Terms derived from Latin patior or passus—endure, suffer, feel—tell the story of 2020.
Patients. Infections from a deadly new virus overload hospitals and staff.
Impassioned. Demonstrators pour into streets to protest killings by police.
Impatient. Americans are ready to be done, but the pandemic rages on.
Compassion. Old people at highest risk lose the comfort of family visits.
Dispassionate. Impartial judges reject efforts to overturn election results.
Patience. Vaccine distribution begins to unroll, offering hope for 2021.
Our house abounds in windows. Some evenings we wander from room to room counting how many Christmas trees we can see. This photo shows four; the total often reaches ten or twelve. We are easily amused.
Simple pleasures are always a blessing, and even more when fancier pleasures go on furlough. This is not our year for family travel, raucous parties, or sing-along carols at Madison’s Overture Center. Instead, we watch the neighbor’s cat prowl out front. A wild turkey balances on the balcony railing to peck at the feeder out back. Calls of geese overhead break the silence.
To all who read this and all your near and dear, may this be a season of peace, health, love, laughter, and the possibility of joy in simple gifts.
Wisconsin countryside flashes past. Music on my car radio breaks for a public service announcement. “Wear your mask. Wash your hands.” It feels like the opening scene for a future film titled The Great Pandemic of 2020.
As I imagine it, the documentary flips through late-winter headlines to show growing apprehension about a virus from far away. It shows toilet-paper-laden grocery carts, empty shelves, checkout lines of masked shoppers six feet apart. The camera moves past closed restaurants to an armed horde at the Michigan state capitol toting Confederate flags.
Between hectic hospital scenes, we hear excerpts from interviews and speeches: a nurse exhausted, Fauci calm and factual, Trump saying the virus will vanish like a miracle. We see parents working from home, children studying in the kitchen. Spring and summer scenes fade into election season: packed MAGA rallies, Biden masked in an empty room, postal bins overflowing with ballots, socially distanced voters. A series of autumn headlines shows rising hospitalizations and deaths, with a dire warning not to gather for Thanksgiving. A turkey producer bemoans a glut of large turkeys and too few small ones to meet the demand.
Will the film end with the start of vaccinations, or will it recount twists and turns we can’t yet predict? What would you include if you were writing the script for The Great Pandemic of 2020?
Other people’s choices—their behaviors, politics, precautions or lack thereof—can astound me. My rhetorical question radiates disapproval. It drowns out the literal question, “What were they thinking?”
Judgment has its place, e.g. the courtroom or the voting booth. But without curiosity, cursory judgment clouds understanding. Even murder mystery novelists plant clues to motive as well as means and opportunity.
Thinking like a historian means exploring evidence for reasoning and context, not merely right and wrong. It means making room for nuance and complexity. To understand does not oblige us to condone. It can get us past stereotypes and assumptions. It may even help us discern what they were really thinking.
A few days ago, the microwave beeped erratically for no known reason. A printer quit working. Plumbing fixtures began to malfunction. The button to enter a new blog post vanished temporarily from my website. A year since I wrote “Things keep breaking,” the gremlins are at it again.
Gremlins came to human attention shortly after World War I, when British pilots described their sabotage of aircraft engines and flight controls. The Spectator reported in the 1920s, "The old Royal Naval Air Service in 1917 and the newly constituted Royal Air Force in 1918 appear to have detected the existence of a horde of mysterious and malicious sprites whose whole purpose in life was…to bring about as many as possible of the inexplicable mishaps which, in those days as now, trouble an airman’s life."
Are the gremlins more active in this darkening season, or do they just throw me farther off balance? Soon tree lights and carols will revive my resilience. Days will start to lengthen. Perhaps the gremlins will tire of their antics, until this time next year.
War on crime. War on poverty. War on drugs. War on terror. To call a big initiative a “war” is almost irresistible. The word conjures up determination, mobilization of resources, unity of purpose, and personal sacrifice for a larger cause.
Less consciously perhaps, “war” also conjures up constraints on civil liberties and acceptance of collateral damage. The language of metaphorical war lulls the public to condone these measures, with no clear end point. From the naming of the drug war, all the rest follows: police militarized, no-knock warrants issued, police shot by occupants who mistake them for housebreakers, bystanders killed by police returning fire. Combat and collateral damage.
Words matter. It may be time to declare war on metaphors of war.
“Let’s get a hot dog, Grandma.” Joey’s bare toes dug into the sand. “Why is Pete’s Tasty Dogs so far away? I wish it was closer to home.”
“Me too, Joey, but that would make a long walk for people from the other end of the beach. They might decide not to bother. Pete sells more hot dogs by staying in the middle.”
“You said the city agreed to add sand at this end, to make the beach longer. Then will Pete move Tasty Dogs here?”
Grandma laughed. “No, Joey. Pete will still put his stand halfway down the beach.”
“Then you went to all those meetings for nothing. All your letters to the city went to waste.” Joey scowled.
“Not at all,” Grandma said. “Don’t you see? After this end of the beach is closer to our house, the middle will be closer, too. Pete will move Tasty Dogs to the new middle, and we won’t have as far to walk.”
“Goody! Come, Grandma. I want ketchup on mine!”
Last March when events were canceled right and left, I figured quiet weeks at home should be a great time to write. Instead, my fiction writing has ground to a halt. The hours disappear into reading and long forest walks. Oh, there’s time in abundance. I just don’t have the focus.
Some writers and artists tell me they find the opposite, a relatively empty calendar letting creativity flourish. Others face constant interruptions with their family always home. Still, I may not be the only one who peacefully stretches chores and puttering to fill the day.
Beyond the drabness of my inventions compared to this year’s real life, I suspect the cause is also neurological. Much of the world in 2020 is experiencing heightened levels of threat perception. The chronic fight-or-flight response redirects brain and body to survival, at the expense of calm, clear thought. The rate of mistakes is up. Part of my week goes into correcting errors and making amends.
How is your focus these days?
“I can’t wait!” we say as a vacation approaches, a beloved friend offers to visit, or the theater curtain begins to rise. With reasonable confidence in the joy ahead, the flutter of eager anticipation is part of the fun.
The excruciating waits are the ones fraught with uncertainty. Waiting to hear back from an editor, agent, or publisher. Waiting for results of a medical test or a job interview. Waiting to learn the outcome of an election.
Do you suppose our ancestors waited more serenely before we got spoiled with instant food mixes, satellite communications, and same-day delivery services? Maybe not. I picture supporters of Adams and Jefferson in 1796 biting their nails for weeks, awaiting results of that bitterly partisan contest for president. (Spoiler: Adams won by a hair.) What feels like a short or long time has surely changed, but I suspect human nature stays much the same.
Of the many casualties of this pandemic, large and small, one I grieve personally is the writing program in the University of Wisconsin’s Division of Continuing Studies. Its workshops, classes, spring Writers’ Institute, and week-long Write-by-the-Lake retreat have taught me so much in recent years and introduced me to so many amazing people. Now the program’s big events are discontinued, online services are winding down, and the last of the staff will leave by the end of June.
To grieve is not simply a stronger form of to miss. I miss family members I don’t live with, Door County vacations, eating out. They’ll be back. I grieve the deaths, the abandoned dreams, particular shops and restaurants closed forever. I miss informal interactions over lunch or breaks when a conference has to go online. I grieve how, when budgets get tight, the arts are the first to go.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.