As the talk about the vaccine becomes more confident, I think about a book I read before COVID, Hisham Matar's A Month in Siena. Its final chapter, about Giovanni di Paolo's painting Paradise, is one of those passages you sense will be as meaningful in another context. Painted about a century after the Black Plague, Paradise shows various couples and groups of people reuniting in Heaven. Men and women welcome others with embraces, respectful holding of hands, intimate dances. Matar says: "That must surely be the ambition of every reunion, not only to identify and be identified, but also to have an accurate account of all that has come since the last encounter...It is as if what di Paolo is thinking here is that a true hell is not the hell of fire but not being recognized by those closest to us."
I imagine we too soon will watch, and hopefully participate in, joyful reunions among parents and children and lovers and partners and friends, all versions of heaven on earth.
Living with restrictions has taken on the qualities of that game where one searches for differences between two versions of the same scene. But instead of a junky attic or a royal dining room, one's identity is the puzzle to solve.
The pandemic has complicated connections to, among many things, our family and friends, to our work that generates income, to what we do when not working to generate income, to our health, our responsibility to the health of others. Routines, choices and relationships once reliably expanding into the shape of a life have gone missing or are neglected or are slightly, though noticeably, damaged.
It's as if getting through the pandemic necessitates breaking up over and over with the self we knew in the past; absent familiar conditions, titles and props, a person senses a hollowing out.
I inventory this year: If I don't swim for nine months, am I still a swimmer? What i.d. card matters most for a U.S. citizen living as a permanent resident in Canada? Is writing my hobby or my work? What makes a son a son? There are mornings when I don't know whose clothes are in my closet.
Whether those changes are temporary adjustments or substitutions to be accepted as authentic, the vaccine should clarify, perhaps in the form of a reunion more restrained and awkward than depicted in Paolo's Paradise.
In this reunion, the individual introduces their current self to their life before COVID. Matar: "We want to be seen by them and, in turn, rediscover our own powers of remembrance, and to finally find the consolation that lies between intention and expression, between the concealed sentiment and its outward shape."
The distance between the memory of the 2019 self and the reality of the 2021 self is as long as a trek guided by instinct and the stars, ending with the re-united travellers saying "yes, we changed, it was hard, we did what we could, and we are here."
Nevertheless, the mundane continued to nudge the eternal.
The Impulse to the Narrative
Author and art historian Mary Ellen Miller noted something else besides the nearly identical forms of the two men carved from stone by Olmec sculptors. Their detailed headdresses, their about-to-spring kneeling stances, their facing opposite each other, collectively suggested that "the impulse to the narrative emerged at this same early time frame." That desire to tell a story seems as sacred to us now as it was then to Mexico's Olmec people, the foundational culture of Mesoamerica preceding the Mayans and Aztecs, who "brought a religious narrative to life."
I am reading about Mesoamerican art while simultaneously reading Joan Didion's Salvador, her 1982 take on El Salvador's civil war. This is my second time reading Salvador, and probably due to the timing during the pandemic, I care less about the political confusions and manipulations, more about Didion's ability to tell a story through doubt, through shifting meanings, through words that cancel confidence. Whereas the kneeling twins are two rock-solid objects traced to the Late Formative period of Mesoamerica and conveyed a definite message to its early viewers, Salvador is only as certain as her uncertainty, which is the point of a story narrated by a skeptical voice. Didion described visiting the valley cliff popular among executioners on all sides of the war as "...nothing came of the day but overheard rumors, indefinite observations, fragments of information that might or might not fit into a pattern we did not perceive." She came to understand that "the change of a name is meant to be accepted as a change in the nature of the thing named." She mentions a "fragment of a retrieved legend."
The ideas of these two books combine into the challenge of documenting, creating something authentic during the COVID pandemic: the impulse or compulsion to connect the dots and link the days of this pandemic into something intelligible and meaningful is disoriented by the unanchored buoys of all that is happening now. What do we know of the story and how to convey the unsettledness of knowing an assumed fact is quick to decay and what it means to go to sleep and wake up wondering how much the floor titled during the night.
The Ways We Were
$56 BBQ platters
Hired photographers for vacation photos
Mid-life crisis at 30
Local-Micro-Craft Beer Labs