Truly, friends, 2020 and 2021 have left me utterly unable to make predictions or resolutions. I have no new leaves to turn. But I do want to thank you for being here with me at the start of another year—full of things that have never been, as Rilke wrote, plus many others that will doubtless feel all too familiar. Let’s do our best to get each other through it.
Over the holiday break, on days when I absolutely couldn’t stand to look at my manuscript any longer, I started drafting a few newsletters about writing. Then I woke up today and thought, No: I really want to talk to you all about a TV show. I’m watching the Station Eleven miniseries on HBO, which I was always going to watch because Emily St. John Mandel’s novel is one of my most beloved comfort reads. I love it not because I am especially moved by resilience after tragedy or the notion that Life Finds a Way; what probably cinched it for me, at least on my first read, was the image of the Traveling Symphony performing Shakespeare and Beethoven by candlelight for the scattered remnants of humanity, because I have always been painfully earnest and this particular brand of singing-in-the-dark-times is irresistible to me. Now, I suppose, I just find the story soothing in the way you do when a book has kept you company so many times you can fall back into it as easily as a conversation with an old friend.
In Station Eleven, we follow characters in a world remade by a deadly flu as well as those who do not live to see it, continually criss-crossing the heavy line between Before and After. We witness many fragile moments like the ones we ourselves take for granted because we do not grasp their fragility—the moments just before everything changes. One scene that has continued to replay in my mind is from the pilot: Jeevan Chaudhary (Himesh Patel) is on the L in Chicago, a few weeks before Christmas, when his sister calls from her besieged hospital to warn him about the flu—as a doctor treating the infected and the dying, she already knows there is no way to save herself. Fighting a panic attack, Jeevan looks around at all the people for whom the world has not yet shifted—including young Kirsten Raymonde, the child actor he is escorting home after their paths crossed following a tragedy at the theater. Now that Jeevan knows what he knows, an invisible gulf yawns between him and all those still going about their lives, unaware of what is coming.
As I watched Jeevan struggle for control on the train, I felt jarred out of something like a dream. What had I been doing since the latest wave began to rise? I, too, had gone about my life for the most part, working and ferrying kids around and buying presents and doing all the things I typically do to prepare for the holidays. Yes, hosting family had looked a little different—rapid tests in the driveway, masks on indoors, windows open to the unseasonably warm air. But the rest was much the same as ever, from the pile of gifts we unwrapped to the hours we spent doing puzzles, playing games, and demolishing Christmas cookies. I found myself detaching, almost hovering out-of-body, as I relived our holiday in a haze of disbelief: How had we managed even a few days of relative normalcy at this stage of the pandemic?
So much has and yet has not changed over the past two years, and sometimes I don’t know which I find stranger. In one sense, it feels wildly absurd to be living a life that even occasionally passes for “normal” when I consider the record-shattering local positivity rate. And yet what other options are left to me, to most of us? We still need to work. We need to send our children to school. We have responsibilities we cannot and do not wish to escape. Most of us do not have the will or the capacity to live in unrelenting dread.
Our Before is long gone, and we still don’t know what After will look like; here in the mushy middle of our own pandemic, there is so much weariness, so much grief and uncertainty to hold. I don’t regret trying to give my kids a good Christmas, a restorative winter break, or a childhood in the midst of COVID. What I’m struggling with, what many people I know are also struggling with here on the ragged edge of Pandemic Year 3, is just how to alight on a livable, bearable equilibrium as we wait for stabler times—how to acknowledge our risks and our reality without believing this is all we will or should ever have again. Achieving any kind of balance between responsibility and necessity, hope and despair—let alone maintaining it—is hard work, requiring a degree of compartmentalization that feels increasingly unsustainable.
There seems to be a temporary, almost mirage-like quality to the stability or ease I manage to find these days. Now, as I prepare to send my children back to school in KN95 masks, knowing that our local positivity rate is higher than it’s ever been, the peace we were privileged to experience last week feels more like a fantasy than a solid memory—an illusion that might be shattered by the next news alert, phone call, or rapid test. Still, it was a comfort, much like returning to an old favorite story, to have a holiday as typical as ours was on its surface. I am grateful for even a brief pocket of calm, and the chance to gather around a small light in a dark time.