It’s a strange feeling, coming out into the light of social interactions with others after fourteen months of seeing only a handful of people outside our little four-person family. None of us is sure what is reasonable to expect, of ourselves, or of others. No one is openly grieving their dead, so we aren’t even sure if we should ask about people’s health. The ones we have lost to things other than COVID aren’t missed any less, but it seems relevant to add “it wasn’t COVID” to our descriptions, and accept condolences as if the condolences are somehow different because it wasn’t COVID that killed the person. We lost Scot’s Uncle Bob this month. He was my mother in law’s last surviving sibling, an 86 year old who only grew more gentle and loving as time passed, even writing me kind appreciative emailed notes after each of these newsletters. He made music and his marriage the dual core of his life, he lost his beloved Ruth last winter, and was lucky enough to die suddenly of natural causes so that music was with him until the end. Scot got to attend the memorial service this week where Bob’s fellow musicians honored him with concerts at both the graveside service and the repast. Bob was the best. I am going to hit send on this newsletter knowing there will be no note in my inbox from Bob, checking in to say he loves us.
This newsletter. I’ve been concerned with what to do with it now that my dispatches seem to be less about cultivating a real community of creative humans, and more about my interior journey toward healing and liberation. I could tell you about the Chinese herbs I’ve started taking for menopause and stress, or the plans I have to go to Pittsburgh to research my Dad’s family of origin in Squirrel Hill and find my grandmother’s papers at the University of Pittsburgh. I could tell you about the work I have started doing in therapy, learning how to feel my feelings instead of pantomiming or sublimating them into stress responses or rage. But these steps feel intensely personal and not universally interesting or necessarily useful for readers who are not me.
What might be of value as we come into this next phase of reopening, re-connecting, re-visioning our collective futures (futures that we are all going to have to figure out how to get through without the hundreds of thousands of people who have left us) is a kind of taking stock. It’s tempting to me, a work-obsessed anxious person, to dive into work with redoubled energy, to rush toward the new normal with gusto and carpe every diem, say yes to every invitation and spread my energy far and wide. But plunging ahead without taking stock of what this moment means -- observing ourselves and our homes and environments and family members to see what truths have emerged, what we might have still to learn about our homes after having transformed them into makeshift round-the-clock refuges-- that’s the process that will let us begin to heal.
One truth is that no one alive now can remember the pandemic that killed so many in 1919-1921. It killed more US soldiers in WWI than even the most deadly battle. Because we cannot remember, and because there wasn’t really much collective healing after that pandemic, and because the times are different now, we don’t know what it will take to heal collectively. Religion and spirituality might hold some clues, but then again, they might not be adequate. I begin to suspect we are all injured in some way. I took my children to a neighborhood gathering, our second since the start of the pandemic, and both children sulked and shouted at me afterward because I had made them leave on the early side. I was keenly sensitive about not overstaying our welcome at the neighbor’s lawn. My neighbors seemed equally raw, or at least subdued, as the children ran and shrieked with joy. We walked home to more time at home, doing nothing on a Sunday afternoon.
In the before times, doing nothing was something to strive for, a reason to look forward to the weekend with more time at home to relax and unwind. Now after 14 months of doing nothing, many have described feelings of imprisonment, of having nothing to look forward to but more of the same. Some have used this time to produce major bodies of work, such as visual art or films or books. Some have tried our best to structure the time and keep depression at bay with birding or hiking or video games. But what have we learned? I’m not asking for a reckoning or any sort of moral judgment of ourselves or others during this time, but I know I cannot move forward without understanding what I’ve been through. After 14 months of steady rain, I cannot look directly at the sun.
I cannot write my way out of the COVID times, and I refuse to plunge back into “normalcy”--going to the office, returning to routines and schools and lessons and family gatherings -- without looking hard at where I and my loved ones are right now. I need to take inventory of this place, understand how the trees became larger and some have died from insect infestations. How our housemate left in the middle of the first pandemic wave and we haven’t heard from her since. How our elders aged and became more physically frail and needed us in different ways than before. How we skipped family vacations.* How deaths reverberated through our communities like gunshots and left echoes of grief that are still ricocheting around and hitting us at random. How our furnace broke in January and we had to spend six days with space heaters that are still sitting in our house because we can’t really see them any more. How our house filled up with new toys and craft materials that came every month in boxes for the children and now clutter every room and every surface. How we no longer understand how to decide when it is safe to travel, or safe to gather without masks, or safe to eat in restaurants. How our children feel like there isn’t anything to look forward to that doesn’t rely either on Zoom or on maskless activities with other unvaccinated kids.
Before the séances and general strikes and protests commence in earnest, let’s take a collective breath and just look around. I have yet to see a comprehensive memorialization of the COVID dead, or even a public reading of the names here in Baltimore. I haven’t seen projections of their faces on the sides of buildings, or legislation introduced to better protect health care workers facing a pandemic. I haven’t even seen an accurate, updated death count. We have so much work to do after the graves are filled with soil. Will life carry on? Of course it will. But we have to triage that work, and aim it toward the things that will prevent further catastrophic loss of life through climate change and more pandemics.
See you in the wreckage.
*I’ve had friends and neighbors glibly dismiss skipping family vacations as a “first world problem”, which is code for “vacations are a skippable luxury rather than an essential need”. I beg to differ. Nations with social democracies (Sweden, Australia, France) and communist societies (Cuba, Vietnam) have done a good job of ensuring that workers have time and resources to rest meaningfully with their families. The US is alone among “first world” nations in not providing any paid time off for workers to either recover from illness or take vacations. For those of us who participated in the quarantine, it flattened our interactions and narrowed our worlds to whatever radius we could find necessities in. I have no doubt that some people suffered psychic injuries as a result of this narrowing of available space. One only need observe the public behaviors of those newly released from quarantine to find evidence of this.