In March 2020 a house around the corner from ours in Berkeley started sticking coloured cut-out numbers on the front door when the first shelter-in-place order went into effect, counting the days of lockdown. The house is owned by a local type who blasts Bob Dylan, drinks wine on her balcony, and displays a life-size cut-out of Barack Obama in her front window. Obama holds signs with hand-lettered slogans like ‘Believe Science’, ‘I Protect You; You Protect me’, ‘When they go low, we wear masks’. In the driveway is a boxy maroon 1970s Volvo, recently joined by a Tesla.
Every day in lockdown numbers would appear on the door in Roman numerals, or in the form of giant cardboard dominoes, or in equations with numbers multiplied by or added to others, often accompanied by messages exhorting passers-by to wear masks, or ‘HOPE’.
In the first year of the pandemic I sometimes walked that way, on the days when I actually left the house. I wanted to feel a sense of where we were in time at this moment when time had turned to mush. Other days I avoided it. Some days I kept walking without pausing to translate the Roman numerals on the door or to work out the equation it showed, something multiplied by something squared, suddenly not able to stand it, tired of what it cost to accommodate these unthinkable numbers.
It took me back to days in Sydney where we spent the Black Summer of 2019-20, days when my mind would stall, faced with the numbers of acres burned, animals killed, percentage of Blue Mountains forest destroyed, areas larger than entire European countries reduced to ash. Putting these horrors into numbers would sometimes render them manageable; they could be contained by the rules of mathematics. But there comes a point where numerical reckoning becomes surreal, impossible to process.
How many cases in a day? How many deaths? How many hours between hospital admission and ventilator? How many children under five with an absurdly rare lethal complication? How many refrigerator trucks turned into make-shift morgues?
Lockdown ended and for a while the door stayed unmarked. Every now and again new messages would appear, telling everyone or get vaccinated or wishing passers-by a happy new year, but it was mostly unadorned.
Then sometime in January the numbers spiked again.
‘Mask up!’ the door exhorted. Cut-out coronaviruses were stuck here and there, lime green with spiky pink extrusions. Beneath them: ‘Days since the start of lockdown: 670.’
It made a kind of grim sense that she had not stopped counting. Now the door shows white doves and Ukrainian flags, comments on the state of US politics, and an occasional reminder of the numbers, like when the US passed one million Covid deaths in July 2022. It seems almost possible that the virus will one day be in the past, but that time is not now, despite daily not-very-reassuring public reassurances.
At the start of the pandemic there was a great trend for compiling quarantine reading lists. Wasn’t isolation a great chance to get started on Proust, or Tolstoy? Or, writer friends suggested on social media, a great opportunity for writing? Commentary along the lines of ‘Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine from the Plague!’ abounded. I was commissioned to write an article about what writers were reading in lockdown and asked by another editor to contribute to a list of recommended quarantine titles.
And yet lockdown with children is the exact opposite of isolation. My powers of concentration quickly disintegrated rather than expanding. I did not read any Tolstoy. Meanwhile, the university delivered a massive desk to my academic husband that took up a corner of the living room. Piles of his books began to multiply around it. The room metamorphosed into an office, quarantined for chunks of the day as Zoom space, teaching space, meeting space, work space.
Schools in Berkeley closed a few weeks after our return from Sydney in early 2020. Our teenage son did not set foot in a classroom again for a year and a half. The preschooler did not play with another child for more than eight months. Playgrounds were closed off with the kind of yellow tape usually reserved for crime scenes.
In her essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’, Virginia Woolf imagines that Shakespeare had an equally talented sister. Woolf calls her Judith. She imagines all the plays and poems Judith never got to write. Read it in the right mood, or the wrong mood, as I have at different times, and you will cry angry tears.
So, Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine, I found myself thinking, as I stood in the kitchen and listened to the fridge making sounds to say it was not coping, knowing that no-one would come to repair it, texting a friend to see if we could borrow her esky, finally remembering that it was called a ‘cooler’ here and no-one would know what the hell an esky was, and how would we keep anything cold without ice?
