Dusting off this blog to share some reflections too meandering for a Facebook post:
It recently occurred to me that two years ago, I was teaching English Composition and the assigned reading was a novel called Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel—a science fiction-esque novel about a virulent strain of flu that wipes out most of the planet’s population and quickly brings human civilization to its knees. The story jumps back and forth in time, following the lives of people before and after the onset of the pandemic and exploring how society reacts and rebuilds in the face of such calamity.
I remember coming up with writing prompts and discussion questions related to themes explored in the book. How would a global pandemic change the ways we communicate? Travel? Make and consume art?
I’d also circle back to a question posed by the author again and again: What mundane thing that you take for granted now would you miss most?
These questions were supposed to be hypothetical. But two years later, they are no longer confined to the realm of science fiction. We are thankfully not at the point of societal collapse that kicks off the events of St. John Mandel’s novel, but the fears and questions she explores are now more pressing than they’ve ever been in living memory.
While I completely understand that the themes explored in the book may hit a bit too close to home for some now, I can say that the book, despite being largely set in the post-apocalyptic aftermath of the flu, is hardly bleak, but rather hopeful. Instead of a gritty dystopia, Station Eleven reads more like an extended love letter to humanity. Our main characters form a troupe called “The Traveling Symphony” and dedicate themselves to circling the Great Lakes region of the U.S., performing music and plays for the region’s survivors.
There’s a specific section of the book that stands out in my mind, a chapter that begins with the phrase “An incomplete list.” This is the chapter that, to me, reads most like a love letter. It is a litany of things lost in the aftermath of the fictional Georgia flu— things that we most likely take for granted. It’s a list of things that, considering our ever-extending shelter-in-place measures, we may be starting to miss ourselves.
“No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below,” the chapter begins. “No more ball games played out under floodlights… No more films, except rarely, except with a generator drowning out half the dialogue, and only then for the first little while until the fuel for the generators ran out, because automobile gas goes stale after two or three years… No more screens shining in the half-light as people raise their phones above the crowd to take photographs of concert stages.” Because the book takes place after societal collapse, the litany of loss becomes more profound as it goes on: No more flight. No more pharmaceuticals. No more Internet. No more countries.
Many have written about our collective response to this global pandemic we’re facing, and one reflection that I keep mulling over is one that frames our response as one of grief. On a larger level, we are grieving for the sick and the dying, those known and unknown. But on a day-to-day level, we are also grieving the loss of familiarity, of routine, of normalcy. We are grieving for the loss of the little mundane things that we no longer can do or have access to.
I find myself missing the morning coffee runs I went on with my coworkers. I miss hugging my parents. I miss going to the movies. I miss sitting on a restaurant patio with friends, drinking cocktails and eating chips and salsa. I even miss driving to work.
There are countless little-but-not-so-little things that have been disrupted by this global event. It’s hard not to grieve, too, for the future things this virus has stolen from us. As dreary winter turned to warmer weather, I was eagerly awaiting the start of summer festivals and the reopening of local pools and amusement parks. I’d marked my calendar for a horror film convention and a Renaissance Faire. Some of my favorite bands were coming through my hometown. All of this has been put on hold, indefinitely.
I absolutely recognize that it is a privilege to be mourning these things. I’ve struggled with feelings of guilt for grieving the loss of seemingly inconsequential things while many others have, and will, lose so much more. But when I reflect on the things that bring me the most joy, the things that get me through the day, I realize now that it is art and human connection—two things that this virus has made it harder to consume and attain. This idea echoes throughout Station Eleven—the idea that art and human connection are what makes us, us. That when there’s nothing left of human society but ash and rubble, someone will pack up a caravan to bring art to what’s left of civilization. Shakespeare and Star Trek live on in the hearts of the survivors in Station Eleven, and to them, sharing art and forging human connections are important enough to risk their lives for. Because, as one main character repeats, quoting a line from Star Trek: Voyager: “Survival is insufficient.”
Now, I believe that the appreciation of the mundane little things is more important than ever. These things are not mere trappings of our day-to-day lives, but rather, what make life worth living. I know now, that in the face of joys stolen from us, the solution is to create new things to look forward to. To redouble our efforts in reaching out to our loved ones. To create new things and newly appreciate the old. To cherish what we have, remembering the fleeting delicacy of all things. To hold firm in our love for each other, until we can hold each other in our arms again.