Reflections on the containers of my life in the year of pandemic
by Kimi Eisele
Spring came furtively to the desert this year. One morning on my daily walk, the yellow blooms of desert marigold were already open, bobbing above their sage-green leaves. Any day now the horned toad lizards will appear, soaking up the sun on the bike path.
These magnificent lizards emerge from their six-month winter hibernation just in time for the driest desert months—April, May, June. They can survive the season because their skin holds a complex system of channels that funnel raindrops toward their mouth. They are their own water vessels.
How gloriously convenient.
Not many other animal species carry their own water, but human cultures all over the world use vessels to carry water, food, tools, keepsakes, gifts, even the ashes of the dead. Our bodies themselves are containers, holding together our tissues, organs, bones and those ethereal, imprecise things we call “souls.” And this year, if we hadn’t already known, we saw how vulnerable these human receptacles can become.
It’s been an overwhelming year of loss, illness, and isolation, and I’ve been thinking lately about containers. I don’t know why exactly. Maybe I’m looking for a way to hold what cannot really be held. Because there is no vessel big enough.
So I go to the literal, which seems lighter. What containers did I use, or not use? What did I carry or put down? What spaces did I inhabit during this challenging year? What carried me? What carried you? And what do all these vessels say about us?
If, as folklorist Deborah Kodish suggests, folklife is some ordinary version of a “freedom dream,” whereby we each re-imagine the world we want to live in, what is the equivalent material form of this longing? What canisters contain our savings of cultural strength in the cupboards of our pandemic year?
In lockdown, I read an article by a woman claiming she’d changed her (pre-Covid) life—better sleep, less aches and pains, more energy—by drinking more water. A lot more. Half her body weight, in ounces, the science recommends. I filled a Nalgene water bottle (and vowed to refill it one and a half times each day) then carried it around the house, drinking when I remembered to.
Along with the water bottle, other containers frequently ended up on my desk—a cereal bowl for my morning oatmeal, a tiny glass dish for the salsa I sometimes scooped up with tortilla chips, a small thermos, a collection of coffee mugs. As much as I wish these vessels were beautiful hand-thrown pots, none are, though some of the mugs have sentimental value. Mismatched as they are, I’m grateful to be able to put food in them and on the table.
What containers did I use, or not use? What did I carry or put down? What spaces did I inhabit during this challenging year? What carried me? What carried you? And what do all these vessels say about us?
For the first three months of lockdown, I couldn’t concentrate on books—those luminous containers of words and ideas—so I binge-watched the ridiculously dramatic serial adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels, which tell a tale of time travel and hot 18th Century Scottish Highlanders. I sipped whiskey, poured probably too often from a bottle into a cocktail glass, which kind of made me feel like I was doing folklife research, at least of the armchair variety, though my armchair was a red sofa, its own cozy container.
Speaking of glass bottles, Wikipedia tells me the Phoenicians used them in the first millennium BC for perfume and later taught glass making to the Romans who, by the early 1700s, used bottles in standardized sizes for retail. A century later, canning in glass containers became a way to preserve food, which then inspired cans of tin and in 1813, the first commercial canning factory opened in London. Large-scale transport didn’t become standardized until the 1950s with steel shipping containers, the same ones that now travel along the Union Pacific rail line, a mile from my home in Tucson, en route to or from New Orleans or Chicago or Oakland.
Last April, similar containers were set up on New York City’s Randall’s Island and in Brooklyn to hold the bodies lost to Covid, when the morgue got too full. Last week, a 220,000 ton ship, the Japanese-owned Ever Given, carrying up to 20,000 containers, was grounded in the Suez Canal, impeding global trade routes and blocking some 300 other ships carrying everything from grain to oil to cars.
My car, safely on solid ground, got me to the grocery store, where I shopped wearing a mask over my face, a container for my breath and any potentially dangerous droplets. There, I bought fruits and vegetables along with jars and bottles and boxes, each filled with something to ingest, and carried them home in too many paper bags. Which was a shame, given the inordinate number of canvas tote bags I have but couldn’t use because of Covid precautions; they’ve hung forlornly in my closet all year, untouched.
For one long weekend, while trying to finish a draft of a writing project, I used grant money to order takeout meals. I was happy to support local restaurants, and it was a gift to free myself from cooking. But the containers piled up. A few biodegradable boxes, but at least one Styrofoam cylinder and several shallow plastic bowls, each with its own lid. Sure, I can reuse them, but eventually that plastic will end up in the landfill or the ocean, which makes me feel ill, even though the I loved the food those containers held for me.
One of the first plastics was an 1869 synthetic polymer—made from treating cellulose with camphor—that offered a substitute for ivory, then used for billiard balls. Ironically it was touted as an environmentally friendly material, saving from slaughter elephants (for their tusks) and tortoises (for their hard shells). DuPont introduced nylon in 1939, which meant a new, non-silk container for women’s legs. After World War II, consumers could buy spray bottles, squeeze bottles, saran wrap, and garbage bags, all made of plastic. In less than a century, in America at least, petroleum-based plastics had largely replaced the materials humans had long used to carry things—wood, bark, animal skins, leaves, gourds, plant fibers, and fired clay.
