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That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Upheaval

Part tribute to wilderness, part indictment against tyranny and greed, Air Mail: Letters of Politics, Pandemics, and Place by Pam Houston and Amy Irvine reveals the evolution of a friendship that galvanizes as it chronicles a strange new world. The following is an excerpt from Air Mail, which Kirkus Reviews calls “a testimony to the sustenance of friendship in frightening times.”


May Day, 2020

Dearest Pam,

It’s Day 51 since we closed our front door to the outer world. It’s also May Day—which the naked, naughty pagans, who were tortured and killed for loving the natural world, called Beltane. It is also almost Mother’s Day, and as I mentioned, my mother sent lavender plants. In anticipation of their arrival, Devin and I drove to the nearest garden store, two river valleys away, for a nice blue pot and good soil, among other things. The marquis out front was inviting and said masks were required. (By the way, we finally got our antibody test results. All three of us were negative, although now there’s talk that either the testing’s not reliable, or antibodies don’t mean squat, so who knows.)

Like you Pam, I live in a red corner of Colorado—a place where folks post “Trump 2020” yard signs but there are a few “Trump Jr 2024” signs, too. Like you, there is some eye-rolling when we cover our faces at the market or post office, but for the most part, folks in our town are leaving everyone to their own choices. But the garden store staff—masked and gloved, and still so accessible and helpful—suffered worse. As we paid up and said thanks, one employee, with tears in her eyes, said, “Thank you for helping us stay healthy. And thank you for not verbally assaulting us. Someone comes in every twenty minutes or so and just screams at us, calls us names, says that because of the mask requirement, they’ll never shop here again. We are just trying to stay healthy, so we can keep our jobs, feed our families.”

“Mayday” is the call for ships and airplanes in distress. It derives from the French phrase m’aidez, or “help me.” Aidez nous is the plural form (you probably know that). I worry about our own protests, in these letters. There will be counterprotests—which is fine, that’s what democracy’s about. Until the men with guns march up the driveway. That’s the antithesis of democracy. I can barely breathe, trying to imagine how this ends. Enough of this country believes that storming a state capitol with assault weapons, carrying signs that say let the sick die so the economy might live, is American.

Perhaps one reason that Barr’s threat to punish the governors who have issued stricter stay-at-home orders most slays you is his departure from conservatives’ firm belief in states’ rights. How is it that Republicans are willing to forsake this cornerstone of their platform? If they don’t hold the line on this one, if they can’t see the delicate dance that values life as well as the dollar—if they can’t see that this is no either-or situation—then our beloved democracy is dead in the water. I’m all for protest, for dissent, but this angry, weaponized defiance has nothing to do with tea getting tossed in the Boston Harbor.

I dreamed last night that an ex had his hands around my throat—a man who in the waking world had done the same. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t breathe. I woke thinking, “They are gunning for a persistent chokehold.” Depress our oxygen levels so we aren’t clearheaded enough to locate the North Star when it’s hanging there in the inkwell of night sky, dazzl