I considered titling this post 2020: The Fuckening. Trump, his people, his party, and the Covid pandemic fucked with us all—some very much more than others. While I certainly did not have an easy year—with my health, for one thing—I also know that Kelley and I were and are luckier than most. Many others had, and, until we have some kind of working herd immunity, and even lost past that, will continue to have a much worse time. Even so, for me? Not an easy year.
In the first half of 2020 the only thing I was thinking about, apart from writing, was SARS-CoV-2. Each post I drafted was progressively more depressing, though, so I eventually stopped posting them. I kept researching, and making notes, and drafting posts no one would ever see—as a kind of journal—until one day in spring I had an iPad/iCloud catastrophe and lost all the notes. It was a weird relief. I realised I had zero desire to recreate them, or to continue collating data. So I stopped. But there was nothing to take its place: I wasn’t going out in the world doing things or meeting people; the news was mostly unbearable; I couldn’t take part in the Black Lives Matter protests; and it was hard to focus on reading. I spent much of my time in various doctors’ offices, trying not to despair about politics, and writing. When I’m in the middle of a writing project I don’t generally like to talk about it much, so I didn’t have much to say. So: I wrote fewer than 40 posts in 2020—which is about 10% of my output ten years ago.
As I say, Kelley and I are luckier than many. We live in a lovely neighbourhood stuffed with natural beauty, peace and quiet. Best of all, our neighbours are kind, generous, and thoughtful, and this cul-de-sac forms a tight community. Our house, too, is pretty much tailored to the kind of social isolation we’ve been experiencing. We have a three-bedroomed house, two of which we converted years ago to comfortable, efficient individual offices with excellent connectivity. We’e used to living in each other’s pockets 24/7 and to working remotely, and we delight in each other’s company. Plus we have two very private, flower-adorned decks; we could almost always find some bright, sunny, birdsong-laced outdoor retreat to enjoy in summer—when, y’know, there was sunshine and the smoke wasn’t choking us to death. On top of that, Kelley has a day job that pays well, she enjoys, is good at, and is designed for remote working.
These factors, plus the fact that neither of us had to travel—this is the first year in our lives together that neither of us has boarded a plane—combined to turn what for many was a worrisome and precarious year into a year of unusual emotional, physical, and economic stability for us.
The new decade began promisingly with Kitten Report #12. In which Charlie and George tear into the new year (operative word being ‘tear’) with enthusiasm, growing like magic beans. They were mesmerised by their first snowfall, and I was mesmerised by their mesmerisation. George, in particular was becoming enormous.
I was working well on Menewood and watching with increasing concern the epidemiology reports from China, as well as cooking up A Hild Companion, a collaborative, accessible guide to Hild and the novel’s Early Medieval context. the book—and accompanying website—are designed to appeal to scholars who might teach the book to undergraduates, scholars who may want guidance into certain areas of the field, and lay readers who wish to pursue the history/historical context of Hild in greater depth.
It was around this time that i could no longer resist posting about 2019-nCoV: the new coronavirus. I very deliberately downplayed the situation as I saw it, because I knew that saying what I really thought would either frighten people off thinking about it at all, or make them scornful and dismissive—and so also likely to stop listening. So I aimed for a Hey, this is interesting—want to play along with me? tone. But I don’t mind admitting I was extremely concerned—I looked at the fatality rates and R-0, did the math and thought, Oh, fuck. I had already ordered masks, sanitiser wipes, an assortment of household necessities and was trying to persuade Kelley of the utility of buying a new chest freezer and stocking it.
In February I did two Covid updates. In the first, 2019-NCoV: an update, again to avoid reader distress, I split the post into a Just the Facts, Folks section filled with unemotional facts and figures, and a Speculative section with all the scary extrapolation. At this point no one seemed to be talking about the economy, and I thought I might at least mention the possible horrors ahead.
Science was moving amazingly fast and a couple of weeks later the virus had a formal name, SARS-CoV-2, as did the illness it caused. I wrote another Covid-19 update, this time railing against all the weasley WHO and CDC clap-trap about trying to prevent a pandemic when, in my opinion, SARS-CoV-2 was already out of the box, and Covid-19 already, clearly, a global pandemic. I repeated, for the third time, the need for people to stay the fuck at home, wear a fucking mask, and wash their fucking hands. How many of you were doing this? Not nearly enough. At this point, Kelley and I went into isolation—with one brief exception, a lunch with a friend who also took precautions super seriously.
