I have a ghost calendar for the last two years. An eerie anti-diary, of a kind you surely have as well, it records what didn’t happen: a family Thanksgiving, never before missed; a Jason Isbell concert, postponed and rescheduled and then finally canceled; some work travels out West; a wedding I was meant to attend in May 2020 and then August 2020 and then June 2021. For two years now, the future as we envisioned it has been steadily fading away in front of us.
Earlier this month, according to this ghost calendar, I was supposed to be in New York and Boston and Washington to promote my new book. The venues and flights and hotels were all confirmed, and for a while it looked as if my 22-month hiatus from almost everyone and everything was finally going to end. Then one Friday afternoon in mid-December, after a week of reading the news about the Omicron variant and consulting my publisher and my partner and my better angels, I pulled the plug on all of it.
In the scheme of things that people have lost to the pandemic, a book tour is way out there on the “So what?” end of the spectrum, close to trivia nights at the corner bar and your Pomeranian’s weekly appointments at the groomer, very far from jobs and child care and health and family members.
But the spectrum itself is part of what has made the pandemic so emotionally challenging. The coronavirus has killed almost a million people in this country and more than five and a half million worldwide, while simultaneously taking a staggering range of other things from us as well — everything from a small business to a sense of smell, physical contact to mental health, Friday evenings with friends to smiling at strangers on a crowded subway car.
How are we supposed to live with not only such a quantity but such a range of loss? This question has been on my mind since before the pandemic began. In late 2016, after the death of my father, I began to think about the category of loss — how strange and capacious it is, how it overflows with everything from mundane objects we’ve misplaced (keys, wallets, sweaters, cellphones) to the most momentous losses of our lives: marriages, elections, life savings, loved ones.
Such losses can seem fundamentally incomparable, and indeed most of us have qualms about comparing them. I have been struck, throughout the pandemic, by how conscientiously many people have calibrated their losses, always framing them against the toll of Covid writ large: I’m lucky, no one I love has died; I’m lucky, I haven’t gotten sick; I’m lucky, I didn’t need to be hospitalized; I’m lucky, I wound up in the hospital but I have good health care; at least my family is OK; at least I still have a job; at least I’m not alone.
These are important and generous reactions. They attend, as we too seldom do, to life’s uneven allocation of suffering, and they remind us to be grateful both for what is going well in our lives and what could be going worse. Still, when we find ourselves counting our blessings this carefully, it is generally because some of them have gone missing. The pandemic has rendered many of us reluctant to lament those lesser losses, even though they reveal a fundamental truth not only about the times we live in but about life in general: We are almost always facing more than one thing at once and therefore feeling more than one thing at once. We feel sympathy together with self-pity, good fortune together with frustration, gratitude together with grief.
This simultaneity of emotion and experience has been all but unavoidable these last two years. Maybe you’re working from home and miss your colleagues but are vastly happier and more productive without your two-hour commute. Maybe your complex medical condition has rendered you especially vulnerable to the coronavirus but the widespread adoption of telehealth technology has spared you countless trips to urgent care and made your everyday life much easier. Maybe you’re terribly anxious about your immunocompromised brother but grateful for getting to spend so much time at home with your 8-year-old twins; maybe you’re grateful for all that time with the twins but exhausted and frustrated about the lack of child care and lapses in normal schooling.
These kinds of amalgamated experiences are exacerbated by but hardly unique to the pandemic. Life is full of them. You’re excited about a job offer and also wish you didn’t have to move across the country to accept it; you loathe your ex-wife and also adore the children you wouldn’t have without her; you’re seeing your baby on an ultrasound for the first time while your mother is in the hospital, dying; you love your parents and also disagree with them about virtually everything.
All these are examples of what I think of as the fundamental and-ness of life, the way it requires us to experience so many contradictory or unrelated things all at once. There’s no getting away from this and-ness, because it is built into the basic facts of our existence. The world we inhabit is full of splendor and misery, our fellow humans are brilliant and inspiring and selfish and vicious, and we ourselves are hopelessly motley, full of mixed motives and mixed feelings.
I wish I were on the road right now, visiting some of my favorite bookstores, meeting readers, and catching up, after a long dry spell, on conversation and community. And I am also unimaginably happy to be at home with my partner and our 5-month-old daughter, keeping both of them safe, keeping both of them company. I am worried about the fate of the independent bookstores that are hosting my virtual tour without the benefit of in-person audiences and impulse purchases. And I am glad that my widowed mother, at home in Ohio, can attend every single one of my events from her living room.
I began writing my new bookbefore the emergence of the coronavirus, then watched as some of its central themes came to dominate the era: not only the omnipresence of loss and the persistence of joy, but also this experience of and. It is easy to feel that good moments in bad times, like bad moments in good times, are anomalous, even traitorous. But that’s not true.
There’s no pure form of any significant event in our lives, no single emotion that solely and accurately represents love, or grief, or pandemic. Even at the extremity of experience, life is always busy being many things at once — exhausting and restorative, tedious and exciting, solemn and comic, devastating and fulfilling.
The trick lies not in sorting out the “real” or “relevant” feelings from the alleged distractions and obfuscations, but in accepting that this constant flux of feeling is not only inevitable, but essential: It is what prevents our happiness from becoming complacent, our anguish from entirely undoing us. The world we live in is infinitely variegated, infinitely complex. To feel that same way, then, is not to be compromised; it is to be complete.
Kathryn Schulz, a staff writer at The New Yorker, is the author of the memoir “Lost & Found.”
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