Views on a Pandemic

Photo by Mario Azzi on Unsplash

This essay is a follow-up to the author’s “Views of the Apocalypse,” a feature in the Winter 2019 issue.

 

CRISES LIKE STORMS, OR HEARTBREAK, OR ILLNESS, have a way of invoking every previous episode suffered. A hurricane is not a divorce, and being broke is not a lethal pandemic, but I do notice that I seem to marshal the same handful of survival strategies no matter the crisis I am faced with. Some of these strategies are useful: stock up, make a plan, contact allies. Some, decidedly not so: sleep all day, crack a few foamers, binge watch television. Other strategies—those that drew on a reservoir of formative torment, useful to the child, but pathological over the lifespan and so mitigated as symptoms—all of a sudden they’re relevant again. I’m talking here about hyper-vigilance, avoidance of others, bouts of excessive hand washing. It is an odd byproduct of this pandemic, that for many of us, the compulsions we’ve worked so diligently to resist are now not only recommended by the CDC—they may, in fact, save one’s life from a painful and precipitous demise. The little banished voice inside, the one who always knew it would be so, is justified, set free from her confinement and given free reign. They say you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. I guess we’ll find out.

When I was a kid, the household bills would accumulate on the kitchen table; the envelopes arriving white at first, then stamped in red with words like Urgent, and Final Notice, and finally: FINAL FINAL NOTICE. I knew it was only a matter of time before I came home from school to find the electricity was cut, but we’d been given so much advanced warning that the dawning of the long promised event came almost as a relief. Once the electricity was off, there was nothing to anticipate. You dug out the candles, put on a sweater, and went on about your life. Provided you were able to screen the stress and fear of your caregiver, it could even be a little bit fun. Like camping.

For me, the anticipation of future hardship was always more fraught than the getting through.

As a teenager I became obsessed with the collapse of civilization, dropped out of high school, and ran away to wilderness survival school. For several years, all I could think or talk about was the end of the world, and I was in good company. The adrenalized expectation of apocalypse imparted its own nerve-fraying pleasure, a bit like the half-life of an amphetamine. Then, one day, it was suggested to me that the collapse was not imminent, but may have already happened, or else was well underway—and the spell was broken. A question took its place, something akin to everyone’s favorite Mary Oliver. So the world ended, or is ending, or will end: what will you do with your one precious life? Writing gave the most joy so I leaned toward it, away from my fear, and my one precious life became more livable.

In “Views of the Apocalypse” I describe the ambivalence my husband and I felt about having a baby, the ethical quandaries: weighing in one hand our desire for a child, and in the other, our fear of the future the child would inherit. Actually, “Views of the Apocalypse” was the editor’s title. Mine was “Notes on a Precipice.” The word views evokes multiple options, a fork in the yellow wood, whereas a precipice denotes a steep descent, a headlong irrevocable fall. You can view a precipice however you like, but once you step off of it, the path is singular. Falling ill, falling pregnant, initiating certain runaway climactic feedback loops—these are trajectories that cannot be rewound, only negotiated as they unfold.

My husband and I wondered, and feared, and debated. Then I was pregnant, and as is the case with many intellectual exercises coming into contact with corporeal reality: our ambivalence vanished. There was only the animal fact of the child growing inside of me. A fact less composed of fear than of joy.

 

 

Photo: Camille Seaman
 

I WRITE TO YOU NOW from my home in Seattle, former ground zero of the U.S. coronavirus epidemic, on the fifty-fifth day of our isolation. I write to you nine months pregnant, from the attic bedroom where I fatten on dates meant to hasten the child’s arrival, perhaps upon this very bed. It is a rather Victorian confinement, subplot of the quarantine that is pregnancy itself. Friends and acquaintances reach out to say they are sorry, that it must be difficult to be expecting during this time. And it’s true that contracting the illness is somewhat more complicated for me. Mainly I fear getting sick enough to need a ventilator and an emergency cesarean. Mainly my fear is not being able to hold and kiss my baby when he’s born. Otherwise, my days don’t look all that different from my life before. I’m a writer who mostly works from home, accustomed to long stretches of shut-in solitude, (though, judging by recent layoffs and emergency GoFundMe campaigns among the venues I depend on for payment: this will not be my job for long). I still manage to waddle out for my daily stroll. Pandemic may be, I dare say, the single real-world situation for which I am uniquely well equipped.

