On March 13, I made my weekly grocery trip to a local warehouse store. The parking lot was jam-packed. After I managed to find a parking space, I went into the building and saw a staff member wiping down the handles of each shopping cart with a disposable wet cloth before passing them to customers.
What I saw and experienced in the store was disturbing to me. After I left with my groceries, I drove to a less crowded parking lot so I could stop and take a breather. I called my wife to tell her what was happening in the store. Then I used my phone to write a piece of poetry:
The warehouse store’s getting
robbed out —
Bare bread shelves
Store staff collecting empty
boxes and hauling them away
Patrons piling boxes and crates
full onto carts and flatbed dollies
Crowded aisles blocking access
Faces hidden by surgical masks
Masses queuing at the checkout
A store run, like a bank run
Triggered by rumors of
What descent has fueled
The first piece of creative writing I ever did was a poem I wrote in fourth grade. Since then, as playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda says in a hip hop song, I have “wrote my way out” of a background of urban poverty, school bullying, and child abuse, and into two college degrees and a home that I own. I wrote my way out of an economically depressed Rust Belt town, and into the financially stable Twin Cities. My family of origin eventually followed me to find new lives here.
In the present time of shutdowns, lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, I struggle with the fact that with this crisis there is no way out. There is no distant city that can provide me escape, no college education that can offer me uplift, no jobs with income that can give me refuge.
I was 19 years old when I was able to take the first step of writing my way out, attending college far from where I grew up. Before that, as a child and teenager, I wrote constantly: journals, poems, essays, stories, letters to my best friend. I often walked around with notebooks to scribble whatever came to mind. Until writing got me out of the traumatic environment I lived in, it got me through living in it.
I cannot write my way out of the pandemic and its effects, but I am compelled to write my way through it.
Stephani Maari Booker (she/her), author of “Secret Insurrection: Stories from a Novel of a Future Time,” writes nonfiction, speculative fiction, erotic fiction, and poetry. .goodreads.com/athenapm