What’s left to say in our brave new world?
There was a point, back in the distant mists of time (when we could walk barefaced in public, cluttering the air with our breath with the abandon of dinosaurs trampling twenty-foot ferns) when talking to other people made up a reasonable portion of my day. Between household conversation, routine bus/grocery/bar/restaurant interactions and several hours of classroom teaching my voice would come home ragged.
When the slow tsunami of Covid-19 manifested the talking shape-shifted. Suddenly, with everyone perhaps about to die there was a flurry of out-of-character video calls and a spate of WhatsApp voice check-ins with friends and colleagues. Communication was urgent. A pandemic, ohmygod.
I wrote an article about the collapse of the music touring business which provided a welcome reason to talk to lovely people I haven’t seen in years. A dear friend and I had mid-week Zoom dates. My brother, stranded apart from his family in the Dominican Republic, left chatty voice messages at odd hours.
It felt right, this talking. Despite or because of the crisis, I was speaking to people I hadn’t spoken to and hearing from people I hadn’t heard from. We were connecting. Covid-19 could shrink my daily routine to spooked twice-weekly, hand-sanitizer-drenched grocery store trips but it couldn’t take my world.
This defiance lasted through the first weeks of the new abnormal. I responded to messages and remembered to check in with people. Even my mom. Effort was made.
Friends in New Zealand, Egypt, England, Andalusia, Ibiza, London and Yorkshire kept me up to date with the on-the-ground. Students in New York, Texas, California, told me about hospitalizations and door-to-door police checks. There was a sense of connection and comradeship; we’re in this together; keep calm and carry on, or maybe, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.
In any case, there was a community — which is what communication creates. And I was a part of it, even if the rug had been yanked out from under life as we knew it.
Somewhere, it began to shift. Maybe it was when I stopped checking the Johns Hopkins Covid-19 map first thing every morning; maybe when I couldn’t bring myself to binge-read Guardian news feeds anymore; maybe when my concern for the old ladies clogging the grocery store aisles turned to cold rage. The stock questions turned to watery grits in my mouth: how are you? What are things like there? Did you read/see/hear…? Where did you get your mask?
My family and social circle (mercifully all in good health) sorted itself into tiers: people totally unaffected (those in New Zealand), people mildly inconvenienced by Covid-19 but getting paid (office-jobbers), people seriously inconvenienced but getting paid (parents working from home), people minimally inconvenienced and doing well financially (those in the booze and logistics industries), people minimally inconvenienced but financially screwed and people for whom Covid-19 was the moment in The Truman Show where Jim Carey bumps against the wall of the dome and finds reality is an illusion.
Social distancing has nothing on the isolation of these strata.
It is unthinkable to complain to someone who has lost a family member, say, about the loss of a job. It is also difficult to have a conversation with someone who is getting regular wages when your days are spent obsessing over how to feed yourself.
If there was some kind of end-point, if there were anything one could do now it might mitigate the weirdness. But we’re all wired into our personal survival trip. With zero possibility of meaningful interaction, much less action, it is getting progressively harder to say anything without feeling like a total dick.
Covid-19 has shredded our social facades. Society was unequal, now, that inequality glares in death tolls. People were lonely, now, they can’t escape to a bar or a ball-game. Capitalism was an elaborate practical joke played by a handful of sadists, now, they’re yelling ‘pranked!’ Hard work and education were touted as the way to success, now, access to both has been slashed.
What is there to say about that?
What is there to say about the basic, less-flattering truth that all that worries me less than the fact my husband’s job has gone and isn’t coming back; the fact that the only time of day I’m not obsessing about finances is when I’m asleep; the fact I’m furious at politicians, the Oregon unemployment office, the police, the fascist troops deployed in my city (goddammit!); the fact I feel like a failure as a writer, a friend and a human being; the fact I’m so angry that sometimes I forget to breathe?
Nothing nothing nothing.
In an article about the catastrophic unemployment in Spain, a psychologist advised people who’d lost their jobs were relying on food banks to feed their kids to ‘hope’ and ‘look to the future’.
I wish her harm. Physical harm.
The world is a pestilence. Everything that used to make life worthwhile — travel, meeting people, drinking in bars, gigs, dining out, hanging out in libraries and book shops — has either disappeared or been drained of joy (and still might kill you).
What is there to say to that?