A Shot in the Arm

I wanted not a window on the world but the world itself.

—Joan Didion

Never have I been so delighted to feel a bit off as I did this weekend. My second dose of Moderna left me not sick but exhausted, aching, and free, as if I’d just finished a punishing hike over terrain. A fitting emotion at the end of a strange, long year.

I received my first shot on March 11, the one-year anniversary of the declaration of a global pandemic. My March 2020 had begun with the Minnesota boys’ state high school hockey tournament; here were rumblings of danger on the coasts and a vague sense that maybe we should wash our hands a little more often, but no sense that the world was about to change. (A few people I know insist they got the virus in the Xcel Center petri dish that week.). Just a few days later, a sense of doom lingered over my favorite coffee shop in Aurora, a portent that this time would be different. I stocked up on food and booze just before the mad rush began and settled in to my pandemic existence.

In that changed world, I carried on in the shadow of the two twin specters of the twenty-first century: solitude and existential uncertainty. These afflictions existed before the coronavirus pandemic, and for long periods of the past year, they did not figure in my life. I accepted my fate as a chronicler of interesting times, I ran a lot, and I settled into a slower but diligent routine. But the two malaises festered, dormant in the daily blur but apt to reappear on slow work days or lonely weekend nights.

I will start with the looming uncertainty, which became manageable quickly enough. The virus has not come for me or caused any serious illness in my extended family. No one particularly close to me has died, though I did catch the obituaries of a few more distant acquaintances, including my no-nonsense high school biology teacher, Jeanne Mendoza, whose lessons on mRNA crawled out of some recess of my mind on the drive back from the vaccination site in Eveleth. Like a soldier at war, I will remember this year as one of great tedium punctuated by the occasional outburst of excitement somewhere else.

The year was one of chaos and murkiness, even aside from the social and political turmoil that infected the United States. For all the easy morality tales, our understanding of how the virus spreads and kills remains stunningly poor. The failure to respond fell especially hard on the allegedly developed, scientifically inclined West. Public discourse became consumed by painful, simplistic narratives. On one side, a brash, often spoiled mob too bullheaded to understand any concept of personal sacrifice or common good steamrolled any hope for national solidarity in times of crisis. In response, a less damaging but still insidious crew of dithering scolds invoked capital-S Science for political ends and was deified for meeting the exceedingly low bar of appearing sober-minded. Meanwhile, most humans muddled through somewhere in between, taking reasonable precautions but also finding ways to keep up with family and maintain some semblance of sanity.

Through it all, I am strangely optimistic about the post-pandemic world. Change happens slowly, then all at once, and its shepherds are those who have the shrewdness and good fortune to be in the right place at the right time, not the most strident activists. In one fell swoop, the United States reversed course on its social safety net after 40 years of neglect and now seems willing to spend money to stop the drift toward hollowed-out towns and a caste system in which even the people on top don’t feel secure. Rapid vaccine development showed the power of research and development in a crisis and offers the promise of additional breakthroughs in realms beyond mindless tech stuff. This lurch will no doubt have its own obstacles and excesses, but the collective turn encourages me more than any immediate alternative.

The lingering effects of pandemic isolation, on the other hand, are at once easier to correct for and harder to see. I now head back toward a world of unrestrained gatherings with other people, but I don’t yet entirely know how the coronavirus changed me. People who spend time alone tend to develop a clearer sense of self, and this year has featured a lot of time alone. It accentuates inherent traits, both virtues and vices, and more often in some grey area in between that can be either, depending on the channels they take on their way out to the sea. In my case, I observed the resurgence of drive I have always had, at times a self-defeating stubbornness and at times a life-giving tenacity. It formed in long, dark nights in the back room of my old apartment, on lonely roads across the American West, as I moved to a new home, as work bled over the walls I’d set up to contain it, as I booked a trip to the Caribbean, and as I searched out ways to maintain a semblance of the social life I’d led before.

Isolation increases bipolarities. I have always been one to internalize conflict, and that tendency only became more pronounced when there was no one else to squabble with, even in the mildest of ways. I am now the sort of person who yells a lot of vulgarities at his computer, for wont of better company, and one who occasionally texts friends “fuck Zoom” with no additional context. I work to fight off the fear that post-pandemic life may not be so different after all, that it will take vital effort to resist the continued drift toward the anomie and virtual reality that consume sad, late capitalist lives. A lack of human distraction made me tenser, more likely to sink into doom loops of mindless consumption, and I was not surprised to find myself on blood pressure medication by the end. Even so, I grew increasingly turned off by the therapy-speak that filters through so much of the general media response to the virus. I wonder at what point an obsession with wellness reinforces a sense of unwellness.

This is not an endorsement of raw stoicism or the denial of pain. I have come out of my pandemic tunnel with a few scars, including the literal one on my knee from the day last May when I fell in heap on a run along Chester Creek. I crawled to my feet, bleeding from all four limbs, and assured the concerned walkers who witnessed my graceful dive that I was fine. I was somewhat less than fine, but I ran on home in spite of it. This, I think, is the vital distinction: I never sought to deny any of my own struggles of this past year. I preferred to get up and keep running.

I avoid describing my slowly growing freedom as normal, or worse, a new normal. The world is different now, just as it would have been with the passage of a year without a pandemic. The freedom afforded by a vaccination is not a return to a past life but a new beginning, a chance to appreciate the lessons of that scar on the knee, a chance to see not just more windows on to the world but a chance to once again immerse oneself, to lose oneself in a crowd and to find new value in things that had been beyond our reach. Let us live the way we were meant to live, in community with other people, and make the most of this jolt forward into new possibility.