We entered isolation on the twenty-ninth of February. That day, the first U.S. death from Covid-19 was reported in our county. The first confirmed New York case would be reported the following day. It was early, but we’d been reading the news from abroad, and it seemed King County was tracking a week behind Italy, where videos of hospital hallways crammed with the unconscious and prone, hooked to ventilators, could scare the bejeezus out of even the most dismissive of viewers. We wondered if we were overreacting, but within a few days those around us began to do the same. Schools closures started the following week.

We were twenty-five days into isolation before we breached the bubble of our house to keep an appointment with the midwives—the same day our state’s stay at home order went into effect. At the appointment, I made an offhand comment about the baby seeming quieter in recent days. This triggered use of a monitor, which indicated that the baby was not responding as actively as he should and, more alarming, detected decelerations in his heart rate. We were sent directly to the University of Washington Medical Center for advanced monitoring, ground zero of our ground zero, the belly of the beast as far as we were concerned. This was the first time since the pandemic began that I felt truly scared. But once we arrived at the hospital, I could see it was nothing like I’d feared. The halls were not crowded. Most people were masked and distanced. Our temperatures were taken at the front entrance, and we were checked again for symptoms before being buzzed into Labor and Delivery.

Unsurprisingly, some were impatient with these screenings, thinking them overkill. Just as, today, a few thousand people impatient with plague-mitigation swap the spray of their unmuzzled rebel yells in the town square. I think of an interview I read in the early days of the pandemic, with a father-daughter team of epidemiologists who noted that, if we responded correctly, it would one day look like we’d overreacted. This called to mind many other contexts in which scientists are slandered as “alarmist” and dismissed to protect the political and material fortunes of the few.

In the end, it turned out our baby was fine. The moment they slapped on the monitors he commenced a two-hour gymnastics routine. But I was grateful for the experience, to dive headlong into my fear and find it not so fearful afterall. I felt we’d been afforded a view of a best possible outcome, how chaos becomes manageable when people heed the warnings of experts and prioritize the common good. Among our many fortunes: we live in a state governed by Jay Inslee, a person who could look out beyond the bluff of his political fortunes and see the abyss we were speeding toward. That such prudence was exercised by the “climate change” candidate should come as no surprise.

 

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JUST AS OUR AMBIVALENCE was vanquished by the animal fact of the child, and in spite of all abstract apocalyptic prophesy, having a baby in a global pandemic doesn’t scare me all that much. Perhaps it should. In a way it’s more in-keeping with the realities of my progenitors than the relative calm and abundance of recent years. My paternal grandmother survived the Great Depression grunting on a tenant farm, then proceeded to have seven babies in quick succession without two nickels to rub together. Babies are born in famines and wars, in the backs of taxis, in the bathrooms of high school gymnasiums during prom, in fields between rows of corn. The stark and comforting fact of it all is that life keeps coming. And this pestilence, like it or not, is a part of life, no less or more an expression of that fundamental will to propagate and survive.

Pandemic, like any storm, reunites us with the limits of our control. I can put a sign on the door announcing our isolation, order groceries online, wear a mask when I venture out for a walk, but I have no control over the actions of others, or global supply chains. The embrace of the virus is far more ardent than my attempts to rebuke it. It could attach to the packages of groceries, I’m told, or to the wake of the heavy breathing jogger on the path ahead. Similarly, I can skip the booze and soft cheese, take prenatal vitamins and avoid deadlifting the couch, but I can no more control my baby’s final outcome than I can will the atomic assemblage of his earlobe or fingernail.

