#18 – october 21: lingering covid

I’m wrapping up my covid chronicles with this18th and final installment. Maybe I’ll revisit the topic later, when these pandemic times truly feel behind us. But right now, almost three years in, covid is still here and people are still dying everyday. Most of the world, however, is getting on with it, the booster shots folded into our routines now like flu shots (for those bothering with vaccinations at all). In my social circles, plans are occasionally upended by a covid diagnosis or worrisome symptoms, but schools and businesses are open, people are traveling again for work and leisure, and I am regularly in meetings indoors without a mask.

The other day, I finally removed all the cloth masks sitting in the bottom of our mask basket under the KN95’s and disposable surgical masks that have displaced them. A few other cloth ones are probably still stashed in a coat pocket or backpack. I’m going to wash them all and hang on to them as relics of a more innocent covid past. I locate that past somewhere between the initial terror of not knowing how the virus spread and the anticipation of the first vaccines about six or eight months later. In that time span, cloth masks were the economical and moral choice: in light of supply issues with N95/KN95 masks that needed to reach healthcare and other essential workers first, cloth masks – reusable, easy to make, readily available, highly customizable – seemed the best and obvious way to go. I tried different shapes, materials, textures to find ones that were comfortable enough for the kids, didn’t fog up our glasses too badly, and stayed put over our noses when we talked. I also wanted cute patterns and designs.

mask collection, 2020-2021

Anyway, these cast-aside masks with their different prints, textures, and shapes remind me that this pandemic has had many phases, many changes, many losses. And even as we resume activities and travel, I suspect we are still mourning and processing what’s happened to us. At least I am, though I’m not sure what I’m mourning. I’m one of the lucky ones: our family had steady sources of income throughout the pandemic and a warm and well-stocked house; we all managed to stay healthy, had ready access to vaccines, no signs of long covid, no family members who succumbed to the virus, the toll on our kids’ mental health never reached emergency status. So what do I have to feel sad about, really?

Just the other night, in a recent New Yorker, a review of Lydia Millet’s latest novel offered up these lines: “Dinosaurs thus belongs to a cadre of recent novels that wrestle with the phenomenon of complex loss: grief that lingers after incomplete or ambiguous endings.” Is there such a thing as collective grief about incomplete endings? Maybe inarticulate and not really conscious, but there under the surface nonetheless? For most of us, covid has moved from the thing dominating our attention to a background hum, an ongoing low-level stress that is the thumb on the scale of all the things we have to carry every day. No matter our individual loads, covid takes a psychic toll on all of us.

I think about all those people caught on video being belligerent and sometimes violent in grocery stores, airplanes, and other public spaces in reaction to mask mandates and other mitigation measures. Maybe their misdirected anger and deep denial were their way of freaking out and grieving like the rest of us, with all their feelings externalized and looking for targets. I think about all the fights that erupted in schools all across the country last year, including ours, when students came back for in-person school. “Dysregulated” is the term. Too many stressors, too many big feelings without the social skills to manage them.

Long covid sufferers, with their mysterious, lingering symptoms, seem the embodied representation of the never-quite-recovered state of the pandemic we are stuck in. It’s still too early to tell what the real long term effects will be for us as individuals, as communities, and as a society. I’m worried less for myself than for my children and what they may need to be prepared for.

No easy way to wrap up, really. No profound insights. I had started these chronicles as a way to document and remember, because in those early days, information changed by the hour and everything felt so intense and frightening, time lost its edges. This, too, is me trying to document this moment. To reference Rebecca Solnit, whom I quoted at the end of my first post, how do we account for what has emerged, and what is still to emerge, from the emergency of covid? On the one hand, mass death, the rise of fascism, hardship, greed, chaos; on the other hand, pandemic babies, a revitalized labor movement, a recalibration of work/life values, people helping people, beauty in unexpected places. “Danger and possibility are sisters,” always. Maybe my current unease is simply a registering of that fact and the need to make our way through the new uncertainties despite it all.

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