Monday, June 1, 2020

Pandemic Exhaustion

At first, I thought I was just interested in the comforting social comedy side of Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Whimsy novels, but then I began to notice that windy weekends during COVID time seemed to require a mystery--a lengthy Sara Paretsky or a slightly shorter Peter Robinson.  I should have been getting into the garden, but this year's very windy spring had set me back and challenged my very deliberate  timetable.  I had divided up my vegetable garden into eight do-able sections which I thought I surely could get turned over in ten days.  (The vegetables are in, but I still haven't planted the boxes and pots that cheer up my front garden.  That's partly because I can't find the plants I want.)  Then last night as I was doing dishes, I found myself missing the characters and problems faced in Peter Robinson's Many Rivers to Cross, which I'd just finished.  'At least their lives had a sense of purpose, a clear meaning,' my unconscious delivered to my conscious mind.  And at the end of the novel, Banks's team can get together and celebrate their accomplishments, something forbidden to us now--if, that is, we have a sense of accomplishment.

I can't see much meaning to my own life right now.  I finished drafting Soul Weather in August of 2019, began revising in January of 2020, undertook two revisions for different problems, and am now carefully writing the last chapter.  I had hoped to be at the Sage Hill Fiction Colloquium in May, where I'd get some reaction to the work, but that has wisely been put off until September, and even then it may be delivered online.  So I feel as if I'm writing in a vacuum.  This is common for writers, particularly those working on long projects that don't lend themselves to piecemeal publication in journals.  It's part of the drill--part of the shape of our lives, so it's something we should get used to, something we should just learn to tolerate, this lack of meaning that we face everyday when we boot up our computers.

Except that our lives right now are full of meaninglessness.  First, there's the shape of our still partly locked down world.  Our virtues are negative virtues--things we don't do rather than things we can do.  Altruism in the face of a world turned upside down requires us to stay home as much as we can stand, to meet as few other people as possible, to avoid little situations where we might have a kind or grateful exchange with someone who has poured us coffee or baked us lovely muffins.  We can say thank-you to the grocery store clerk, but we're separated by plexiglass that is a continual reminder of the fact that we need to stay in our separate spaces.  I worry about how long that plexiglass will be a feature of our lives:  beyond the second wave?  Is it part of the "new normal," and a constant reminder that we're to keep ourselves to ourselves? 

Not only is our altruism tested.  We won't know if it's had any effect for two weeks.  Or, ironically, we will only know that it's been effective if there's nothing to see--no new cases or fewer new cases.  So in a sense, our restraint is invisible.

What is visible are the cracks opening up in the world around us.  Just in case we hadn't noticed, COVID 19 is making very clear that we are all interconnected:  my restraint is your well-being or the well-being of your grandmother.  On the other hand, your poverty is a threat to my health.  Even if we could have kept this fact invisible to ourselves--the fact that the health of a society or a culture is dependent on fairness and justice--we can't avoid it now as we see the demonstrations erupt in the U.S., not only over the most recent death of a black man at the hands of police, not only over George Floyd's very public murder, but over the disproportionate deaths of African Americans from COVID 19, because poverty is often sequestered in areas that lack fresh air, green spaces, food security, adequate education.  No wonder they're angry.

Then there's the fact that time has changed.  We have both too much time and too little time.  I've been thinking about this paradox for a week or so now, and I can only come to this conclusion.  The days stretch uncomfortably sometimes, since I'm not driving to the gym or partaking of any modest retail therapy a new season often justifies.  I don't have any rituals during COVID time that relieve me of the obligation to work as hard as I can.  But I'm not getting a lot done, either, which contributes to my sense that there isn't enough time.  

This is partly because a good deal of my emotional and mental energy is taken up with grieving.  I'm grieving for those who have died and for the families of those who have died.  I'm startlingly aware of my own mortality.  I'm grieving for the people who are unemployed or for the people trapped in a small apartment with an abusive spouse and three active children.  If I'm flummoxed by windy days, what can it be like in those small rooms?  There seems to be too much time because while I have extra hours in the day, I'm too exhausted to use those hours particularly effectively.

I'm grieving for a world that is going to change profoundly when we've found our way through a second wave and found a vaccine.  How many of the small business that create my little Cathedral Village ecosystem with unusual teas or beautiful paper will make it through this time?  When will I want to travel again and in the meantime what happens to all the airline workers?  I know that it's just possible that the world will change for the better.  We may see that an economic system in which the 1% accumulate their wealth at the expense, often, of those at the bottom of the economic spectrum, is utterly stupid, inhumane, and exploitative.  We may see the birth of a universal basic income, now that we've noted the dramatic effects of poverty.  We may see that people need to be adequately housed--not in some tenement with dark tiny rooms, but in homes they can feel at home in, homes they can be  healthy in.  As a country, we may insist on standards for the care of our wise and vulnerable elders.  

There are some signs that the planet is going to benefit from the pandemic as more companies discover that their employees can work from home.  We'll build fewer high rises, which have got to be carbon spewers, both in their building and their maintenance.  (And if you're going to lose income from the high rise you own because companies are use less space, well, tough.)  There will be fewer carbon-generating traffic jams.  We'll fly to fewer meetings, now that we've had to get comfortable with Zoom.  We may be more attuned to our local economies--the maker of Saskatoon Spruce cheese who ages his raw milk cheese on spruce boards--and realize they're more sustainable. 

But we're not there yet, and so we're exhausted by the prospect we'll never get there.  Mortality is part of all our days, yet while it threatens us, it's not giving our lives more meaning, partly because we're keeping our relationships to a minimum.  We're angry on the behalf of others for the ways they are paid and housed, yet we're not certain that exploitation will end.  As part of an ever-reinforcing cycle, the part of ourselves that is exhausted by being locked down is probably finding it difficult to be hopeful.  I can't tell you what to do with that sense of meaninglessness and despair.  I can only suggest that for now your actions are going to be closer to home rather than on the larger society.  Cultivate kindness wherever you can, because kindness is always hopeful.  Cultivate gratitude, even when you seem to be too exhausted to be grateful, because it will lift your partner's or child's or parent's spirits to know you are thankful for them. Pet the cat.  Walk the dog.  Wave to the dog-walker across the street or to the family out for a Sunday bike ride.  Find your own way to claim the little freedom you have to be kind, hopeful, and grateful in the face of circumstances that overwhelm us all.

1 comment:

  1. Hoping you soon feel your life has plenty of meaning! I remember hearing a doctor say a while back that it will be hard to convince people to participate in not doing much-- precisely because the reward, the only proof it's working, is when nothing happens. We're not used to that. Still, his phrasing it in such a manner made me realise that non-visible results (no long queues at hospitals, no partying in the streets for now anyway) can also be worth working toward.