We thought that maybe this would be the After Times by now, or at least we would have them scheduled in our 2022 appointment books--the last vaccinations for the last little people in our families, releasing us finally from this constant dread. The last wave of death. The last holiday without hugs. But no, there are no answers yet. There is no resolution. There is no closure. There are only closures and cancellations, again! Saturday Night Live and other shows with audiences have pulled up their stakes without warning. Return-to-work dates for office buildings have been declared absurd. Businesses are shutting their doors "for the holidays" but especially for these particular holidays.
Again, we wait, without knowing if there will ever be clear answers about what's happening, for how long, and what we're supposed to do in the meantime. I am trying to accept and appreciate that. I've already forgotten why or how to be angry at America's cultural and personal commitments to failure, or maybe my anger was so constant for so long that it's burned out. Or it has nowhere to go. A lot of the people who enraged me with their stupid and reckless behavior last year are dead now, or at least hangdog-chastened because enough of their loved ones are dead that some sadness has leaked in and rotted the seams of their bravado. Some of the people who used to bellow about "libs" and "sheeple" and the virus being fake are now moping and whining about the government inventing the virus so it could have an excuse to inject us with magnetic superpowers, 5G access, alien octopi, etc.
Here comes the next wave of sadness and grief--not just for actual people who are dead but for my foolish delusions that everyone had good inside of them, that nobody--or at least not that number of people--could actually sustain that level of batshit stupidity and self-defeating delusion, that most people could be redeemed before it was too late. I guess we just sit back and watch the next slow mass-suicidal purge then.
Maybe we all need false hopes and delusions to get us through sometimes. Maybe we who are privileged with educations and empathy and creative storytelling abilities need to practice getting used to the hurt when the cold, wet truth breaks through the stories we tell ourselves to feel warm. Maybe this is the practice we need to take up, so we can be strong enough to go on without real hope for any particular outcome, without goals that can be measured or achieved. With dreams that are abstract and meant for someone else, somewhere, sometime. For our children maybe. For our children's children.
I've forced myself to believe in silly things to survive a sad Christmas before. For example, there was that one Christmas I nearly literally froze to death in an unheated slum apartment in Rome. Surrounded by icy, worn marble and acid rain-pitted travertine and diesel-ravaged Renaissance sculptures and the world's most beautiful language in which to express sadness and cold, I told myself that my mom was serious when she said through the expensive static of our last phone call before the minutes I couldn’t afford ran out that we'd celebrate Christmas when I returned home, even though it would be January by then. Half of me chose to believe that, and half of me didn't believe I would make it back home at all, so strongly that I was stunned when I did get off the plane later, in my hometown, where of course nobody had kept any remnant of Christmas waiting for me. I did, however, get care for my skin rashes and malnutrition and here I am, physically alive and well knowing I will get through this sad Christmas too, in which I live in a heated house with a loving family around me. I think back to that time when I really and truly thought I was going to die, and I know that I can survive a very deep sort of chill, but yes, it did take a bit of lying to myself to get through it.
The song above, by underrated and sometimes (to this day) poverty-stricken musical genius Morgan, was sometimes shown on the little rabbit-eared TV in that horrible little apartment that year. (It is from an album entitled Canzoni dell'appartamento, Songs of the Apartment, and the album art depicts Morgan living in a depressing little apartment much like mine at the time (but a lot more shabby-chic charming) and also surviving mental illness, abuse, and ripping sadness. Sometimes the power was on, and sometimes I caught a glimpse of a beautiful performance like this on Italian MTV.
That time is over and done. It can never hurt me again. It will forever remind me that I can survive a deep freeze that feels unsurvivable.
All of this past summer and fall, I thought, as soon as my daughter is vaccinated (fortunately we have no one in our home under the age of five, and I have so much love and sorrow for all who do), we will go out to the movies. We will go out to the zoo and run through the crowds and watch the otters play by the sparkle of the Christmas lights, like we did Before. We will have friends over. We will tell them in person how much we missed them, and we will show it by feeding them dinner and cookies baked with love. We will celebrate and play without anxiety over breathing the same air, like we did Before. We will say, see! We still remember how to be fun and social!
My daughter could've done without the movies, or the zoo, but she liked the ideas.
And I checked the showtimes at our local movie theater and found that it is still operating, still lighting up those vast screens with those shining Hollywood hits. On a Monday, right after school: Ghostbusters: Afterlife, starring some of the original cast of her childhood favorite Ghostbusters movies, plus a star of her favorite show, Stranger Things.
So we invited her bestie, who was also very excited to come along, and we bought an infinitely refillable bucket of popcorn and boxes of candy, and those girls had the time of their lives.