… King Lear in quarantine, I found myself thinking, trying to ignore the fridge and keep an eye on the younger child building Lego structures and smashing them, trying to make notes on my phone for that article about reading in quarantine, reminding myself to finish another essay about libraries, trying to imagine how it would make sense now that all the libraries were closed.
… I found myself thinking, what was Shakespeare’s sister doing? What would Virginia Woolf say? When was there time to read, in quarantine, as my editor had suggested?
When was there time to write? How was writing, now, to relate to time?
I dutifully interviewed writers about what they were reading. The disciplined ones told me about exploring their shelves at home and rediscovering old, beloved titles; researching their new novels; turning to non-fiction to explain the confusion of the world. A very few admitted to me that they just simply couldn’t read because lockdown was doing their head in.
I had already done the Quarantine Reading Achievement to which many of my friends aspired. I’d reviewed Hilary Mantel’s latest brick of a novel in between landing in Berkeley and lockdown. Staying up every night until 2am, skimming pages on the bus ride back from the preschool drop-off in those short weeks when it did not seem like a luxury to have a bus ride to a preschool drop-off but more like an inconvenience.
It soon became impossible to remember what that kind of sustained attention was like. In snatches of time on the couch while the younger child watched TV or built and smashed more structures I searched for articles about trauma and isolation. I was worried about my older child, who was sliding fast into frightening depression. But in the descriptions of foggy brain, inability to focus, random bursts of anxiety and unaccountable fear, I found a description of my own state of mind.
I longed to revisit a novel I had read years earlier, Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. I also was afraid to read it, because it is about a virus that kills about ninety-nine per cent of the world population within weeks. It is about the sustaining power of art, which is why I longed for the consolation it might offer. My copy had disappeared, lent to someone or stuck in an inaccessible storage unit under the swimming pool on campus; I found another at the bookshop downtown on one of the last days before they closed.
I read it with an almost smug sense of distance: our virus isn’t like the one Mandel imagines, I thought, reassuring myself that this one wasn’t killing 99 per cent of the world’s population or anything close to that, so this situation was nothing like the book.
The unexpected connection I found was the obsessive memorialising of experience. Mandel’s characters go over and over details of the past to keep them alive in the imagination when they have disappeared from the world. I realised I had been approaching my own present with something like this attitude, as every day more of the usual coordinates of daily life fell away. No more structuring the day around school for the kids, bus schedules, grocery trips. No more hum of traffic. No more sighting the airplane with the distinctive red nose that flew overhead every Friday afternoon. No more airplanes.
I came to understand my way of being in the world through the lens of prolepsis, the state of invoking the future. It was strangely twinned with nostalgia, which should be its opposite. Elements of the present were limned with an aura of nostalgia-in-advance; I was already thinking about what would be gone tomorrow, or by next week, or next month.
Before we left Sydney I had been commissioned to write an article about the revitalisation of Sydney public libraries. In Berkeley I reviewed my notes. How was I going to write this? Every library in NSW was either closed or was not letting anyone in to browse the shelves. The relationship of the present moment to the future – not just the medium or long term future, but the close future of publication, the mere days or weeks between submitting my copy and the article appearing in print – seemed to tremble and shift, stuttering like a Zoom screen skipping frames, faltering on an unstable connection. Was I writing about the current revitalisation of libraries or the recent, now suspended revitalisation? Was I writing about what the suspension meant now, or what the renewal meant a few weeks ago, or what it would mean when things opened up again? Was I writing in a way that imagined things would be different by the time of publication, or the same, or what?
I tried to push my sentiments into formulations that looked like hope and possibility, all the while sensing the sound and ambient pressure change of doors closing.
In early March 2020 I caught the bus to the local preschool co-op monthly meeting. The building was quiet and the director was just about to lock the doors. We had only been back from Sydney for a few weeks so I wasn’t on the email list and didn’t get the cancellation-due-to-virus message.
I didn’t know then that I would not return to the building for another nine months. We all thought it would be a few weeks, although there were moments when the skin on my back tingled with the fearful suspicion that it would be longer.
