Friendship in a Plague Year
"When there is no connection to others, there can be no voice."
--Masha Gessen "The Political Consequences of Loneliness and Isolation During the Pandemic," in The New Yorker, May 5, 2020
"We live without feeling the country beneath our feet/
our words are inaudible from ten feet away."
--Osip Mandelstam, a Russian poet, 1933
I’ve been thinking a lot about my friends these days, past and present, new and old, near and far. I am stunned by the number of people who have touched in with me since global lockdown, and how many I have contacted—virtually,of course. When we begin to talk, we pick up as though no time has passed, and some of our conversations are long, intimate and revelatory. If the contact has been mostly professional thus far, it seems to morph into something deeper and this, in itself, has been both revelatory and satisfying. There has to be more than the pandemic that explains this, some cement that keeps us connected, however friable the consistency before the friendship lapsed and we reconnected, however superficial the connection before the pandemic.
The life-affirming premise of this blog post, therefore, is that friendship—attachment, connection—is one of the mortars that holds societies together, and that the collapse of friendship—either individual or between nations—is a challenging event, both personally and globally.
Sometimes a friendship falls away and there is no explanation. Perhaps we allow it to happen, or even will it to happen. We decide—unconsciously, consciously—that the friendship is not working, or has become disagreeable. We have grown apart or moved to another city and cannot abide using email or What’s App to sustain the relationship. As much as we thought we had in common at one time, we no longer have anything in common. One day we are friends, the next day acquaintances. We ask mutual friends and acquaintances how this once-upon- a time-friend is doing, whether they have heard from him or her. Mostly we feel disappointed and wonder if our former friend feels the same. Who will make the first move to reconcile or renew? And are there some friendships we must, of necessity, abandon or dissipate, like steam, into the past tense? And then the phone rings and it is this very fallen-away-friend calling to ask how we are doing and whether we are safe and well. And we are, surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, pleased to hear from them.
In the most dire macro-cosmic scenario, a breakdown in human relations leads to war and genocide. For two years I worked on “Another Day in Paradise,” an anthology of stories by international humanitarian workers; two-thirds of the stories were about war. In the midst of the project came the World Trade Center attacks, the U.S invasion of Afghanistan, and the war on Iraq. After the publicity for the book was finished, I needed a breather. The world looked a sorry place to me and I was blue about it. Neighbors fighting neighbors, cousins eviscerating the lives of cousins. I stopped writing for a while and then retreated to the country and started on my first murder mystery. Meanwhile, my relief worker friends moved into new and even more dangerous assignments. When they are in the field, it is a given that they are incommunicado; I have learned to accept this. I always remind myself that they are optimistic and competent people; their antidote to despair is to work and to help people. Indeed, many are front line workers in this current pandemic, either here or abroad. Several are working in refugee camps where, dear reader, more than 33 million children are living hardscrabble lives. I envy relief workers’ skills and fortitude, and their evolved capacity for fast friendship in the midst of disasters.
I remember meeting Philip Gourevitch, the New Yorker writer, and later the editor of Paris Review, at a Starbuck’s a few months into my research for “Another Day in Paradise.” I’d read his book about the genocide in Rwanda. How had he recovered from working on that? Though I didn’t know him personally, I approached him—breaking my rule about privacy in public spaces—and told him about my project. He was very gracious and spoke to me for a while. Not having seen his byline recently, I wondered what he was working on. His answer was, “small stuff, something local.” In an oblique way, his reply said a lot about the recovery time necessary after immersing oneself as a journalist in a cataclysmic event, or living one as a citizen. The pandemic is big stuff for all of us, even more so for those who have been infected, or lost loved ones. I am confident that if we amplify our friendships, and reach out to those in need, we will #survivetogether.