Project Bloom is a new anthology of essays and poems written by people who experienced the pandemic. Lisa M. Alexander and Joshua Potter-Efron, the editors, have drawn on works by a variety of people whose names are hardly household, mine included. (My satirical essay, “Advice,” is among the contributions.) There are teachers, residents of nursing homes, social activists, mothers, fathers, and more. Many, though by no means all, of the contributors have one form or another of recognized disability.
Some contributors write about their feelings of loneliness during the pandemic. Interestingly, two characterize themselves as introverts, and yet they, too, have found a need during the pandemic to expand their social connections. Others write about the racial divisions that seemed to sharpen during the pandemic, either around the George Floyd murder or the burst of anti-Asian violence spurred on by Donald Trump’s “kung flu” rhetoric.
Some contributors have lost people close to them, although hardly any as a result of the virus. One plunged into depression after her mother died in 2017, followed a year later by her father, and yet she writes that the pandemic has resolved her to be strong for her newborn baby.
Some contributors describe the agonizing separation they’ve been forced to endure as their loved ones ail in hospitals and nursing homes. One writes from within a nursing home, where isolation hasn’t been the only problem; there’s also the lack of adequate communication, often blamed on others’ right to privacy.
Disabled contributors write about the quandaries they’ve encountered due to new hygiene and social distancing requirements. A blind person, for example, may need to touch braille elevator numbers or take another’s arm to get to an unfamiliar place. Some have lung and other medical conditions exacerbated due to pandemic restrictions. Most poignant for me is the account of a young man who has had lifelong cerebral palsy and who finally gained independence in 2009 after moving into an apartment building where other physically disabled people live. Although he had to be back home by eleven in the evening for assistance in getting into bed, he was free to do what he chose during his days. The pandemic cut off much of his support and thus has thrust him back into a life of circumscribed freedom.
Almost all look for a new normal to follow the pandemic, although one concludes there never has been a “normal.” The author doesn’t say so, but perhaps it should encourage anyone now deemed “abnormal.”
I’m grateful that the editors asked to include my essay. Its comic broadside against unwanted advice jarred me when I reached it, very near the end, but the dose of humor is refreshing and needed. The rest of the work has an earnest quality, which makes sense since many contributors have experienced the brunt of pandemic-related restrictions.
Overall, the essays are moving. With some exceptions, the writing is pedestrian, even flat, but their sheer unpretentiousness renders them credible and ultimately forceful. They evoke lives being lived mostly uncomplainingly and quietly next door, so quietly that many of us won’t have known about them unless we read the essays in this volume. They are the details behind the headlines.
Although most contributors lead active social and work lives, a common thread through the collection is isolation from mainstream society. Even those with jobs tend to work for organizations assisting disabled or otherwise disadvantaged people. The self-described “trans man” (one of the introverts) writes about his drive to find and communicate with others similarly situated, even though he has a partner and, as he puts it, “an offspring.” I’m sure many of the disabled contributors feel a similar need.
Yet I hope the pandemic hasn’t pushed us to limit ourselves to the company of others who share our experiences. I’m not alone. Michael Warner, the man with cerebral palsy, looks forward to the day when he can once again engage with the outside world: “One of the things that I want to work on once we are out of the Covid era is making sure those with mental, physical, and emotional disabilities are being heard in a society that doesn’t always pay attention to them.”
I agree. The world would respond more openly and intelligently to disabled people if more of us were engaged in mainstream society. True, there’s a Catch-22 at play. It takes two, mainstream society and its disabled people, to tango.
Then again, who among us isn’t in some way disabled? I think of the contribution from the young woman who struggled with her mother’s stage 4 cancer and her desire to appeal to her in-laws and, despite all these pressures, took off to New York for a promising acting career. I found no indication that she herself has any physical or diagnosable psychological disability, but she is fully aware of the disabled people around her: an awareness, that itself is a kind of disability.
In this sense, disability is universal. Each of us carries burdens. A physically abusive parent in childhood can be just as much a hindrance to self-fulfillment as paraplegia. A traumatic past, unfair constraints that limit career options, and many other obstacles serve to interfere with our capacity to be fully ourselves. That is the fundamental nature of disability: a barrier to self-fulfillment. It is up to people identified as disabled to bring this larger notion of disability into wider recognition.
This isn’t to celebrate disability. It isn’t to glorify it. It’s to bring us closer.
I do worry that mainstream readers will skip an anthology consisting mostly of work by disabled authors. Some will feel they don’t have a disability or know anyone who does and, therefore, can’t identify. Others fear disability and want nothing to do with it. But for those who do take a look at Project Bloom, a whole new world of possibility and accomplishment might open up before them.
From the book’s foreword, we learn that the “Bloom” in the title comes from Merriam-Webster’s definition of “bloom” as, in part, a “state or time of high development or achievement.” Lisa Alexander and Joshua Potter-Efron believe that even during this pandemic, new shoots are forming. On balance, their anthology offers ample reason to believe our battle with COVID-19 might be readying us all for a new flowering.