scheduling as a sign that I’m not meant to be a confirmed Catholic, but now at least I know who to pray to for good television and the care of those who write it. It is TV writers who shall shepherd me through this strange time. I’ve been binge-watching Lost. There are 122 episodes, so it’ll be there for me for as long as I can stand it. It’s about survivors stuck on an island. There’s some kind of quarantine, and nobody really knows wtf is going on. It’s a deeply relatable show right now.

The episode today is one in which the millionaire with a food addiction is hoarding a food supply. He overcomes his demons by dumping his stash, only to find that a massive new shipment of junk food has fallen from the sky. His rare problem is dealing with abundance, while most people have the opposite problem. We’re all working through some shit.

There’s no more chocolate in this house, and for the first time since all this started, I’ve had a slight feeling of melancholy. The reality of this pandemic, the hardship that so many have already experienced, seems to be creeping its way toward me, and I may soon find that I have no job. I don’t know what this will mean for the mortgage, or my eligibility to sponsor Sparky’s immigration, but I imagine it won’t be good.

The TV keeps saying we’re all in this together. I have an Italian friend who taught me the phrase, “mal comune mezzo gaudio,” a shared evil is half a joy. I realize that the hardship I’m about to experience will be felt by millions. This doesn’t bring me joy, but it makes it a little less scary, even slightly hopeful. In tarot, the tower card means something is crumbling so that something better can be built on a firmer foundation. In Lost, each survivor of the crash was en route back to an unbearable life. The crash gives survivors a clean slate.

Before the pandemic, I’d never even seen one episode of Lost. It aired when daughter was a toddler and I was an undergrad. I had no time for TV, and I’ve never paid for cable in all my adult life. “Kill your TV” was a thing when I was young, and I grew up on a reservation where there was no TV unless it could be picked up with an antenna. The choice was Star Trek or Star Trek, so we watched Star Trek and wished that explorers from Europe followed Starfleet’s Prime Directive instead of the Catholic Church’s Doctrine of Discovery.

Side note: The Papal Bull that set out the Doctrine of Discovery was called, Inter Caetera, which translates to “Among Other Things.” The church’s justification for what was done in the Americas was a mere side note in catholic lawmaking. Sometimes non-natives have asked me why Indians are Catholic, after all the injustices done in god’s name. Faith is always complicated to explain, but lately, I’ve come to suspect that my relationship to Catholicism is an intergenerational case of Stockholm syndrome.

Anyway, when kids at school would talk about Seinfeld, or Friends, I always wished I had a clue as to what they were talking about so I could join the conversation. (Nobody ever talked about Star Trek. Weird, right?)

This is one of the many ways Native culture is different from white culture. You possibly had teen years filled with Seinfeld, and MTV, and images of people in the media who looked like you and affirmed that you were super cool. We had teen years filled with Star Trek reruns and the oral tradition which recounted, and recounted, and recounted our tribal history to us, so that we understood in our bones that we are the children of survivors, and we are also survivors. And our children will be survivors.

Hearing our history is like a vaccine. It contains a deactivated strain of what could kill me. It stings when administered, makes me a little sick, and teaches my cells how to survive. Our songs are sacred food. They give strength to carry that weight of our terrible history, and to soothe the injuries of unprovoked hatred leveled against us.

One passage in the oral history we tell is about pandemic.

Whether by a pandemic of microbes or murderers, 90 percent of the original inhabitants of the Americas were dead within two generations of European contact. It has been called “the greatest demographic disaster in the history of the world.” One survivor among nine dead.

People use the word decimate to describe catastrophic destruction. The word originated with the ancient Roman practice of killing one-in-ten men as punishment for the group. I don’t think there is a word for nine killed and one surviving. If one-in-ten is catastrophic destruction, what is nine-in-ten? I supposed genocide would be the closest name for it.

The first wave of pandemic swept through our region ahead of the physical arrival of invaders. When the men came in their ships, they came into vulnerable, grieving communities that had been ravaged by disease. In hunter-gatherer societies, there is no such thing as a non-essential worker. Everyone is essential. Starvation followed pestilence. I am a survivor of this history. I still cry over it. I still sing over it.



