STATION ELEVEN: ANOTHER VIEW OF A PANDEMIC AND OUR FUTURE?

Why do we, well, really me, love apocalyptic novels? Is it because they voice our fears about our so-called civilization? Or is it because we secretly wish our society and all the crazy people and things that happen would get their comeuppance?

In any case, here’s another in the series, but one that’s stunningly well written as well as an attention-grabber. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, published in 2014 and thrust into best-seller and best-book status, rings so true, every character—and there’s plenty of them, from an eight-year-old girl to a thumping good, evil, self-proclaimed prophet –could be your friends and neighbors.

Mandel’s fourth novel takes place primarily in the Great Lakes region after a fictional swine flu pandemic, known as the “Georgia Flu”, has devastated the world, killing most of the population. It won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2015. Although critics praise the understated nature of Mandel’s writing, I think that’s a misnomer. She simply lays out the characters and plot in a realistic, matter-of-fact way, so the 300 survivors in one area who take refuge in an airport function exactly like you’d envision your friends and neighbors would.

There’s lots of action, fighting off bad guys, battling for sheer survival, but also much insightful psychological and thoughtful musings about nature and humans and the earth’s future. Mandel’s talent as a literary author is indisputable. She doesn’t consider herself a “scfi” writer, but “literary.” I hesitate to use that term because it seems to scare people. Believe me, readers will adore both the content and the style.

Perhaps I’m not panicky over our current COVID pandemic because it’s not nearly as extreme as the other dystopian novels I’ve read—Ashfall, A Journal of the Plague Year, Hunger Games, Ship Breaker, Divergent, Rule of Three. When I close the covers of a book, I return to the world in which every one I’m attached to still survives and the culture around me still has unbelievable riches and opportunities. Yet each of these volumes, and most especially Station Eleven, carries a warning not to get too comfortable. For unless we improve our ways, that world could become one I don’t want.

THE MEANING OF MEMORIES

I started thinking about my childhood recently, in a more focused and intentional way than I have previously. I wondered if my memories have had an impact on me or if they’re just a collection of miscellaneous impressions? Have they shaped what I’ve become?

After extensive study of about five minutes, I’ve decided what I’ve retained is a handful of rapid situations. They don’t seem to connect to one another or to my life’s evolution. Since my degree is in psychology, I’ve dipped my toe in the indefinable pool of dreams, the unconscious, the subconscious, and the way these intangibles may put their mark on us.

As a writer, my memories can become fodder for my creations. An incident playing cowboys gets inserted in a story. A friend’s way of tossing her head can identify a character. Perhaps if I pursue memories in an organized fashion, my work will benefit. Others assure me that once I begin plumbing my recollections, I’ll  remember more and more. But I mostly want to do it because it’s fun.

Take the thought of an immense wooden packing case. Appliances and large items like furniture used to be delivered in sturdy boxes of timber, not flimsy cardboard or Styrofoam. They also were secured with bendable wire. When one of these items showed up in my yard, it jump-started ideas. It probably was about four by four by four feet in dimension. At the time, maybe fifth grade, I was in love with horses. Not that my family had any, but after submerging myself in every horse book I could lay my hands on (think Black Beauty, the Black Stallion series, Misty of Chincoteague), I would have traded my soul for one. Since we lived in a middle-class suburb with too many little brothers and sisters, my chance of getting a horse to ride was zero.

Luckily my imagination was unfettered. The box became a stage coach; my siblings, passengers; and I was the driver. It seems now as if I spent the entire spring taking imaginary journeys, complete with hold-ups, runaway horses, and broken wheels. My mind galloped to other ideas. Once I threw a ragged discarded bedspread over it, the crate began to double as a cabin,. . .a school with my siblings as reluctant scholars when I lined them up in rows

To this day, if I see a box of similar dimensions, my heart speeds up and I immediately begin plotting what it could be used for. A temporary hiding place from thieves, a corral for pets or small children. This memory makes me happy, even if I don’t use it for anything productive. Research has shown that reminiscing has the capacity to reduce loneliness, boredom, stress and depression. It can also help considerably in dealing with traumatic experiences, 

If you wonder about the value of wasting time remembering, just ask someone with a friend or loved one who’s lost his reminisces through Alzheimer’s or dementia. Only a hollow shell of HIM remains. He’s able to eat, mumble, sleep; but his essence has vanished. So I’ll keep pulling out these miscellaneous snippets of memory to help me make sense of my past, present, future. They’re the building blocks of my spirit.

DEALING WITH GRIEF: what helps?

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May 4, 2020



Nothing. That’s certainly how I feel when it first hits, especially the death of a close friend or loved one. The desolation and loss seem unbearable, the environment around me lonesome and gray.

Additional factors, such as the COVID pandemic or the loss of a job, aggravate the condition. Still “time heals all wounds” the anonymous, mysterious “they” say. . .probably some prehistoric caveman. This statement makes no difference when you’re grieving, but later can make sense.