The line between birth and death has always been a razor’s edge. When the child finally arrives (God willing), I don’t know that any of our family or friends will be able to meet him. I don’t know if we will have teaching jobs in the fall. But I’ve planted food in a raised bed and charged a backcountry water filter to the credit card, and notice my baseline anxiety ebb with each intervention. In a way, actual crisis is easier to negotiate than those phantom-crises I daily concoct in my mind. I suppose some would say this too is a part of my pathology, to experience daily life as a low-grade threat, while my nervous system calms in a disaster. But I don’t think I’m alone. Crises help us to lay down petty grievances and reorient once more to what matters. Crises impart a sense of purpose, what many of us starve for day-to-day. There will always be a few self-serving predators in our midst, but contrary to the grim and somewhat priapic fantasies of screenwriters, it’s my experience that most people do not automatically turn into murderous gas-siphoning cannibals at the first sign of trouble. More often, I witness the opposite: the drawing together of fellows in mutual aid.

The requirement of social distance, though necessary, strikes me as the greatest perversity. Our inability to draw physically close is the shadow epidemic, and has already claimed many lives. Domestic abuse is on the rise worldwide, and relapses among the recovering who depend on AA and other social programs to stay sober. Others who’ve survived by a spider’s thread of community support find themselves more alone than they’ve ever been. Some are dying by suicide. And for their survivors, no human arms wait to catch them as they fall. I know of no other way to view this than as a tragedy.

Though one might also note, in a more general sense, we weren’t so close lately anyway. All the distractions of recent years—the political shit-show, our rigid dogmas, the 24/7 workaday grind, our hypnotic dependence on screens—were taking us away from one another, long before this virus arrived. My hope is that our forced distance brings us closer together in the end. In fact, I suspect, this is already happening. One friend confesses guilty pleasure in having so much time with his twelve-month-old daughter, who’d by necessity been spending most of her hours in daycare. Never before have so many people checked in to see how I’m doing, if I need anything dropped off from the store. My friends’ foremost fantasies for when “all of this is over” do not revolve around international travel or mall-shopping, but hugging and high-fives, (and okay, getting a decent haircut).

I’ve not yet lost someone close to Covid. I’ve not been made to wear the same suffocating N-95 all day whilst tending the critically ill, or labored in a mask alone in the maternity ward (knock wood). It’s easy to speak of silver linings when you’ve been spared the greatest suffering. But the fact remains that my particular view of the world at the moment includes three bald eagles, intermittent visitors who’ve become locals in recent weeks. I’m meeting, at a distance, neighbors I didn’t know I had. Where have they been all this time? I wonder. Then I remember: they’ve been at a job, inside one of a thousand anonymous office buildings, enduring another kind of devastation.

Right now, undoubtedly, someone is terrified about making the rent. Or watching their nearly achieved lifelong dream of opening a restaurant evaporate. Or dying alone; drowning alive inside their own lungs. Meanwhile, my neighbors put up community gardens in their front lawns, and in the evenings, come out of their isolation to play fiddle, or guitar, or to bang pots and pans in honor of essential workers. A friend who’s lived in Berkeley all her life reports seeing, for the first time, the ocean beyond the bay.

There will always be those who’d like us to pledge allegiance to one view of events over another: ruinous nerve-flaying calamity, or Pollyannaish bright-siding. I’ve never been much of a joiner, and am suspicious of either/or propositions besides. I’ve decided the best I can do by this moment, or in any future storm, is to witness the situation in its complication, inasmuch as I’m able. To allow my fears of imagined catastrophe collide with corporeal reality and to feel, simultaneously, delight when it arrives. None can predict the final outcome. None of us knows where this will lead. As always, the world is ripe with threat and possibility. O


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Lisa Wells is a poet and nonfiction writer living in Seattle, Washington. Her debut collection of poetry, THE FIX (2018), won the Iowa Poetry Prize. A new book of nonfiction is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Her poems and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, GrantaThe Believer, N+1, The Iowa Review, at The Poetry Foundation and elsewhere.