Kitty O’Meara lives near Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband, Phillip Hagedorn, their five rescue dogs, three cats, gardens, and books. A former teacher of middle school writing and literature and a hospital and hospice chaplain and currently a spiritual director, O’Meara has been a lifelong writer and artist. And the People Stayed Home is her first print book.
Kitty O’Meara’s hopeful and widely circulated prose poem about the coronavirus pandemic has resonated with people all over the world. The Tra Publishing team was so moved by the poem and its profound message that they wanted to preserve it between two covers, and are grateful that Kitty agreed. Tra’s managing editor, Andrea Gollin, spoke with Kitty about the poem, her experience of the quarantine, and what she hopes readers gain from And the People Stayed Home.
What led you to write this poem?
There were a lot of thoughts and feelings that just kind of spilled out in words. I was pondering what the quarantine might look like and how it might affect us as a species. I was anxious, because so many things about the virus weren’t understood yet. I was worried about my family and my friends who work in hospitals. And, for many years, the lack of attention we’ve given climate change has weighed heavily on my heart. We need to take care of the planet. I wrote a poem about what could happen during quarantine: we could change our perspectives and create solutions. People responded, I think, because they want this healing, and these changes, and they want to be heard. I think I wrote something that we were all feeling.
We are talking to each other while COVID-19 is causing us to stay at home to reduce the spread of disease. But there are good things about this time, too, as your poem describes. What are some of them?
I think it is a time to go deep inside of ourselves and listen to what we are thinking and feeling. We have the gift of time to explore our feelings, to figure out what our talents are, learn more about what we love, and offer our talents to each other and the earth. The virus brings sickness, but we can choose to be more alive than ever. We can rest. We can sit and listen, make art, learn something new, share family stories, or plant a flower seed and watch it grow, day by day. We can read, and dream, and rest.
In the poem, you focus on how we might spend our time.
Yes. And I think it comes down to where we give our attention. When writing this poem, I felt that if we give our attention to our gifts, I was hoping that might be a focus point for us and a way to combat the fear and anxiety. Learning is good for the spirit.
You clearly value the quiet potential of this time in contrast with our “normal” lives. When considering our daily lives pre-pandemic, what to you see as our blind spots?
So many of us work, or go to school, and we run to appointments, and have homework and tasks to do from the time we get up until we go to bed. Our lists of things to do are non-stop. What I saw in the work world was an increasingly maniacal drive to put in the time that ultimately was self-punishing. This was really true in hospitals and hospice. When I was working there, I’d be on the highway by 5:30 am, and home by 6:30 pm with more work to do, and that whole pace and energy seemed to me to be killing people and the earth. We seem to believe we’re never good enough or have enough, and equate our worth with our productivity instead of our kindness, or joy.
And when you speak of our gifts, what exactly do you mean by that?
In my own life, and in the lives I’ve observed as a chaplain and in the lives I tried to nurture as a teacher, I saw that people’s professions kind of devoured their energy and did not always match their gifts. Certainly you bring who you are to your work. But I noticed that people had passions they did not have the time to feed. And that is what keeps us kind of green and supple. People often don’t recognize their gifts. They shrug off the compliments. The meditative state we get into when we do certain activities signals a deep joy, connected to one or several gifts that feed our spirit. We need to name and claim it and use it, I believe, for the good of ourselves and others. We need to help others do the same; that is how we heal the world.
Listening is also a theme in your poem. Although it is a short poem, you mention listening twice. What do you mean by listening?
As a teacher and then a chaplain and always as a writer, I think listening becomes more and more important. And by listening, I am referring to what it really means to be present to another person in dialogue: listening to another person so deeply that several layers of the self are revealed and held, sacredly. I hope that staying home together allows people to reorient. And it is not exclusive to people living with others. It is listening to the world. To the animals and birds and water and trees.
After you wrote the poem, it spread quickly on the Internet. You heard from people around the world who love it. People from India, Italy, Spain, South America, Africa, and so many other places. Can you talk about that?
