When I last wrote about my pandemic experience in December, I was ready for transition. I was thinking about the after, even though we were very much still in the middle. I needed the hope, then, to get through to a time when this might be over. Now that my husband and I are both fully vaccinated (and I believe our son could be before the end of the year), I’m ready to pause for a bit and evaluate where we came from and think critically about where we need to go next.
Who I Was Before
In the middle of a random conversation the other day, I blurted out “remember elevators?” Many things have disappeared from our individual lives this past year as we shrank them to survive. One of the things I set aside was my love of the paranormal. I had quite enough fear in my life as it was, thank you. I knew I was starting to regain bits of my former sense of life when I reached for Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, which both terrified and invigorated me. I took that liveliness and ran with it to read two more spooky books.
Never Have I Ever by Isabel Yap
This collection of eerie short stories quickly became one of my most recommended books. I loved it so much I sent a copy to a friend (another way I’m trying to re-engage with life this year). Yap’s stories span parts of Asia and the U.S. and carry with them bits of lore from all over. They are surprising, smart, and delightfully creepy. Because I work in tech, I hardly ever read fiction about tech life, but the way Yap wove together magic with an insider’s view on this subculture in “A Spell for Foolish Hearts” was insightful and wicked and very much worth the read.
I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir
I have not finished this book yet, but it is one of the scariest things I’ve read in a long, long time. A true ghost story, I Remember You is also something that’s formed a new habit for my family: my husband reads a few pages some nights after I go to bed, I catch up in the mornings I wake too early, and our son questions us relentlessly about it over breakfast. I love the book. I love the sharing. I hope we get to do this forever.
How I Am Changing
Wake. Play. Eat. Work. Eat. Play. Work. Cook. Eat. Rest. Sleep.
This is my routine; the way the days blend together; the way time has stopped. I am often so tired during the “rest” portion of my day that I don’t fully comprehend what I’m reading until I’m far into a book—something I was definitely guilty of when reading Bird Summons.
Bird Summons by Leila Aboulela
I bought the book in the minutes following my second vaccination as part of a gleeful armload of treasure acquired during my first visit to a bookstore in over a year. It tells the story of three Muslim women in Scotland on a journey to visit the grave of the first western woman to take a pilgrimage to Mecca. Each of the women is beautifully drawn both in their individual struggles and in the ways they push and pull against one another.
I loved the book immensely even before I realized they had somehow become mired in an in-between place where supernatural elements are converging to help them work through the circular paths they are each trapped in. In ordinary times, this would make for an interesting story. In the now, it’s a poignant reminder that we make our lives and we have the chance to emerge from this bubble into a new, better future.
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
Speaking of patterns and being doomed to repeat history we haven’t learned from, In the Dream House was not at all what I expected from a memoir of abuse, but it might be the book I need to help me work through some patterns I’d like to shed. Machado’s writing is gorgeous, always, and the book is a tender recounting of a relationship that felt like love, for a time.
The combination of her vulnerability on the page with her willingness to experiment with form allowed me to sink deep into her story. For example, what better way is there to immerse a reader in the trap of the cycle of abuse than a choose your own adventure that always ends in the same place?
Like pregnancy, this time of confinement has led me to look deeply at the relationships in my life and what I do and do not want to carry forward. Machado reminded me that what feels familiar is not always the same as what feels good. And I’m grateful.
What I Must Not Forget
It has been easy in this daily routine to forget what life was like before. And yet we have to make a life after. Two books are helping me remember what’s important to me to carry forward.
Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper
My son entered a spooky place sometime during the pandemic where he latched on to Scooby-Doo and began asking for more. Although he’s only five, I thought he might be ready for The Dark is Rising series, one of my favorites from childhood. And I was right. I’ve loved every night we’ve cuddled late past bedtime reading just one more page. Over Sea, Under Stone taught me something important, too. As Jane, Barney and Simon crept up to the attic to explore the treasures of the Grey House, I found myself on an adventure with my son. And I remembered what that felt like. How essential adventure used to be to my sense of being, even when I was actively resisting it.
It will be a long time, yet, I think before we hop on a plane to discover another continent, but it will be longer still before I forget the shock of remembering that I almost abandoned something I once held so dear. Our stretches are small as we ease back into life—a Mother’s Day picnic in the park—but they are stretches still.
Dialogues with Rising Tides by Kelli Russell Agodon
I am a writer. This is a through line of my life that I have had to fight for. It is also what carries me forward in the hardest times (like the past year). I often look to Agodon as a model—a successful poet and publisher who lives on the side of the water I dream of. Dialogues with Rising Tides reminded me that her writing is also something I can learn from. I particularly enjoy the breadth of her voice, the way she embraces the quotidian “we’re replacing our cabinet knobs / because we can’t change the world,” casual wit “the apocalypse always shows up / uninvited with a half-eaten bag of chips,” deep insights “She tells me the reason I wake up / screaming is because / no one ever dealt with that pain,” and artful imagery “This is postpartum with suicide corsages.” I don’t always re-read poetry books (the way I should), but I will be re-reading this one.
“Now the only language I speak / is seascape” – Kelli Russell Agodon, Dialogues with Rising Tides
The Work Ahead
While it can feel like the world ended when the pandemic hit, COVID was merely one more travesty in a world where we are not living as we should. Or at least as I hope we can. When I’m actually past the “using all the energy I have for sheer survival,” I want to to more to make a brighter tomorrow for my son and his entire generation. These books are giving me ideas on how to start.
Nicotine by Nell Zink
Nell Zink is the best writer of my generation. She captures the essence of what makes us tick (for better or worse) as individuals and as a society and she’s not afraid to call bullshit when necessary. I was sucked into Nicotine by the descriptions of Penny trying to support her father through hospice and death while the rest of her family found anything else to do. What held me, though, was the nuanced descriptions of the squatters Penny encounters in her grandparents’ former home and the ways that Zink allows her characters to break past the labels we might want to place on them.
I did not fully appreciate what was happening in my city during the WTO riots while I was in college (I was mostly concerned with my hard-working partner being able to get home in the chaos) and I have derided some of the anarchist marches here since. But that does not mean that I believe in capitalism as the answer for our future. Zink made me look more deeply at myself and the values I hold. And she made me think about the future I want to build (all in the guise of a wildly entertaining story).
Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals by Alexis Pauline Gumbs
Speaking of a post-capitalist life…this book is a gorgeous look at what life would look like if we embraced love and humanity as our underlying values, and it’s filled with reminders of the damage we do to ourselves and our planet every day we do not. The ideas lap like ocean tides against loving descriptions of sea life we don’t look at closely enough.
When I first encountered an essay from this book in Boston Review, I dared hope of a world where we could use nuanced discussion, intuition, love and science to make a better future for our planet and ourselves. The full book is a great place to start. Read it.
“We can trust cycles older than our species. We can do this between-work with grace and surrender. With patience and bravery. With all of who we are. And what made us will reclaim us as soon as the tide.” – Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Undrowned.