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On Moving Back to Pennsylvania for COVID & the Election

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Image by Kelly Dessoye

By Kelly Dessoye

This originally appeared on Medium

I studied architecture as an undergrad. Late nights beneath the sterile fluorescent lights of a dingy basement studio, 3 a.m. smoke breaks, and whiskey sours on a college budget made up a good chunk of my nights.

As I sliced cardboard with dulling Exacto blades, creating scaled models of admittedly ridiculous plans, I’d imagine the grit of paper beneath my bony hands transforming into elegant contortions of metal and glass. In reality I was just a clueless kid scoring and folding large sheets of paper until it resembled the wall of a building that would never break ground.

13 years later, at 33, I think about this time a lot.

In late March 2020 I started a 6 month migration from California to my hometown in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Image by Kelly Dessoye

The early spring wind bit my face as it whipped sweat and snot from my nose.

Crunch. Click. Scrape. Huff. Click. Whirr.

“Please, oh please, let these brakes work,” echoed dully in the back of my head as I sped down mountain hills — exploring a place where I am, quite honestly, a stranger.

In those early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, while we were baking pot pies and banana bread — stocking up at the liquor store, and getting cozy with Zoom, I dusted off my Dad’s 25 year old mountain bike and just started riding.

Pittston, Pennsylvania. Image by Kelly Dessoye

I’d spend hours dodging potholes and snaking down alleys, reconciling the ghosts of my first 18 years with those dancing behind the ivy walls of an abandoned school, or letting the grief and guilt that had welled up in my body — the cause and effect of chosen absence- spill forth in rivulets over a creek bed.

Afterall, Pennsylvania is a luscious place to ugly cry.

Image by Kelly Dessoye

It’s not lost on me that I’ve traded time and most importantly some of my deepest relationships with friends, family, and lovers to dive head first into my career as a film editor — losing myself in the story of someone I’ll never meet. To edit their life instead of stitching together my own.

Now I found myself back in a hometown bracing itself for crisis on all ends — economic, social, political, civil — my feet pedaling hard on crumbling roads as I tried to gain ground on 11 years of missed birthdays, holidays, and just … time.

Was it all worth it? Is it all worth it?

Swish. Whirr. Screech. Whoosh.

Newly pumped tires skidded over pebbles and railroad tracks as Laflin turned into Plains, then Pittston, curving into Old Forge and across to Avoca. Delis churned out pre-Easter kielbasa before an imminent shutdown, bars doling out one final toast. Playgrounds wrapped in a ribbon of “caution.”

Image by Kelly Dessoye

By June, the first signs appeared.

Some with declarations of gratitude below the image of a defiant nurse; others proclaim “Back the Blue” or “support our {enter township here} police” throwing tone deaf shade to the Black Lives Matter movement and with it the BIPOC individuals — around 26% of the local population* — who call the NEPA area home.

Image by Kelly Dessoye

By September, the fever of COVID-19 was abated by the placebo of political vitriol, even as case numbers ticked upward of 3000 a day.

Image by Kelly Dessoye

Like a bandaid over the wounds of the last 4 years, lawns and property are pierced and plastered with names familiar to the American lexicon…Biden, Harris, Trump, Pence…and some are the local language — Cartwright, Bognet. Who here is the antidote to the bitter divide that lurks behind a facade of Appalachian cordiality?

Image by Kelly Dessoye

On November 2 I ran into a man as I parked illegally on Highway 315.

He made me nervous. He wasn’t unkind — not menacing at all — he just wanted to know what business my camera and I had there. He was in the right — I was the one parked where I didn’t belong.

But you see, it wasn’t him that scrambled my brain into incoherence. It wasn’t even his Trump 2020 hat — ironic or appropriate considering that Kamala Harris was speaking just feet away, I couldn’t decide. It was his mask, plastered with the image of Trump pontificating at a pulpit. It sucked the air from my lungs and made my blood quiver. I can’t help but think of that mask as a muzzle, and I get chills when I imagine that Trump speaks for this man. I can’t separate the rhetoric of one individual from the insidious hate that has seeped into airwaves and the glow of television screens.

Come November 6, 7, 8 will the residue of our political allegiances remain?

I think back on those walls of paper from undergrad, the ones that we build around one another — our safe havens — and the walls of work I’ve hidden behind over the years — the cement and spackle I apply with care and attention, sealing my soft matter from an oncoming storm.

I dream of a polycarbonate sheath. Bullet proof.

Then of concrete; cool against flames.

What about steel or wood? Something that can sway as the ground shakes below.

If only I could harden into each of these.

But that’s the way of humans — we’re what happens when the concrete is all but putty.

For some reason, today, as we remove the spears of political monikers from our yards, I can’t stop thinking of papier-mâché.

The thing that happens when chewed up paper is mixed with glue and air and somehow holds its shape.

Here’s to hoping you’re all holding yours.


* Gathered from census.gov

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