The Signal in These Strange Times
April 29, 2020 § 9 Comments
By Elizabeth Caswell
In this strange and uncertain season of pandemic, much has been cast aside. Baseball openers and wedding showers, family reunions and spring break vacations, happy hour and restaurant reservations. The overriding scramble (greater for some, less so for others) to “flatten the curve” or to shore up under the virus’ ravage has made the bastions of our culture surprisingly malleable and often irrelevant. Value has been reassigned in nearly every corner of life.
But the connective tissue of our society – that thing webbing us together despite physical isolation, despite quarantine, despite social distancing – that thing that communicates fear, anxiety, struggle and grief, but also compassion, empathy, and triumph of the human spirit – is story.
We know from anthropology that storytelling is primary to all of human existence. Writer Frank Rose says that we use stories to find meaning, to “make sense of our world and to share that understanding with others. They are the signal within the noise.” No wonder stories are such a critical lifeline during the confusion and chaos of this pandemic. Stories of health care workers banding together at personal peril, of songs rivering through the streets of an Italian city as its residents sing from balconies, of people afflicted and people lost and the legacies they impart.
I’ve read stories in recent days, too, of cultures disrupted, of illness separating families, of assistance coming from surprising places, and leadership imperiling a nation. Here, I am talking about The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, the 1998 novel sitting on my nightstand with a bookmark somewhere near page 450.
Rose also references the “signal within the noise” as being of a recognizable pattern; something that helps us to negotiate our own reality. It comes as no surprise that my own tendency and that of many writer-friends is to turn to fiction in these days of lockdown, to discover that which is both escape and roadmap, leisure and the arduous work of understanding the ever-evolving world. In Kingsolver’s malaria-riddled Kilanga there are elements of pandemic; in her aptly-named Price family, there is loss and separation and splintering of ideals; in her 1960’s Congo there are new, unforeseen, unimaginable realities and as many ways to deal with those realities as there are characters in the book.
In his poem “A Poetry Reading at West Point,” William Matthews says, “I try to write as well as I can / what it feels like to be human.” There are 7.5 billion versions of that story on the planet and an infinite number that live in the collective imaginations of those 7.5 billion people. A writer friend recently read an article that said the face of the literary magazine – and the submitted work that would elicit editors’ interest – would change shape in a pandemic and post-pandemic world. Our search for what it looks like to be human may be changing our story preferences in profound ways, but the patterns written into centuries of stories continue to foretell humanness in this moment in time.
I wrapped up my MFA thesis last week, nested in the reality of the coronavirus era. The ritual of completion of the MFA journey looks different in these days: no (imminent) graduation reading, no ceremony in cap and gown or celebratory cocktails afterward. Instead, there are only the stories. That is what remains. Stories from graduates grappling with and adding their voices to the signal in the overwhelming noise.
My own humble thesis contributions are in six short stories. Would those stories look different if they’d been written in the late winter/early spring of the pandemic? Perhaps. I can see how era defines the stories that belong in the foreground.
My thesis was accompanied by the requisite Artist Statement, and at these times, such a detailed account of my own writing felt indulgent at best. Still, for better or worse it tied me back to pre-pandemic winter days where the singular objective at day’s start was committing time to these stories – my stories. I was usually squirreled away in a library study room and started with Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma coursing through my AirPods: “None shall sleep / none shall sleep / … / watch the stars / that tremble with love / and with hope.” Ringer off, email closed, door shut. There is a time and purpose for isolation.
I write at home now, at a desk in my son’s bedroom, in between bouts of chiding my kids to tend to their schoolwork and taking them on in driveway basketball. My attention is tuned to Star Tribune; to Chris Cuomo’s daily accounting of his illness; to a Facebook post about a husband singing “Amazing Grace” through the window to his hospitalized wife; to a Facetime conversation with our elderly friend Jeanie. Jeanie tells me about connecting with grandchildren on Zoom. She has a hedgehog puppet named Henry who appears on screen with her to tell them about his adventures each day.
While we may be in quarantine, we are far from isolated. Stories stave off isolation like nothing else can. We must keep writing; to work toward words that communicate “what it feels like to be human,” contributing to that great collective of literature through which we understand each other and are therefore, against the odds of the moment, connected.
Elizabeth Caswell lives with her husband and three children in Minneapolis. She has her MFA in Creative Writing from Hamline University in St. Paul, MN.