The light outside my book-crowded writing loft dims. The windows darken at the approach of a coming Spring storm. A scattershot of fat raindrops plop down on the skylight. Rainwater scours across the pollen-dusted glass pane, creating discordant patterns of yellow and green.
All I have to offer is a weary sigh.
T.S. Eliot wrote that “April is the cruelest month.” Yet I shudder to think what April holds after murderous March.
Like many municipalities and governments elsewhere, civic and health authorities here in Texas have ordered shelter-in-place. The county-mandated order means I’m sequestered at home trying to string together a photo essay exploring Milan, Madrid, Lisbon, and London shortly before COVID-19 brought these vibrant cities to an eerie standstill. In sharing them, I hope they give a glimpse into that last glimmer of life shortly before the virus claimed precious lives, emptied streets and public venues, and left millions of sick and unemployed fretting over their future.
As a former journalist who lived and worked abroad, I have lived through crises elsewhere, but this outbreak has left me reeling, too. These pictures evoke a jumble of conflicting emotions.
The Milan series was shot over a 24-hour period just as Italian media began reporting the first cases of COVID-19. By early February, the northern Italian city was bracing for an outbreak. Milan is a popular destination for haute couture– obsessed tourists, eager to crack open their billfolds for popular clothing and accessory brands like Gucci. Yet my most vivid memory is walking past the cathedral-dominated Piazza del Duomo, and seeing tourists crowded together to take selfies with the façade of Milan’s most famous church in the background.
In Lisbon, a city close to my heart, my hotel was near Praça do Rossio, so I was able to visit some of my favorite streets in this city in between dawn and early morning meeting. Later, I had three hours free before my flight. I trawled the riverfront snapping all the pictures I could.
In Madrid, I shot couple of rolls of film on an hours-long walk, breaking only to gobble down plates of jamón serrano and olives. I was brought to my knees at the majesty of Madrid’s Santa María la Real de La Almudena, and its tall bronze doors showing the crucifixion of Christ.
In London I went hunting for more film in Oxford Circus. When I heard the faint reverberation of Gospel singing, I followed the music to a heavily transited shopping area. A group of Korean Christians were singing and handing out pamphlets. Some Londoners, and tourists, stopped and took the pamphlets and asked questions. Others scowled or made jokes at the Koreans’ sometimes imperfect rendition of certain words. And yet, even for a cynical and jaded believer like myself, I was moved by the singers’ outward joy and devotion.
I look at my photographs of these people and places. On the one hand, I feel they are some of the best I’ve ever taken. Yet against the backdrop of the pandemic, I cannot help but wonder if the people I captured on film are safe from the virus’s grip. I’ll probably never know.
Passover and the Christian Holy Week have just passed. I cannot stop thinking about all the housebound families in quarantine or confined by a shelter-in-place order. I’m sure many are praying for protection and provision in these uncertain times. I am not ashamed to say that I am one of them.
In the Biblical account of Exodus, the ancient Israelites in Egypt lathered the lintels of their houses with the blood of a sacrificial lamb on the First Passover so that Death’s shadow wouldn’t touch their households.
As the COVID-19 death toll climbs, I have wetted the doorway of our home with prayers. One of my children, and my wife, are susceptible to lung infections. They both suffer from severe asthma.
Some nights I toss and turn, shamelessly praying and clinging to these words from Psalm 46.1:
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
And as I sit here, with the winds rattling the treetops and raindrops pinging on the roof of our house, I look into the grainy faces of the people I photographed in the virus-ravaged cities of Milan, Lisbon, Madrid, and London. The words my mom once told me keep on looping through my head. “No one’s ever promised another tomorrow.” So now, I pray for them too.
The featured image “B.Lisbon6” is (c) Tom Darin Liskey and is used with his gracious permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project.
Tom Darin Liskey was born in Missouri but spent nearly a decade working as a journalist in Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi. His poetry, fiction and non-fiction has appeared in The Red Truck Review, Deep South, Driftwood Press, Biostories, Spelk, Heartwood among others. His narrative and documentary photography has been published in The Museum of Americana, Change 7, The Blue Mountain Review, Cowboy Jamboree, Literary Life and Midwestern Gothic, among others. He lives in Texas with his family.
“I take a more documentary approach to photography, using the camera to explore faith in images, and hopefully, the human story, through unplanned street portraits of people I meet in my both my travels, and everyday life. As both a writer and photographer, I believe my calling is to be present. I pray that God choreographs the rest.”