I just read the most beautifully written apocalyptic novel: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The book follows an interconnected and intertwined group of strangers as they navigate a post-pandemic apocalypse.
(I know this sounds familiar.)
St. John Mandel is skilled with storytelling and scene setting and putting together seemingly conflicting things: a symphony/Shakespearean traveling theater troupe along aside an end of the world, everyone is dead/collapsed civilization apocalypse. The juxtaposition of these two things--the beauty of theater and music with the horror of death and uncertainty--presents a very realistic picture of the bitter sweetness of life. Everything is beautiful and awful, all at once. People are happy and living in deep uncertainty. Things are tumultuous but also mundane.
It is one of the most realistic books I've ever read. I don't think I'll stop thinking about it anytime soon.
Of course, we are all familiar with a pandemic.
I was reminiscing with my husband about the early days of it all. The days when I was glued to the TV news and listening to accounts of lockdowns in Italy and back-ups at funeral homes and bodies, so many bodies, that the morgues could not handle it. Remember the naval ship in port in Manhattan, that was never used, but its very presence gave us all a sense of impending doom? And then all those people who died--so many alone.
It was a dark time. And we are not fully away from it yet and we probably won't ever be but will instead just live with it all. But, we will still live.
In the midst of this horror, all these regular, beautiful things happened. My girls each "moved up" from elementary to middle and middle to high school. My son learned to ride his bike. All three decided to try summer swim team. My nephew graduated high school. I built my garden. Sometimes I forget the horror part; but just as often I also forget the beautiful part. I need to remember both, in concert with one another, to fully remember what 2020 was like.
In Station Eleven, the characters struggle with remembering the past--should they bother teaching children about how it was before, since it won't even be that way again? Is the past important? Is progress most important? Is it cruel to share what once was, knowing that it might not ever be that way again?
I don't think the characters ever reach a solution to these questions. I don't know the answer after living through our real-world pandemic, but Station Eleven gives us pause to think about it and to consider the parts of the stories that are important and why. Remembering fear is sometimes important--so you can be fully aware of how you carry trauma and why you carry it. Other times, remembering fear is just noise. Remember joys is important to build a grateful heart; but sometimes we cheat ourselves of the truth and an authentic experience by just remembering joys.
But, one thing the author does make clear, both directly and indirectly is the statement that is painted on the symphony's caravan: "Survival is not enough" (which is from Star Trek of all places).
And she's right. Survival isn't enough. We need more and I think that more is a bit of everything--the bad and the good, all wrapped up into a bittersweet symphony, that's life (which is from the Verve of all places).