Unlike me, they did not find it unnerving that we were the only human beings in the entire complex except for three very eager employees who seemed as excited to see us as if we were a lost French girl wandering into a lonely, enchanted palace inhabited by desperate talking teapots and candelabras.
I used to work in a movie theater, when I was a kid. I used to take its crowds and chaos for granted. Last week I looked around me saw the end of the world as I know it. The girls saw a great adventure. They stood on opposite sides of the vast theater, throwing a stuffed kitten like a football in majestic arcs over my head, as I sat in the exact center of the gaping emptiness filled up with violent sounds so loud we had to curl over and plug our ears sometimes, deafening sounds that missed the mark at covering up the eerie silence of the whole experience and somehow amplified it. Would it be less painfully loud if there were other human bodies in here to absorb the sound? Why have they not adjusted the levels to accommodate this emptiness? Don't answer that.
The girls kept their masks on, between bites of popcorn and Sour Patch Kids. They weren't required to, but they don't experience their masks as muzzles or symbols of repressed grief or shields against the hopelessness and death that some of us are frantic not to share. No, their masks are just normal accessories, as forgettable as underpants or glasses.
And after the movie, which was depressing and sappy, they were jazzed up and lit from within at the thrill of having seen it, and we went out into the night to wait for the little friend's mom to pick her up, and the girls made squealy noises of delight as they played with the landscaping rocks and ran foot races in the cold dark without their coats on, up and down the sidewalk along the empty, potholed parking lot.
And in awe of their irrepressible joy, and starting to feel lifted up by it, I went on to plan the next outing: the zoo! The Wonderland of Lights!
But then I looked it up, and there is no Wonderland. I guess that ended a couple years ago, in the Before Times. The zoo closes before dusk now, always, and you have to buy a ticket timed to avoid crowding. The only holiday-lights activities at night are alcohol-based fundraisers for adults, no kids allowed. The world my family waited for so patiently, while the whole world seemed to scoff at our caution, could not wait for us. It is collapsing. The high of delusion is crashing and pulling everything down. And of course I am the one who is startled by this, not my daughter. She doesn't yet romanticize her young childhood, not like her frazzled, gray mother does. Maybe she never will. Maybe that's good.
Or maybe I'm just forgetting what it was about my childhood that was actually magical, and it wasn't the theater or the zoo or anything so distracting from my inner life.
I drove through my own childhood neighborhood the other day, and I was possessed, gently, by a sense memory of buoyant joy, the thrill of steering a bicycle with my bare feet at a reckless speed, flying, free, when disaster felt impossible and fascinating, exciting, tantalizing. There is not even a tint of sadness there, on the route between my childhood home (now my brother's home) and the neighborhood playground.
As it was in my childhood, everything is shabby there. The houses are poor and in disrepair. The roads are crumbling. The trees and bushes are wildly neglected. The Christmas decorations are off the chain, piled madly in gaudy, blinking heaps upon the ruined little shacks and the scruffy lawns. There is nothing to show off or take pride in there, and yet there is unstoppable happiness, unfettered celebration, the freedom of having nothing to lose and no reason to feel entitled or disappointed. It is as it has always been.
That is a real place I can go back to, physically and emotionally. It brings me back to a time when I had no expectations, nothing to prove to anyone, at least not during playtime, which was outside of ordinary time. It was the 1980s, the fantasy era of Stranger Things, and children roamed free in limitless fields of imagination, where the geography and the architecture were nothing but creative prompts for spontaneously and communally spun dreamscapes--the grittier the raw materials the better--where potholes and roadblocks were ramps to hit as hard as we could so we could ride the air.
That was Before.
The After hasn't come yet. And that means the story isn't over. We haven't decided yet how it ends. And nothing has yet stopped us from starting a new one. I forgot, the way things were chugging along, that we could do that, and that it was too exciting to be scary.
There is a magic in that moment of floating, of flying, of beat-up Huffy wheels spinning chaotically through nothing, of a sled slinging us into the icy sky. There is a comfort in that stretched-out moment, of weightlessness, of drifting in the unknowingness before we were ever born, when we were nothing except potential energy.
I'm trying to let my daughter lead me back to what I have forgotten how to feel.
It snowed this morning, and today we're going to bake pie and cookies, and tonight we'll go on a walk through the neighborhood we live in now, with Oma and Opa (much "nicer" than the one we lived in when I was a kid) to look at the holiday lights, mute with radiant joy in the quiet snow. I'll accept, with gratitude, what it all holds unsaid.
Jean Michelle Miernik is the author of Leirah and the Wild Man: A Tale of Obsession and Survival at the Edges of the Byzantine World.