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If You’re Feeling the Pandemic Era’s Weight Harder Than Ever, You’re Not Alone

This fog of fear and uncertainty is the everlasting present.

A health care worker is seen at a COVID-19 testing hub at Penn Station in New York City, on December 30, 2021.

“Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time,” wrote Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse-Five. I know what that means.

Just yesterday, not quite dawn yet as usual, I was trying to settle on some music for the morning. I’d been awake for almost two hours, again, though I didn’t fall asleep until after midnight, again, and the point was pressing in the lamplit gloom. Would it be the indefatigable motor of McCoy Tyner’s left hand? Or perhaps the tiny ageless perfections of Murray Perahia’s take on J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations? It was going to be piano, no matter what. Let’s go with Tyner, Bach is too fussy this morning, and don’t let me forget to remind my daughter to do her piano practice, she has her lesson tomorrow, it’s amazing how she has improved, I sure hope she likes it…

        …and with a start, I awoke, chin in hand, small reservoir of drool accumulated on palm, almost two hours gone on the clock. I was right where I’d left myself: At my desk, hovering over my keyboard like a praying mantis, head turned toward the window facing the sunrise over the rolling hill that looked like some pine green breaker about to crash down onto a shoreline. It was light out, and a crust of ice on the road glittered in menace. No music; I hadn’t made it that far without becoming unstuck, again. Two hours this time. Add them to the pile.

        Two hours, two years, it’s starting to get a little flaky around here. Way back at the beginning, when they tried to tell us this thing was going to last for years, I did my best to take it to heart. I steeled myself. I followed every stricture and guideline, because vaccines were a fantasy at that point and my garbage pneumonia-damaged lungs made me a tasty COVID morsel. Years, I reminded myself again and again. Years.

        I was not going to get sick. My family was not going to get sick. When second grade fell victim to the virus, I homeschooled my little girl until the classrooms opened again, and sent her back with my heart in my throat. A few kids got infected here and there, none of them lethally and none of them her. I would have lost a bet on that one, truth be told. When she comes home from school now, a little voice in my head whispers, Hello, beloved, did you bring death back with you today? Did you pick it up from one of your little friends?

        My reserve is beginning to slip. I walk the evening streets of my little town, passing empty taverns with “Open” signs feebly lit beside the door, and recall a thousand nights inside such places, the air so warm and moist my glasses would fog as I shouldered my way to the bar. The urge to find that scene again is almost overwhelming, but I leave it be, because I wish to be, and specifically to be the difference between “is” and “was.”

        I look like an old fat rumpled cat, too long asleep in the laundry. My memories of the last two years are sparse; there is nothing for the mind to drag anchor on, it’s all a sort of drifting haze, unstuck in time. What is this place? Is it forever? Dr. Seuss is instructive:

        Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No, or waiting for their hair to grow.

        Everyone is just waiting.

        Waiting for the fish to bite, or waiting for wind to fly a kite, or waiting around for Friday night, or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake, or a pot to boil or a Better Break, or a string of pearls or a pair of pants, or a wig with curls or Another Chance.

        Everyone is just waiting.

        Epidemiologists are cautiously pleased about the Omicron variant’s seemingly small claws, but they also warn that the next variant may well learn from the last ones, and potentially turn into something hyper-dangerous beyond our current experience. “Imagine a lineage that’s as transmissible as Omicron but also attacks the lungs like Delta tends to do,” writes David Axe for The Daily Beast. “Now imagine that this hypothetical lineage is even more adept than Omicron at evading the vaccines. That would be the nightmare lineage. And it’s entirely conceivable it’s in our future.”

        Our future. What is that? Although there are certainly reasons for hope, this fog of fear and uncertainty is the everlasting present, with the window facing east and another two hours gone in the Waiting Place. If you expect nothing else, you won’t be disappointed.

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