The year is closing out, and a stillness has settled in me. It’s been rainy, in a way that a San Francisco native friend says was typical of the winters of her childhood: several days in a row of rain, then a brief sunny spell, then back to more water from the sky. We’ve been in a drought, so it seems especially wet now, and Tahoe’s recent snowfall broke a 50-year-old record, but this is the way it’s supposed to be, actually.
There’s also been a vertical-wall spike in COVID, both in San Francisco and the United States more broadly, and that has settled something in me, too. Through all of this year, and the last of course, risk assessment has ping-ponged around. Through unknown unknowns, unreliable sources, experts urging caution and still learning themselves, the displacement of personal trust in the face of an insidious virus that knows no moral judgments, and the changing terrain of case numbers, vaccination rates, behavioral change and interventions of mixed success, every movement has been tinged with uncertainty. And it’s been that way for a long time now.
But, with the rain and the virus surging, some questions are settled. No, we will not be hosting a Christmas party. No, we will not be going out for New Year’s Eve. We’re not going to be going out much at all. We will return to the cozy comforts of last Christmas, festive at home and loving each other through the cold and inclement conditions. The distracting, conflicting priorities have been cut away, and we are decided in the root sense of the term, with noise excised from the program. It’s Christmas on the Island of Corona, for however long it needs to be.
I find myself reawakening to the things that saw me through last winter’s tumult: My fingers are itching for sewing and stitchwork again, my urge to cook is surging once more, and my gratitude for every investment in our home is at the forefront. The sun is breaking through today, and I can imagine going out to the garden to do some midwinter tidying, the rains having called up many weeds I could thin now before the work is harder later on.
This autumn, I returned to a task of the beforetimes, and I completed two classes that I had to drop in autumn of 2019. (One I attempted again at the beginning of 2020, and we all know what happened next.) Those classes first fell by the wayside in the wake of my Uncle Mac’s death, a death I willingly witnessed in hopes of helping him pass peacefully as an organ donor. In 2016 and 2017, I spent time at the bedsides of loved ones in the ICU or hospice, first pregnant and then with a newborn babe in arms; one family member survived, the other did not. In 2018, just after my child’s first birthday, my Aunt Suzanne passed, and of her last moments we have stories of her daughter being by her side. In 2020, my father nearly died in front of me twice, and I was able to save him with quick action and relentless advocacy. My husband’s grandmother was lost to COVID shortly before vaccines would have been available to her at the end of 2020. There has been so much bereavement, and much of it began before COVID loomed like the specter of death itself over the entire world.
I feel like I could write a book about how each of those passings rewrote my family. But a theme that sticks out in particular is how different death feels when one can be present, sit vigil with the others left behind, and begin to heal and rebuild together before the aftermath has even begun. There is no control, but there is presence, and we are social animals that are forever re-glueing our bonds together again in novel ways. And what the last two years have done, in addition to the waves of death and uncertainty, is denied us presence with one another as we endure collective trauma. Togetherness has come in fits and starts, and sometimes with awful consequences. Understanding the dangers of the outside world has become a paradigm-shifting endeavor knit into the course of daily life.
But, daily life continues. And there are solid reasons to feel hope. On the back of the Winter Solstice, in these mystery days between Christmas and the New Year, I genuinely feel the light coming. This latest wave of the coronavirus, omicron, is washing up on a population that has more immunity before, both because of vaccinations and prior infections. We have more and better treatments to deploy, and this mutation shows some signs of causing less severe illness despite its incredible transmissibility. This two-year cycle of viruses is something we’ve seen before, in prior pandemics, and this evolution toward less-deadly endemic status is part of the playbook in many cases. At some point, this coronavirus will likely take up space among our seasonal illnesses, with particularly nasty strains popping up every so often, but we already have vaccines to mitigate its impact, and we increasingly carry (and pass on to our new infants) the tools to fight back within our own bodies. And it’s not just me saying this, with my decidedly non-expert opinion: Medical experts are saying this, too. This particular uncertainty will not carry on at this intensity forever, and indeed the intensity may be diminishing soon.
Personally, I have also found some footing in this chaos that is reconnecting me to life before and beyond the immediate concerns of surviving a pandemic. Those classes I mentioned before were dropped in a time of turmoil; in the brief beginnings of 2020, I was getting back on the proverbial horse, and then my child and I both got sick with what was likely COVID, the world shut down and things got very scary. But I finally got that horse over hurdles I was unable to clear two years ago. In that small regard, I am further along than I was before all of this started. My life from before is not gone, though parts of it have been deferred or changed forever. I wouldn’t want to extrapolate too much from this one very personal achievement, but there’s something of a metaphor in it that resonates more broadly to me. Life finds a way, and there are through-lines permeating this instability that can help us navigate to what comes next. (The fact that one of these classes was a history course is a subject for another essay.)
When the Imperial College report on COVID came out in spring of 2020, projecting that we would endure rolling waves of lockdowns based on hospitalization rates, which would be determined by waning immunity and mutations in the virus, I remember thinking we couldn’t run a society that way. The report anticipated an ongoing cycle of doing this, which seemed impossible just a few weeks into the chaos. Yet, here we are. Those of us who have made it have found a way, physically and spiritually, to endure a cataclysmic impact to life as we knew it. I imagine that we all bear some emotional scars from all that’s transpired, and we are changed. I don’t want to minimize any of that.
But, somehow, this enforced winter quiet has the feel of a chrysalis to me. I no longer feel that I am cloistered against the unknown. It feels more like incubating strength for the next incarnation, which I sense is coming soon.
So, for now, I sit, and I try to stitch together a future for myself and those I love, weaving in all I’ve learned about the long arc of history and the lessons of creativity in navigating uncertainty. We’ve been doing this since we lived in caves, you know: Using our hands and our minds to take in the mysteries of the world and fabricate lives for ourselves from the raw materials around us. One more time, I shall cuddle into these constraints, letting some desires hibernate as winter eventually gives way to spring.
Dr. Bob Wachter on hopefully getting to his "happy place" in COVID terms in just over a month's time: https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1476314067660722176.html
The early Imperial College report on cycles of transmission and suppression of COVID: https://www.imperial.ac.uk/mrc-global-infectious-disease-analysis/covid-19/report-12-global-impact-covid-19/
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