As befits this moment deep in the pandemic, vulnerability and mortality loom large in the selection of essays here from across a wide spectrum of contemporary essayists. The writers here remind us that history need not dictate the future, whether it be the history of divisions among the African Diaspora or the God-addled, fear-driven, profit-seeking worship with which this country began, and continues.
There are instances of bravery and audacity here, suggesting that the only way to the lives we want is to enact them in the present, whether calling for solidarity across historical and geographical divisions, standing up to systems designed for only the able-bodied, or untangling the truth about oneself, one’s desires and fears, when trapped in a seeming contradiction.
I don’t mean to beat around the bush; certainly none of these essayists do. You can see that I am trying not to be too specific, not to give anything away. These essays, each and all, are writings of consequence, beautiful and powerful at once. Time and again, as for instance in Trisha Cowens’ essay “Waiting for the Bees,” I was taken by descriptions that betoken a hard-won wisdom. Or, as in Clare Bosak-Schroeder’s “Two Lives,” I am situated at a nexus of choice, a moment that will define, one way or another, before and after.
For the most part these are intimate illustrations of our common predicament, not entertainments or art for its own sake. (When it comes to writing, “art for art’s sake” has always struck me as a song whose lyrics are “Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do.”) No, these writers are not fooling; their essays challenge us to grow, to complete ourselves by engaging fully with what is.
Jill Johnson, our Associate Nonfiction Editor (whose fine essay “That Night” is included here) writes that she was shocked by Jennifer Dupree’s essay “Care and Keeping.” “The narrator’s matter-of-fact tone while describing the medical treatment a person with disabilities becomes accustomed to will strip away any illusion about the viability and humanity of America’s healthcare system for so many people. And then, pondering this travesty, I thought about Baron Wormser’s exploration of the legacy of “othering” by the Pilgrims. William Bradford, who arrived on the Mayflower, lost his wife overboard when the ship was anchored off the future Provincetown. This tragedy, accident or suicide, feels an apt harbinger for the systemic failures in America four hundred years hence, propagated and sustained by an exclusionary narrative.” For myself, I thought of Orwell: “Some animals are more equal than others.”
There is a stoic temper to these essays, a dogged resolve — even in the face of Covid-19, of human folly, of shame, of misunderstanding and mendacity. The essays in this issue amount to an illustration of “the way we live now,” where that first person plural pronoun is more inclusive than ever, as we struggle in the midst of grief and uncertainty. The writers here steel us and strengthen us as if in agreement with Beckett: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”