At some point in this pandemic I lost the ability to carry anything lightly. It’s never come easily, has always required effort; yes, I’ve worked hard at lightness. But now there’s no fighting it. Seriousness has descended on me like a giant hoop skirt; it sways in front of me, clearing a path, establishing a perimeter. It might repel people if there were people around to repel.
I suspect the rapid-fire, largely unmarked deaths of one hundred and fifty-nine thousand Americans have a little something to do with it. My own city, Seattle, is managing well; a careful trip to the bookstore or a sidewalk cafe is statistically quite unlikely to end in my sickness, let alone death. But what-if underlies every decision now. What if buying this cardamom-rose cold brew exposed me, and I die because I just had to know what a cardamom-rose something tasted like? If I invite a friend to go for a walk, will she think it’s a sign that I’m cavalier, not staying home enough, willing to get her killed for an hour of gossip?
I think of my own mortality every day now, and not in some inspiring, carpe-diem way. No. I think of what a complex and interdependent machine my body is, and how easily something could just come along and kill it, and how much I wouldn’t want to go. I’ve barely gotten started on the things I want to do in this life, but so what? The virus or car or cancer that took me out wouldn’t care. I think of the confusion of my mother’s last few weeks in May, of how it was hard for the doctors to get to the root cause of what was killing her because her heart and kidneys and cognition had become like a circular Rube Goldberg machine. The brilliance of the body is also what I hate about it most.
So I catch myself trying to rationalize. “Maybe I wouldn’t mind,” I think. “Maybe on the other side I’d see that my life was the perfect length, the perfect shape.” I try to talk myself into believing that a premature death would be, like, a minor bummer at most. Watching Malcolm X with John, I sigh during the jailhouse conversion scene.
“I want that so much,” I say.
“You want a hallucination of Elijah Muhammad to appear before you?” John says.
“Just any kind of spiritual awakening,” I say. “Something to give me perspective on this year. I’m jealous of the born-again. I’m jealous of people with presidents who are trying to save lives. I need meaning and I can’t find it.”
“You had a spiritual awakening,” John says. “When you got sober.”
“That was seven years ago,” I say. “I think I must be due for a new one.” I tip my head back and speak to the ceiling. “Any time now would be JUST FINE,” I say. “My calendar is wide open.”
John’s right. I had thought getting sober would mean confronting all the horrors within and around me, the awful things I thought I’d been running from. (Jeez, no wonder I put it off for so long.) But mostly, I fell in love with the world and into fascination with myself, realized I want as much of both as I can cram in for as long as possible. I want to get very old. I have an image of myself at 85, walking across England entirely via sheep meadows, which may or may not be geographically possible.
You see the problem 2020 has presented, then, with all the bodies. And my social media feeds are made up entirely of people concerned other people might not be taking the virus seriously enough, and especially on the alert for anything off-pattern. A healthy 20-year-old dies and they all post about it. “Just the flu, huh?” they yell at each other. “THIS 20-YEAR-OLD COULD BE YOU.” The papers report a worrying but small cluster of patients having strokes. “Don’t want a stroke? Then STAY THE FUCK HOME.”
It’s kind of weird, like a bunch of evangelical Christians angrily yelling “Jesus is Lord whether you like it or not!!!” at other evangelical Christians yelling back “No, he is Lord whether you like it or not!!” To open Facebook or Twitter is to be reminded of the thing I already think of every day: that I’m going to die, and it could happen at any time now, and it could be really, really bad. Oh, and that I would alone. (“Don’t want to die in an isolation ward? Then LEARN TO LOVE SOLITUDE.” There is a Marmee-ish hint among the Sourdough Set, as someone called the comfortable-liberals class I belong to, that getting Covid is kind of one’s own fault, a failure of inner resources or something.)
All seven years of my sobriety, I’ve had the fear that I can never make up for the time I lost. That I have to do and see twice as much as a normal person, now that I’ve finally landed on earth. No wonder I’ve put on this hoop skirt. I don’t need reminders that my life could end tomorrow. I already see the asterisk by my name.
The morning after Malcolm X–I didn’t remember how much dancing there is in the first hour, by the way; John has taken to calling it a musical, which coming from him is not a compliment–I wake up with a song in my head, a song written by someone close to me, long before we met. I roll over in bed and try to connect with whatever’s left of my dream state in hopes of understanding why I’m hearing the song, but it’s already slipped away. The song is a plea for someone’s love to be revealed, brought into the light before the singer gives up and walks away. “Hey, you’ve got to not hide your love away,” in essence.
There is a certain kind of loneliness and invisibility, one I’m not at liberty to describe in detail in this space, that I’ve freely chosen to bring into my life, which doesn’t mean I always like it. It pierces me hard as I lie in bed and hear the song; in that moment I feel not just lonely but truly alone in this one compartment, like I volunteered to carry all of it myself and no one tried to take any of it off my back or even to say “hey, I know this must feel heavy.” It’s a painful realization, though it also maybe explains why my shoulders have been sore and creaky lately.
I’m tempted to loll around in bed thinking myself into feeling even worse, but I get up, put on my running clothes, and head out the door. Within a few miles I’ve pulled back far enough to see it’s not only this one hidden part of my life that I wish could see daylight. I would like all to be revealed, if it isn’t too much trouble, thank you. I want to see the full story of my mother’s life, and of 2020 with its vast silences and “less-lethal munitions” and its one hundred and fifty-nine thousand corpses that have just sort of accumulated almost casually, and of my existence, too. I want a glimpse of the day I can make small decisions again without worrying that every choice could make or break the world. I want a sneak preview of myself laughing really hard at something really dumb.
But I would settle for a flash view into what I’m meant to take away from this year, who I’ll be when it finally stops changing me, what my life will look like. That would be my Elijah Mohammed moment–my moment of revelation, which after all starts with revel. I would like to revel in just one sharp bird’s-eye view, please, and then I promise I’ll save the after-image on the insides of my eyelids and never ask again. My schedule is open, my passport is worthless, it’s been seven years since I last broke open. I have time. Or at least I think I do. I hope I do.