The preschool director and I apologised mutually for the mix-up and I walked home through the hills. It was one of those magical early spring sunsets, golden light giving everything a quiet glow. Glimpses of the bay showed through gaps between houses and streets. Walking by myself, child-free, felt like a luxury, a precious slice of solitude stolen from an evening that was supposed to be filled with parental responsibility. Half-way home I came across a sign on the nature strip outside a house, printed in black capitals on study plastic board.
YOUR MISTAKES DO NOT DEFINE YOU
The nature strip was just a patch of dirt and patchy grass spotted with weeds, neglected compared with the landscaped ones around it. But the house was a beauty, a pink 1920s mansion with colonnades and a pretty bridge built over the deep-set creek that ran between the garage and the front terrace.
The sign looked professional, and the stark sans serif font gave it the look of an official directive, like those ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ posters but with none of the whimsical retro vibe. It read like something from a self-help manual, but at the same time it felt like a personal message. I paused with the spooky feeling that whoever lived in this pink mansion had the power to see into my soul, to perceive how regret about the past anchored me guiltily to the present. I noticed that the other side of the sign said,
DON’T GIVE UP
My heart seemed to skip, stop, beat again too fast. I walked home.
Since then I have wondered: did I understand on some level that the cancelled meeting was only the beginning? By that time, I knew with the logical, science-oriented part of my mind that we were heading for disaster, but I couldn’t really imagine what that would look like.
I read Station Eleven hungrily, searching for something I couldn’t describe. I found it, or part of it, at the end of the first chapter, when one of the main characters, Jeevan, is wandering the late-night Toronto streets after having tried and failed to save a man’s life – an actor playing Lear who has a heart attack onstage. Jeevan fields increasingly frantic calls from his friend Hua, an emergency room doctor desperate to warn him about the virus. Suddenly all the confused action of the night seems to hold its breath, giving way to the passive voice, with all its subtle power:
Jeevan was crushed by a sudden certainty that this was it, that this illness Hua was describing was going to be the divide between a before and an after, a line drawn through his life.
Agency belongs now to crushing certainty, not the people it crushes; the invisible hand that draws the line, not the person whose life is divided.
Exactly that sense of strange dissolution of agency attends my recollection of my walk that evening. I caught the bus to the meeting in a world where meetings and preschool in person still happened. I walked home conscious of the world recalibrating around me into unknown shapes and structures, feeling the future become opaque, unguessable. That remembered sunset, the recalled golden hour of twilight, has become fixed into a metaphor of a journey away from what was towards what was to come. The sign outside the pink mansion called out a deep, longstanding lack of faith in myself – the defining power of my past, my mistakes – and gave me a message I didn’t know I needed at the time. I would need it badly in the months to come.
After that evening my world became almost instantly, radically constricted. In the months of lockdown that followed, leaving the house meant confronting streets so empty that at any given time of day the city looked like the set of a post-apocalyptic movie. I became more and more tethered to the small child, who hated walking, hated wearing his mask, hated seeing other people with their masks.
September arrived, and it was Father’s Day in Australia but not in the United States. The knowledge that my father would probably never again recognise my voice over the phone made me feel even more alone. I was coming to know the particular grief that accompanies dementia, the relentless increments of loss, stretched out and distorted by distance.
It was late in the afternoon, close to the time of needing to prepare dinner, and I left the house, anxious about taking that time, needing to do it anyway. The faraway Pacific Ocean glinted beyond the Golden Gate Bridge. At some point it had seemed like a connecting body of water: Sydney was just one flight away, a single leap across a large pond. Flights to Australia had stopped. The ocean now appeared uncrossable, colossal, unthinkably vast.
For the first time since that March, I walked back along the way I had come after the cancelled meeting, unreasonably worried that the sign would be gone. The whole world had changed beyond recognition in many ways. Fires had been burning for weeks, and the early evening was tinged with smoky violet and that special wildfire shade of dangerous orange, gold polluted with ash and dust.
