Pandemic Diaries: Survival is Insufficient

Our descent into quarantine-times looked like it did for so many others: on Thursday, March 12th, our 7-month-old son went to daycare as usual. On Friday, March 13th, he was running a mild fever (likely from teething), so he stayed home. By Monday, we figured he'd be home for a few weeks while we tried to juggle two full-time jobs, two volunteer roles, some freelance writing work, and full-time childcare with a baby who hated napping. 141 days later, that blissful period of time where we thought we'd all be staying home for a "few weeks" feels like years ago, decades ago, a time from another life somehow.

We're now staring down that seven-month-old's first birthday, and five months in, I can almost--almost--believe that I'm finding a way to navigate these "unprecedented times," this "new normal." "Now, more than ever," I'm learning things about myself, my family, and what I want from life that I had been unable to focus on before.

I put these phrases in quotes in part because they are quotes that I could pull from any news article, email newsletter, or other written material written since the onset of COVID-19. But they are also air quotes, intended to mock and minimize the sayings themselves, because not a single one does justice to the moment we are in.

Let me reiterate: This is not just a "new normal." And while, yes, this time is truly unprecedented in so many ways, boiling down the experience of two pandemics (the new, COVID-19, and the old, racial injustice) to "unprecedented times" fails to capture the magnitude of the situation in which we all find ourselves today. "Now, more than ever," we are all collectively learning that sometimes, survival is all we can ask of ourselves on a daily basis--while recognizing that "survival is insufficient."

That last comes from Emily St. John Mandel's incredible novel, Station Eleven, and is not intended to poke fun in the least. For those who have not read Mandel's novel (which, let me tell you, you should), the book imagines a United States following the rapid onset of a viral flu that kills the majority of the world's population. The saying--picked up from an episode of Star Trek--is painted across one of the horse-drawn trucks of a traveling acting troupe, whose players travel across the country to perform for small enclaves and towns of survivors. It's a masterful work, weaving smoothly backward and forward from the onset of the pandemic to modern, post-pandemic times, somehow painting the picture of a bleak and dilapidated United States (and world) that is not without hope. And, in its own way, it has a happy ending. Sort of. It's not pat and neat and perfect, but it's a form of hope and happy that lives in the grey area between what we imagine perfection might look like, and what we imagine in our bleakest, darkest moments, those slow minutes that tick by at 2:00 in the morning when sleep has run off with the sun and you're left alone in the dark with your thoughts.

I revisited Station Eleven sometime in April. Or May. It's hard to know--honestly, the days and months have become a blur of late, all running together into a muddy, slightly panicked blob of time marked only by my child's milestones: crawling, standing, walking, running, climbing, food preferences, words, tricks, toys, sounds, expressions. Right now, a week shy of his first birthday, he makes a scrunched-up sniffy face and snorts at adults (in person, or more frequently via family Zoom calls, because that is our new normal). He expects the adults to snort back. He has mastered walking and is on the verge of running. He has never said "mama," but if he picks something up off the floor that he is not supposed to eat, he sometimes holds it up and says "uck" to the room at large, waiting for someone to take it from him. He likes to rub hummus in his hair, and could eat his weight in strawberries and scrambled eggs. He wakes up at 5:36am every. single. morning., and squeals in delight when he sees his puppy.

But I digress. I'm not here to write about my son's milestones. I'm not actually sure what I am here to write about, in this first post in months, but something in me felt called to put words back out into the world, something to acknowledge this "unprecedented time" in which we are all living, something to call out to all of you: it's ok to just survive. And also: survival is insufficient.

As I was saying before I interrupted myself: I revisited Station Eleven sometime in the last 141 days of quarantining. At first, I joked that I'd read anything but a pandemic-based novel; something about this story nagged at me, though, tweaking the back of my brain as I picked up--and put down--novel after novel after novel. I found myself unable to read anything but romance (guaranteed happy endings are fodder for another rambling essay, I think) and non-fiction about racial and social injustice. And while the latter is important, perhaps "now more than ever," my brain, my body, and my soul needed something imaginative, something to remind me what hope looked like, something to help break down the overwhelming state of the world into smaller, more actionable chunks.