In isolation, the world continued to turn, and I did an interview with Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature, in which, among many other things I talk about what fiction can do that memoir cannot.
In March I did three coronavirus updates. The first, Covid-19: Now what? was written in yet another attempt for people to take this thing seriously and take at least basic precautions, which I listed. Again. At this point there were 6 US residents dead, and I knew that would soon become a flood. Yet organisations were still planning big galas and other events as though nothing was happening; it was driving me up the wall. A few days later, when Washington State finally started issuing restrictions, I wrote COVID-19: Numbers game in which I talked about case fatality rates and why they weren’t useful numbers, and how almost all the other numbers people were floating were really, really wrong: gross underestimates of the problem.
By this time the West Coast and parts of the East Coast were beginning to understand that this was not going to be over in a month, and many online reading series and bookclubs began to spring up. For a while I was super busy with raising-money-for-good-causes events. This was a time when what felt like half the reading world rediscovered Ammonite because, well, it’s all about a virus that causes a global pandemic. Coincidentally Ammonite was just being released as an audiobook for the very first time.
I wrote a list of Good books for hard times, for all those asking for reading recommendations. Then a little while after that I posted for the last time on COVID-19: Zones of Control. The title is pretty self-explanatory: control what you can, including your behaviour towards others; kindness is what will save us. Then I took my own advice and stopped trying to change the world’s response to Covid, and stopped talking about it.
Instead, I was doing interviews and readings, and the only mention I made of Covid was explaining Charlie and George’s response in Kitten Report #13: Social Distancing.
May marked Charlie and George’s first birthday and Kitten Report #14: One year in the world. For their birthday present, we let them out in a brief, supervised visit to the back garden; it did not go well. Charlie ended up on the roof and, copying a passing bird, tried to fly. He was fine, but I’m not sure my heart is still trying to recover.
May also marked the second anniversary of publishing So Lucky, and I had many thoughts about disability, ableism, and publishing: So Lucky is 2: Some thoughts. By this time isolation was seriously beginning to bite and I, like so many in lockdown, was having to figure out how to deal with the new reality—for which hair became my stand-in for the universe: regain control of my hair and regain control of my life! Yeah: no. I detail all my mishaps in Adventure in homemade hair, along with photographs. Meanwhile the interviews and readings were increasing. For me, the problem withe video readings is they’re a lot of work for very little reward: none of that wonderful performer-audience connection. So while I did a few, such as the Clarion West/Fight For Our Lives reading, I resolved to not do any more this year.
Mentally and emotionally, isolation is hard. Zoom helps, but Zoom cocktails, and Zoom coffees are not a patch on in-person meetups. They are very much better than nothing, but I can’t wait to get back to being in the presence of that cellular hum of other living beings. I talked a bit about coping in Self-care in the time of coronavirus and how I was beginning to ignore emails and messages in favour of just sitting outside among the flowers with a book, a cup of tea, and a cat. One minor flaw in that plan was that I hadn’t yet been able to sort the garden properly yet: coronavirus-caused supply chain issues meant that nurseries and big-box stores either had no decent plants or only bizarre choices. the deck flowers got off to a slow start this year, which meant that every time I went outside to relax I ground my teeth in irritation at all the work still to be done. At least I could always look through the window at the front garden which was in pretty good shape.
The end of June marked the 32nd anniversary of me and Kelley meeting at Clarion and falling in love. I talked about it a little in 32 Years: A Life.
By July the kittens owned the entire house, gardens, and surrounding domain. In Kitten Report #15: Einstein Houdini Ferociraptors I detailed my escalating war to keep them locked in at night, their increasingly inventive escapes, and their final, deliberate, diabolical (temporarily) successful attempt to lock us out of the house.
Finally, in August, the deck flowers starting settling in—and I posted many photos and videos of Flowers, cats, birds and bees.
This is also when Slow River is 25, and I take a look at just deep an influence that novel has been on my life and career.
September was a hard month. For the first time in nearly 25 years—since before there were blogs when I set up a crude Ask Nicola page on my website—I posted nothing for over a month. Here in Seattle hunker down had become total lockdown: wildfires from Eastern Washington to British Columbia to Oregon to California were raging, and due to a cruel twist of climatological fate, all the smoke poured towards Puget Sound. The air quality index went from Good to Moderate to Unhealthy to Very Unhealthy and, finally, to Hazardous. Me, Kelley, and the cats couldn’t leave the house. Even running our HVAC with super HEPA filters—even wearing a mask between the front door and the van when I had to go to medical appointments—my health deteriorated. Oh, my lungs were fine, but my inflammation levels went through the roof and I ended up with what neurologists call a pseudo-relapse of my MS. Long story short, I was in awful pain for a long time, and had to drug myself into insensibility.
