When everyone is flooding my local stores the day before a snowstorm to stock up on tuna fish and toilet paper, I mostly laugh. When people are leaving shelves bare before the rare hurricane up here in the northeast, I don’t join in. I barely noted the swine flu, and did not bat an eye at SARS. Ebola made me take a bit of notice, mostly because hemorrhagic fevers sound like terrible diseases to have. But even then, I did not take much note. I don’t feel a deep need for a basement full of bottled water. I don’t stock dried rice and hand sanitizer. (In fact, I kind of hate the stuff, as slimy and smelly as it is. I much prefer to wash my hands).
Which is why no one was more surprised than I was when, after stocking up at the store yesterday, I spent the rest of the day spiraling. Here I was, with a freezer full of enough food to feed me and my children for weeks, plenty of disinfectants and my loved ones healthy and close… and I could not stop crying. I sat with the feelings, trying to get to the bottom of what was driving them. It was the empty shelves at the stores, I realized. Although I got hand soap and plenty of frozen foods, there were entire aisles completely bare — no toilet paper, no alcohol and none of the hand sanitizer I usually eschew. I didn’t need toilet paper, and I didn’t want hand sanitizer, but seeing the supply chain so interrupted was terrifying to me. Chalk it up to a childhood when my own personal supply line was interrupted with scary frequency, and I guess you could say I was what the kids call triggered. It felt like a glimpse of the end times.
Today the sky dawned gray, with a driving rain that would probably keep me away from one of my main coping mechanisms, the garden. I’ve been spending the week slowly cleaning out one flower bed at a time, cutting things back, noting buds, clipping away dead branches, filling up bird feeders and tracking the progress of the single black squirrel that lives in the tree in my backyard, a creature I find mesmerizing (how do you survive in a world in which all your brethren are gray but you’re a beautiful charcoal black?). I’ve been fussing with the entrance to my house, ordering a new welcome mat and a fun new black and white rug for beneath it, in a style I saw on Instagram the other day. I painted a new “Welcome” sign and put out a lantern. Feathering the nest feels comforting, but it is also lonely. Who will see my new welcome mat, my clean flower beds? It underscored the isolation of the coming weeks. Although I love to stay home, having to do it feels different.
Since my teens, I’ve been fascinated with books about the collapse of civilization. My gateway drug was probably Nightfall, an Isaac Asimov story about a world that has five suns in the sky and thus never knows darkness. Every 2,000 years, all the suns align in such a way that one side of the planet is plunged into darkness. The inhabitants of the planet, unfamiliar with the lack of light, slip into madness and set their world on fire to fight back the night, destroying everything over and over in 2,000-year cycles.
I’ve read all the big “end of times” books: The Postman, which was a great book made into a terrible Kevin Costner movie, Earth Abides, On the Beach. I met one of my best friends, Yvonne Ventresca, at a book festival when both our books were new. The thing that made me want to talk to her? The title of her book was Pandemic.
One of my favorite books of all time, Station Eleven, tells the story of our world twenty years into the future, after a pandemic kills 99% of humans. It jumps back and forth between the “present,” as the pandemic is beginning, and the future, following a traveling troupe of actors as they go from one small outpost to the next trying to keep Shakespeare plays alive “because survival is insufficient.” What I adore about the book is how it lovingly grazes the details of our world, noting the small miracles we ignore every day, like lit-up pools and cargo ships, cell phones and the internet. The author has called it “a love letter to our world,” and I think that hits what I love about it spot on.
I am not sure why I’ve always loved this genre of book. I have long thought it was because I wonder what I’d be like if things got really bad, if survival was on the line. For example, the main antagonist in The Postman is this evil warlord type. But before the end times, what was he? An insurance salesmen. I like to toy with the notion of what I’d be if the conventions of society were stripped away. I’d like to imagine myself a rapacious warlord.
But as all this uncertainty swirls, I realize my other fascination with “end of civilization” books: the celebration of the world we do have, the capacity to feel the ache of worse case scenario without any of the strife of living it. If books are mechanisms to make us feel things, what can feel stronger than the loss of this world?
And therein, I think, is some of what is scary about our current moment. Our life is beautiful, with all its frustrations and inconveniences, in a thousand ways we ignore every day. This uncertainty casts into stark relief the many things I have to be grateful for, but don’t always notice. And that is as it should be, I suppose. It is the nature of comfort and security not to intrude and call attention to itself. Here, noting the gossamer threads that make it up, I am awed, I am scared, and I am grateful. But the most important things are these: I am healthy. My children are with me. We have all we need.
I ache for this world full of its wonders and its thousand quiet joys. I hold it in my heart and pray that we may all be safe and well. I have no special pronouncements, no powers that can make the next few months unfold in any way other than as they will. But as you find your own way in these times, I hope you can take care of you and yours, that you can find time to read and be at peace, to laugh and to feel joy.
Stay safe, please.
CDC Guidelines for preventing the spread of coronavirus: click here
Handwashing guidelines and instructions: click here