Still HOW you grieve, the steps you take, can make a difference. A friend of mine recently lost a grandchild. For months she isolated herself from the world. None of her friends knew what was wrong and spent a long time asking one another if they’d seen or heard from her. By the time they found out, it was too late to offer much in the way of any sympathy.

One of our society’s shortcomings, I believe, is that we lack rituals and observances to help us through bad times. Funerals are becoming smaller and less frequent, those thinking about death have strong opinions about not want fuss and formalities. Whereas a century ago, you might wear black or drape a black ribbon over your door, these customs are uncommon. In those distant times, your connections knew the routines. Send flowers or at least a sympathy card, bring a casserole to the bereaved’s house, inquire of family members after the death how they were doing, or mention that you, too, miss the deceased.

This doesn’t mean that grief is any easier for contemporary people to handle. I have a number of acquaintances who mention the lack of inquiries from their own circles, along with just how hurtful it is to have their loss ignored, as if the deceased never existed, never counted, never left a mark.

“I didn’t know what to say or do” is often the rejoinder. Sorry, I just don’t buy that. If friends matter, and to me they’re the only thing that does in the end, they deserve our acknowledgment of their pain and loss. Those actions may be even more important to grievers who isolate themselves or try to stiffen their upper lips until they’re paralyzed. Grief is an emotion we’ll all experience at some point. The only way to eventually become a whole functioning adult again is to go through it. Surely the only means to a kinder society is to be kinder ourselves.

 

ONLY THE LONELY: The impact of social distancing on you and others

 

When a large crisis occurs, whether that’s a massive fire, a tornado, a terrorist attack, or pandemic, I, like many, freeze up and tend to panic. Often we feel helpless, hopeless, fearful. Even if we’re not directly affected, we sense the tension around us. The response to panic frequently can be senseless and absurd. Some may react poorly and fall apart, get super-selfish, even violent. Buy out all the toilet paper and cereal in a grocery store. Start slinging racist accusations at others. Then there are the people in crisis who react well and rise to the occasion. These are folks able to organize donation drives or rescue the kids perched on their roof during a flood.

I’ve decided some of the reaction is rooted in a feeling of control. Years ago, after 9/11, my 3-year-old granddaughter knew something bad had happened. She also noticed people exhibiting American flags as a symbol of undefeated spirit.  Failing to distinguish between one flag and another, she collected small state flags and displayed them around the house to raise everyone’s spirits. That’s when I realized the importance of taking a positive step to establish your control over yourself and life. Kids continue to learn this by scrawling encouraging messages in chalk on sidewalks in my neighborhood during this quarantine.

In the current COVID crisis, we’ve been inundated with a surplus of advice, some of it incorrect; some hysterical and encouraging extreme reactions; much of it as repetitive as old I Love Lucy segments. How often do we need to be lectured about washing our hands?

An example of our compliance is face masks. Until recently, all the advice from experts indicated face masks held little value unless a COVID patient or health care worker were involved. Yet within the space of less than a week, masks became de rigueur at all times, in all places, for all ages. I’ve seen babies wrapped in masks that surely are interfering with their breathing, bicyclists endangering themselves and others as their masks block their vision and their physical responses.

Rather than debate the pros and cons of masks or other “safeguards,” I gave up once I realized these actions are ways people are attempting to gain control back over their lives. Parents need to believe they’re doing the best for their kids, those with health problems hope they’re gaining a slight advantage in their struggles. This also applies to compulsive behaviors, such as bleaching or wiping every surface in sight. To me, these actions are no different from throwing salt over your shoulder or spitting literally or figuratively by saying “pooh, pooh, pooh” to drive away bad luck. We don’t know for sure if any of these are helpful, but they can’t hurt.

Or can they, if carried to extremes? In the March 22, 2020, issue of Scientific American, David H. Rosmarin asks, “What’s Scarier than the Coronavirus?” He says, “There is no question in my mind that our emotional and behavioral responses at the present time are creating more damage than COVID-19.” He continues by pointing out our extreme responses—my example: screaming at passersby in a park who aren’t walking six feet apart—reveal a social vulnerability of more concern than the virus itself. We’re handicapping ourselves by not admitting there are limits to what we can know and control.  We must learn to accept being human means we aren’t invincible, we can’t control everything, and, yes, living means taking risks.

I reluctantly comply with most social distancing mandates. First because I’d like to maintain cordial relations with friends and family, many of whom are enthusiastic practitioners. Second because I hesitate to become a pariah in society by not conforming. Third because pandemics are as much a condition of life as are eating and breathing. We might as well discover and test effective responses to prepare ourselves for the next one. But let’s also accept and learn from the lows in our current situation as part of our very human existence. That’s part of gaining control back over ourselves.