March 22, 2020
Though letters are always limited by the moment they’re attempting to speak to, it feels particularly fraught, today, to write a letter addressed to the present. An accurate description of this era is not something we, in March of 2020, have the luxury or burden of making. Instead, I can tell you that each morning I’ve noticed how the rising sunlight angles into my home—dim, then quickly harsh, then diffuse. I am listening to birds. What are they saying?
Social distancing reminds me so much of low-grade depression—the looming sense of dread, the way every day seems to contain too many and too few hours, the Olympic-sized interiority—and yet it is depression in a new flavor, a bitter herb that for some reason tastes a little sweet. And how weird that everyone I know in the whole world is eating the same strange herb and marveling at it while being bored with it while loving it while being anxious about it. When was the last time, when was the first time, that we were all doing precisely the same thing at precisely the same time? Is this it? Is it now?
We’re all so extremely occupied or unoccupied, unable to think beyond an hour, a day at best. We’re worried, intensely or vaguely, but either way whatever you’re worried about is not nearly as worrisome as it could be. Even the worst is not the worst, and because it has long been our cultural pastime to quantify the distance between ourselves and any given tragedy, these days we are all required—whether publicly or privately—to make an obligatory, “How Bad Do You Really Have It” disclosure.
Do you live alone or with people? Do you get human contact of any kind? Are you going broke? How many people per square foot are in your home? Did your grocery delivery arrive? Did your trip to the grocery store occur without incident? Were they out of onions, of garlic, of butter? How many rolls of toilet paper are in your possession? Claustrophobic? Germaphobic? Catastrophizer? Do you still have a job? Do you live in too small a space? How’s the ventilation, the heat, the light, the ambient noise level there? Do you have a fever, a cough, a sense of moral indignation? Grinding your teeth? Are you losing wages or dividends? Pregnant? Scared? Pregnant and scared? Do you wish you had a dog instead of children or children instead of a dog? Are you glad to be left alone? Are you not being left alone quite enough? Did you just realize you have no identity aside from your job? Are you feeling guilty about how glad this time is making you feel? Are you spraying down the mail with disinfectant? Are you manic about the handwashing yet? Hands flaking and clean? Are you waking up before dawn and just staring out the window?
And so, I’ll just say, as I must—the state of my life is fine enough to not describe in any detail except to say that several months ago on a very cold winter day my partner read me a poem by Bashō that gladdened me so much I thought I should have it writ large somewhere in the house so that I had the nerve to survive winter (I hate winter).
Here it is—
A male cat
passed through the hole
in the broken hearth
to meet his mistress.
So it was all right,
Yesterday has passed safely,
though I ate and drank
quantities of globefish soup.
Ah it is spring
great spring it is now.
Great, great spring—
We’re all afraid to die, afraid to lose people we love to death, but Bashō is already dead. Not that that’s a comfort, but I am trying to paint his words as carefully and patiently as I can.
A week ago on the phone my sister said something like, Hey, isn’t Social Distancing sort of your normal life? This was the joke that most writers, freelancers, introverts and such were quick to make last week but have already forgotten, as the numbers grow grim and grimmer still because the numbers are not numbers but lives ending, chaos in the hospitals. It is true I like staying at home, but less so when it is to fear for the lives of my elders, of whom (statistically) some may not be here on the other side of this great spring. Because that’s what this eerie, bittersweet herb really is, something we’re eating in the waiting room of a funeral parlor.