It is way beyond my comprehension as to why this happened. A great source of joy has been the people from all over the world who have interpreted the poem using their gifts—music, art, dance, and more. There has been a ballet with people narrating in eight languages. A children’s choir in Italy sang it. Two people filmed themselves singing it on a rooftop in Spain. A famous opera star sang an original work based on it. And it has been translated into so many languages—more than twenty. The lasting, touching wonder of it is all of the people who have shared their stories with me. I have new friends all over the world thanks to this poem. I want to hug them all.
What are your days like during quarantine?
Our four-leggeds get us up. We walk the dogs, then we feed them and have a Morning Party. Phillip, my husband, goes into his shop where he builds furniture, or he works on our land. And I write. We also spend a lot of time in our gardens.
Your four-leggeds are your five rescue dogs and three cats. What are their names?
The dogs are Gracie, Micky, Marlarky, Dooley, and Teagan. (Gracie and Teagan are girls.) The cats are Fiona, Murphy (we also call him Bunny Bundles), and Fergus, who is a little blond stray that followed me home one chilly November day.
When did you start writing?
I have written since I was six years old—stories, poems, and book manuscripts. And I was always reading. My mother and father both read to us. As soon as I could read, trips to the library were the most magical adventures in the universe.
What were you like as a kid?
I loved school. I did a lot of inventing. I was athletic, and I was confident. I’ve always loved to laugh. I liked to write plays and then direct them. I was always writing. And every summer I had a little garden. I loved my friends. Being kind has always been important to me.
What are you like now?
I love learning. I’m a good friend. I enjoy being in the kitchen, cooking and candy-making. I have to get outside every day and tend my love for the earth. I walk a lot. I love life. Being an artist, I am never satisfied with what is given as a routine or status quo; I always rearrange, redesign, manipulate and recreate. I write, take photographs, and garden. I adore being with my husband and our four-leggeds.
What would you say to someone (child or adult) who wants to be a writer or an artist?
Do it! Read a lot, and keep a journal. Start thinking about things from different points of view. Bring in as many of the arts as you can. How would I dance that? How would I draw it? And don’t judge! Just create. Do what you love and learn from other artists. We are students all our lives. And to me, every single person has the capability to be an artist in the way they approach life. It is a way of looking at life and co-creating with it.
What do you hope readers take away from your poem, from this book?
The power of choice. We allow ourselves to be robbed of it. We don’t realize that our own volition is as powerful as it is. It is very easy to shrug off that power, especially when we are anxious or fearful. We can choose our responses to this time of challenges and crises, and those responses can be life-giving and inclusive rather than fearful, angry, and destructive retreats to the patterns that brought us here in the first place.
Is there anything else you would like to say to your readers?
I really want to remind people that they are already artists. Art is not for only a few people. Any job, anything you do can be art. It is the attention and grace you offer it. It’s about talent, beauty, generosity of spirit, innovation, and your humanity. Find your art and offer it to the world. And be kind; always try to be kind, and feed your joy.
Where can people read more of your work?
On my blog, www.the-daily-round.com I write mostly poems and essays. I also pair the work with my photographs.
About the Illustrators of And the People Stayed Home
Stefano Di Cristofaro is an award-winning illustrator. He has illustrated the children’s books Conejo y Conejo, Guachipira va de viaje, and La Sayona y otros cuentos de espantos. Conejo y Conejo was awarded the 2019 People's Choice Award from the Golden Pinwheel Young Illustrators Competition at the Shanghai International Children's Book Fair and a 2019 Best Children's Books by Banco del Libro. Guachipira va de viaje was selected as one of the 2017 White Ravens books by the Internationale Jugendbibliothek (International Youth Library) in Munich.
Paul Pereda is an illustrator who has primarily worked in video game development and trading card games with clients such as Disney, Nickelodeon, Atari, and MTV. Born in Venezuela, he now lives in Madrid. He has been passionate about drawing since he was a child; his mother carried drawing supplies everywhere they went to keep him busy and calm.
“Kitty O'Meara is the poet laureate of the pandemic”—O, The Oprah Magazine
"An eloquent, heartwarming reflection that will resonate with generations to come… encouragement for a brighter tomorrow."—Kate Winslet
“A stunning and peaceful offering of introspection and hope.”—The Children’s Book Review
“It captured the kind of optimism people need right now.”—Esquire (UK)