Last month I was scrolling through my online bank records for 2020 while preparing our tax info for the accountant. I started in December and worked backward, and when I reached the early part of the year, before the pandemic and the lockdown, I became unexpectedly, unbelievably sad. Not because I had booked tickets for the vacation of a lifetime that would have to be cancelled or put a deposit on a venue for a major event that would never happen, but quite the opposite. The utter ordinariness of the transactions--a trip to Goodwill or the bookstore, haircuts for the boys, a pair of shoes--seemed so foreign to the way the world is now that I felt a deep, deep grief.
The pandemic did not change my life materially. My nearest and dearest have stayed safe and healthy so far. I would have been off of work for the entire summer and fall anyway. I might say I even thrived on the opportunity to be in the company of my family and to have the time that I would otherwise have spent socializing, ferrying my kids around, or running errands to focus on writing and spending time in nature around my home instead.
Many people are expressing optimism that now that vaccines are making their way into arms at a thrilling pace, we'll soon be able to go about our ordinary business. But this last year has driven home the reality that "ordinary" is relative. That what's ordinary to me is not an experience that is available to many: Black men and women who are brutalized and murdered by police and vigilantes while going about their ordinary business of buying a sandwich, going for a jog, sleeping. Elderly Asians who are attacked in the street by white supremacists. Asian women shot in their places of work, again by angry white supremacists. Women of all races beaten and murdered in their own homes by those closest to them.
The weather this year has also been anything but ordinary: wildfires going into December; tornados in February; blizzards in the Deep South; a town flattened by a derecho. Thirty years of denying and ignoring the science on climate change are coming home to roost. It seems unlikely we'll ever see an ordinary season again.
Early last year, I was working on a short story called "Soccer Moms at the End of the World." It was to be a somewhat comic, near-apocalyptic tale (quite possibly a genre I invented) about people going about their normal business as if a quite obvious catastrophe was not looming. As the coronavirus epidemic swelled toward pandemic, I felt the urgency of writing it and was making progress. Then, after my kids' school shut down, I lost my daily writing time, the half hour between 7:30 a.m. (when I arrived at work after having dropped them at their bus stop at 7:00) and 8:00 (when I had to actually go into the office and work). Then my work closed too, and what could have been a full-time writing schedule instead became a full-time doom-scrolling schedule. And the apocalypse had become all too real--bizarrely slow-moving but incredibly palpable--which made writing about a fictional apocalypse a little weird. Also, I didn't know where that story was going. I didn't know what to do with those moms, blissfully ignoring the burgeoning crisis as they bought snacks, drove their kids to soccer games, and sat on the sidelines chatting about everything but what was most important. I still don't know what to do with them. They have to get up every morning and take care of their families. As do we all.