Every year, we buy the Pearls Before Swine daily calendar. When we started into 2022’s daily calendar, I hesitated. Stephen Pastis had written all of the comics in 2020, and he was commenting on the then-current events.
I told Dean that I did not want to relive 2020. Dean told me I didn’t have to read the comic strips, but he wanted to. So they’re on our counter, therefore I do read them.
Some of them have been deeply uncomfortable, and many have been very funny. But they have all brought a perspective that I had forgotten—just how tough lockdown was, and how terrified we all were of what was going to happen next.
I am writing this on a Sunday. The cartoons on Sunday aren’t in date order. (Think about it.) The cartoon that showed up in our calendar today was from August 9, 2020. Pig happily walks along, heading to a bar, where he drinks with a group of people. Then they all make a toast to a whole day of “drinking, eating, and being together.” As the strip goes on, we realize that this hasn’t happened yet, and they have no idea when it will. It ends with the words “one day.”
I stopped and stared at that. The feeling of uncertainty, of when will our lives return to “normal,” was ever-present. We all felt that way, all the time.
Gradually everything changed. One day is here. It has been here for a while now. I remember my first meal out with friends after many of the restrictions were lifted. We were all vaccinated. We had our masks.
We ate together in a lovely restaurant—and talked about how scared we were. We also talked about what we had individually gone through, including the woman who runs hospitals and ran vaccine clinics. She had a hell of a 2020. We tried to be joyful, but we were too scared.
It wasn’t joyful yet. Dean and I went to a couple of events that were deeply uncomfortable and, in 2021, we bailed on some concerts during the fall because the World Rodeo Finals were in town, and the participants were militantly unmasked. This was during the Delta surge.
We decided not to risk it, even though we had our boosters. Then we bailed on a couple of concerts in early 2022 because of Omicron.
We were doing risk assessments, and figured that at our age, we didn’t want to take any chances.
Slowly, things eased. The therapeutics were good and, as we followed the numbers in Nevada over the spring, it became clear that the people who were being hospitalized were, primarily, the militantly unvaccinated— people who were over 65, all with pre-existing conditions, and who did not wear masks and did not believe the “science crap.”
Then the vaccines came in for the littlest among us, and the calculations changed. People started going out again, taking their children. Everyone who traveled tested, and made sure they protected their immune-compromised friends and family members, but as for truncating their own experiences? No one did so unless they tested positive on the way to or from an event.
Most everyone we know who tested positive had minor symptoms or were asymptomatic. Which makes me wonder just how common asymptomatic infections are with other viral diseases. I’m sure there’s information on that out there. I’m not looking it up.
I will be masking in the height of flu season now or if there’s a new variant that has significantly evaded all the treatments. I’m properly boosted and will remain so.
I have for the most part relegated Covid to that category of other behaviors that I do that carry a risk with them. Is this worth the risk? Then, yes, I’ll do it.
The calculations have changed since that first meal out with friends. We go out a lot now. We’ve seen a lot of friends and friend-family. I’ve been going to concerts and plays as well as classes at the gym. I also have a full year of school under my belt.
But it’s only been recently that I realized that I’m slowly letting the terror leave me. Not the daily terror, the one that was with us in 2020. But this undercurrent of…will this be the moment that I catch Covid? Will I die?
That terror has taken a long time to dissipate. Yes, I’ll probably get Covid-19 at some point in my life (which I hope is long), but it’ll most likely be like a case of the flu. The 1918 flu is still with us. It’s not a novel virus. Neither is Covid any longer.
I’ve mentioned all of this before. I thought I had cleared a lot of it out, but I hadn’t.
Pearls Before Swine covered this too, in a cartoon from August 6, 2020. Pig is writing out his daily worries, broken down in percentages. Because it’s a comic strip and I don’t want to tread on Stephen Pastis’s copyright, I’m not going to give you all of the percentages, just the one that caught me when I read it:
One percent: Not worrying and thereby worrying that I’m letting my guard down.
Yeah. That one. That one. It’s the one that has lingered for me. That has nagged at me. That has whispered in my ear that I’m screwing up badly by not worrying.
