How to make sense of senseless times
"Life goes on," my father said. "It has to."
In early September, I woke up to a yellow sky. We'd been enveloped in smoke and surrounded by fire in the Bay Area for the better part of a month. But this was different. Now, with a heavy veil of smoke blocking the sun, the heat-wave temperatures of the previous weeks had dropped to an autumnal chill. The sky was dark as dusk; my body had no sense of what time it was. It felt apocalyptic.
I put on my bathrobe and went downstairs, made myself a mug of tea, and sat at the dining table, staring out the window. I thought back to a conversation with my family, toward the end of 2016. We'd gathered for dinner, more somber than festive, still absorbing the results of the presidential election. My husband and I had just gotten married a few months before; the future we'd hoped and planned for was already curdling and turning dark. My parents spoke of past generations, living through the tightening grip of Nazi horror and oppression that we — their American descendants — had so far been spared. "People still got married," my father said. "They still had children. They broke bread together. Life goes on. It has to."
We're approaching the tail end of one of the most chaotic years in our country's history. We don't know how much worse it will get, or how soon, or for how long, and we can't predict what lasting effects this year's events will have. Already we've been inescapably confronted with the inhumanity and fragility of our economy, our supply chain, our health-care system. We've seen our government turn violently on civilians, invoking the language of military and might to quash protests in the streets. We've had our social bonds severed and rituals scrambled, as hugs beget infections and gatherings become spreading events.
And yet the sun keeps coming up each day — whether the sky is clear, or cloudy, or shrouded in smoke. I drink my tea, and I look out the window at the smoldering sky. I make a mental note to invite a friend to go hiking when the air clears. I remember there are dishes in the sink to wash. The cat wants food. It'll be bedtime soon.
There's been a lot of ink spilled about the political implications, the historical resonances, and the doom-and-gloom predictions of what's next for Americans. We're facing the end of life as many of us knew it; that's a frightening prospect, especially for those of us who have thus far been relatively cushioned by privilege.
But there are still children to raise. For the fortunate among us, there are jobs to be done and homes to be tended. We have to eat, and sleep, and go about the business of living. So how do we stay afloat, and stay human, in a time that's upending everything we took for granted — even the air we breathe?
Every person I speak to is navigating the maelstrom differently. For me, some of these grooves — the most intimate, personal ones — have already been worn. In 2019, I learned what it was like to have my life suddenly suspended: I helped care for my father through a turbulent final illness, then got sick myself with a virus that left me largely housebound for months. In the fog of grief and illness, I learned to occupy my hands and mind with cooking and sewing. I learned to take my social interactions where and when I could, and to find ways of being present even when I couldn't see people in person. I learned to absorb the insult of the sun continuing to rise every day, even though it felt as if my world had already ended.
Now, of course, the scale has shifted. I'm grappling not just with personal loss, but with horror upon national horror. On good days, I remind myself that we've made it this far: Four years ago, I couldn't imagine living through Day One of a Trump presidency. On bad days, I look ahead to Election Day and my calendar crumbles into a cliff. Time simply stops existing past November 3.
And yet, my imagination of life stubbornly refuses to stand still. Even as wildfire ash piles up on the new patio table in our backyard, my husband and I daydream aloud about gathering people around that table for years to come. I sew garments and imagine the places I will wear them — places that I will not actually see for a long time, if ever again.
I remind myself that there are still people being born, and dying, and marking every milestone in between. When the pandemic stopped weddings in their tracks, people began marrying over Zoom. We are still cooking meals, and washing dishes, and walking side-by-side with each other when we can.
So each morning, I wake up and look out the window. I take stock of the day's shocks and heartbreaks. I make my tea, and eat my breakfast. I get to work.
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