Don’t give up. Your mistakes do not define you. A new sign had been added:
ONE DAY AT A TIME
At other moments I would probably have been cynical about the Twelve-Step-Program tone of these statements, would have found them cliched and reductive. But my cynicism had new targets now. I was happy to visit the signs and found the black-on-white concrete reality of the words reassuring. I felt absurdly grateful to the owners of the pink mansion, and had never coveted a dwelling as completely as I coveted that house and its grounds, the tall windows, the paved terraces, the fern-lined creek, the faded rose of the painted stucco, the flat squarish Mediterranean dimensions of the structure, the illusion it offered of insulation from the ugly world.
How would I find my way back to writing, I asked myself on the way back home.
In my six months in Sydney in 2019 I had walked from our rented house on the border of Petersham to the Marrickville Library to write at the cafe or in one of the little private rooms. I was writing a novel about an epic snowstorm in the Blue Mountains, trying to imagine the kind of extreme weather events that are becoming more common with climate change, thinking about how we are so little prepared to cope with what nature imposes upon us.
Images of the same landscape on fire filled the news: the forest ablaze, charred, wrecked. The open-plan spaces of the library reeked of the acrid smoke that filled the streets. Trying to write this book was like trying to get into a house where each entrance, every window and every door, was blocked. It would not let me in. I felt the snow-bound world of the novel recede further and further away. I wrote an essay about ash instead.
I wrote all through lockdown in California, but not in my customary modes. For a while I wrote job applications, until it became obvious that there was no way I could take a job when there was no childcare. Mostly I wrote in a role as advocate for my older son, arguing on his behalf with a healthcare system and school system that kept failing him at every turn. I wrote letters, complaints, requests, grievances fuelled by anguish and terror, then expunged all indications of anguish and terror, quickly turned them around with discipline learned from journalism deadlines. I smiled, teeth clenched, as lawyers and educators and health-care workers complimented me on how well-written my grievances were. Of course they are, I wanted to say. I am a writer. Wasn’t I?
Summoning the concentration required for literary criticism had become close to impossible. Other people could blame long Covid for ‘brain fog’. What was my excuse? The loss of most of the activities and connections that defined my daily self, and the erosion of time not dedicated to caring for others? And then there was the lockdown frame I brought to reading, the way every story seemed to me a story about quarantine, contagion, imprisonment, entrapment.
Writing fiction presented a new kind of block. What would it mean to write realistic fiction, I asked myself. Would the impact of the pandemic be with us for years to come? If I wrote a novel set five or ten years in the future, like my snow-bound-mountains novel, would everyone be wearing masks? Would we all have vaccine passports? Would there be new restrictions, divisions, stratifications of class and immunity? What would realism mean? Could it be that the realm of ‘realism’ now belonged entirely to the domain of ‘speculative fiction’? Was this more evidence of the dominance of prolepsis as a mode?
I made notes towards a reflection on writing, and making time for writing, and it became something of a joke, this joke that I was writing an essay about the time of writing and it did not yet exist in a written form because that was the nature of writing and time in my pandemic life.
What new forms will make sense of the time we are living through, for other writers, for myself? As a teacher, I have always told my students that the only way to answer the questions they have about writing is through writing itself. Thinking will not get you very far. Writing is the way. What to do, then, when the house of art closes up for the season, and the season itself is an artifact of the new disjointed world, with its strange recalibration of time and space, points of connection and disconnection, isolation and weird new intimacies?
It has seemed to me that the time of writing has passed; that it is impossible to find; that I must be patient and wait for it to arrive, that it is just around the corner; that it inhabits an opaque future; that it must be wrested and pressed and pulled into being, speaking breathless notes into my phone through my mask as I walk; that like all of this phenomenon we call time, it is a fiction, a dimension that can only be dreamed into being, and hammered into life.
There is only now, I remind myself as I practise my requisite mindfulness for the day, as I walk, towards the signs, away from the signs, on a route that may or may not take me by the pink mansion or the door, the words or the numbers. Moments, notes, margins, spoken phrases so mangled by auto-correct that the transcription makes no sense and must be translated later, with careful attention, if that can be somehow conjured. Don’t give up.