Sing to It

“At the end, he said, No metaphors! Nothing is like anything else.” So begins Amy Hempel’s very short story “Sing to It.” I have been thinking of this request lately, “no metaphors”, with Covid still very much with us, but with vaccines offering the hope that maybe, soon, things will be more normal, less devastating.

Two recent moments have prompted these musings. One came from Ellen Cushing’s article about Covid and forgetting in The Atlantic. To mark the things she has forgotten, Cushing keeps a list of questions about her pre-covid life: “How tall is my boss? What does a bar smell like? Are babies heavy? Does my dentist have a mustache? … How much does a movie popcorn cost?” The question that I can’t get away from, that reminded me that I am sad, was “What time do parties end?” I know, I think (I feel uncertain), when I used to come home from parties, but I haven’t thought about it in so long. I haven’t thought about whether I am going to a get-a-babysitter sort of party or a bring-the-pack’n’play-and-put-the-children-in-the-guestroom kind of party or a go-home-before-kids’-bed-time kind of party (is it a party if it ends before the sun goes down?). I don’t think about parties at all anymore, much less go to any, and somehow that feels like a measure of the many things we have lost.

The other moment, a more serious one, was a picture in the Guardian of a makeshift covid hospital in Brazil. Taken from above, it shows rows and rows of beds between temporary walls, like cubicles for illness and fear. What a terrible place to be sick. What a lonely place to die. Each bed is so much like the other, each person indistinguishable from the rest. But somewhere is someone who would recognize these people. The man in the center of the bottom row – someone is afraid for him, someone has been told recently that he had been put on a ventilator, someone will mourn and grieve him if he dies.

“At the end, I wanted to comfort him. But what I said was, Sing to it. The Arab proverb: When danger approaches, sing to it.

Except I said to him before I said that, No metaphors! No one is like anyone else. And he said, Please.”

“No metaphors! No one is like anyone else.” It is a hard request to honor lately, with the daily ticker of positive cases and deaths. At some point, the individuality of stories is difficult to speak about, to even think about. A metaphor can feel like a betrayal. Like the first step towards saying, don’t worry about the person you have lost, there are seven and a half billion more like her. I want some way of making every single person visible and utterly unique. I want some way to remember.

But metaphors, though they are formed by speaking of one thing in terms of another, by creating a likeness between them, are also how we talk about what we most cherish. Love poems and laments are full of metaphors, not because every love and every loss are the same, but because deep feelings require precision of language, and metaphors provide that. Metaphors is how we sing. Not necessarily to make meaning out of tragedy, but to honor ourselves and others and the frailty of our lives. Metaphors is part of how we use language to care for each other, a linguistic method of tending and acknowledging.

At the end, he said, No metaphors! Nothing is like anything else. Except he said to me before he said that, Make your hands a hammock for me.

So—at the end, I made my hands a hammock for him.

My arms the trees.

Danger has been with us for a while. Hopefully it is receding now, not approaching. But we still need ways to sing to it. What I am thinking about these days, in the late stages (hopefully) of the Covid pandemic, is what kind of songs we will sing about these days. Songs that need to speak both of the parties we didn’t go to and of the people who have died. Of the boredom and monotony of stay-at-home orders and the grief of closed borders. Of the popularization of medical terms, life without taste, of the hope of vaccines. Songs about how we have cared for each other, how our hands have been hammocks, and song of how we have failed to care. I am searching for songs of metaphors and songs in which nothing, no one, is like anyone else.