When it came, we didn’t believe it would affect us if we followed the rules and then we were wrong and they told us that we were all in danger. Two days later, Friday the 13th of March was the marker of the beginning of us being affected. Somewhere along the line we forgot to be afraid of everything. We touched light switches and we started sleeping very well. The dead grey vines leafed out and covered the entire old white stone house in lush green. In the end, we realized we no longer knew what an end was. We had stopped counting days and started noticing the light in the evenings and the temperature of our skin. In the end there was no end and the grief and mourning that had arisen became our companion and whispered sweet stories of old love and grandmothers as confused and beautiful young women of only twenty.
I feel haunted. For the last decade or so I have taught Toni Morrison’s Beloved every February which always gives me an excellent opportunity to talk about history as haunting and haunting as history. Someone mentioned haunting the other day and I began to think about my own past being present in this moment. I lived in France for some years in my early twenties and here I am again and sometimes I don’t know what time is any more.
I have expounded that here in France people are generally reasonable and cooperative about the various restrictions because this is not their first curtailment of liberty. Not by a long shot. Other times of trouble in France have lasted 5 years or 10 or wait, 100 years! Taking the long view on times of not getting what you want can definitely help put the last few months and the next year or two in perspective.
French people are not saints. They smoke cigarettes with blue paper masks dangling on their chins, they forget how much space a meter is, they complain bitterly about Neoliberalism and the Macorona virus and they are suspicious of many of the government’s plans and also quite worried about the economic future. However, their responses seem quite resigned and Gallic shruggy compared to the lunacy I see in the news about the US. I feel like the long view helps. This is not their first rodeo as we might say. Things are going to be bad for a while and then they are going to be better and in the meantime there is wine to drink and boules to play (they are back!) and little pleasures to enjoy.
But then I got to thinking. What if I took the long view on my own life, on my own hauntings and history? It took me 3.5 years to get pregnant. That was a very long time because every month involved a mourning. Over 40 disappointments and despairs. It took me 5 years to do graduate school and then when I got my current job they said “back to the coal mines of pedagogical nonsense!” and I had to go back to night school for 2 more years. It took me 7 years to move away from a place I never enjoyed and leave its dire weather and record-breaking sprawl. I have loved people who are gone forever and I have lived in places that will never be what they once were. Now I am facing a year or maybe two of strange and uncertain working conditions, a social life that may be neither social nor alive, and some child-rearing that will involve entirely new challenges. During those terrible patience- challenging times of my past many delightful things occurred as well. As my son observed recently, it wasn’t always winter when there was war, it wasn’t always dark and cold. Suffering went on and flowers bloomed and people fell in love and books got written and people laughed in soft snow and the history was always quite complicated even when we look back on dark years or difficult periods.
And what if now were a time to take the long view and think of our own families and where they have been and when they were hungry or hopeless? Epigenetics has started to convince us that their traumas are ours too. Life now for many of us seems easier than anything our grandmothers might have known. In our own families we can trace peaks and valleys of comfort and success and utter hopelessness. Did anyone ever really know for sure what the future would hold? Is our sense of a stable world really a modern illusion? How much are we willing to pay to know what tomorrow will hold?
I have never slept as well as I have during these surprising uncertain times. Perhaps my body knows something more about the rhythms of what might look like disaster but is only part of the creaking and cracking of yet another mythology.
I think of my brother and I kayaking out in a warm bay in the Caribbean a decade ago. He had his son between his legs in a little plastic boat and I had mine. The boys were so young and lulled to sleepiness by the quiet air, the rocking kayaks, the warmth of being in a boat with your competent parent paddling along the shoreline. In moments the sky turned black, the winds howled and the waves grew. In the storm my kayak hit my brother’s and my sleeping little nephew was doused with salty water. My old lifeguard training kicked in and I gave up on the boat and surfed through the waves to shore with my son and scooped up my nephew and reassured them onshore. My brother is a wise surfer and he swam out and rescued kayaks and paddles. We were all okay and had a good story to tell. Enjoy your nap in the bottom of the boat, it is so delightful to sleep well. Keep your metaphorical life jacket on because the waves are bound to come.