In 2020, I began painting Swedish Dala horses—a symbol of protection and happiness—to deal with the complexity and sadness of seeing so much COVID-19 data as part of my job as an infectious diseases researcher. The traditional rosemaling and dalmålning brushstrokes on the horses became a way to represent data on infection rates, clinical signs and symptoms, and the changes that quickly affected everyone’s day-to-day lives. Each data horse is also accompanied by reflective text on its meaning and what I was thinking at the time, and I hope they show how folk art is a living discipline that can help connect us to the past and make meaning out of confusing or distressing circumstances.
In July 2020, I gave a presentation on this project as part of Vesterheim’s Folk Art School, which you can watch right here.
From Dala to Data: Scandinavian Folk Art Responds to COVID-19
Data Horse. March 22, 2020
All data begin at a baseline.
Distant Desire Lines. March 25, 2020
It made me sad at first to meet someone on a walk and veer away from them and watch them do the same. Now I think it’s sweet. How often do people show each other such obvious physical kindness? When the grass and flowers grow up in the boulevards, they’re going to reveal all the desire lines we’ve stamped down with our arcing away from each other.
The Beam of a Flashlight. March 26, 2020
I see several lung ultrasounds published this week. Sometimes it seems I see the same image over and over, as if it’s struggling to be a vocabulary. Radiologists are shocked by diffuse, rather than direct, damage to tissue, a terror of something that refuses to stay centered, rebuts attempts to be classified or pinned down. The ultrasounds all show B-lines, rays of light that look like the beam of a flashlight shown down from the pleural line and that appear when there is fluid in the lungs. They’re also often referred to as looking like a comet and its tail. They mean that the ultrasound has hit something denser than air, that it becomes trapped and reverberates back and forth.
A Little Bird Corrects the Error. March 29, 2020
The St. John’s Bible is a hand-written, hand-painted edition of the Christian Bible, done in calligraphy and egg tempera on vellum. One of the things I like best about it is that when the calligrapher misspells a word or leaves one out, as they are bound occasionally to do, the correction is placed in a footnote and a line drawn from the correction to a bird painted at the site of the mistake, so that throughout the manuscript, little birds flit around scripture to mend human error.
Throughout the pandemic, the scientific literature has been accumulating the errors of urgency, the desire to find a therapy or identify a disease pathway that can inform what happens next or sheds some light on a path through what has begun to feel interminable. But so much of this research has been done poorly or quickly, or if not poorly, than by people who lack a reviewer or editor who can make them the better versions of themselves. Or by people desperate for anything to work or to make sense. And through the vast online and in-person networks of wanting any kind of light, these errors take on lives of their own, wind themselves into the world despite later correction.
One of the things I love best about science is the faith that I am part of a trajectory of error that ends ultimately at some form of truth. That my work is on the path of questions and guessing and wondering what type of world we inhabit and all that remains hidden. But this pandemic is breaking my heart in many ways, and one of those is a personal sense of failure that I am not communicating what I know and what I don’t know to people who are shocked, scared, confused, led this way and that, who want only to care for their loved ones and do the right thing.
I leave my rosemaling out overnight for the smallfolk to correct errors and make it look as nice as possible. They have their work cut out for them a lot of nights, but, like most things, it always looks better in the morning. It’s easy to see error and worry take on lives of their own, fly through the world and cloud things over, but I try to remember the birds out there doing God’s work with a missing word here, the tiniest correction there.
Ground Glass, Ground Glass. April 1, 2020
I tried to make what was, 2 weeks ago, a hard decision. What is your inner epidemiologist telling you? my dad asked. I wonder about the difference between my inner epi and my outer epi, what it means to absorb data all day and then carry it around. When the data started coming out of Wuhan, it truly was the raw data that were jarring. Pneumonia of unknown etiology. It’s not that noteworthy; about half of pneumonias don’t have an identifiable cause. But it was the repetition that had clinicians and epis edgy, the fact that they were seeing the same thing over and over. Pneumonia of unknown etiology. Ground glass opacities. And then in Italy, clinicians scared because the same image over and over. Bilateral interstitial pneumonia. Ground glass. Ground glass. Ground glass. Not the presence of one thing, but the blotting out of individual differences. Repetition begins to fumble at the language of alarm. A plane flies overhead. Where are you going, or are you coming home, I ask the tiny people on it. What is your inner epi telling you?
