Use and Uselessness During the Pandemic

“Moleskine reporter notebook” by Hades2k is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

My brother’s ex texted from Fresno, CA: looting has begun. It’s an economically challenged place, and people are breaking into stores and restaurants at night, stealing essentials.

Looting seems a fairly logical human response to current times. More so than virtually kickboxing through the Louvre, or whatever people with time, space and internet connectivity are doing this week to distract themselves from the sudden wreckage of so many lives and livelihoods.

Everyone must certainly cope in whatever manner brings solace. And no argument here about the healing balm of physical activity and art. Still, some of the frenzied Coronalympics challenges on social media feel like an attempt to look away.

Surely our abs and glutes can wait. If there was ever a time for a mass sit-in and navel-gaze, isn’t this it? I’ve managed little beyond slumping into the couch drinking coffee or booze, depending on the hour, and wondering what the hell this means for our future, for society, for humanity.

Looking the enemy in the eye during viral wartime is grim. It is heartbreaking to consider the scope of physical, mental and financial suffering. Terrifying to imagine the risks and agonies faced by front-line medical professionals and essential workers.

Watching retailers jam our feeds with luxury loungewear invites cynicism. (No, Wall Street Journal, I don’t want a pandemic-chic $1,400-dollar bathrobe, you idiots.) And witnessing the murderous ineptitude emanating from Washington leaves me apoplectic, speechless.

Isolating at home with a middle schooler, a high schooler, a husband and a dog, I’m deeply grateful there is ample room to coexist. We have natural light, tasty meals. We like being around each other. It’s embarrassing to be so comfortable. These days manage to be both paralyzing and roller-coastery. Pajamas have become clothing and clothing has become pajamas.

Writing Twitter laments the difficulty of creating during the pandemic; good lord, people, I can barely read.

I did manage a few writerly efforts, though. Not in the interest of competitive coping. They just sort of occurred.

As this crisis unfolds, the idea of being of use is beginning to bloom and feel like an appropriate response. Here’s what I’ve done:

1. Compiled an (ongoing) “Overheard” log of conversational highlights during 19 days and counting of isolation, categorized by speaker. Examples from our 11yo: “What’s abortion?” “What’s pot?” “So, I wasn’t made having sex?”

2. Wrote and sent letters to a bunch of elected officials whether or not they represent me; thank-yous for work/votes on legislation, protestations, requests to our governor to veto an awful bill. This is the sort of thing that is deeply satisfying but that one never gets around to in regular life. And I can now report that when you do this, they (or their assistants, depending) write back. And not auto-replies. I even got a phone call from one!

3. Provided writing and editing services to help friends craft messages about projects they’re embarking on to benefit their communities. One was food supply-related, the other was editorial journalism. It was satisfying to lend a hand.

4. Kept a photographic food diary of our isolation meals. OK, not so writerly, we just love food over here. But think of the eventual captioning possibilities, especially if our 11yo has a hand in the project.

5. Planned and occasionally executed on a goal to write one lengthy, reads-like-handwritten email per day to someone I care about, prioritizing those living alone or with challenging conditions in their lives.

6. Volunteered writing and proofreading services to community organizations. So many businesses and non-profits are suddenly called upon to produce more online and written content than ever before. Clarity and quality are necessary for their success and might be in short supply. It’s a way to help people, places and causes dear to me.

Maybe this list will spark some ideas. If it doesn’t, clearly, I won’t judge. I realize it’s not enough. Nothing is enough right now. But what else can we do?


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