Stage 4

I’ve spent the last five days attending CoNZealand, the annual World Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention.

Of course, by ‘attending’, what I actually mean is that I’ve been sitting in front of my computer or my phone, sometimes in my pyjamas, watching and listening to panels and presentations, and participating in workshops and Kaffeeklatsches. This was going to be my first trip to New Zealand, but the closest I’ve got is shifting my timezone forward by two hours…

But such is life in the Time of COVID-19, and I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to spend most of a week being totally consumed by an event that has absolutely nothing to do with COVID-19 or lockdown restrictions or idiotic Australian politics (note: I do not say that WorldCon was free of idiotic politics in general. Just idiotic Australian ones.).

One of the best conversations I had at WorldCon this week was about time travel and World War 2. We were talking about Connie Willis’s time travel books, particularly Blackout, and how the time travellers in that book were historians from the future, and thus had the advantage of knowing when and how the war would end, while the people around them did not. And we, the reader, knew the same. We knew, no matter how dark things were getting, that if it was November 1944 in Britain, they were on the home stretch, they just had to hold on for a few more months and it would all be over.

Well, here we all are, living through history the long way round. If there are time travellers among us, they may well know when how this ends — actually, if there are time travellers among us, that would be awesome, because it might be proof that civilisation survives all the scary things that are happening right now. (Or, of course, they may be from the very far future, after the apocalypse and the rebuilding of everything that some of us have been able to take for granted all our lives.)

… Sorry, I’m tired, and this post is perhaps excessively whimsical.

What I’m trying to say is this: I’m the sort of reader who will turn to the end of the book when things get bad, just to make sure everything is OK. I can’t do that now, and I’m finding that stressful. While Stage 4 restrictions will change absolutely nothing about how I currently live my life, seeing the date when restrictions may lift (and it is may, not will – nothing is guaranteed) recede further into the future is still difficult. I’m good at doing what needs to be done, so long as I have an endpoint. It’s much harder without one.

But I don’t know how this ends. I can’t. I am not a time traveller from the future (and of course, I couldn’t tell you if I was – you just don’t want to know what sort of paradox that would create). I am just … someone who has to keep on going.

I have to hope that the end is in sight, that the work my wonderful scientists and scientists around the world are doing will lead to the treatments, the diagnostics, and above all the vaccines we need. And I do have faith in that. I don’t know how long it will take, but I know that given enough time and resources (and someone to watch the kids – parents out there, you are in my prayers), they will figure this thing out, because they are very, very clever people and they want this as desperately as any of us.

I have to hope, too, that the work we all do together in staying home as much as possible, wearing masks, keeping our distance, and washing our hands will be able to hold the virus at bay until they can get this done. And it is work, and important work, even if it feels like doing nothing. I saw someone a few weeks ago make the analogy of firefighting: our healthcare workers are at the front line, fighting the fires – putting them out directly, with all the associated risks that this brings. For rest of us, who don’t have the skills and equipment to fight the fire directly,  the job is to be the firebreak. To be the place where if the virus reaches you, it burns itself out, with nowhere to spread. I really like that way of looking at it.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is this: I have many friends and family members who I love and miss terribly. I miss seeing them face to face. I miss hugging them. I miss having them around to my house for excessive meals and sending them home with leftovers. I miss that so much.

Love is supposed to be a selfless thing, but I’m not very good at that. Maybe none of us are. It’s hard to be utterly selfless, and I think most acts of love involve a degree of reciprocation – I may bake cakes and biscuits for my friends and my family and my scientists because I love them, but I also get pleasure from watching people eat what I’ve made. I might read a picture book to my four-year-old niece because she likes being read to, but if I get a cuddle out of it (or even just a giggle and ‘you’re silly, Auntie Catherine’), I have my reward.

But right now the most loving thing I can do for the people I care about is stay away from them, and that feels counterintuitive. It feels unloving. And it definitely doesn’t come with the endorphins that come from our normal ways of expressing love and affection.

Of course grandparents and aunties and uncles are trying to find ways to bend the rules to play with the small children in their lives. Of course they are. It feels so unnatural, so unloving, to be out of contact for so long. I’ve been sending my niece postcards, because she hates Zoom and Facetime, but she loves getting mail. I know that this makes her happy, but I wish, I really wish, there was a way to make this conversation go in two directions.

I don’t quite know where I’m going with this, except perhaps to say that I think the hardest part of all of this is that it feels like we have to fight not just our natural human instincts for social contact, but our even deeper instincts to give and receive love and affection.

But that’s not entirely true. We can still love and care for each other, we just have to do it differently. And sometimes we have to do it the hard way – sending out our love like postcards into the distance, not knowing when or if we will receive a reply.

I hope you and your loved ones are staying safe. I hope you have at least some of the people you love in your bubble, even if some are still far away. We may not know how and when this will end, but it *will* have an ending. This isn’t forever, even if it feels like that.

Thinking of you all with love. But from a very safe distance.

***

This is the bit where I usually have links or a call to action. My only call to action today is this: please do something nice for yourself. Check out my Self Care page if you are low on ideas. Astonishingly, all but two of the items on that list can be done within the limits of Stage 4 restrictions! There are also links to a number of helplines if you are having difficulties.

Also, if you are looking for a book recommendation, I read an absolutely fantastic, glorious book last month, by Jo Walton, called Or What You Will. If you like fantasy novels with glorious food, and Florence, and characters from Shakespeare living out their queer and magical lives in an alternate version of Renaissance Florence, you will enjoy this. It’s like a holiday you can take without leaving your house… and let’s face it, those are the holidays we are getting right now. (Link is to the ferociously expensive hardback, I’m afraid. The ebook is cheaper, but maybe a library copy is the way to go until the paperback comes out. Though, honestly, for me it was worth every cent.)

Another recommendation – This is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. Gorgeous time travel novella, poetic and funny and romantic, and nicely on theme with much writing of letters and waiting for replies…

One thought on “Stage 4

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