They say we live in extraordinary times and should keep notes. They say we will be valuable to historians. It’s nice to think of value returning to us, as we stay home to avoid the virus, as we pace our cages, as we rot. So here’s my effort.
I wake up at 11 AM and the day no longer feels defeated. There was a time when, if I woke up anytime after, let’s say 9, I would feel myself a reprobate, somehow failing in a sacred duty. This harsh, moral self-assessment is less plausible in social isolation. So much has slowed down, so few people truly work a full day, and those that do are usually hailed as heroes of one type or another. It’s a nice thing about heroes: you don’t have to be one if you don’t want to.
So I wake up late and I still feel full of potential, still feel there is a day to be lived. Within that first hour-as automatic as dressing, washing up, eating breakfast-I check my social websites. Facebook, Email, Twitter. It takes the place of my father and mother’s ritual of a morning newspaper, which, as the academic Benedict Anderson pointed out, took the place of our ancestors’ ritual of morning prayer. It was a pre-virus habit that remains part of my routine, but lately I’ve been wondering why it should. Facebook and email and Twitter add so much noise and so little information, and that information is so specialized, so tailored to my appetites, that I rarely learn from them. But the noise is pleasant enough, consisting as it does of my friends and family.
I begin a complicated range of social initiatives. Calls, emails, text messages in various texting formats, weighing in on various internet forums, chatting with my wife and our temporary housemate, a friend of mine from school who we invited to live with us to avoid loneliness during “Shelter in Place.” Some days these pay off, I have charming interesting conversations with friends I miss, we discuss literature and politics and our hopes and dreams. Some days, everyone’s scared, we say almost nothing that is not a fear. Some days we say nothing in particular. What is there to say? Today was much like yesterday.
By this time I am hungry. I cook and eat. After lunch, I either have a good day (More socializing, maybe some reading, maybe some writing, maybe a call with my family) or a bad day (endless refreshing of social media, fearful glimpses of news sites, staring at the wall of uncertainty about the future.) Another meal passes, the evening finishes with a streaming opera or movie, or more socializing, or more fear, or soothing words from a friend or loved one, or simply scrolling through options until we grow tired and go to bed.
Options are a big part of our lives. It is the liberty that we were promised, or so we’re told. We can choose, for example, between flavors of toothpaste, and dozens of groceries online. We can see hundreds of movies. We can read millions of books. We can follow or not follow any celebrity on any number of platforms. We can not go outside the house.
We are holding on, we are holding our breaths, we wish we were holding each other. We hope, we despair, we cry, we sigh, we shop. We shop in masks and gloves. We are furtive in public, guilty even. What did we do? We walked too close together. Every day there are new statistics, slowed rates, numbers of beds, new measures to be taken, deaths. Every day there are new scandals, an incompetence, a blurted cruelty, a betrayal, deaths. The obituaries are coming faster. I know because I’ve always followed the obituaries section of the New York Times on Twitter, and compared to before, it’s really hopping now. Little corners of history are popping up all the time. A great jazz musician has died. A rock star. An advocate for the disabled. A teacher.
We are still here. We are still breathing, hotly and sourly inside our masks, deeply to remind ourselves we’re fine, shallowly on our respirators. We’ll keep living, in our houses, in our cars, in our shit jobs that don’t pay us enough but won’t let us stop working. What else can we do? It is the beginning of a disastrous century. What else can we say?