Opinion

Week 98: A window facing north

January 16, 2022 3:33 am

Leaves adorn the pages of a dictionary during a dread-suffused January 2022. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

You could feel the dread rolling over us like a cloud.

There was a somber quality to all of the past week that imbued every sight and sound with a peculiar gravity, a murmuring at the edge of our consciousness that whispered despair. The weather was mild and the sunsets were pastel and I should have found comfort there, but instead these midwinter scenes carried a strange weight. There was little wind on Constitution Street. At the university a few of blocks away, I prepared for my soon-to-begin spring semester in a lonely office with a window facing the chill light of the northern sky. Even chance encounters with colleagues on the sidewalk outside seemed fraught, awkward encounters where we juggled masks and made small talk and couldn’t decide whether it was best to shake hands, touch elbows or remain distant.

The soundless days conjured a feeling of existential dread.

Perhaps it was the uncertainty of beginning another year while facing the worst coronavirus surge of the pandemic. Or the opening of the 2022 Kansas Legislative session, one likely to be as deeply divided as any since our state’s founding on the eve of the Civil War. Or perhaps it was the madness that seems to have become a part of everyday life in all communities. In addition to road rage and random floating anger and political shouting matches, there are the accounts of senseless crime and desperate lives — and deaths. There was a local news account about police having been dispatched to check a vehicle on the highway west of town, and finding inside the body of a 33-year-old woman who had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Her body had apparently been driven around by a man, whose relationship to the woman was unclear, with her two small children in the car.

It all contributed to a melancholy I could not shake.

I had written another column for today, but after filing it I asked my editor to spike it. The work was a serviceable but uninspired piece about the Legislature, peppered with a few zingers. But it didn’t feel right, didn’t match the mood, was not what I should be writing at the moment. The week had been hard on everyone, my editor said, and he knew many who shared similar feelings of dread. Let me take another crack I said, and maybe I would tackle the odd mood of the second week in January 2022.

I was depressed, of course. It’s something I’ve struggled with all of my life. But I wasn’t as distraught as the young woman who had been found in the car was (if you are, please seek help now, and you might start with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255). Samuel Johnson called depression “the black dog,” a name borrowed by Winston Churchill, who feared standing too close to balconies or train platforms lest he make an impulsive jump to oblivion.

Susan Sontag, in 1972’s “Under the Sign of Saturn,” gives us a searing look at despair and how Walter Benjamin, a German-Jewish writer, took his own life in 1940 when escape from Nazi Europe seemed impossible. But Sontag is also writing about art. “The ethical task of the modern writer is to be not a creator but a destroyer,” she says. “A destroyer of shallow inwardness, the consoling notion of the universally human, dilettantish creativity, and empty phrases.”

That’s the challenge, really. To have something new to say, to avoid preoccupation with the shallow self, to avoid comforting but untrue cliches, to damn the dilettante, to produce phrases with weight. I fail, like most writers, far more often than I succeed. Let me count my sins: a weakness for the personal and sentimental, an appetite for easy narratives, a fascination for the odd fact.

Yet, I keep dragging myself to the keyboard. At times I feel like throwing it out the window, dashing it to pieces, setting it literally afire. To the unbearable weight of knowing you will fail at what you would most like to be good at, add the dread of the 98th week of the pandemic.

It is sometimes necessary to acknowledge that you have been beaten down, played out, burned out. Admitting to feelings of despair is not the same as surrendering to them. Distress can be used to prompt a transformation, just as the short days of winter signal the turning of the year. Difficulty is the thing that makes us, and Kansans should embrace the ad aspera part of the state motto just as much as the promise of stars.

– Max McCoys

Monday set a new high record of cases, with 1.4 million, the top of an ever-lengthening hockey stick. Hospitalizations surpassed last winter’s peak, threatening to collapse the health care system, and deaths were beginning to tick up. So far, the virus had killed more than 845,000 Americans, including 7,162 in Kansas.

I’m weary of making the case for vaccination, weary of fighting disinformation, weary of using rational arguments in an increasingly irrational world. My ink well of outrage has run dry, and I prefer to give all that a rest. For now. My spirit, perhaps like yours, has settled into the pastel dusk of the west.

It is sometimes necessary to acknowledge that you have been beaten down, played out, burned out. Admitting to feelings of despair is not the same as surrendering to them. Distress can be used to prompt a transformation, just as the short days of winter signal the turning of the year. Difficulty is the thing that makes us, and Kansans should embrace the ad aspera part of the state motto just as much as the promise of stars.

If only we can get through the next few weeks, we may turn the corner on the pandemic. There’s some evidence to suggest that the omicron wave that has battered cities on the east coast may be slowing. The virus might follow the same curve here. Offer up a hopeful thought for our health care workers and vulnerable populations that this will indeed be the case.

While our present mix of challenges differs from any we’ve faced before, we can at least take inspiration from the narratives of those who have lived through other hard times. If I had to pick the one worst day in Kansas history it would be Sunday, April 14, 1935.

That’s the day the dust rolled in.

Lola Adams Crum was a schoolteacher at Dodge City. Interviewed for the Ford County Oral History Project in 1998, she described what it was like that day.

“I was grading papers, sitting at our kitchen window,” she told the interviewer. “The window faced north. And I looked up and there was the blackest cloud you ever saw just about a third of the way from the horizon.”

Her father was asleep in another room, and she hollered for him to come take a look. She said she was scared. After her father took a look at the cloud from the porch, they came back inside.

“Of course, in those days, your light was a lamp, a coal oil lamp,” she said. “And by the time I got into the kitchen … to reach for the matchbox, I couldn’t see the matchbox. That dirt hit that quickly, and it just engulfed you, it just covered everything, and you couldn’t see, you couldn’t see anything.”

The Dust Bowl hit southwest Kansas hard. Coinciding with the Great Depression, it lasted for years and changed the economy and ecology of the plains. Every family that lived through the period had a story like Lola’s to tell, a story of fear and hardship and resourcefulness. Those stories make up the collective narrative of who we are, and their power comes from just how bad things were.

Someday, if we’re as lucky as Lola Adams Crum, we’ll add our own narratives to the story that is Kansas.

The stories will come from every corner of the state and will be as diverse and complex as we are, representing Kansans whose families have lived here for 100 years or more and those who came just in time for the pandemic. We don’t know yet how the story ends, because we’re still looking out that window facing north, or groping for matches in the dark.

But right now, it’s OK to admit we’re afraid.

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Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than 20 books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category. Max teaches journalism at Emporia State University.

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