The Pandemic Mirror

These days, we barely recognize our lives: teleconferencing in sweat pants, teaching skeletal versions of our classes, socializing and exercising only through screens. Yet in some ways the pandemic is a mirror in which we and our communities are reflected with vivid, urgent clarity. We know what matters now, in our teaching and our friendships, our families, in the places we live. We know what matters to our leaders: we see politics playing out with stark and immediate consequences. We see the usually opaque mechanisms of access, equity, race and privilege made visible in who gets tested, who gets care, who gets sick and who dies. We are watching ourselves rise to the occasion, so many of us voluntarily exceeding the directives of our mayors, governors and president. We are seeing what remains when so much is swept away.

Perhaps I’ve never seen this much of myself – literally. I don’t usually witness what other people see when we talk, but Zoom exposes me to myself. Do I really nod that much? I thought I was being empathetic but those vigorous nods are crowding, aggressive in their assertion that I understand. My furrowed brow which feels like concentration looks like displeasure or skepticism. I have a new perspective on our staff: unable to meet weekly in the conference room, we’ve had to figure out what we really need from each other. Our meetings are shorter, and we’ve learned how to communicate efficiently and warmly over Zoom. We all mute our mics now when we’re not speaking and a rhythm has emerged for talking in turn. We don’t interrupt or talk over each other so much anymore.

I’m seeing my city differently, too, exploring it on the rambles that are my only available exercise. Every walk is an architectural tour. I’m absorbing the weird stylistic jumble typical of a university town: angles, juxtapositions, hideous and beautiful buildings I never noticed before. The shifting social landscape is revealing as well: many public spaces are emptied out but handfuls of young people still cluster on the lawns of a fraternity house, the picnic tables behind a local pub offering take-away are frequently occupied.

We are creating new mores for life during a pandemic, exploring new social parameters: would you feel okay going for a walk? Want to meet across the firepit for a socially distanced drink? I’ve gathered with more and different people from around the country in professional and personal online groups than I would have otherwise. Creatures of routine and tradition that we are, it is rare and extraordinary to be crafting our terms of engagement daily.

La Chambre D’Ecoute (The Listening Room), 1952.

Rene Magritte (1898-1967)

Menil Collection, Houston, TX

As a teacher, I stripped my classes down to their essential elements, which meant identifying them. I maintained deadlines but loosened my grasp on them and, as I did so, I felt my own unease. I wanted to urge my students to embrace the burst of productivity a deadline imposes; I have been propelled by deadlines since I was a child. Those I’ve met and those I’ve missed form the contours of my professional life. Even knowing the hardships some of my students were facing—lacking the time, space, quiet and internet connectivity to do the work I was asking of them; working extra hours; ill or caring for ill family; grieving—even so, it was hard to let go of the expectation to keep up the pace and to work to the standards that I’ve crafted painstakingly from years of classroom experience. My teaching felt approximate, reduced to a series of marginal comments on paper drafts and peppy interjections on discussions board. So much of how I teach, it turns out, is about looking at students across a table or a circle of chairs and asking them to dig, to make one more connection, to pay attention. Really, what I teach is paying attention—to a line, a passage, or an argument—and I hold the space of the classroom for this harder-than-it-seems essential activity. How is this possible with so much distance between us, with each of us surrounded by our own set of distractions?

My teaching felt approximate, reduced to a series of marginal comments on paper drafts and peppy interjections on discussions board. So much of how I teach, it turns out, is about looking at students across a table or a circle of chairs and asking them to dig, to make one more connection, to pay attention.

But, of course, it’s always so. The student who shows up for class comes with a head full of noise unique to her, and whether I’m drawing her focus from her too-crowded household or her churning inner life, the work is the same: we are here to listen to each other now, to read and talk and figure things out. Education is always about puzzling things out.

In times that are themselves less puzzling, we can be complacent or run on auto-pilot. We can turn away from the sharp edge of awareness. Faculty can complain about the administration, and the administration about the faculty, falling back on the old storylines that are comfortingly familiar even when they are aggravating. We can insist on our opinions, which we sometimes call the facts. We can miss the way a colleague or student has changed. In ordinary times, we have the luxury of not caring about each other.

One of my incarcerated students pointed out how frequently now we wish each other well. There is a public discourse of kindness and gratitude I’ve never experienced before. How many emails have you read this week that began or ended with words of empathy or hope? We used to keep these warmest wishes for our inner circles. Sure, the rage machine rages on, as ever; trolls will troll. Yet we’re seeing solidarity across our silos, labor activism that’s been dormant or muted for years as workers are pushing back against their lives and livelihoods being endangered by the bottom line. I see windows full of paper hearts on every one of my walks, and lawn signs shouting out the heroism of our health care workers.

Small portrait (1950).

Kay Sage (1898-1963), American surrealist.

We understand now that every choice we make ripples outward into the lives of others. Do I go into the store, or order online for pick-up? Do I opt for delivery, and another set of hands on my groceries, to help employ a driver? If I frequent a newly re-opened restaurant to support a local business, do I arrive in a mask? How can I stand not knowing whether I am an asymptomatic carrier, whether my decision to go to work, or the park, or the doctor’s office for a non-essential procedure, imperils others, or risks bringing infection back into my home?

The radical uncertainty of this moment reflects back to us the nature of reality. Normally we keep the ceaseless ebb and flow of life obscured with plans and goals, our much-vaunted busy-ness, our fervent belief we can steer our own course with discipline and individual will. Now, we see the limits of our control and how enmeshed we are with those around us, near and far. The good thing is this: while we could be paralyzed by the suddenly palpable consequentiality of how we move about in the world, this crisis has also given us the chance to pause. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s forced us to pause, in a time both of stillness and momentous change, suspended between our habitual patterns and whatever world will emerge from this. “The past” in which life was fundamentally different is two months ago, the unknowable future two months from now. It’s taken a pandemic to make us live in the present, but here we are, taking a long, sometimes hard, look at ourselves.

Gina Hausknecht is the John William King Professor of Literature and Creative Writing and the Associate Dean for Student Academics at Coe College in Cedar Rapids. She teaches early modern British literature and has published and presented on Shakespeare, Milton, 17th century literature and culture, pedagogy, and higher education. Her work on editorial stage directions in Shakespeare plays includes this interactive learning tool.

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