The Outside Wants In, and the Inside Wants Out. April 3, 2020
Yesterday an ant walked across my living room floor. Last night, two coyotes howled for their pack outside my bedroom window. I texted my sister to complain about the ant, and she said it was just a thing doing its thing. She also said the outside wants in, and the inside wants out. I sit outside before and after work and watch an elaborate society form as spring turns into summer. I’m grateful to have moved to an apartment that has private outdoor space. A surprise snowstorm dashes the windows with wet undecided snowflakes, but not before hawks collect in the thermal that seems to always hover two apartment buildings to the west. I consider how many warning signs events have and how many I miss because I lack a vocabulary born of deeper attention.
Spring deepens until it is truly no longer winter, and I know this is the case because I wake up wondering if the other birds think of cardinals as the loud neighbors. Robins teach their young how to spot bugs in the soil. Four finches reach adolescence and find separation from the tightly knit flights of discovery from tree to tree. Catbirds wail their new-baby wail, and a nighthawk makes a 9pm halo of sound and hunger over my apartment. Are birds data? Birds are data.
A Gradient is Something that Exits Alignment in Order to Return to It. April 15, 2020
Successful breathing relies on negotiation of several gradients, those points at which various states—of air pressure, of blood volume—require a balancing. Gradient as a passing from one part in the process, one state of being to another. Neither a transformation nor a becoming, a gradient is, well, something that exits alignment explicitly in order to return to it just so.
As you inhale, the alveoli expand to accommodate the incoming air, and their sudden ballooning causes the pressure within to fall. Suddenly the pressure difference between the room air (high) and the air cupped by the now-palatial alveoli (low) is a problem to be solved: a gradient, a moment begging for transition. Inspired air rides the pressure slope downward into the air sacs until the room and alveolar pressures equalize.
Yet here another gradient materializes. Inspired air contains more oxygen than the air it meets in the alveoli and their capillary nets, and alveolar air diffuses into the bloodstream until oxygen concentrations in all places balance. Every time. Every breath.
What I’m trying to say is that the lungs are so soft, so precise in their equations, so resilient in solving this problem of pressure differential, volume equalization, and gas concentration multiple times per second. What I’m trying to say is that an insult, not even to the lung, but to the smooth lining of the alveoli perhaps, a microscopic disorder, is enough to upset the entire clockwork apparatus.
And the body absolutely loses it. The insult causes the barrier between the alveoli to become permeable, which it only ever is on its own terms, and fluid begins to build in the air sacs. The gradient equations, delicate as they are, are lost. Fluid may simply continue to build or it may inhibit production of the alveoli’s sliver of surfactant that keeps the sacs from collapsing fully upon exhalation.
Hypoxemia, the deficit of oxygen in the blood, is measured along this gradient: the ratio of partial pressure in arterial blood over the concentration of oxygen in air being taken into the lungs. It’s a key fraction that denotes the severity of disease whose treatment is so often the process of waiting. Hanging, unpredictable. The ratio tells you if the air can get into the alveoli, and once there, if it will be allowed diffusion in order to get where it needs to go.
Dahlia Horse. April 20, 2020
This winter after an eye appointment, I researched what the pupil dilation drops actually do. I found that there are two muscles around the pupil, a sphincter that rotates like a drawstring to close the pupil and a dilator that radiates outward to pull you wide-eyed. The drops don’t dilate the pupil; instead they prohibit it from becoming smaller when it’s receiving too much light or information. This forced receipt of vision I still find somewhat horrifying. I start to see this shape—the center surrounded by rotation surrounded by radiation—everywhere, but mostly in church windows. The signs outside all read something like Stay Faithful, Be Well, Keep the Faith. Outside a church on Summit are signs that unfold the prayer for compline over the course of the block: “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.”
At work, I let data fill and dissolve in the space of my chest until it pushes against my ribs. Reproduction number, fatality rates, transmission, spread, all the population disease data having to do with how data aggregates, sweeps through and over, without touching the life of an individual. I’m so full of so much data to seem helpful and yet continue to be helpless in the face of actual suffering when information guides while its applicability to a life breaks down. I used to feel okay holding different pieces of myself and keeping them fairly separate or bringing them together as I chose: the scientist, the writer, the artist, the homesick daughter and sister. But lately, I’m conscious of carrying these pieces and having them make no sense, of an acute burden I feel weighing down my hands, of having lost some narrative of myself that remains present while refusing to come together.
