I told myself after a year of “quarantine,” of “surviving” a pandemic, after documenting the months and months of it, that it was only fitting to make sure, one year on, that I would document that too. It’s like a rite of passage, is it not? All the loss and all of the loneliness and here we are, those of us that made it on the other side of it. Here we are, together, in this ugly liminal space, and the one year that’s passed would have been ugly enough without a pandemic.
The truth is, when the one year mark came and went, I didn’t want to write about it or think about it. It makes my chest tight and my palms sweaty and my head hurt. I’m already a person who spends too much time brooding in some self-righteous anger, and the fact that every time I think about this past year, I just get angrier, well, it probably isn’t very healthy. So, no, I wasn’t eager to say, “Well, it’s been a year. Here we are.”
Suffice to say, I still believe had Hillary been president, the pandemic never would have happened, or wouldn’t have been as bad. We can’t peer into that alternate universe, but every time I think about the way they fired the pandemic team, fired the CDC person in Wuhan, tossed out the plans for dealing with a pandemic, then used the pandemic to profit off the deceased or dying–and saw zero accountability for it, I’m more than angry, more than livid, more than willing to too-often give way to dehumanizing those who already dehumanized us.
There isn’t a good word for those responsible. Deplorable, despicable, not strong enough. Repugnant might get us closer.
Of course, you could tell me to be optimistic and hopeful (that era is behind us, after all, and there is a vaccine) or perhaps to look back with gratitude. Think of the heroes, you’d say, the doctors and nurses and EMTs sent off to the slaughterhouses–their sacrifice grossly expected. Then there were the essential workers, the grocery store employees, the delivery service workers, the countless cooks and food service workers–all gifted an empty “thank you” with a happy thumbs down and curtsy to raising the minimum wage, to consistent support over the course of many months in a time when the wealthiest made trillions while unemployment soared.
And I’m not saying there weren’t things to be thankful about in the past year. We were suddenly shown just how precious life is, just how costly it is, and those of us who “got it” actually “got it,” but the fact that we were able to see that front and center and then were still expected to endlessly produce like machines, to meet the quotas, to keep a smile on your face and not ever be too disgruntled, or get on with dying “to decrease the surplus population:” how does a person survive the constant demoralization and humiliation of being human?
Of what was costly and precious, I’ve found the utmost respect for those who didn’t make it when it truly got too hard–as well as admiration for those who, like coal under pressure, find themselves now hardened yet also refracting light more than the darkness they’ve endured.
When, anytime, we come to confront these rites of passage, these moments of intense pressure, I suppose we sometimes think of and talk about the ritual as celebration: we did it. We survived, after all. And yet, in some ways, in actually living through it, the “what’s next” is as daunting as what we’ve already endured. It’s even daunting in a way the rites of passage in this unholy era wasn’t, because new unknowns in the wake of terrifying new knowns can seem to uphold the terrible. It leaves you feeling as though you move from one worst moment to the next, not because the next moment is worse but because, in having survived something truly abominable, abominable suddenly becomes reality and possible making its fruition seemingly more likely.
We’re left in a space of wandering.
Only time can tell if the vaccine will have worked, though it’s looking promising. Only time can tell if our democracy can survive, though that seems less promising by the minute. And only time can reveal whether our economic anxieties should have been anxieties or were a waste of our time worrying.
I think of something like a fraternity pledgeship or military hazing: abuses no one should have to endure, even those who chose such paths, and yet on the other side of whatever it was, we’re a little wiser, a little weathered, perhaps a little more certain of what these bags of bones and two-thirds water can take, and that doesn’t make hazing or abuse or pledgeship (or pick your obstacle) okay or ever a “good” thing in itself. It just means that in spite of the bigger obstacles in our lives that do come our way, realizing we can rise above anything carries its own power.
And that’s more powerful than the anger we may rightly carry. It’s more powerful than the lies, misdeeds, or corruption we witnessed. It’s more powerful than a pandemic. It’s even more powerful than our lives, had we lost them. Because when we realize that the human spirit cannot be diminished by external or internal evils, or by any form of separation or death, it’s as if we’re awakened not only to our own strength but to that of our ancestors and forebears, our eternal interconnectedness.
Or to put that another way, you have in you the same spirit and fortitude of those who survived war and famine, the same love that overcame the hatred of centuries past, the same will that took our species halfway across the planet during an ice age to the soil of a satellite thousands of miles away that hovers over us each night, and while so many of our stories can end on a sour note, it’s the fact that we carry within us the capacity to overcome those ugly things that’s the measure of proof that they are, always, in the end, overcome. It’s King’s promise of the arc of the moral universe in the flesh, living out in you and me every single damn day.
And it’s something in a pandemic and a plague of corruption I will keep reminding myself not to forget. Because, frankly, after this last year, I have to.