Many good things happened in September, too, of course—Kelley and I celebrated our 7th and 27th wedding anniversary; we both turned 60—but I wasn’t inclined to talk about them as they were occurring. Here’s a photo of Kelley at 60, looking more herself, and therefore more beautiful, with every passing year.
The photo of me was taken just a couple of months before I turned 60, a still taken from a reading video (and pretty low-res).
And, just because, here’s a photo of the wine we drank on Kelley’s 60th birthday. We’d been saving it twenty years, waiting for a special occasion—and this qualified. Also? So worth it!
I wasn’t much inclined to talk much in October, either, only doing one post about Vonda McIntyre’s The Exile Waiting. This silence was partly a function of illness/pain/pain meds but mostly due to being wholly focused: working like a demon on Menewood. (An unexpected bonus of laser focus: no time/energy/inclination to pay attention to election madness.)
In November, I began to feel a bit better. On the night before the US election I finally finished a draft of Menewood. After the election winners were sorted beyond reasonable doubt, I was finally able to delight in and shout about MENEWOOD!!
It’s a hugeous book: 40% bigger than Hild. But I’m proud of it, I think its really fucking good, and as I rewrite it will only get better.
Also in November, the day of the election, I explained how to make our custom Election Day Cocktail: The Brandy Bramble. Even if I do say so myself, it’s excellently tasty.
And finally in November I posted Kitten Report #16: 18 months old. In which Charlie and George observe a moment of silence for RBG, then pose (in the words of a Facebook commentator) as an 80s synth band who have lost their hairspray.
By the beginning of this month, for the first time in four years, I am beginning to feel the first faint stirrings of hope—Biden/Harris, Menewood, finding myself pain free—and I finally start posting more again. I start with a partial explanation of my near-silence for the last couple of months, with a post about nerve pain and how pain meds give me Manatee Mind.
Then it’s December 11, and in Love and Isolation: 31 years ago I talk about how weirdly similar today’s physical isolation is to how it was for me when I first came to this country to live with Kelley more than three decades ago. Then—finally!—after holding my tongue for months, I got to talk about Spear—my short fantasy novel. Writing this book was pure joy from start to finish, and I can’t wait for you to read it, which you’ll be able to do in April 2022. The whole blog post is an exploration of my astonishing (to me) burst of productivity this year, in which I wrote more than 200,000 finished words. I know there are other writers in the world for whom 200k is just something they do before Tuesday, but for me it’s a mind-blowing, game-changing explosion.
I attribute this productivity to three things. One, we got a brand new superautomatic espresso machine—and, holy shit, a triple-shot Americano? A thing of beauty and rocketfuel.
Two, not travelling, not going out for dinner—or to the pub, the boxing gym, or bookshop—freed up all kinds of time and energy. It turns out avoiding all communication except the occasional Zoom cocktail, really cleared my calendar. I felt really free. And then three, the sheer joy of writing something just for me, just plunging into the unknown without a map, broke all constraints. It’s been a while since I did that at any length. It’s usually my short fiction MO, for, say, “Glimmer,” or “Cold Wind.”
“Cold Wind” is an old story, but it occurred to me that it would be perfect for a dark winter’s Solstice story, so I made a wee PDF, illustrated in a combination of magnificent art by Rovena Cai (below) and photos I digitally altered to look snowy and/or menacing. Then I put it on my website for free download. I’ll leave up for another month or so.
After that I posted my final interview of the year., Since then a post or two of end-of-year stuff, like this one.
In a couple of days I’ll do the last post of the year: a look forward to 2021. Meanwhile I’ll figure out what were the top fifteen posts this year and make changes to the list in the sidebar. At this point I have’t even looked at blog stats and, like blowing up the Christmas tree, that might be an annual ritual I forgo this year. Life is short; I’d rather be writing, sitting with a cat on my lap by the fire, or talking to my sweetie.
One thought on “2020: An unusual year”
Right with you on many things…you caught some beautiful moments on camera with your household amidst this agonizing year. Thank you for the overview…and for sharing.
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