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The Writer’s Job Is to Pay Attention

Photo-Illustration: by Preeti Kinha; Photos: Getty Images

Pre-COVID, I used to write constantly on the sides of student stories: “Where are we in time and space?” I was asking them to ground us, to think of linearity, chronology, and context. Except now, about a thousand times a day, I think this same thing — “Where are we in time and space?” — and I am never sure. I’m trying to pay attention to this sensation: when time is not marked in the same way but it keeps passing, when our space stays mostly static but it also holds all the various registers of our lives. How do we think and talk about life when we don’t know how much living is allowed from week to week?

I’m not writing much these days. I am teaching university creative writing, a class on novels; attempting, but mostly failing at keeping our kids entertained. I read Twitter for hours as if one of all the various sources of knowledge I check in with will somehow, magically, reveal to me how and when life will feel like life again. I call my congresspeople and write emails, try to figure out what useful looks like, when I so seldom have the chance to interact with other people. Insofar as I still feel like a writer, it’s in my ability to pay attention: to try to see and take note of all the shifts that have begun to take place around us, all the ways our lives taste and feel and smell different than they used to; all the ways that they will never be the same again.

The particular and often shocking dissonance of our days is one thing I keep trying to take in: Things feel mostly fine as long as I am with the children, making meals and talking them through tantrums, the nightly ritual of bath and book and bed. How wholesome and how simple; but then the sirens out the window, the underlying daily horror of all the sickness and the hunger and the job loss and the death. It’s new and different, this feeling. I keep thinking how to hold it, where to put it, in order that it might one day make sense. I keep thinking it won’t ever make sense, that we will cast about for narratives and explanations, reasons, and all of them will inevitably fall short. I’m grateful in those moments to remember that my job is not and has never been sense-making, so much as it is taking in the various sensations, such that I might reshape and recast them later on.

Before, there was so much movement, home to school and school to work and small legs climbing subway stairs and always in a hurry. Now, it’s just my children’s bodies, only outside my reach when they’re asleep. They flail their legs across one another, watching TV once I’ve given up on our daily activities. They tense and contemplate and round their shoulders, painting on the floor on cut up cardboard. I notice the way my baby, now 6, fills with fury when the work isn’t to her standards, the way our older daughter, almost 8, suddenly writes something sharp and specific, a little bit heartbreaking, underneath a drawing that brings me to tears.

Our family has become entrenched in our own smells. We take fewer showers, and I notice the musk of children who have run outside or jumped on the bed, then, because they’re anxious all the time and acting younger than their ages, curling into my lap more often, asking me to lie with them at night. Different than they smelled like when they were babies, so much closer now to being grown-up smells. How shocking too, when we encounter other people, when we so seldom any longer are close to other people, and then suddenly, accidentally, someone on the sidewalk passes too close, and the specificity and foreignness of their smell feels shocking — thrilling, really, for how intimate it is.

Days spent at the park are now followed by the fear of the walk home, itemizing all the times the children took their masks off, touched their faces, brushed their hands along the railing by the water, stood too close to someone at a stoplight before I pulled them back. I now know what different types of fear look like on their faces, when we run into their friends accidentally and we hold them and tell them they have to stay separate, when they accidentally touch their faces and I snap at them. I also saw how straight our 8-year-old stood the days we went to the protests, our first encounter with crowds in months.

I stay up late and listen to our children’s and my husband’s breathing. I can’t sleep and instead I watch them, thinking, though I have often thought of my husband — who is once again commuting to work now, who has allergies and asthma — as the strongest person I know, how quickly and how easily bodies can deteriorate.

In class now, on Zoom, we have checkins. Students have lost loved ones and some live alone, some have taken to sending weekly actions we can all take, congressmen to call and protests to attend. It can be awkward — we’re all grown-ups — but we go around one by one and say how we are. We know more about one another’s lives now, not just our homes and pets and partners, our political stances, but also who gets handed a drink or dinner halfway through the three hour conversation, who’s been baking, who’s been crying that day or been laid off. The strange shock too after that long stretch of talking, signing off and sitting alone in our apartment, no colleagues to check in with, to debrief with, no long walks with a student to the train to make sure they weren’t overwhelmed by the feedback.

There are all these smaller losses, shifts, and disappearances, often rightfully overshadowed by the larger and more global, until they sneak up on me, my baby asking when she’ll get to have a playdate for the 18th time that morning, a call with a student dropping just as she’s begun to explain why she’s been so distant these few weeks in class.

I’m not sure what it means anymore when people talk about things “going back to normal.” I want to see friends again, sit and talk with students, take my kids outside without feeling afraid. On that far-off other side, I will, we all will, carry in the body all of these new ways of seeing and of feeling; less as a writer than as a human, I hope, for all of us who weren’t or didn’t feel they had to, who didn’t think they had the time or space to, that we might all now pay better attention to, take greater care with, one another’s vulnerable bodies.

Lynn Steger Strong is the author of the novel Want.

The Writer’s Job Is to Pay Attention