A couple of people have asked me if I’m going to write a novel about the pandemic, which I find both annoying and flattering. Annoying, because everyone is writing about the pandemic—do these people think I’m going to abandon the novel I’ve been working on for (((number redacted))) years now in favor of adding more chili powder to the chili on everyone’s stove?
But flattering, though, too, because any acknowledgement that I’m actually a novelist is flattering, even if I’ve been writing for forty years.
To the question, I reply, “no, because we don’t yet know what the narrative arc is.” I borrowed that line from a publishing professional, because “steal” has such unpleasant connotations.
The story that dominated the news in early 2020 concerned one million refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war. By mid-March they had vanished from the news, though presumably not from the planet. It was around that time that I dragged myself to the Jewish Community Center, tricked out in navy leggings and matching top with a nautical theme, ready for, though dreading, thirty minutes on the Stairmaster, to find the doors locked and a sign reading that they’d be closed for two weeks. Joke’s on them! I didn’t have to exercise after all!
Well, we know how that turned out.
“We’re the lucky ones,” my oldest daughter said early on. She was, and is, right. We do not suffer from food insecurity. I was already working at home. None of us has become ill. And it was pure luck that 2020 was the first autumn in twenty-six consecutive years that we did not have at least one child in school, and often as many as four. My youngest daughter was a senior at UC Berkeley in spring 2020. In March classes shut down, and in April she came home to San Francisco, but she was trapped in distanced learning for only a few weeks before she graduated.
Berkeley was a very tough school to get into four years ago – sorry, I mean five years ago. (In some ways, 2020 has vanished from my mind. When I saw matzo at the grocery store, I thought, wow, that stuff must really be stale by now, not that it matters, since matzo tastes stale from the moment it hits the shelves, but then I realized, no, Passover has come around again.) But Berkeley was Anna’s dream. To say it was a reach school is to say that Annapurna is a rock, so her dad and I laid the groundwork with parental platitudes about how college is what you make it, and life is about your attitude, and failure is really an opportunity!
When she was accepted we were all ecstatic, but I said to a few friends, “I won’t fully exhale until she walks across that stage.”
She never did walk across that stage, because the graduation was cancelled. Her degree came in the mail. Ah, irony! Thy name is shelter-in-place!
She was crushed, and we sympathized, until disappointment became self-pity, and then we whipped out the worst platitude of all: that others are suffering more. “Children are starving in Europe.” No, wait—that was my parents’ generation. They’re starving in India, Africa. They’re starving in Europe. They’re starving in America.
In 2020, the suck-it-up lines were about lost businesses. Separated families. Deaths. We’re the lucky ones, I had to keep reminding myself, when I cancelled my own trip to London, and when I couldn’t take my son to the PowerMorphicon in August. (Don’t ask. It was important to him: that’s what matters.) Meanwhile, I succumbed to clickbait such as “7 Signs That You’re Experiencing Pandemic Fatigue, and How to Cope with It.” These articles have a rhythm; you can almost sing along. The signs include changes in sleep habits and weight gain or loss. Then there’s a wise quote, “‘anxiety blah blah loneliness result of blah,’ says Name from University in town you’ve never heard of, or New York.” (Sometimes Los Angeles.)
It seems, at last, that we are rounding a corner. We thought we were rounding a corner before—when was it? August? October? Of what year? Again, time has telescoped. Whenever it was, that corner we rounded led to a 100-foot drop into a bear pit. This time, though, it might be for real, because yesterday a story about those one million Syrian refugees reappeared on the news. I guess one of the burners on the news stove freed up. The suffering of others is abstract, and the farther away, and the more people involved, the more abstract it is.
We’re the lucky ones.
Donna Levin is the author of four novels, all of which are available from Chickadee Prince Books. Her latest novel, He Could Be Another Bill Gates, is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or at the bookstore right across the street from your home. Please take a look.
Design by Steven S. Drachman from an Image by Sharon McCutcheon / Unsplash