What did the Covid years do to us?
I ask this question knowing very well that Covid is not over, and that the Covid years will last as long as Covid lasts, which as far as we know will be all of our lifetimes. But I mean more specifically, what did the last two years do to us?
I can only write as one person, one witness on this earth. And here, in 2022, in the middle of what is probably one of the most spectacular years of my life, I find myself trying to figure out what I’m doing and what it all means anyway. I find myself floating, untethered, like the balloon in a famous painting by the Hungarian artist Pál Szinyei Merse. I saw an exhibition of his paintings at the Hungarian National Gallery earlier this year, because I was in Hungary teaching on a Fulbright fellowship. That’s what I mean by one of the most spectacular years of my life, and of course as a teacher I mean the academic year. In the fall I had a professional development leave of absence to research creativity in writing pedagogy, in the spring I had a Fulbright to teach at two Hungarian universities. I spent the spring living in Budapest, the longest I have been in Budapest since I was a child. Then I returned to the United States to pick up my daughter, and we are in Budapest now. That’s pretty spectacular, right? But wait, there’s more, because in a few weeks I will be going to London, to teach in a summer program for my university.
Sounds impressive, right? And yet I feel like Pál Szinyei Merse’s balloon, floating up in the sky, not sure where I’m going or why I’m going there.
I think in the last two years we have all lost our way a little. I remember how restricted we were, the limited mobility, the way all of our worlds suddenly shrank down. Some people did not mind it, but I minded it a great deal, just as I minded masking a great deal — I found that when my mouth was covered I automatically did not speak, and so I stayed silent. Even as I write this, I realize the trauma of it, which I did my best not to think about at the time. I tried to focus on making sure I had food, toilet paper, hand sanitizer. I tried to do my job, teaching first online and then in an impossible hybrid format. At least once a week, I took a Covid test, as required by my university. Sitting here in Budapest, after months of being able to move around the world freely, express myself freely, I don’t want to remember it. I write about it only because of the balloon — because of what it did to me, and probably to us.
I don’t have an answer, exactly, to the question I posed above. I don’t know exactly what the Covid years did to me, except that I can feel their aftereffect. I can feel there is something wrong, that I’m not the same person I was before them. For one thing, I’m having trouble writing. Somehow, the silence of the Covid years began to fall over my life, like a feather blanket. I stopped saying what I thought. In some ways, I stopped thinking.
Joan Didion once said, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” That’s true for me as well — for me, writing is a form of thinking. Without writing, I lose part of myself, perhaps the most important part, the part that remembers. The part that forms the world in my head, so that it holds together and means something.
It wasn’t just Covid. Something else happened just as the Covid years were ending, as the restrictions were being lifted in Budapest. I can’t tell you exactly why the invasion of Ukraine had such an effect on me, but “Russian invasion” had been part of my mental furniture since I was a child and my mother told me about watching tanks on the streets of Budapest in 1956. Just as I felt that things were getting better, with Covid restrictions lifting, here they were getting worse again. (It feels almost trivial to talk about the psychological effects of the war in Ukraine when so many people are directly and personally affected — like the refugees I worked with this semester. But I know I’m not the only one feeling those psychological effects. Many people are feeling them, farther from Ukraine than I am.)
So here we are, here I am, like an untethered balloon, and I’m trying to find my way, figure out my direction. A friend sent me a quotation recently that has helped me:
“Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.” — Ray Bradbury
It’s the last part of the quotation that seems so important to me — something to live for. Writing something you love can be a thing to live for, it can provide that tether, tying you to the world, tying you to purpose and meaning. The key word for Bradbury in this quotation was love, but for me, right now, the key word is writing. You have to get up in the morning and write. It seems to me that if you do that, the love will come. It may not be there at the beginning, but it will develop through the writing process, through the pen on paper or fingers on keyboard.
This reminded me of something I had written some time ago, but I don’t remember where: “When you’re a writer, the cure for whatever ails you is always writing.” I know I said this, because it’s on Goodreads. It seems to me a rather smart thing to say, and quite true. Evidently, my younger self was wiser than I am now. I have lost her sense of certainly, and some of her perspective. I’m not sure what, if anything, I’ve gained in the Covid years. I suppose time will tell. But she was quite right that for a writer, the cure is writing.
Sometimes I find myself asking, why write? What makes my perspective so important that it needs to be presented? My younger self would not have asked that — she was more confident than I am. But anyway, I think it’s the wrong question. It’s not my business to decide whether my perspective is important or not. It’s only my business to write down what I think, how I feel, what it was like to be alive, as me, at this particular moment in time. (Strange, that’s what it was like. It was very strange. I still hoard toilet paper.)
There are two things I have learned about writing: First, I’m never entirely sure what I’m going to write when I start. I may end up someplace completely different than I expected. I learn what I think by writing it down. Without writing it down, I can’t even articulate it. That’s how my brain works; that’s how, I suspect, most writers’ brains work. Second, I always feel better after I have written.
In the city park, called the Városliget, there is a copy of Pál Szinyei Merse’s balloon. It’s tethered securely to the ground, and you can pay for a ride up into the air, then down again. It goes quite high. It’s not free, like ordinary balloons — it does not travel over unanticipated territory. It’s not at the mercy of the winds. But from it you can see the entire city. I’m sure this is a metaphor, although I’m not yet sure for what . . .
(The image is The Balloon by Pál Szinyei Merse.)