by Rebecca Bihn-Wallace
I am an observer. I most likely can’t tell you what I ate for breakfast this morning, nor can I keep track of my belongings or change the oil on a car or explain the stock market in any real sense, but I remember the interior of every house I’ve lived in, and could probably even tell you how the furniture was arranged. I have been cursed with the curious combination of operating in two worlds: the real world, which is often loud and confusing and leaves me at times baffled; and the imagined world, the life of the mind, which is soothing but not always the best place to be. That is to say, I am a writer. Because of this, I wasn’t aware of my need for regular human contact until the pandemic hit. It came upon slowly, this pandemic, or I think it did; now when I look at the timeline of events, I think, Weeks, not months. Weeks for my state to go on lockdown, weeks for my university to close, weeks for shelter in place to begin. Months for people to rebel, months for the country to undergo another racial paroxysm.
I write about this, of course, because I am trying to make sense of things, just as pundits and politicians and journalists and doctors and scientists are trying to get a grip on something that vastly exceeds their control and their realm of expertise. I’m writing not because I want to blame people, and not because I want to become the thousandth literary harbinger of doom and ill will, but because I want to get a hold of some meaning in all of this, perhaps because my external circumstances seem to regularly defy this meaning. The last six months seem to have been a tortured exercise in the suspension of disbelief. In spite of my inclination to catastrophize, I’m not used to this mentality. And yet now it would not surprise me if frogs tumbled from the sky, if my skin erupted in boils. I would probably still complain about it, though. The frogs would still be disgusting, and the boils would still itch.
Before the pandemic, the idea of sitting alone in a room most of the time with the world raging outside didn’t bother me. It was, after all, the way I lived my life, when I had the choice. I woke up bleary-eyed, had my breakfast, wrote stories over toast, biked to class, sat in a lecture hall and tried (emphasis on tried) to pay attention, biked back from class, did homework, and began the whole process again. My time was carved into neat blocks, blocks that I had carefully arranged with little room for uncertainty. Today’s schedule is this. Tomorrow the schedule will be different. Et cetera. I could alter time, not the other way around: could choose to fill a day or leave it to expand and unravel into lazy California sunshine. But I think of time differently now, partially because the pandemic has left my environment in a state of suspended animation–there will be no full classes now, no huddling in cafés, no parties–and partially because the exterior world has taken on a looming importance.
Growing up I wondered about war and crises, about what it would be like to have something of huge external significance happen to you. I wanted something monumental to happen, to form who I was. I was too young to remember 9/11–though the most significant events of the years that followed, I think, were a direct result of that particular horror. I was too wrapped up in my own world to remember the recession when I was nine or ten, although I remember the foreclosure signs. I didn’t wish for evil, though; instead I wondered why it always felt so far away. The truth is that Americans are not accustomed to being at the mercy of global events. If you read the news you would think that disasters only happen to other people, not us. We talk about destiny and free will with regularity because we consider them precious (something to be coveted at all costs) and inalienable (untouchable, incontrovertible). We do not admit that some of us have a better shot at life than others. We do not admit that skin color partially endangers fate. It takes a cold-blooded murder on a street in Minneapolis for progress–not conversations, progress–to take place. The progress is tenuous, and as it occurs, the shrieks grow louder, the guns are drawn, the Internet explodes. Add a pandemic and our world crashes down. Something has gotten to us that wasn’t supposed to. We are no longer invincible. Look at the wars down the years, and ask yourself: But were we ever? And at what cost?
Here’s what Americans didn’t know about the pandemic, and maybe it’s what they’re secretly objecting to: it’s boring. It’s boring to fight an invisible enemy, boring that one’s civic duty, in this case, requires a level of inaction. It is impossible to calculate the lives saved by wearing masks, or the lives endangered by the maskless people who burst into state capitols armed and indignant, fighting for rights they’ve inherited but for an accident of birth. When we look at hard facts and solutions and numbers, those of us who are not statisticians, or doctors, or scientists, have no real comprehension of them. We talk about flattening the curve, but the curve is abstract for a lot of us. Then people argue with the science. They negate the facts. They say, it can’t be. What they are really saying is, Where is my old life? I want it back. We talk about what the truth really is, and wish it were more malleable. The numbers tell us it isn’t, though, and so we find ourselves in a kind of cultural paralysis, a treadmill of worry and anger. And on some level, we grieve–the dream, the national dream, whatever it was, has toughened into a lie. F. Scott Fitzgerald knew it never existed (the vast confused beauty) but this doesn’t prevent us from engaging in regular self-deception. It’s part of who we are. We are no longer exceptional; we, too, can die at astonishing rates, die horrible deaths in hospital wards, separated from our families.
It’s easy, when you’re young, to talk about long-term effects with confidence, to assume a hardened attitude. I talk about rising suicide rates. I talk about cynicism. I talk about destroyed futures, as if that will somehow shed light on an explanation for what our future will be. Such pronouncements feel better than the not-knowing, which is probably the most difficult part of being in your twenties. But the truth is, I don’t know. When this is over, I will probably still revel in canceling plans with people and feel a corresponding and unreasonable fury at those who do it to me. I will probably still feel my heart sink if–when–I walk into a crowded room. I will probably still stand on the edges of things, observing, because the life of the mind is often more potent than reality. I seem to live my life in a state of suspended animation. I tend to view the events of the outside world as a particularly awful fluke specifically designed to interrupt the flow of things. It only dawned on me a few weeks ago that this time is not an intermission, that this is far from the end. This is only the first act.
Rebecca Bihn-Wallace is a fourth-year studio art major and professional writing minor at the University of California, Davis. She has previously been published in Miracle Monocle, The Marathon Literary Review, Sink Hollow, Running Wild Press Anthology Vol. 2, and by Underwood Press. Her work is forthcoming in the William and Mary Review.