Pandemic Fiction As Truth

"These were the testaments they left behind, the harvests from  the beauty and despair they drew from their depths. They gave the monsters and demons equal say, and the result of such courage was an overlying stark beauty of emotional honesty." 

WHEN THE LAST OCEAN DIES (coming in October)

I was almost finished with the final book in my series when the pandemic hit. In one of those strange twists, I was reading BIRDSONG, the novel by Sebastian Faulks, during editing breaks. I started out reading it as a novel about the first World War that focused on the psychological trauma of war. Fiction is much better at describing such trauma than the sterilized "professional" accounts. 

It was one in a long list of books I read as I tried to understand what happened to the mind when confronted with previously unimaginable horrors. IF THIS IS A MAN by Primo Levi set me on this path when I first read it several years ago. It gave me insight into a part of the human psyche that was indestructible. But I already knew such indestructibility came with a price. I saw first hand how human beings far too often chewed off one or more of their limbs to survive. I wanted more.

And I got more when the times I was reading in changed. Like most narrowly focused readers, if it wasn't for the pandemic hitting when it did, I might have finished BIRDSONG with yet more understanding of war trauma, but completely missed the significance of another event in the book, the 1918 influenza. 

From the perspective of a modern reader who lived with the global reality of world travel for most of my life, I suddenly saw something in what I read that I didn't see on the first reading. The returning soldiers who helped spread the virus all over the world. In the global world that is part of our reality now, it was easy to see this, so I saw it clearly. But the book focused more on the psychological damage of war, the brain damage, the disabled who lost arms and legs in battle, and the permanent lung destruction that also came home with the soldiers.

I clearly saw my blind spot then, and it became more prominent when the pandemic became personal instead of an historical event from the past.  Along with most of the world, I was suddenly quarantined. My life changed little as I already lived on a small island with few people, and I have always been pretty much a loner who prefers my own company.  Now I was facing an extended isolation with just one other person and a cat. I prepared for it by making a long list of books to read as I finished editing my book. I bought new goodies for my art box. I added supplies to my already adequate earthquake stash. I was ready.

What I wasn't ready for was history repeating itself. My reading of news accounts of the day and the politicizing of the virus began to merge into one miserable truth. As a species, we humans are damned stupid. The 1918 pandemic had the same anti-mask plague rats infecting each other in the name of freedom. The same people called it a lie, a plot, a hoax for the same reasons they did in 1918. The same excuses, the same manipulations, the same conspiracy gulping cultists rose up like flies seeking the same communal shit pile to wallow in together. All hail polio, smallpox, and Caesar!

But I was saved from utter despair when I began digging into my stack of books from the writers of that time. They left us some damned good insightful fiction into what it was like to live during a pandemic. As did the art of that time, the music, the fashion, and the ideas that were germinated during isolation and blossomed when the quarantine ended. 

Along with the fiction, I read post-pandemic criticisms of the hedonism, the outright disdain for social rules that no longer applied, the anguished cries of woe that portrayed the excesses of the 20's as the whole taste of the time. I also read the petty moralists of our time who squawked of the doom to come, the collapse of society, the debauchery, oh yes, the debauchery to come. What they really feared, every damn one of them was something that was seeping through the cracks of our isolation. 

As the quarantine grew from weeks to months,we became more honest. The isolation nibbled away at our social skills. It made us less reluctant to bite the words from tongues left alone too long. We began to share ourselves in weird and wonderful ways. But it wasn't so much the famous paintings we recreated with ourselves as the subjects and then posted online to share with the world from our phones, often with only our pets to play the parts of missing characters.  It was the need to share.

Many times as I viewed the contributions from all over the world, I broke down in tears. The zoom orchestras where everyone played from their living rooms. The demonstrations on how to make your own face mask. Videos for those learning to bake bread for the first time. The world was sharing the same experiences, at the same moment in time, from the same depths of our souls. The world of people, the world of human beings, the world of emotional, weeping, laughing contributors were leaving a record of their humanity.

The changes crept in so slowly that at first they went unnoticed. Little things like around month six I started to have phone conversations with friends that not only were longer than all the ones before, they were more satisfying. The artifice was eroding. The need to pretend to be someone else was wearing away. We began to speak truth to each other. We began to let others see who were really were underneath all the superficial social skills that once defined us.

Those I loved before, I loved even more because I knew them better now, and they began to know me. We began to grow into more appropriate human skins together. My friendships deepened. I grew more comfortable with telling people I loved them, something I've never been very good at. The pandemic gave me an opportunity to get better at it.

But I had to approach all this new reality realistically. I've never been someone who could distance myself from the emotions and traumas of others. It's probably why I needed so much time alone. Sponges needs wringing out time or they will drown willingly, happily, sacrificially in other people's drama pools. I'm working on something I've never been good at, the middle ground. I know it's there, but it's just not as satisfying anymore.

The important thing I was left with was the hope that what I saw happening to me was also happening to others, because honesty, both emotional and intellectual, is a vital thread we need to stitch together new truths, whether it's in our relationships or part of our shared visions for healing the planet.

And of course, after all this, I looked at the book I was editing and realized I needed to start over. My dystopian world was suddenly not a distant fantasy but a quickly evolving reality. I also felt, as a writer, I had an historical responsibility to describe a piece of the emotional truth happening all around me.

That's why I started my book over. I needed to put in the art, the music, the new awareness of self, the need to connect, the global village as a real thing, but most of all, the ability for human beings to get so comfortable in their own skins that saying I love you to a friend, a lover, or themselves, was as important as anything else. I wanted to be part of that mark on history. 



My personal website:
Ursine Logic's Books and Art