Journal of the Plague No. 8: Ashes

Singer Featherweight sewing machine with fabric, scissors, and manual
My great-grandmother’s Singer Featherweight.

It’s 6 pm and everyone in my house but me is asleep—well, me and the cats, but they’re only awake because I just fed them. I’ve finally figured out (I think) my new Bluetooth headphones of the sort that all the kids seem to wear, or at least figured them out well enough that I can listen to music or watch old episodes of M*A*S*H on my headphone jack less iPad and not disrupt the rest of the people in the house. I know there was a time when we all just sat down and watched the same goddamned thing on TV or listened to whatever was on the radio, but those days seem just as far away as the days when I went to work from 9 to 5 every day and my kid went to school and I went to yoga at an actual studio once a week and stopped to say hi to my friend at a different library afterward.

I had a meeting (a Zoom meeting, of course) with some staff from my son’s school today and found myself pretending that of course he’d be going back to school and so would everyone else and it would be just like before, except with more hand washing and more dealing with everyone’s emotional fragility. But of course there’s a possibility that there won’t be school, and I will have used up all my leave time, and… well, as I said, I’m trying not to think about it.

It occurred to me the other day that what makes Zoom meetings so awful is how much they resemble the panopticon. If you’re in a normal meeting, sitting around a table, or sitting in a classroom, you know there are people who can’t see you or your face at all. And even those who can are often looking down, taking notes, or doodling, or looking surreptitiously at their phones or whatever. But a Zoom meeting almost compels you to look straight at your camera the whole time and thus gives you the idea that everyone is looking at you constantly, and that you must always adjust your expression, moment by moment, to reveal some version of interest or enthusiasm or at least attention. It’s exhausting and reminds me of what it must have been like to have drawing room conversations as an upper class lady in the 19th century, or perhaps a tiny bit of what it is like to live in a totalitarian regime (not that I would, in any other way, liken any of those things to each other—but Zoom meetings produce a sort of anxiety I couldn’t place for a long time).

My household has been lucky—our physical health has been good. We have plenty to eat and enough money to buy more. We have a multitude of functional computer equipment. At least one of us is still doing important, life-saving work part-time. We have good friends in the neighborhood and around the country who check in regularly, and we are reasonably good at pantry stocking, cooking, and sewing (and even housecleaning, when we bother to do it), all of which turn out to be useful skills.

In this we are like all of my family members—at least all the ones I know of—during the Great Depression, who were employed and, if not always as well off as they had always been, were not starving. My father reported that his bicycle was stolen and he didn’t get another one for years, but I believe that was the extent of my family’s financial hardship. But just as it’s hard not to be affected by an abusive person or an alcoholic in your household, it’s hard not to be affected by the hardship of the world at large. I cry whenever I think about New York City. I want to scream every time I hear someone complain about meat rationing or insisting that meatpacking plants are somehow the most important thing in the entire economy, because God forbid we be denied our cheap ribeyes.

We can bring to life a new world from the ashes of the old goes one verse of “Solidarity Forever” (which I’ve been using as my handwashing song), and sometimes I see people ask what positive changes we think this pandemic will bring about. Well, I want to say, given that it hasn’t brought about any yet, my hopes are dim. But maybe I’m wrong. Let us hope so.

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