The pandemic brought immeasurable pain and misery for millions around the globe. But it also brought people closer together and, for many, it facilitated a sense of self that may never have been realized in normal circumstances. Some discovered painting, or baking, or origami. Others, a musical instrument, or an online degree program.
I was the new painter, and I liked it as an alternative to writing, which I was having great difficulty doing while the world was melting down. Whereas creating storylines felt extraneous and pointless to me when the actual narrative of reality was more compelling than anything I could dream up, painting somehow soothed me. It didn’t require the kind of mental energy writing did. It wanted patience, and an eager student of technique, and it found those things in me. And I uncovered a new form of self-expression that was gratifying, and therapeutic in the way it distracted me from the viral apocalypse.
But as the pandemic’s grip loosens, I feel like I am suffering from a bit of split personality disorder. In a very real sense, I am no longer the person I was. And the surprising — and slightly scary — thing is: I have no intention of trying to be. Let me clarify. Outwardly, yes, things will, in dribs and drabs, return to normal. We will someday go back to the office. I am already dining out again. And the luxury of grocery-store delivery was retired for the less expensive — and more accurate – shopping in person.
But inwardly, I would be lying if I didn’t admit I feel different. To say I am traumatized sounds dramatic. But I am Affected with a capital “A” by what we all just went through. How could any of us not be?
I had lunch in DC yesterday with a dear friend of mine from grad school. She was deeply introspective above her career trajectory (she’s a college professor whose tenure depends on the successful publishing of a book). All her concerns were entirely valid, and, of course, having a plan about your career path is just plain smart. But somehow the conversation felt so pre-pandemic. I have been powerfully struck by how fleeting and fragile life is. How tender and tenuous our democracy is. How hollow and meaningless the quest for recognition can be. How silly it is to think anyone is keeping score. Life is flying by and at any moment that can be grossly accelerated by a drunk driver, a patch of ice on the sidewalk, a piece of undercooked meat, or a deadly contagion.
I knew this intellectually before. I lived through 9/11 in NYC and Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. The fragility of this human experience was captured in extremes. People died. Lives were destroyed. Those places profoundly changed.
But this feels different. Its global scale shrinking us into tiny specks of carbon. Maybe it’s my age – I’m in my 50s, unbelievably — but as I face the old me, the guy from 2019, there with outstretched arms, ready to welcome me back to all the old worries, to remind me of all the things that used to matter, I want to ask him: “But what if they don’t matter anymore?” What if the new me thinks life is nothing more than loving yourself and others and having fun and enjoying yourself while you’re here. Play. Paint. And please, by all means, just fucking relax.
So, I pass on the hug, turn, and order a scotch from the bartender on a hazy summer Saturday afternoon, waiting for the new me – maskless and thankful — to walk through the door.