WHEN THE COVID lockdown began and then when George Floyd was murdered, I was no longer able to write essays. Before this, I had become comfortable with my ability to compose pieces that explored the relationship of my body, a disabled body, with the natural world of Florida. Some essays described the subsonic bellows of alligators that shook my bones. In others, glossy ibis moved through shallow wetlands, intermittently revealing their emerald, violet, and shimmering red iridescence. And I wrote about the sensuous body swimming in the ecstatic clarity of spring water that billowed against the skin as it surged, earth-cooled, out of underground caverns. In all of them I claimed the right of disabled people to have the sustenance and challenge of “middle of nowhere” experiences.
But now I couldn’t write. The exploration of how to hike without distance mattering, the funny one about me, my wheelchair, and my dog being pulled over by an officer for going too fast, the voyage of an aging disabled body confronting illness—these half-done essays seemed not superficial exactly, but beside the point in this upheaval of hate and violence and a worldwide pandemic.
So I tried to write about the moment. I wrote about comorbidities and how many you could have before being considered unworthy of saving. In Italy it was three. I was disabled, old, and fat. I raged about how disability is not a comorbidity but rather a natural variation of the human condition. And how fat didn’t mean unhealthy. And I was sixty-eight. I wrote about preparing my wife for the ways the medical establishment would come for me. I held as a fact that I would die if I was infected with COVID. But it was dying from neglect or dying alone that scared me. Everything I wrote was shrill and fogged with anger. I had lost the writer part of me who could pull meaning, maybe even art, up out of events and float it over the words. I stopped trying.
As handwashing and mask wearing became habits rather than charged reminders of death, my brain allowed me more perspective, more thoughts than the dangers waiting outside my house. A disability talent is knowing how to adapt. It was coming back to me. I figured out how to be part of Black Lives Matter protests: hang out at the edges and ends of the marches and leave before the rally. From my lower wheelchair height, an open golf umbrella over my head kept the other marchers at a distance, and, as a bonus, it shadowed the heat radiating off the streets.
I had lost the writer part of me who could pull meaning, maybe even art, up out of events and float it over the words. I stopped trying.
I also remembered that I’d had times of not writing before and that it always helped to learn something wildly different than my usual. Writings about disability can be maudlin, and those about the natural world sometimes overwrought. In response, I had always prided myself on a style that was unsentimental, concrete, and matter-of-fact. But my writer friend Kimberly Lojewski wrote surreal and subversive Florida tales, and she had lost her job due to COVID. She agreed to teach me. I paid her. We read stories that used folklore and fairy tales to search out new ways to talk about race, gender, and desire. There were a man becoming a salamander, girls raised by wolves, and the glorious writing of Angela Carter. We read Aristotle’s Poetics and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s dystopian collection that explored when violence must be met with violence. I reread Kimberly’s story that describes what seems to be an invention of the author—a worm fiddling contest—but isn’t and then goes on to add the uncanny.
As the lockdown progressed, we learned more about the virus. Perhaps we didn’t have to leave our mail outside for days or wash our groceries with at least 70 percent alcohol solution. The route of infection turned out to be primarily airborne. And now it was winter in Florida, which is our time of expansiveness. My beloved and I ventured out to campgrounds and remote cabins. We drove on roads that undulated like ribbons over thick sand crusted with flecks of shells, what was once the floor of an ancient ocean.
We kayaked again. On the Suwannee River the limestone banks are riddled with small grottoes where dripping water sounds like chimes and flashes miniature rainbows. I threaded my boat through a twisty tunnel of Everglades mangroves while a crocodile swam in parallel, and I hiked a trail over open, wet prairie, a trail five miles from my home, a trail lined with a hundred alligators whose heads moved in unison to follow my progress. These are facts, the truth. Florida is a place where the otherworldly is routine.
I wrote again. I wrote slanted stories set in a skewed Florida. An old woman and her young clone combine their respective skills of aging and physical health to escape the cruelties of an increasingly oppressive government. An alien ship lands in Disney World and awakens all who have died in the former swamp, from a hunter of mammoths to a field biologist. The common experience of our summer afternoon thunderstorms became a tale of cold plasma phenomena also called transient luminous events also called (actually, scientifically) sprites, elves, and pixies. They help an Earth woman, disabled and ill with COVID, avoid being triaged into oblivion. And the denizens of freshwater springs kidnap a woman who uses a wheelchair. They need her anger.
I needed magic. My emotional truths and the state of the world were, for me, suddenly best served by writing the reality of Florida’s landscapes with a shimmer, with time slippage, and with a sprinkling of the fantastical.
Sandra Gail Lambert is the author of the Lambda Literary Award–nominated memoir A Certain Loneliness and is an NEA Creative Writing Fellow. Her work has been published by or is upcoming in The New York Times, The Sun, and The Paris Review.