One of my most blessed containers of the year was a pair of roller skates, which I bought in an attempt to regain some balance and to remember what joy felt like. They came in a giant box, delivered less than a week after I ordered them, silver holographic with turquoise wheels. They’re definitely more thrilling than anything else that has protected my feet this year. For shoes, I’ve mostly worn a pair of ugly utilitarian black clogs. Why bother with anything else?
I have worn pants, those other leg-containers (better than nylons, for sure), mostly of the knit variety, loose and comfortable. I know some of you have forgone pants altogether and I have no judgment.
I think the most consistent (though sometimes “unstable”) container that held me this year was that little space in which I appeared for all those staff meetings, interviews, conversations, birthday parties, and reunions. The Zoom rectangle. Mostly it held my head and shoulders, though one reunion workshop with improvisational dance artists shifted things up. Over the course of four days, we re-imagined those rectangles as tiny theaters, confessional booths, graffiti boards, finger dance platforms, a collective checkerboard, and dare I say, windows into the soul.
It’s still there, that rectangle, and me within it—and sometimes you, too. By turn, a curse and a luxury. To work from the container of my home office, properly heated and cooled. To open up a functioning laptop, access a Zoom subscription “for free,” and appear once again in that rectangle—no small thing at all.
Indeed, most of my containers were not unlike the horned toad lizard’s—gloriously convenient. Also, safe and comfortable, a privilege I acknowledged often. Not a-car-turned-Uber-cab nor a grocery store nor the bus nor the emergency room—places where essential workers lived out their days and nights so that the rest of us could stay home, so that we could all try to keep the virus from spreading. Still.
I think the most consistent (though sometimes “unstable”) container that held me this year was that little space in which I appeared for all those staff meetings, interviews, conversations, birthday parties, and reunions. The Zoom rectangle.
And there were the containers that remained out of reach. The tote bags I mentioned, friends’ kitchens, the movie theater, airplanes, bars. The bodies of loved ones themselves and so many of the demonstrable gestures of love—hugs, hand holding, tender touches to foreheads—all of them forbidden. Also, homes for the elderly, quarantined grandparents, parents, wise friends visible only from the other side of the glass, if at all. Which is where the containers of lockdown brought to mind more sinister containers—the prisons where people affected by the justice system were offered few quarantine options and little care, or the wire cages and “hieleras” (freezing cold detention centers) holding migrants seeking asylum at the US-Mexico border.
Perhaps the container that saw the biggest crack was culture itself—that vivid and reliant bowl that can hold grief and joy, memory and continuation all at once. I had art, of course—my own and others’, via books, music, streaming movies, occasional virtual performances and literary readings. But not the communal rituals and practices full of smells and sounds and colors that remind me of where I live and where I belong, not the ceremonies that unfold in shared space with song or dance or shared meals. And for that, this year felt dull. Not boring or expected, but perforated, like a gauzy screen that can’t actually hold the fullest kind of joy, nor even its counterparts—grief, anxiety, sorrow.
“I’m good at compartmentalizing,” people say, often bragging. What they mean is they can put their feelings into boxes, they can store emotions appropriately. I cannot boast of this.
An hour into the very first work Zoom meeting last March, it was me who said, “Are we really going to carry on as usual?”
No, we weren’t. In our rectangles we acknowledged the sieves and dismantled the compartments. The tears felt right—drops of sadness, spilling out onto my keyboard. Overflowing canteens of truth: I’m scared. I’m sad. What is happening? I see you.
For what good is a container that we never can open? A sorrow that bitters? A shame that festers? A bounty that rots?
If there’s one thing this strange year of loss has revealed, it’s that I’ve missed sharing. The simplest and most beautiful acts of being human. Here, have a sip. Here, take my hand. Here, feel the warmth of me.
… in the midst of grief, people built steady systems of mutual aid, showed neighborly compassion, sang songs, applauded health care workers, and made loud and resonant calls for racial justice. The same vessels that carry despair also carry kindness, grace, and adamant avowals for change.
I hugged a friend last week. We’ve both been vaccinated, and it was the first non-family, non-partner, non-dog hug I had in nearly 365 days. Arms, I remembered, when circled around another, also create a vessel for carrying, for holding.
So, too, do hands and eyes and heart and mouths. Hold me, we say. I’ll carry you, we say.
This year, in the midst of grief, people built steady systems of mutual aid, showed neighborly compassion, sang songs, applauded health care workers, and made loud and resonant calls for racial justice. The same vessels that carry despair also carry kindness, grace, and adamant avowals for change.
The stories we tell about this time will be their own containers. Holding the fears and lessons, wishes and losses. I imagine we’ll carry them for a long time, offering them out when the time is right, and we’ll remember. If we are lucky, we’ll be together for the listening.
Kimi Eisele is the managing editor of BorderLore and the author of The Lightest Object in the Universe, a novel.
 Kodish, Deborah. ”Cultivating Folk Arts and Social Change,” Journal of American Follkore 126(502), 2013: pp. 434-454.