Farmers are on the news talking about how their crops are not going to get planted and they’re going to go broke, while other farmers are talking about dumping product because there’s no restaurant market. Still, others are talking about how their crops are not going to get picked and are going rot in the fields because they can’t get their workers back from Guatemala and “Americans just don’t want to do this kind of work.” Meanwhile, unemployment is up 300%, and the price of food is about to skyrocket.

The news says that hospitals are going bankrupt, and Sparky asks, “How can that even be allowed to happen?”

“Oh, Spark,” I say, “You and your socialist medical care. This is capitalism son. In god we trust.”



Today, I work in the garden and go for a bike ride. After dinner, I drive along the eastern shoreline of the rez, which is the best place to watch a moonrise. I see that dozens of non-natives have made this discovery as well. They line the roadside with tripods and cameras at six-foot intervals.

I park and watch the sunset cast its shimmering farewell across the bay. The snow on the mountain turns the pink of cherry blossoms, and then, the moon rises. It peeks out, golden from behind the twin sisters, casting its reflection in a bright line on the water. When it is clear of the horizon and dusk settles on the bay, I chase the moon into Bellingham, looking for a nice picture of its face above the quiet cityscape.

Seismographers say that the earth has quieted. Whale researchers say a reduction in marine vessel traffic has quieted the sea, causing cortisol levels in whales to drop. This time away from my job has caused my cortisol levels to drop, as well. The bags under my eyes have disappeared, and I feel young and happy again. Happy enough to ride bikes, write poems, watch birds, and chase the moon. If mother earth were to invent a virus, it would make the earth quiet so the whales could hear each other sing again.



“The birds sang, the proles sang, the Party did not sing…” This is a line from George Orwell’s 1984. Another one that gets me is a line by Russel Baker, “We are in the hands of men who make no music and have no dream.” I have this chilling realization whenever I turn on the news, so I turn it off and use music as a balm to cheer me. Lately, I want to sing all day. I want to read poems all day. I want to sit and listen to birdsong and silence all day long.

I’ve been waiting to write until I feel like I have something to say. I keep thinking that things are so redundant around here and probably, similarly so for everyone else in the world, that I couldn’t possibly have much to write worth reading. Then I notice that the birds seem to like a loose branch in my tree that bounces when they land on it. They take turns flying to it and bobbing up and down until it stops. It’s like a little birdie carnival ride. They love it. I’m at my window watching them when daughter calls.

The restaurant where she used to work has offered her a few hours doing a deep clean since the dining room is closed. She’s calling to ask if I’ll bring her some books and her work shoes. I gather the requested items in a paper bag and deliver them. We hang out like cops in a parking lot, talking to each other from six feet away through our rolled down car windows. I wish we had donuts.

We talk about how everything is being done remotely. I tell her about a physicist I saw on YouTube, who explained that every living thing on earth is an organic, remote-data-gathering machine. Like highly sophisticated space rovers, we are trillions of perspectives sending earth’s images, sensations, and emotional reactions back to a universal intelligence so that it can better understand itself. Ants send ant perspectives, bees send bee perspectives, the birds send theirs, you send yours, and I send mine.

“Are you high!? You been smoking pot, mom?”

“No.” I say, “The other physicist on the video said he believes that we are not remote information gatherers, but little pieces of the universe expressing itself.” So, there you go, researchers and artists have their camps in physics too.

I don’t realize that my headlights are on, and we talk until my car battery goes dead. Daughter pulls her car around in front of mine, and I hook up the jumper cables, but something isn’t right. There is a terrible smell and then suddenly, lots of smoke.

“Take them off! It’s going to explode!” Daughter screams.

For a moment, I’m sure I’m going to die of electrocution, but I decide to risk it and pull the jumper cables off. Shaken, I call Sparky, and he rides his bike to where we’re parked. He hooks up the jumper cables correctly, and all is well. When I get home, I turn on some music. I watch the birds and wonder if I’m the universe expressing itself, or if I’m sending it something new to consider about the nature of music and love. I think both.

RENA PRIEST is a poet and a member of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation. Her literary debut, Patriarchy Blues, was honored with a 2018 American Book Award. Her most recent collection, Sublime Subliminal, was selected as the finalist for the Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Award. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. 

Featured Photo by Rena Priest