Station Eleven is that pandemic-themed book. (Chuck Wendig's Wanderers, while also quite good, is not recommended for reading during a pandemic unless you'd like to turn your conspiracy theory anxiety levels up by approximately 256%, at a minimum.) What I'd forgotten about this novel when I first read it was that, buried beneath the layers of hurt and harm and violence and sickness, there were stories of individuals with hope. Individuals who found ways to redefine what purpose, that slippery sucker, meant to them individually and collectively. People who found ways to build community--some healthy, some not--and communities that found ways to connect with each other, despite the absolute breakdown of every broken system of the modern world.

As I reflect on the twin pandemics we face in 2020, I'm starting to think that maybe what is required of us is the breakdown of every broken system of the modern world. Maybe we needed COVID-19, and quarantine, and a disruption of everyday life, in order for the murder of George Floyd to truly capture the United States' (and world's) attention in ways that previous murders of Black men have not. Maybe we needed this "unprecedented time" to cement our understanding of 400+ years of violence against Black men and women. Maybe we needed this "new normal" to reveal to us all of the things that weren't actually all that great about our "old normal:" a capitalistic society that builds wealth on the struggles of others, while gaslighting with the promise of an American Dream if one can only find the right bootstraps; a patriarchal society that devalues the work of women, and of mothers; an economic system that pays people in tall glass office buildings 1,000x more than it pays teachers, who are raising our next generation of leaders; and on and on and on and on.

I do not, for one hot second, mean to say I welcome COVID-19 with open arms. I alternate somewhere between anxious about the disease and terrified of it: we know so little about it, and how it travels and spreads and impacts the body, what lasting harm it does. People have lost loved ones--and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future--and as much as we like to bandy about the phrase "we're all in this together," none of our collective actions suggest a true embrace of that ideal, which only adds insult to the very real loss that those who have attended the virtual funerals of COVID-19 victims are facing. On top of that, we are seeing that in the United States, Latinx and Black communities are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 due to systemic racism in our healthcare system--among other factors.

I've recently unplugged from social media, but before uninstalling all the apps to prevent myself from staring down the vortex of doomsdaying, I saw more than enough memes floating around about new pandemic hobbies: people using this forced downtime to learn a new skill, start cooking again, pick up an instrument or a second language, finally read all the books on their shelves, implement a new workout routine. If you're one of those people: kudos to you. And if you aren't one of those people: kudos to you, too. Because what I see in those hobbies is the same thing I see in the person staring blankly at a computer screen, trying desperately to get their brain to focus enough to do some remote work on this day: survival. If what you need to survive right now is a new hobby, may the force be with you. If what you need to survive right now is an afternoon spent staring out the window, grieving the loss of the life you had and the life you planned, disrupted by something entirely outside of your control: may the force be with you.

And. And also. And in addition. And don't forget: survival is insufficient. We need you to survive. We need you to breathe in, and breathe out, and make it through each day, one day at a time. Beyond that, we need you to hope. We need you, individually and collectively, to do one thing today that gives you hope that tomorrow--just tomorrow!--will be better. Read a book, make your bed, research what you can do about racial justice, drink some water, stare at the world, order a copy of Station Eleven, and find hope in the small things, the things that let me believe that even though this moment may feel bleak and unmanageable at times, this almost-one-year-old of mine, who loves to run and walk and thinks adults wearing masks is absolutely hysterical, will grow into a world that is better than the one we are tearing down today.

I am sending each of you, whoever it may be who lands on this page, my love and best wishes for clean hands and an end to systemic racism in our lifetimes. And a reminder that, whatever may be outside of our control, those are two things we can manage.

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