Before March, I gathered data in the patterns of every habitual day: the walk to work along the river, how many turkeys, geese with winter bodies like bowling pins, coyotes and how we mind each other from the narrowest corners of our eyes. Silent sparrows enveloped in down on the bare trees. At the franklin avenue light rail station at 5:20 pm on a Sunday, a flock of more than 10,000 crows—dubbed the Minneapolis mega-murder by people who await them each winter—flies over, and I stop trying to count. I watch as the sky goes black.
Now, I gather all the evidence that the world is turning and that my perception meets data at a crossroads, making a kind of truth, a kind of sense. I send it into the future. Art and science both seem ephemeral, buddies on an optimistic error-filled trip that ultimately leads into a world where truth pervades and harm is obsolete. Until then, I gather my pieces, I stop trying to make them fit, and I see how much I can carry.
Tragedies of a Moment. May 9, 2020
I took a textile showing stylized flowers and folk dancers from my great-aunt Helen’s things after she died. Other things I took: two ceramic plaques showing Viking ships, a kurbits Valkommen bread board, a book about the history of our town with photos that are so familiar and unfamiliar at once that they’re a homesick stomachache, a book about the great fire of 1918 and the flood of refugees out of northern Minnesota during an influenza pandemic, and a huge stuffed husky dog.
The Alveoli in Me See the Alveoli in You. July 12, 2020
Tightly woven cotton, respirators fit-tested or not, surgical masks. My dad wears a bandana and says he looks like he’s about to rob the stage. I hope my mask helps me keep others safe and I hope theirs is protecting me, because I can’t handle thinking that I could die or hurt someone else because I needed peanut butter. I’m grateful for once for my scrunchy eyes because people can tell I’m smiling.
My mom was on a ventilator for a month two years ago, and that’s something I would do anything to prevent for anyone else. She had ARDS, a form of catastrophic lung failure in which the alveoli are so damaged that they cannot return oxygen into the bloodstream. I like the masks for two reasons: they hide the deep lines on the sides of my nose, and they help me think of how my actions and presence affect others. When I’m masked and I see someone else in a mask, an occasion that is becoming less rare, I think the alveoli in me see the alveoli in you.
Controlled Burn. November 10, 2020
Someone asks what if we had a controlled burn in young people? Allowed the virus to move through us unchecked as they do on the prairie to renew the plants and soil? And a few months later, the Great Barrington Declaration is published calling for “focused protection” of those most at risk, while those with less risk behave normally, pour money into the economy, become increasingly infected, die in larger numbers, and supposedly help the population build up immunity. It’s not a terribly new premise. Look around—there are a lot of terms for the idea that another’s body is yours to do with as you choose.
I think of what to write, how to convey what reading the term “controlled burn” does inside my body. I think of those who worship a god for whom millions of dead is not enough dead. I think about the word enough. We still make sacrifices to gods that have grown more powerful for having been hidden or denied. My fear isn’t that I or someone I love will become ill, at least it’s not my great fear. My great fear is that illness, as personal experience or collective hinterland, will create conditions where people’s preciousness is stripped away. It is the great fear of someone who works with data and finds helplessness more unbearable than just about anything.
Winter Windows. December 31, 2020
One of my favorite parts of winter is walking around in the dark and seeing the same lights and displays go up every year. I like thinking about the parts of houses and apartments that are public-facing: things like lights and balcony plants and window clings that are more for people passing by than they are for the people who live there. I co-taught a class on Dala horse history and painting a few weekends ago, and we talked about how brushstrokes that appear merely decorative carry centuries of history and change, the scrolls from Viking-age motifs of serpents struggling, four-pointed flowers as a way to incorporate the cross as Christianity spread through Scandinavia. And of course we talked about kurbits, the tree-of-life/gourd plant motif that characterizes so much of Swedish folk painting.
Caring for your neighbor can sometimes be more difficult that caring for a plant, especially now when we’re a little shocked by what a virus has revealed about our connections. I live in an apartment building with wonderful neighbors, but I’m pretty sure we’re not all supposed to be here all the time. Our resilience and hospitality are wearing thin. We want peace and quiet in a world where, even in the absence of pandemics, those things can be found only in small pockets and in inadequate quantities. So we put hearts in our window, then lights, and we take long walks and remember how winter can be hard and this winter is especially hard, and sometimes windows are all we’ve really got.