Hi folks. I’m trying out Buttondown as a Substack alternative—I like that it’s no-frills and doesn’t seem like it’s trying to force me to make a whole magazine. The more I read about Substack the more I don’t want to pretend mid-tier writers like me are going to make any kind of living doing this! Speaking of making a living, though, don’t forget you can buy my book, and I’ll also be doing a virtual event with Ijeoma Oluo on Friday at 6 pm Pacific/9 pm Eastern.
I think April might actually end up being the cruelest month this year
We say “April is the cruelest month” because it’s a thing you say, when it’s April. So much of poetry has become just a thing you say. “I contain multitudes,” we say when we act out of character. “Hope springs eternal,” we say when we are fools. “O captain, my captain,” we say when standing on our desks at the end of a schmaltzy movie. Poetry offers so many things to say. Why not say a thing?
Sometimes poetry as A Thing You Say wanders away from poetry as it’s meant. I used to get really worked up over “‘tis better to have loved and lost,” which is a thing you say when someone has a breakup; in the original context, Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” it’s about a loved one’s death, and how you wouldn’t wish away a minute of your time with them even if it meant relief from pain. Or there’s “the road less traveled,” which in common usage is the nonconformist’s approach, but in Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is the slightly grassier of two nearly-identical paths—an inconsequential choice burnished to bravery in hindsight.
But then, sometimes, the world shifts to make the meaning apparent again. April is cruel this year for a whole new never-seen reason, which also feels closer to a full understanding of the line than ever before.
The Thing We Say About April, which is often invoked about things like taxes and pollen and rain and not knowing where your summer leggings are, originated from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”:
> April is the cruellest month, breeding
> Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
> Memory and desire, stirring
> Dull roots with spring rain.
> Winter kept us warm, covering
> Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
> A little life with dried tubers.
The cruelty, in other words, lies in April snatching away that comforting blanket of winter forgetfulness, dullness, burrowing. It’s the cruelty of being reminded that you are alive. And on that front, this April is especially merciless.
I got my second vaccine shot on April 3, which means I am now staring down the barrel of genuine immunity (or near-immunity, anyway). I have not come anywhere close to processing this information, which feels like science fiction. I know, and will tell anyone who expresses even the slightest doubt, that the reason we were able to move so fast on the vaccines is that substantial scientific groundwork had already been laid; the crucial spike protein was already identified and considered as a vaccine prospect before the funding for SARS-2 research dried up. It’s not the speed of the vaccine that feels surreal to me but the fact of it, the very possibility of a problem having a solution.
When the pandemic began, over a year ago, I promptly folded myself up and prepared for a lockdown that might last the rest of my life. I’ve never been good at imagining the future, never understood people who picture themselves one day holding a particular job or living in a particular place or having a particular family. (In fact, I actively resist this; a mediocre short story I once wrote, whose narrator is convinced that she has the supernatural power to make things impossible by imagining them, is more fictionalized than fiction.) In that specific sense—and, I must stress, no others—I truly came into my own during the pandemic. I knew other people were suffering from their thwarted dreams, watching “when this is over” go from a sincere wish to a murky promise to a bitter joke. But I’d never fully believed in the long-term future anyway—just a conspiracy of chronologists—and I’d immediately digested the idea that the near future was going to be much smaller for much longer than most people had yet realized. I was ready, as ready as a person could be, for nothing to be about to happen. I was born for this.
Now, though, we can see normalcy on the horizon, stirring dull roots with spring rain. Against all my natural expectations, against all my instincts, against my entire understanding of the world, it appears to be possible for the endless, unmitigated slog I’d prepared for to be something less than endless after all. Friends are vaccinated, double vaccinated, more every day. I have started getting invited to things again. Family is asking me to travel. “When we can see each other again” is about to be now. Plans are back. Possibility is back. The future is back. I don’t want it. I’m not ready.
The joke about how awkward and anxious we’ll all be now, confused about how to talk to each other, crouching semi-feral in the corner at a party, is verging on stale at this point. We know: we’re rusty. (Lydia Kiesling wrote wonderfully about this in The Cut; the LA Times is calling it “cave syndrome.”) But more than not ready to talk to other people, I am not ready to be a person. I kept myself warm during the pandemic, covering myself in forgetful snow. When chilly forgetfulness is a mercy, memory and desire are cruel. When you’ve been a dead land long enough, lilacs are just something that splits your skin.
The last episode of Ted Lasso, a perfect piece of television that many of us watched during the long cocoon of time that was 2020, is called “The Hope That Kills You.” That’s a saying in English football, apparently: “it’s the hope that kills you,” which is to say, only hopelessness is safe. I probably should have been English. I don’t want to give too much away in case people haven’t seen Ted Lasso yet (yes AppleTV+ is wretched and not worth the money but it’s only ten episodes, you can watch it before your trial runs out, I implore you, it will make you feel good even if you think feeling good makes you feel bad). But I’ve been thinking about that phrase and that finale a lot, because ultimately what we learn is that it’s the hope that mortally wounds you, and also the hope that makes you get back up. Maybe the hope kills you, eventually, but not before giving you something to live for.
These are the kind of lessons you get from Ted Lasso, which are very different from the kinds of lessons you get from T.S. Eliot (English). But even Eliot moves from cruel spring to idyllic summer:
> Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
> With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
> And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
> And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
This—the vision of new cities, of conversation, of leisure, of warmth—is the sort of thing that makes me well up with hope. Which is almost the same as despair, but not quite.
“The Waste Land” then almost immediately transports us to an apocalyptic desert hellscape, which is also of course where the real world is going. But not yet. Between the cruelty of coming back to life and the cruelty of death, there is, perhaps, time for a drink.