Yet worrying has gotten in the way of me living my new normal life—especially on my writing. My critical voice has been not just on high, but ridiculously high.
The critical voice, for those of you who haven’t taken any of our classes, is a parental voice, one developed to keep a toddler safe. Parents spend the first two years of a child’s life saying no, not because parents are contrary, but because they’re trying to keep the kid alive.
That’s a survival voice, and I had trained mine to be useful in times where I needed to survive. I had a hellish childhood, and then I became a reporter who had to venture into dangerous situations. I learned how to be wary when it didn’t even seem like I was.
Sara Paretsky mentioned this in her afterward to her latest novel, Overboard. She writes,
I wrote this book during the first year of the pandemic. Some of my writing friends found the isolation a time that focused their creativity in new ways. Others found themselves unable to summon ideas or creative wit. I unfortunately fell into that second category.
I fell somewhere in between. It was easier for me to write than it was for Paretsky, but I found it impossible to lose myself in my work for more than an hour at a time…if that. I also found that a lot of my usual topics were unavailable to me. I could go to dark places, but not at length. Romance was impossible, not because I didn’t believe in romance—I did and do—but because I was having trouble finding a belief in happily ever after.
Grief factored in as well, as it has for so many of us. I’ve lost family members, friend-family members, friends, casual friends, and colleagues. More than I want to count. And like all of us, we lost a world. The world we live in now is not the one any of us imagined in 2019.
I think, like Pig in that cartoon, we all expected to walk out of our homes at the “end” of the pandemic and celebrate again, enjoy life again, even though those of us who studied history knew that there would be no end to the virus, just an end to the pandemic phase of it.
I don’t think we understood the impact the changes had on us.
I personally have been clawing myself back to a place where I can disappear into the writing again. A place where I can lose myself in a book or a play. A place where I don’t worry every time someone around me coughs.
I hit that place at the end of June. On the day that the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe versus Wade, a decision that I found personally devastating, Dean and I went to see Steve Martin and Martin Short at the Encore Theater.
We had had those tickets for months. We were not going to let sadness get in the way of doing something—again. We didn’t talk about the Supreme Court decision at our lovely dinner before the show, and when the show started, neither man mentioned politics at all.
Instead, we laughed so hard that my mouth actually hurt afterwards.
It took a few days for me to realize that I had returned to my old self. The journalist who survived reporting on devastating news by making jokes—not casual jokes, either, but jokes so dark that some people thought them inappropriate.
I could channel my anger into action without despair for the first time in two (maybe five and a half) years. This is the writer who wrote the Kris Nelscott book Stone Cribs about a world before Roe versus Wade as a warning because I could see where we were headed, the writer who actually looks into the darkness and takes it on.
I found her again, and not just as I’m writing nonfiction—which I could do—but in my stories and novels as well.
And as a result, the popcorn kittens have returned, so forcefully that I’m revising all my plans. I’m having fun writing again—and I’m getting lost in made-up worlds for days, not hours.
The strong critical voice—the one that has helped me survive terrible things—has quieted. She’s still there, but she’s not dominating. She’s not the undercurrent that she was throughout the worst of the pandemic.
Will she return in the future?
I’m sure she will. There’s a lot of life and living ahead. Chances are, though, that the survival critical voice will reappear when one of us is very ill or when something changes in our personal world, not when something major kicks the entire world in the behind.
As a student of history, I’ve always been afraid that we would encounter a world-changing event like a world war. I hadn’t imagined a worldwide pandemic.
As we got older, I had hoped that our generation would avoid something on that global scale while simultaneously being terrified that we would be caught in the middle of a shooting war in our late eighties. (I know, I know, that might happen. If Covid taught us anything, it’s that the unexpected can and will occur.)
I’m hoping that Covid is our global event, that we’re not going to go through what my grandmother did—a world war, a pandemic, a severe depression, and another world war. But if so, I’ll have to take it as it comes.
Right now, I’ve managed to step out of severe survival mode.
It feels good to be back writing whatever comes without that whispering voice warning me that I’m getting too complacent.
It’s nice to reclaim a little part of my soul.
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“Business Musings: A Worrying One Percent” copyright © 2022 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / Robertobinetti70.