Why yes, I DO feel uniquely equipped to provide commentary on the end times: parental figures in my life included a gay crop scientist who reads too much Kierkegaard and a ballsy childless aunt who grew up during the Great Depression; I’m a woman and therefore have known from jump that this game wasn’t rigged for my benefit; and I almost died once, which is a really informative experience if you can take good notes afterward. In fact, I still remember, in photographic detail, the morning I woke up in the hospital, about eighteen hours after I’d been fairly sure I was going to check out during emergency surgery.
You expect that the moment you wake up and realize you’re still alive, the whole world will look like a glittering Liberace Las Vegas showpiece. Your oyster. How can you complain? But it doesn’t. And it isn’t. It looks just like the world you thought you were leaving forever. It looks imperfect. It looks organic. It looks bigger than you, it looks almost overwhelming, and before I had time to think more about it, a nurse walked in and said good morning to me. “We were wondering when you’d wake up!”
A half hour later, the doctor came in to show me photos she took during the operation. “Look at that tumor! I haven’t seen one like this since my residency. I showed this to my kids at breakfast this morning. Scared the shit out of them.”
I once knew somebody who aspired to be a life coach. He’d worked out a rubric for conquering your problems, one by one, on a worksheet that he liked to show people as evidence that nothing they were up against was truly so insurmountable. He was quite sure that everything happens for a reason, and thus insisted on gleaning an insight about how life was still worth living even when truly macabre shit went down. I think he was really unhappy and he couldn’t accept that it’s okay to be unhappy sometimes. Our culture has done a really good job of making people blame themselves for their sadness–such a clever manipulation, really, as it allows the culture to continue without ever getting dismantled.
I can recall the day when our tenuous friendship fractured for good; we were out having coffee and I finally had enough of what I’ll affectionately call his Brene Brown Bullshit. I said to him that I didn’t believe everything happened for a reason, that sometimes truly terrible things happen that should never happen, and that I felt it was grotesque to think that they happen in order to teach us something. Would you really tell a woman who’s been raped that it happened to her for a reason? Would you tell somebody who got cancer that it happened for a reason?
“But you can’t say that! I’m writing a book about this!” he said.
You know where I’m going with this, right? Such exhausting cultural pressure right now to have some profound thought about this moment. To maximize your quarantine. To bake bread for the first time. To sing “Imagine” with a bunch of millionaires (oh my god I’m still so irritated about that, apparently). To keep working out. To make TikTok videos. To come out stronger and better on the other side.
Just take it from somebody who’s done it once or twice before: surviving is more than enough. You do not need to be better, or wiser, or stronger, or kinder on the other side of this. You just need to survive it. Do what you need to do, try to be patient with your fellow humans who are also doing what they believe they need to do, and don’t feel like you owe any of us an explanation—or a facade.
(When things are more stable, it might not be a terrible idea to go to therapy?)
It is okay, particularly here in a country which is known for its optimism but which is also built on centuries’ worth of fraud, to say that things are broken and scary and they don’t make any fucking sense. It’s okay to just recognize it’s overwhelming and leave it at that and maybe do a heroic bong rip or two.
During a low moment of my own my father told me about a moment from when one of his best friends was dying. His hospice nurse was apparently pretty amazing: she took him places, talked to him, cooked for him, comforted him. This friend said to my father, “When I’m out with her, I often think what a good nurse she is. How interesting and hilarious she is as a person. How, when this is all over, I’d love to just take her out for a cup of coffee. And then I remember: when this is all over, I’ll be dead.”
It was something they laughed over because they had to. My father’s friend was a fatality of a horrifically contagious disease that came out of a pandemic just like this one. There was no great lesson to be derived from his death; it was sad, and undeserved, and perhaps in our lifetime the medicine will exist to cure the disease that killed him, which will only serve to further reinforce the fact that sometimes these things are just fucking unfair.
Wash your hands. Wear your mask. Do your best. KEEP MAKING SOME ART IF YOU CAN! But if you can’t, that’s okay, too, because honestly just being alive right now and not going completely fucking batshit crazy is a heroic achievement.
The fact that you are here, that you woke up today, is a very good thing. It is more than enough. Life has always been this fragile, this tenuous, and this unfair. Maybe we’re more awake to it now than we’ve been before. That’s scary and fucked up! That’s also…fine. It’s fine. This is fine. Well, it’s okay.
Jesus Christ. Now I’ve turned into my self-help nemesis and I’m trying to tell you what this all means and how we’ll all survive it. (Reader: I haven’t the faintest fucking clue. Nobody does.)
For my next trick, I’ll go back to writing about film and TV, because there’s no time like being unemployed to finally use your college education.
In the meantime, here’s a palate cleanser: