Thoughts on the Pandemic
By Joy Fielding
Toronto Star - February 13, 2021
I’ve been reading these guest columns by my fellow authors during this pandemic, and what always strikes me is not only how literate everyone is – that comes as no surprise – but how well-adjusted everyone seems. For the most part, despite their concerns, these writers seem to be coping rather well with the isolation, restrictions, and inconveniences of Covid.
I am, by turns, and sometimes even all at once - a particular treat, just ask my husband - anxious, calm, depressed, hopeful, and angry. Mostly angry. Everything irritates me. I am about five seconds from fury at any given moment. The first word out of my mouth most mornings has four letters and starts with an F.
What’s so hard? you may wonder. Surely, writers are used to spending the better part of a day alone in a room, with nothing but their thoughts and an empty computer screen. This is true. But this has always been a life choice, not a life sentence. And it was relieved by frequent outings with family and friends, by being with actual people, not just the ones we create in our heads.
Despite my chosen profession, I have always been something of an extrovert, and no one would ever describe me as easy-going. I have a tendency to overreact, even at the best of times. So when the times themselves are so fraught, I tend to overreact accordingly. I have been known to yell at bicyclists who prefer the sidewalks to their well-delineated bike lanes, to give a prolonged finger to non-social-distancing parades of anti-maskers, and to wish all manner of vile things on telephone scammers, even when the voice on the other end of the line is a recording.
Several years ago, a woman at an author event asked me what I did in the way of self-care, since my writing is often so dark. I assured her that I was very good at taking care of myself, that I exercised daily, was a world-class shopper, had regular massages and facials, weekly hair appointments, and monthly mani-pedis.
But since last March, with the exception of a few hair appointments squeezed into the time between lockdowns, I’ve been able to access none of these things. (Okay, I still exercise, but that doesn’t count since I don’t really enjoy it.) Nor have I been able to shop for anything other than groceries. And I hate grocery shopping. I am the crazy lady you see pushing her cart through the store and muttering to herself, the one you cross the aisle to avoid.
When I met my husband of forty-seven years, one of the first things I said to him was “I don’t cook; I don’t clean.” And for forty-six of those years, that was pretty much true. Now that’s pretty much all I do. Have I mentioned that I hate cooking?
I know there are people out there who love it, people who find it relaxing and even creative. I am not one of those people. Cooking causes me anxiety. Writing has always been my main source of release, my way of creating calm out of chaos, of making sense of the seemingly senseless.
And yet, for months, I’ve been unable to write. Maybe it’s because I just completed my latest novel – CUL-DE-SAC, to be published this August by Penguin RandomHouse– and needed time to recharge. But mostly it’s because of the pandemic. In what would seem to be ideal circumstances to write – all day with nothing to do and all day to do it – that’s exactly what I’ve been doing: nothing.
A typical day during Covid: I wake up between 7:30 and 8, swear, take a shower, swear some more, get breakfast ready, exercise, eat, scan the headlines – cue more swearing - do all the puzzles in the morning papers, make the bed, unleash a final burst of four-letter words, then meet my sister for a long, socially-distanced walk. I note the number of cannabis shops I see along the way, as ubiquitous as nail salons, one on almost every corner, and marvel that something that was illegal only a few short years ago is now considered an essential service. I say a silent thank-you to the cold weather for forcing delusional middle-aged male cyclists to cover up. Trust me, those of you who think you still look pretty good riding shirtless down the street – you don’t.
If necessary, I stop at the pharmacy and grocery store on my way home. I then have a light lunch, and try not to listen to the endlessly breaking news and pandemic updates my husband is watching on the television in the adjoining room.
I am exhausted – I like to think it’s because of the twelve thousand-plus steps I’ve just walked, but the truth is that I’m tired from the moment I wake up. So I plop myself down on the sofa and think about reading a book. This is usually as far as I get. I don’t have the necessary energy to concentrate on anything as ambitious as a novel. My brain has turned to mush. But after months of inertia, I finally force myself to turn off the TV and pick up a book.
Permit me, if you will, a small digression: I am frequently confronted by men – it’s always men - at various literary functions who tell me that they never read novels, only non-fiction, the implication being that they are too intellectual to bother with anything as frivolous as a novel. Trust me again: you aren’t.
Non-fiction is easy, requiring only a desire and ability to absorb facts. You can pick up works of non-fiction and put them down at will. Novels, on the other hand, require commitment and concentration, imagination and a willingness to suspend one’s disbelief and lose oneself in someone else’s world.
But I find that this world won’t be so easily dismissed. I’m not ready for fiction.
So I start slowly, with Barbara Amiel’s dishy tell-all, FRIENDS AND ENEMIES, then move on to Mariah Carey’s ridiculously-titled but fascinating memoir, THE MEANING OF MARIAH CAREY, then onto BORN A CRIME, Trevor Noah’s excellent recounting of what it was like to grow up as a mixed-race child in South Africa during apartheid.
Only then do I consider myself ready to tackle a novel. I order a copy of Toronto author Ashley Audrain’s debut novel, THE PUSH, and devour it in two days.
Finally, I feel my own imagination stirring. The beginnings of an idea for a new novel knock gently at the sides of my brain, and although I’m not yet ready to do anything about it, there exists the hope that I might be ready one day soon.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go take a nap.