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  • katherine halligan

State of Uncertainty

The covers of The New Yorker are usually wryly amusing. They often make me feel witty and cultured, merely by looking at them. (Though equally often they make me feel uncultured, excluded and slightly dim.)

But a couple of months ago, in an unprecedented moment — of which our lives are suddenly, constantly full — the cover made me cry. We are looking over the shoulder of a woman in scrubs as she says goodnight to her children and partner via FaceTime, on her way towards a scene of chaos. In the full-bleed illustration (that’s a fancy publishing way of saying it goes right to the edges and fills the space; no one is actually bleeding because this is not now what happens in an ER), we see gurneys ahead of her, a space full of healthcare workers, brave and bustling, and patients, frightened and alone.

The subtle suggestion is that she is heading into danger and, like her, we don’t know which of our digital interactions with our family will be our last. It’s all a great gamble, a terrifying round of roulette (round after round after relentless round), which we are all being forced to play, whether we are frontline healthcare workers, whose cards are fairly badly stacked against them these days, or whether we are mere mortals. Fate and fortune and the future in general are more fraught with uncertainty than ever before.

Part of this life-and-death lottery with which we are all learning to live is geography — which matters more so now than ever. When I first wrote this piece back in early April (because pretty much everything you will be reading for the next while was written many weeks before I finally get around to posting it, because life is just like that these days, as time becomes amorphous and fluid and weirdly meaningless, yet also vitally important), Georgia’s governor had just made the shocking and profoundly dubious decision to open up the entire state, notwithstanding the graphs showing the rates of infection soaring, Everest-like, toward an unknown peak.

At the time, I thought, aren’t we lucky to live in the Republic of California, where our forward-thinking, science-led leaders are truly looking after us? Mired in this state of uncertainty in which we all find ourselves, constantly and in every area of our lives, I was initially enormously relieved and rather proud to be in this particular state: California, as ever the forefront of progress and progressiveness and all things liberal and lovely, shut down first. We were brave! We were self-sacrificing! We won the “What Shape Is Your Curve?” contest with the flattest curve around!

Silly, silly me.

Because all of those excellent qualities remain true, and yet now here we are, in a Georgia State of Mind… and health. Because, inevitably, we had to reopen, because life goes on. We need to eat and move and do all of the things that make us human. (There is, of course, a wild degree of differentiation about what actually matters to each of us, but I am not here to judge whether your tattoo or highlights are vitally necessary, because I know they are to the person who gives them to you in exchange for money that puts food on their table and keeps a roof over their head. And who am I to judge anyway? We just crossed state lines. From a hot spot! To a hot spot! To visit people over the age of 65! And then a major tourist site! But more on that adventure next time).

So I can now laugh, wryly and sadly (because nearly everything is tinged with some degree of sadness these days) at my smug naïveté. COVID, like death, eventually comes for us all — at least in this crazy country. And I should clarify that I don’t mean that we will all catch it (can you tell I’m having a down day?), but that it will touch us all in some painful and personal way, if it hasn’t already.

California is crashing and burning, slower than New York did but just as surely. We opened ourselves up, to a tentative return to normal. To life. To protests, to collective mourning, to freedom of expression and movement, to pleasures and griefs both great and small.

And now we are paying the price. For living, for others’ poor choices, for our neighbours who live down the road but may as well come from another planet.

It is sad that every action has now become so judgement-worthy, so divisive, so indicative of who we are and how we vote.

It is sad that my far-flung family and friends are all having such profoundly different experiences and facing such dangerously different risks, all because of an accident of geography.

It is all just very sad. Indeed, it is becoming pathetic and pitiful. (For a brilliant piece on how the world now pities America, see Fintan O’Toole’s incredible piece in the Irish Times; he says it all so much better than I ever could).

So, what state are you in these days, other than a semi-permanent state of sadness?

New York, New York? I don’t want to be a part of it. Not at all. My brother fled the city with his partner just in time, and rightly so, to live in his in-laws’ Massachusetts basement for the duration. They can make it anywhere, just not there. Not now. (Though as the extraordinary people of New York climb their way out of their nightmare in a positively European fashion, their city looks vastly more appealing than ours, here in the deeply divided, downright dangerous OC).

Carolina on your mind? It’s very much on mine, because my mother lives there. Out of all the suffering Sunbelt states, the northern one (and for anyone unlucky enough never to have lived in North Carolina, the differences between it and the southern one are vast and, these days, life-or-death) seems to be doing marginally better, at least in my mother’s city, thank goodness (though what is true today may well change by tomorrow, so that tentative relief is also uncertain).

Fancy some moonlight in Vermont? In this increasingly fraught time, it would seem that those of who have the good luck to live somewhere quiet and well-led stand the best chance of recovering soonest from this insane onslaught — and there liveth my sister and her family, down a peaceful country lane outside a serenely small hamlet, which in turn lies just outside the diminutively dainty capital of Montpelier (population 7,436). So while she is a physician on the frontlines, her battles have been remarkably quiet and small and safe. Thank you, Bernie and friends.

Arizona, anyone? By the time we got to Phoenix, it was a hot mess…

And by the time we got back home to California, dreamin’ was all we could do: our previously beautifully flattened curve now looks like the sheer vertical trajectory of a rocket ship destined for the outer reaches of space and all the unfathomable mysteries contained therein.

Whatever dis-united state (or luckier land), you chance to live in, it is certain that you are living with a profound and soul-altering state of uncertainty.

But whatever state you are in, I hope that you also find yourself — at least in those small moments that we cling to so tightly to carry us through — in a state of grace.

Because some amazing grace — and luck and cataclysmic change on an epic scale — is what we need.

Now, please.

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