On any given day, when I wake up, I tend to start with a spiritual ritual. Then, I try to remember my schedule: “What am I doing first, again?” After that, typically, I might start to consider what I’m having for breakfast.
But around the middle of last month, instead of engaging with my normal set of early-morning ideas, within seconds of opening my eyes, my train of thought kept getting disrupted. A switch kept going off, and reality glared down at my hazy thoughts. “Remember, Claire. COVID-19 is here. You’re living in a pandemic.”
I would exhale. The subtext was clear.
“Don’t hope. At least not too freely.”
Does that sound too grim?
In the early days of this catastrophe, I couldn’t help but feel that I should have been preparing myself for the worst — regardless of how unknown it was. Around the 14th or so, I began to realize something. If I’m going to survive all of this, I would need to accept COVID-19 for what it is: An all-encompassing, collective, yet individually-impactful death.
One dictionary defines death as “a permanent cessation of all vital functions…” And as human beings, thanks to COVID, more than one of our most vital functions have come to a screeching halt. Over our lifetimes, many of us have come to take at least two things for granted: a) our ability to control our daily comings and goings, and b) the idea of a long lifespan.
Living in the suburbs, I find I’m more likely to cocoon and stay in, than say, when I’m in the city. Therefore, in theory, an order to stay home shouldn’t bother me. Yet I’ve always liked my autonomy. Even when I didn’t have a car, I could at least walk to wherever I wanted.
Enter the Coronavirus. The experts say it’s spread by contact with people who carry it. And what’s the best way to avoid people? Voluntary isolation.
Funnily enough, in real life, before the ‘rona hit, I’d been hypercritical of my lifestyle. I’d had enough. In 2020, I was looking forward to building a new, balanced existence. One that was more fulfilling and ultimately involved more meaningful interaction with others.
Meanwhile, it seems that the universe had other plans.
As for that other altered part of our lives: One of the most wonderful things about having a presumably long lifespan is the freedom to look ahead and imagine your future. In North America, without fear, and with expectation, many of us set goals for months and even years down the road.
In 2016, one of my elders passed. Back then, in the midst of my grief, I remember taking note of the fact that he was twice my age.
Quite honestly, I’d always assumed that if I were to die of natural causes, it would be decades from now. Yet — contrary to early reports — COVID-19 continues to claim people regardless of how old they are. Every time I hear that someone close to my age has passed from this illness, I wince.
I’ve also been thinking a great deal about how we refer to what’s happening. Early on I kept seeing the phrase “new normal”. I suppose to some people, just as the sky is blue and the summer sun is warm, so some of us are supposed to accept what’s happening.
But “new” is a word that I associate with things like jobs or puppies — or even babies: The kind of things that are unblemished and full of potential. Not a potentially fatal illness that can catch us off guard.
THE YEAR THAT WASN’T
Since I first started to write this reflection, I’ve begun to adjust to our circumstances. Yet in the beginning, when I wasn’t absolutely terrified of the pandemic’s threat to our lives, I spent a long time disappointed over 2020’s lost potential.
I know there are creatives who have been more productive than me who were looking forward to various gigs and launches. Meanwhile, I was thankful to simply reconnect with my writing. After a long break, in late 2019, I’d begun to quietly exchange emails with an editor. This year, I knew that If I wanted to achieve the success that I so badly desired, I would have to stop hiding. I’d begun to mentally prepare myself to start pitching again. As the year wore on, I vowed to have faith and dig deeply into what I believed I could achieve.
There were also a few, more personal goals that I was determined to pursue. Writing is a solitary vocation, but these other things involved actually interacting with people. And now, in this era of social distancing, certain things are absolutely off the table. While initially, I was disappointed, these days I’m at least a little curious.
What new format will certain dreams take, if I’m only allowed to connect to people virtually?
WHEN WORDS FAIL US, ART REMAINS
It’s been a while since I first began to work on this piece. As I contemplated the way I feel in the midst of this mess we’re in, my thoughts have evolved. In the beginning, every effort to express myself felt hollow. That’s one of the reasons why I’m so grateful that some of the author-artists among us have shared their views.
Soon after word began to swirl surrounding COVID-19 and the idea of us going on “lockdown”, one night, I came across a poem called “And the people stayed home…”. When I first saw it, I thought it was warm and inspiring.
And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being...
And the people healed…
And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices…
You can read it in full, along with an interview with its author, Kitty O’Meara, right here. “And the people stayed home” expresses optimism about the things that are possible in spite of our homebound status. When I first found this poem, I thought it was a gem. At the very least, I was impressed by its backstory. I had wanted to share it with the world.
I remember, I took time to find a graphic that I liked. I started to draft an Instagram caption. I was determined. I was going to say something introspective that contained just the right hint of sunlight. At the very least, I wanted people to know that being at home didn’t necessarily have to be all bad.
And then, the next day came. I was scheduled to share “And the people stayed home…”, but the mood had left me. Somehow, anything positive that it conveyed felt distant. It presented a level of joy that I didn’t possess. I didn’t want to teach myself piano, or work on my Spanish. I wanted to sit around and sulk.
To top it all off, a small part of me couldn’t help but wonder if in posting this poem, I would risk insulting people in the midst of their sorrow.
Conversely, days later, I found Clint Smith’s “When people say ‘we have made it through worse before’”. And honestly? I was thankful.
Somehow, it suited the darkness stirring within.
…There is no solace in rearranging language to make a different word tell the same lie. Sometimes the moral arc of the universe does not bend in a direction that will comfort us.
How often, in the wake of a tragedy, has someone attempted to stifle your grief by offering you empty platitudes?
On the other hand, when people are honest and recognize the hard truths behind what you’re going through, that can be a lot more comforting.
In the midst of all of this, if I ever find myself unable to think about what I CAN do, I am left thinking about what IS. And there are times when what IS feels very much like a reminder of the fact that humanity seems to have hit rock bottom.
And even though I know there’s nowhere to go from here but up, I dread moments when that idea isn’t present and able to comfort me. Then, everything can seem incredibly bleak.
Nevertheless, in the midst of this push and pull, in the ups and downs, for my own mind’s sake, I’ve got to recognize it: Feeling twinges of optimism doesn’t dishonour my sadness. And mourning what could have been does nothing to diminish what still could be.
And so it is with our productivity. People aren’t insensitive if they decide to work hard at something during this time of drought. And they aren’t horrible if they feel adrift or have a breakdown every now and then.
Hell, some of us are doing both.
If nothing else that I say makes sense, remember this: So long as you’re not hurting others, you have the right to get through this by any means necessary. I know it can be hard. But trust me. There is no single, correct way to feel about COVID-19.
Feel everything. You’re alive, and you’ve earned the right.