I admit I wasn’t entirely surprised. Already it had been advised that anyone over 65 should stay home, so I’d been encouraging my mom and others in her age bracket to not go out. The announcement took the onus off of me to decide what Inlandia events to move forward with, which to cancel or postpone. In the lead up to the shutdown, I’d been trying to maintain our schedule, though what to do had become increasingly muddled.
It was just another First Thursday Arts Walk night at the Main library in downtown Riverside, on the heels of our programs committee meeting three days before at the Lara branch library, where we met to discuss our upcoming annual members reception.
That night, we were hosting a new live true storytelling event, a la NPR’s “The Moth,” organized by theater artist Stevie Taken. Parking was a pain, as always. We hauled in our PA, brought racks of chairs down from the second-floor auditorium, and set up on the first floor in view of the entrance. We put out snacks. Yes, the virus was in the news, but it wasn’t yet clear how deeply it might affect us.
Bright and early, I arrived at Joe Baca Middle School in Rialto to set up for the third annual Family Reading Con, a program in partnership with the Colton Joint Unified School District. Only three days later, but the virus was prominent enough in the news that I was uneasy about getting 1,000 people together in an auditorium.
School staff had thoroughly sanitized the room, but would that be enough? I carried a bottle of Purell in my pocket, skipped shaking hands, opted instead for an elbow bump. In my mind, a countdown began: In two weeks, would any of us be sick?
The following day, Inlandia was double booked: an event at the Culver Center with our partner, Glocally Connected, serving the local refugee community; and the first in a new series of artist talks at the Palm Springs Art Museum. We split up: Christina Guillen, Inlandia’s programs coordinator, managed the Culver event, while I drove to the desert with photographer and author Douglas McCulloh. Again, we proceeded as usual. I had no idea at the time that these would be Inlandia’s last in-person events for the foreseeable future.
Just three days later, on March 11, the novel coronavirus was declared a pandemic. It was my mother’s birthday. We had dinner plans to go out but canceled, opting instead to order in. I don’t even think I hugged her. Things were getting serious.
As usual, I had plans to meet with a remarkable group of women: Connie Ransom, Jane Block, Nicolette Rohr, Paulette Brown-Hinds. We had been meeting regularly in public spaces since last October, usually at Jammin’ Bread or Cellar Door Books or Simple Simon’s, developing a new project around Riverside’s women activists. At this point, we were affirmatively skittish to be meeting in person, but still, we met. I scrubbed the clean table with disinfecting wipes, and used hand sanitizer before touching or sharing anything. We took a cute selfie to announce our progress on social media. That would be the last time we’d meet in person.
That same day, I returned home to learn that a national public health emergency had been declared in the U.S.
With that announcement came a flurry of cancellations: No visit to Brent Armindinger’s Community Literary Practices class at Pitzer. No visit to James Ducat’s MUSE literary journal class at Riverside City College. No visit to the Riverside Art Museum’s 52 Project group. No event with Susan Straight for the American Association of University Women. No San Bernardino Arts Fest. All remaining Dialogues in the Desert, Conversations at the Culver, Arts Walk, canceled. Inlandia’s annual members reception, canceled. Unreal. Then, on March 19, the formal shelter-at-home orders came down from Governor Gavin Newsom’s office.
Initially it felt like we were all working together toward a common goal. We were flattening the curve. There was a long magical moment where I felt that, if we all hunkered down, things would go back to normal. But, in time, it became clear there would have to be a new normal.
Now, I work exclusively from home. Inlandia’s events have been reinvented. Instead of lamenting what we could not do, we focused on what we could. We figured out how to use technology to stay connected. Instead of Inlandia’s world shrinking, it has expanded.
Participants from as far away as India, the U.K., and China have logged in for our events on Zoom. We’ve maintained our partnerships with the libraries and museums by migrating programs online. Our writing workshops now all take place in a virtual space, even the ones for seniors, who even in their eighth and ninth decades are logging in. And, we’re working on a virtual Members Reception.
On Thursday, Aug.27, we will host our third installment of “The Flame!,” a live true storytelling experience, and the theme ‘I remember when’, harkening back to pre-pandemic times.
When will we be able to meet in person again? We don’t know. But we’re still here for you. This pandemic has taught us that we are resilient and adaptive. With technology, we can reach out further and faster. That, at the end of the day, we will still have each other. And a story to tell.
Cati Porter is the author of eight books and chapbooks of poetry and executive director of Inlandia Institute. Learn more about Inlandia by following it on social media or at www.inlandiainstitute.org.