By Peter Neill
…It is as if Covidia is not just a state of despair, but is rather a state of restoration and connection with the best of living, private and public. When we understand the contribution of skill and dedication of front-line health workers, stories of the generosity of strangers, the resilience of families and communities, we acknowledge and affirm the strength and perseverance of so many among us, at home and abroad.
In the first chapter of Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov writes, “I see the awakening of consciousness as a series of spaced flashes, with the intervals between them gradually diminishing until bright blocks of perception are formed, affording memory a slippery hold.”
In so many respects, the continuing pandemic — this state of Covidia in which we have now resided for a year and more — has challenged consciousness by its staggering effect on mortality, family, community, and established conventions and assumptions. It has been a time of darkness, of grief and anger and disbelief wherein everything has been at risk — our lives, the lives of friends and strangers, our work, our social and political institutions, and our values so long thought immutable and enduring. Invisible and pervasive, the coronavirus has infected us to the core of our beliefs and being. While we are all experiencing this condition in different ways, the underlying state seems universal and dark.
My personal situation has been safe and solitary. I have hidden from the challenge — as protocol and strategy advised — selfish and privileged perhaps, but isolated from the direct infection and no agent of infection for others.
Nonetheless, ironically, it has been a time for introspection and discovery — even creativity and manic production, part of which has been driven by the opportunity to return to the past, to exercise consciousness through memory and the exploration of “spaced flashes” from my personal history, taking “slippery hold” of events and encounters in more fulsome detail and meaning. I have reached back, as far back as I can to examine dim remembrance and to seek depth and detail left dormant, until now. I have deliberately reached out to old friends and acquaintances with no agenda other than to reestablish contact with people who at one point knew me well and shared with me the heights of unexpected success and the depths of foolish behavior. I suspect I am not alone in this endeavor.
The outcome has been exhilarating as both enrichment and therapy. I have filled in the details, reviewed the sets and lines of these stages of minor drama, and shared quiet revelation with the original players, many with whom I have been out of contact for years. These “bright blocks of perception” restore the vitality of those moments and the personal engagement long forgotten. I have contacted old friends, now grown older, often to mutual surprise, and we have reminisced, then updated our lives, then moved on to shared reflections of disappointment, satisfaction, and hope. These conversations — by email and Zoom — have not only revived relationships but also amplified the human connection, there so long ago, but so necessary now in this moment of social dislocation and isolation. It is as if Covidia is not just a state of despair, but is rather a state of restoration and connection with the best of living, private and public. When we understand the contribution of skill and dedication of front-line health workers, stories of the generosity of strangers, the resilience of families and communities, we acknowledge and affirm the strength and perseverance of so many among us, at home and abroad.
I cannot understand the actions of those who deny or ignore the reality of this challenge. I cannot accept the selfishness of their indifference to masks, to distancing, their subversion of community health practice, their political agenda that damages and destroys and does not heal. I can only conclude that their fear is a function of their loneliness and loss, that they are damaged far more than I, and that they have learned nothing from a global catastrophe that has taken the lives of more than 500,000 in the United States and millions more worldwide.
If I have learned anything from my solitude, it is that memory is a tool for healing and revaluation, and that re-examination, whether enforced by outside circumstance or embraced as a personal practice, is as powerful a protection for the mind as a vaccine is for the body. If we can transform Covid into a pandemic search for the best of our selves, then, to return to Nabokov’s concluding line from Speak Memory, “the finder cannot unsee once it has been seen,” and the future will seem achievable and bright.
PETER NEILL is a writer, author, podcast host, and is director of the World Ocean Observatory. He lives in Sedgwick, Maine.
This writing exercise is inspired by the Medium writing prompt: Pandemic Reflections: What Comes to Mind When You Think About the Pandemic Anniversary? Learn more: medium.com/creators-hub/what-comes-to-mind-when-you-think-about-the-pandemic-anniversary-49c35d6b25d8.