A Journal of the Plague Week 42

Sunday, January 3rd, 2021

The refrain I heard so often in 2020 is “we’re all in the same boat.”

The somewhat less common but much more accurate metaphor is that while we’re all in more or less the same storm, our boats are very, very different. If you’ve been riding out the maelstrom in a superyacht, your experience is nothing like that of folks crammed together in dinghies, battered on all sides by health threats, economic insecurity, childcare tribulations, fear, loss, and grief. If this year hasn’t been too bad for you, it’s because you’ve been lucky enough to travel in a vessel that has protected you. Most people have not been so lucky.

Jeremy and I are among the lucky ones, and I’m grateful for that every day. I imagine us to be on a small but sturdy sailboat, buffeted by the waves but fairly safe and comfortable nonetheless. The quarters are slightly cramped, but the hull is sound. And through the course of the year we’ve learned to navigate some of the trickier currents of this violent sea, so the bumps and crashes of the early months—when no one really knew how the virus was transmitted or how to treat it, and I was scared basically all of the time—have mostly been avoided in these more recent ones. At the start of the pandemic, I felt like were taking our life in our hands every time we so much as stepped out the front door. I was so anxious I made myself physically sick. And though, in many ways, the Situation is even worse now than it was then, we’ve become accustomed to our locked-down life, and instead of careening wildly to escape potential threats, we can now steer around concrete dangers we understand.

My fear is still there, but has constantly shifted shape over the year, expanding and contracting, fixating on this possibility one minute and that one the next. It encompassed everything at the start, then shrank a bit as we settled into quarantine, then ballooned as the virus raged unchecked across the States, then receded somewhat during that precious summer lull, the deceptively calm eye of the storm, when Brighton had only one or two coronavirus cases a week and, for a while, life almost seemed “normal” again. That’s a distant memory now. Last week there were over a thousand new cases in Brighton; the eye of the storm has passed and we’re back in the thick of it. Not only that: since the UK cast itself adrift from the EU on December 31st, we’re more alone now than ever before.

But the fear has mostly settled down into a low background hum, a kind of emotional tinnitus that I can often ignore, at least during the day (though it sometimes shrieks back into my awareness at night). It’s the deep murmur of the engine that has powered (or dragged) me through this long, weird, boring, frightening, infuriating, horrible year—but a year with moments of beauty and joy nonetheless. I’m tempted to look back on 2020 as a kind of “lost year”, but it’s not really true. So very much has been lost, and so many people have been lost, but all is not lost. Some of the worst of humanity was on display this year, like every year, but some of the best as well, maybe even more so in this year than others. And we have a vaccine now, so we have hope. Though it sometimes seems impossible to believe, the skies will clear again. We just have to keep paddling away until they do.

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