Exactly one year ago and one day ago, I wrote the first plague diary.
It was early on in the pandemic, back when there was no toilet paper and we were hoarding dried lentils, back when we were all pretty sure we would keel over and die if we fetched the mail or made eye contact with a neighbor at any distance of less than 100 feet. Everything was closing up and yet, much of the world had not yet officially closed up, and I was spiraling into a panic attack that would last somewhere from three weeks to . . . well, it’s entirely possible I’m still in it, but it’s now just part of the landscape, almost comforting, not-even-“new” normal now.
I was having serious conversations with serious friends about impending food riots and when it was time to fill the bathtubs and write end of life requests on our chests in Sharpie, lest we take up too much valuable real estate in the hospital. I’d made what was one of my last unmasked supermarket trips to a local store full batshit panicked neighbors, where I ran into a friend whose wife had been hospitalized for kidney stones, and managed to drop a dozen eggs and a bottle of orange juice in the dairy aisle and just kind of stood there, unable to handle, while a shockingly nice employee tried to keep me from crumbling into a fetal position on a puddle of spoiled yolks. I remember thinking, This is the end. This is the end. This is the end, like I was a scratched Doors record. And I then I remember thinking, God, I hate The Doors. Of course, fucking Jim Morrison would come to mind at the end of the world.
It was some seriously bleak stuff, but you wouldn’t know that from the first plague diary (reproduced in entirety):
“3/14/20: I went on a long walk today because it was beautiful and sunny and there are flowers everywhere. When I got home, I wrote, I read, I worked on a puzzle, I m made dinner, I ate dinner. Afterwards, I realized I felt a chill, and my skin felt hot. I thought, “Oh God, this is it. High fever. First sign of COVID-19!” I went upstairs for the thermometer and while standing with it in my mouth I realized that I was deeply, hilariously, embarrassingly–like obvious t-shirt and bra-strap tanlines–sunburned from the hours I spent outside. (I was not running a fever). Anyway.”
In fairness, I was new at the gig. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with a plague diary, or even if doing a plague diary was a thing worth doing for more than a minute or two. My only model for plague diary-ing was Restoration-era oversharer and bewigged gadfly, Samuel Pepys, who covered 90% of his the holy shit, we’re about to get nailed by the bubonic plague hype via tossed off notes about things he overheard at the coffeeshop. People getting sick in Genoa then Avignon then traders in Amsterdam etc. This all sounds very ominous to our 21st pandemic-wracked brains (and it certainly was) but the dramatic tension was mitigated somewhat by the inevitable slowness of 17th century shipping speeds. Like, early modern pandemics didn’t have it easy like pandemics today. Like, the bubonic plague couldn’t just hop on a 737, circulate through a bunch of Cinnabon customers by the Duty-Free in the International Terminal, and infect all seven continents in the roughly amount of time it takes to receive an Amazon delivery. No, those old school pandemics had to wait on decent weather and an advantageous wind to, say, convey a vermin-infested boat across the English Channel and then a horse to walk uphill both ways (probably in the actual snow because Little Ice Age). Pepys’ was a creeping dread as opposed to a high speed train wreck. I’m not about to judge which one is better (though my gut says a train wreck with science is probably better than several extra months to get sold into marriage, die in childbirth or get burned as a witch while waiting for buboes to trend in Hampstead or whatever ), but the traumatic suddenness of Covid’s arrival circa 2021 certainly compromised my plans to be a classic, pithy, “just the facts and the jokes” diarist.
That was one year and one day 86 plague diaries, 369 marks on the interior of my office closet wall and won’t even tell you how many words ago. Everything has happened since then, despite the fact I’ve barely done anything except finish a bunch of jigsaw puzzles and write plague diaries. If you’ve read any of them, I don’t know whether to thank you or apologize—maybe both? I’m sure I’ve been plenty repetitive, anxious, frustrated and depressed. Because what has this whole experience been other than repetitive, anxious, frustrating and depressing.
There will be people out there in the coming weeks and months, as we become more vaccinated and less likely to have our groceries delivered, that will try to put some kind of positive spin on all this. They’ll talk about the critical reconnections with loved ones, the relaxing commute-less days, the myriad projects they’ve completed, and their hard won-resilience in the face of a global crisis. And good on them, I say. A manifestly shitty thing ought to have a few high points for some ordinary-ish people that are not, say, bajilliionaires profiting off a world of suffering.
To be completely honest, I had good days, too. I read some great books. I lounged on the deck in the sun watching the seasons pass around the pond. I did reconnect with friends, especially friends at a distance. I had hours long continent spanning phone conversations as I wandered down sun-dappled paths in a winter forest, like some chatty disturber of a Robert Frost poem. I listened to good music. I planted flowers. I spent more time with my best friend than I ever imagined possible, given our actual geographic distance, and it was just as dreamy as I imagined. I bought an irresponsible amount of the exact kind of clothes, shoes and statement earrings most sane people have spent Covid rejoicing at being able to avoid. I am the now the owner of two pairs glam rock boots (pointy toed glitter stars and heeled green metallic leather). I had a surprisingly glorious birthday. I upped my shortrib game. I swam in a lake with my favorite cousin. I hugged my mother. I made a killer batch of Vieux Carres.
Of course, a true accounting of the last year doesn’t stand without factoring in all the things I didn’t do. I didn’t hug my father or my sister. I didn’t see the ocean. I didn’t eat a single oyster. I didn’t fall in love. I didn’t lose my job or my home—and those are big ones. I did not get a positive Covid test result (and I hope I don’t). I did not complete a single home improvement project. I did not finish a novel. I did not perfect the Bill Evans version of “Here’ That Rainy Day” (it’s really hard, guys). I did not learn a language, although I achieved greater fluency in the dialects of grief. I did not bake a single loaf of bread. I did not talk to my grandmother in the forty-eight hours before she died. I did not ever get around to reading Proust.
In the grand scheme, I suppose all of this comes out as kind of a wash.
But then comes the big loss. 2.6 million people, 535,000 of them US citizens, were lost to Covid. That’s so many lives, breathtaking, unimaginable on those terms. And those numbers don’t reflect the many more lost, some of them people I loved, who died of other things because everything else didn’t stop just because Covid happen. And the ones who survived, but not unscathed. The long-haulers. The grieving friends and families. Then the first responders. The medical community. The millions of mostly overworked, underpaid people we’ve all depended on to do the jobs we’ve been unable or afraid to do over the last year. The number of people who are just totally burned out. The number of people who are unemployed and overstressed. The high school kids. God, I mean, sometimes I just can’ stop thinking about the high school kids.
Then, there’s the cafes that won’t come back. The bars that will stay shuttered. The clubs that have closed. The plays that didn’t open. The movies unscreened. The songs unperformed. The kisses unkissed. The gaps, the absences, the silences, the empty spaces, all the precious missing things we won’t even notice until we realize they haven’t come back, until we realize they can’t, that they won’t.
And even here, now, on the cusp of hope, there’s this sense that we’re nowhere close to a stable framework. We’re still talking about the new normal. We’re still, still trying to figure out if we should be afraid of it.
Why shouldn’t we be?
Why shouldn’t I be?
Among this year’s most trivial, yet surprisingly devastating losses was any notion that I am a brave, bold and/or useful person in moments of crisis. Turns out, I’m not. At all. And as a person with a Walter Mitty-ish fantasy life and strong impulse toward heroic narratives, it’s pretty disappointing (though probably not surprising to most of you) that when the shit well and truly hit the fan, I dealt with it way more like Little Edie Beale than, say, Imperator Furiosa. Like, here we are in a historic moment. Courageous souls are doing impossible things. Circumstances demand toughness, selfless dedication and keen insight. And !? I basically devolved into a full-tilt flibbertigibbet, playing dress up, and performing numbers from an imaginary musical on the stairwell for my cat while I re-alphabetized collections of not-exactly-critical necessities in my lonely house.
I’m pretty hard on myself, though (I’ve had honestly less people around to be hard on recently). And if I were talking about anyone else, I’d tell them that prolonged grief and global trauma is, at the very best, a perilous and unlikely path to self-improvement. Real life doesn’t operate like a superhero origin story or a heavily fictionalized inspirational memoir. That which does not kill us actually just makes us a little more fragile and unsteady when we finally start to stagger out into the other side. Living in a constant state of worry and uncertainty for a full calendar year+ does pretty weird things to a person. You need to cut yourself some slack.
I need to cut myself some slack.
And you’re free to remind me of that when I apologize for not writing a novel during quarantine whenever we’re out drinking together again. Which may . . . happen?
Probably not tomorrow. Probably not even next month. Maybe not even next season. But if I can make it through the next forty-eight hours without getting Covid, I have an appointment for my first vaccine Wednesday which, to a secular, depressed heathen, who probably doesn’t deserve it and is worries sick she’ll screw it up, tastes a little like hope and, after this year, after this terrible, no good, very bad year, feels about as close as I’ll ever get to what the church folks call grace.
86—wait—87 plague diaries. Shit.
Whenever we get to it. First round is on me.
Picture today is of yours truly being menaced by “gladiators” in the Roman forum, circa 2006. It is the Ides, after all.
As of this writing, 97,394,780 people have recovered from Covid-19. 359 million doses of vaccine have been administered.