This pandemic has been insatiable. It gnawed at the spring, slowly at first, thought it might fill up fast, until it consumed the last portions of the school year, including its habits and rituals of transition and completion. It ate my daughter Q’s birthday back in late April, which had to be celebrated via a surprise Zoom party with her friends who each set their virtual backgrounds to a favorite pic of her and them together. It ate the meat of my son M’s 17th birthday and left the bones of adulthood wet in his lap. It ate Mother’s and Father’s Day. It ate my wife’s birthday and then somehow had room for mine. It unhinged its jaw and swallowed the summer whole — no camps, no travel, no lazy city days with friends — and now it’s licking its lips at the fall.
We have been fortunate all in all. Suddenly online high school wasn’t ideal, but M&Q’s teachers handled the pivot reasonably well until everyone could limp over the finish line. My wife and I still have jobs, at least for the moment, work that we can negotiate remotely even as demands have intensified. New York was hit extremely hard early on, and we stayed inside as much as possible, covered our faces, helped Flatten the Curve. We haven’t gotten sick. The city is beginning to come out of its crouch, and we feel more comfortable being out in the masks that Q made for us. But when we’re out, we still can’t manage to see the end of this time.
We’ve had so much time to pass despite everything, despite the nothing, and days are all middle now. Over the 5 months of quarantine, so many load-bearing distinctions have eroded — work/life, school/home, weekday/weekend, spring/summer — that any moment could be carved from any part of any day. Even as we don’t feel like we’re moving, milestones keep coming to us. We all got officially older. M has continued with the college process, forced to think about himself in the near and far future when even next week seems nebulous. He was supposed to be on stage performing with his band throughout this summer, letting out his whole self so that audiences can become their bodies. I still want him to have that experience, as often as he can, to see for himself the kind of joy he can give others that few others can, but it’s hard to see when such performances could happen again. Q was supposed to be among her people at arts camp, away from the city and screens, but she is home and surrounded by both yelling at her. She has responded by trying to make her way through this time, literally, by sewing shirts, drawing, sending letters to friends, and doing daily collages in a book (or junk journaling, as it’s called). Collage perfectly suits these times — we must assemble meaning from found bits, stitch stories together out of what chance gives.
Myself, I pass time by trying not to be angry and only occasionally succeeding. We’ve spent so long doing as we were told, shifting our lives as we needed to, letting everything somehow stop but keep going. And during that time, our incompetent government did nothing, made no plan, cleared no path back out. This time has been stolen from us. The government stole, in all likelihood, the next two years from M&Q and so many other kids. Adulthood is coming for them, and now it will arrive hungry. They have stolen freedom from my parents and family embrace from my grandmother. They will have stolen thousands and thousands and thousands of lives, along with the ability and space to grieve properly for them. And they have congratulated themselves shamelessly for doing it all. Racial justice, health care, income equality — so many ripped seams have been revealed in our country over the past few months like never before, and those in power are incapable of meeting the moment in any way.
Rarely succeeding, I suppose. I find myself wanting to work with my hands. I dream of walking out into a field and digging, of losing myself in my body at work, burying “knowing that” (thinking, facts) in a pile of “knowing how” (doing). I spend the week of Father’s Day shopping for tools that I don’t need and don’t have the storage space for anyway. I think about when I was young and would go out to my father’s shop to look at the tools hung on the peg rack, all that embodied purpose, and wonder at their functions. Dad had a vise bolted to the end of the workbench, and I would secure all manner of things in its jaws while playing at fixing. I loved to take unworking toys or an old radio that didn’t respond to its switch, and teach myself how to open it well. The insides usually remained a puzzle, especially the radios and walkie talkies with their magical mechanisms, but every now and then I managed to reset a slipped belt or realign a gear and give a toy back its use.
The shop seemed old and powerful, a place of purpose and practical skill. The oldest shop resident had to be my dad’s anvil, impossibly heavy and seated on a hardwood stump. (Trying to move it made me understand why Looney Toons kept coming back to anvils when needing heavy things.) Dad grew up on a farm, and the anvil was, I think, his grandfather’s, used to fit shoes for the pair of Belgian draft horses. One end was pointed (the “horn”) and the other rectangular, and the top or “face” was flat and smooth. I never saw my father use it, but it means enough to him that it now sits in his city basement. For me the anvil was a thing to hit other things against. Still, sitting at the workbench with it near made me feel like an interlocutor in the long conversation of work that I so wanted to join.
Even though I’ve dedicated my life to prying open ideas and to creating and fixing things that can’t be set in a vise, the shop draws me back now for obvious reasons. These inside days have left my body quiet, and my brain busies itself filling the silence with its noise. We will emerge from this endless moment at some point, ideally with a different appreciation of human dignity and awareness of suffering and with a will to work toward something better. Perhaps we will finally leave New York now that we assign so much risk to its crowds and subways and museums and restaurants, and anyway we can send in most of our work selves over the internet. Somewhere upstate Q could stake out a garden, make the ground into a living collage. M could finally turn the volume on his guitar amp up past 2. And we might be able to find a place with a shop and a wall of pegs where I could take down tools and hang up my mind for a while. For now we hope and wait for this time to end, for some other time to begin.
The anvil teaches the first lesson of fixing — to open or shape a hard thing, you need a harder thing. This time is hard; I don’t know how much harder I can make myself.