Writing Life: La Pandémie by Kristen Paulson-Nguyen

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When the phone alarm rings at 7 a.m. on Monday, I listen to the short meditation featured on Ten Percent Happier. I try to focus on the moment and not on what I want to accomplish. Sometimes I burn some palo santo. Then I record, for insurance purposes, the number of hours I used my CPAP machine, weigh myself (if I lose 10% of my body weight, I can get rid of the cumbersome device). I fill out the survey of my 11-year-old daughter’s health on her school’s app. She has no symptoms of COVID. Some days I forget to fill it out, and the school calls, and I apologize and feel like a failure. My husband leaves for the job supporting us, and I’m grateful I can write because of the work that makes his feet ache.

Between 7:45 and 8 a.m., it’s time for the brief drive uphill to my daughter’s school to drop her off for the day that no longer has any after-school activities due to the pandemic. I’ll leave the house at 2:45 p.m. to pick her up.

Back at home, I try to settle our pandemic puppy so I can spend the morning writing. It took me years to decide to get my daughter a dog because I knew, as the primary caregiver and the one working at home, I’d do the bulk of the work. I check my Submittable queue to see if River Teeth has accepted either of my “Beautiful Things.” I wonder if BREVITY will accept the macabre words I offered, written about my 63-year-old cousin, who was found dead in her bed recently by her home aide. I check my email for a rejection from Modern Love and find nothing. I sent my essay on October 31. I decide that since the editor hasn’t yet rejected it, there’s still hope.

My friend, a fellow alumna of my writing program who published a critically acclaimed memoir last summer, calls on her way to work. We catch up on writing and how irritable I am about everything. She tells me my irritability is a cover for how vulnerable I feel, and I thank her. She’s right—again—I’m about to get a COVID test, and I’m sick of COVID, also sick of worrying about my husband getting COVID at the pharmacy where he works. My daughter could get it, even though we’ve paid extra for her to be tested weekly at school. My mom may die of it because she’s 78 and has two stents in her arteries. My 17-year-old niece just got COVID, and she lives right across the street.

At 9:30 a.m., I log on to Zoom to see the familiar heads of a few alumni of my writing program. We exchange hellos in the chat. I keep my video and audio off. Knowing they’re writing is sufficient to keep me moving.

I edit a long essay I think would be a good fit for Flyway—Journal of Writing & Environment. It needs more research and anecdotes. At 10:30 a.m. I let the puppy out to frolic in the yard. The play doesn’t last long because his paws get cold on the snow and ice.

Back upstairs, I take a bath and read The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. I think how I might use her research on sea ice in the essay I’ve written.

I open a chapter of my in-progress memoir and revise sentences, searching for specific words a teacher taught me to remove: “currently,” “would,” “could,” and unneeded dialogue tags, among other obstructions to clear prose.

I still don’t know if the book’s structure or order is right, but as I revise, I think Chapter 25 isn’t terrible, and I wonder if the manuscript is ready to query. Perhaps I only think it is because I’ve been pecking away at it since 2016, and I’m tired of it. The puppy, Hudson, ballasts me, a warm, comforting weight.

When I pick up my daughter at 2:45 p.m. after emailing her teacher to say I’m here (thanks to COVID, I have to stay in the car) a woman needs a ride, and it turns out to be one of the school’s French teachers, Nathalie. We chat in French (one of my college majors) on the short ride, and she tells me how her mother died in France, and she couldn’t bury her due to the pandemic. Nathalie teaches me the word: “la pandémie,” and I think how even catastrophic events sound exquisite in French.

A younger cousin I grew up with dies of COVID and lung cancer. It takes his life within three days. I drive to the cemetery for his memorial service.

My irritability returns. I can’t even grieve him properly. I can’t wear sunglasses in the bright January sun because they’ll fog with my mask; I can’t hear the priest because the cold wind snatches his words. I can’t believe my cousin is inside the wooden box my older brother crafted from foraged driftwood.

My mask soaks up tears as a few words reach me: “…let perpetual light shine upon him….” In the words of the Catholic prayer, I find the light that any spirit has. On the way home, my phone pings with texts from writer friends who need me, and I feel grateful I get to do what I love, so fortunate that for today, I can return to my writing life, my light.

Kristen Paulson-Nguyen

Kristen Paulson-Nguyen is the Writing Life Editor at Hippocampus Magazine. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Boston Globe, BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog, and Creative Nonfiction. Kristen has appeared on The Gita Brown Show and Writing Class Radio podcasts. Her in-progress memoir is To Have and to Hoard: How I Found Treasure in My Husband’s Trash. You can find her on Twitter @kpnwriter.

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