If you drive south out of Chicago through the industrial plumes of Gary, Indiana, then around the southern edge of Lake Michigan, then north beyond the towns of Harbor Country, then off the interstate onto a stretch called Blue Star Highway, then you’ll find dirt fire lanes that end in wide sweeps of dune and beach. Here, in a town called Covert, I’ve been weathering out the pandemic with my family for the past six weeks.
Covert. The New England settlers of this town, in 1855, knew the word to mean shelter and retreat. They likely took the name from the Book of Isaiah: There shall be a tabernacle for a shadow in the day time from the heat, and for a place of refuge, and for a covert from storm and from rain.
But we are hardly at the mercy of an Old Testament God. We are wholly at the mercy of ourselves.
My husband and I have three boys, ages twelve, ten, and seven. We drove up for what we thought might be a long weekend, and then stayed to “shelter in place” after Chicago’s mayor closed the city’s parks and lakefront. I packed an old edition of Henry James’s long, late novel The Ambassadors, as if knowing something—or nothing—was going to happen. We arrived wearing parkas. Last week, when I finished the novel, my boys wore shorts when I marshaled them outside. Respite from the storm.
We are “doing fine” up here, I say to friends, which hides the intricate dramas of private life even as it is mostly true. A more exacting response would chart the wild calibrations of my mind as I toggle between newsfeeds, conversations with colleagues, an excess of e-mails, late-night reading, and a desire to put something into words, while fully knowing that I will fail to track the gross transformations of what this is. This is not “working from home,” this is an apocalypse of the interior life. That life, my life, is scarcely threatened by the exceptional risks taken every day by cashiers, delivery people, and health-care workers. I am a separate story, or rather, I am no story at all. The forms that shape my days, my thinking, have all but disappeared. Gone are hours at the library in Chicago where I work; the meals with others; unprompted conversations; my time with women.
What I have been “doing fine” is being a mother. More than my husband—dare I say, much more—I am absorbed by the kind of labor that is still wholly invisible to economists. I am the maker of time and how it is partitioned: “remote learning” for my older boys; mostly reading with the youngest; the meals; the walks; the calls to friends and family. I am also intimate with the vacuum.
Lambert Strether, the middle-aged protagonist of The Ambassadors, wonders if life has not, in fact, passed him by. From the New England town of Woollett, Massachusetts, he arrives in Europe to fetch Chad Newsome, the wayward son of a Woollett woman, a widow, to whom Strether is engaged. But Strether dawdles. He discovers the subtle refinements of Paris, embodied in Madame de Vionnet, Chad’s mistress. The only noticeable child in The Ambassadors is Madame de Vionnet’s daughter, nearly grown, who appears at a garden party in white dress and “softly plumed white hat,” delivered to Strether like a plucked blossom. As for Chad, exquisite and worldly, he assumes nothing of the customs of his past life. It would have been hard for a young man’s face and air to disconnect themselves more completely than Chad’s at this juncture from any discerned, from any imaginable aspect of a New England female parent. Chad looks as if he has no mother, or certainly no prim mother from New England.
Is freedom but a radical disconnect from the duty of one’s family? The risk of experience beyond manners or convention? Or is it a kind of reinvention, a reseeing of other people, an openness to how relationships change? James’s novel, stunningly, does not know.
When Strether initially arrives in Europe, he meets a charming, discreet woman named Maria Gostrey, who identifies his American “failure.” The two take a walk through an ancient walled city, during which Strether fitfully checks his watch. “The failure to enjoy,” Miss Gostrey tells Strether, “is what I mean.”
Many of our days in Covert, with devotion, with enjoyment, I have found beauty in the cycle of family life, especially in the time we spend outdoors. We walk through thick woods grown out of the ruin of ancient forest. Logging created Covert, a scrappy frontier town now credited for its curious history of racial integration. Covert was never a postbellum Freetown nor a utopian community: its integrated schools, churches, and political systems—as early as the 1860s—seem to have been a result of scarce necessity. I wonder about this history, about what humans are capable of becoming, when they abandon how they’ve been told to live.
Keep a schedule, everyone says, especially with young children. But some of the brightest hours are unplanned. A few days ago, my 12-year-old whipped ahead of me as we were running, and I felt elated, in the middle of the day, in a brief burst of sun. I caught up at the top of the hill, where we collapsed into the dune grass. Our time felt stolen, clandestine.
But what sets me aflame is the uncertainty of this time and its lack of acknowledged value. “Essential” I am not. The plot of each day is open and diffuse, developing towards nothing. It will not surprise me if I remember little distinct about this time other than the way that it feels: the low-fi hum of restlessness and unease, and the cloak of guilt that shrouds me. Who am I—with my family, my health—to complain? I know that my situation, relative to many, is a small song of inconvenience. Yet how much time, how much? The truth is—here it goes—that my children do not need this much of me. They require other people, other encouragements, other ways of thinking and explaining. A mother can give and give, but it will never be enough. This is the sharpest, most familiar pang of quarantine.
I exit into James’s difficult prose. Reading at night, the novel demands a kind of perverse focus, a consideration of language that would be impossible through the hum and call of daylight hours. I seem to have sought the hardest thing—pure attention, all of it. But The Ambassadors is also nothing. It leads me nowhere, untethered entirely from my own professional projects. I am not teaching James, or talking about James, or writing about James. Yet here I am, the lake outside black and loud, putting this all into words.
“Never in the morning very late,” Lambert Strether lingers over coffee and a roll in his hotel’s salle à manger, a place for him of “rich rumination.” He rethinks his conversations; he wonders if he has understood everyone clearly. Strether will advise Chad to stay a little longer in Europe, to let his relationships run their course; to delay his return to Woollett and the clutches of the family business, the profits of American capitalism.
I have been waking up very early, too, hoping to work before my boys thump out of their beds. I hesitate before sending detailed e-mails to colleagues: a fall seminar, a spring conference, an exhibition in 2021. What are the ethical strategies for planning past this pandemic? Who can even imagine this far out? The hours of the day dissolve quickly and the present moment, revolving, seems our only center. A close friend, on the phone, tells me to slow the fuck down. A few days later, the New York Times basically says the same thing, in a column called “Wellness” or “The Upshot” or “Smarter Living.” Or maybe it was the Chicago Tribune, which still publishes—the charm of it—horoscopes and comics. The article has disappeared, and I keep spinning.
At the end of a Zoom call with colleagues, as whitecaps pound the beach, curl and howl, I muse hopefully: perhaps this period of isolation will teach us how we can collectively mobilize for impending doom. Might we demand that our government enforce dramatic changes in our habits of consumption? Perhaps we can now be forced, really forced, to save our planet. What if?
My colleagues are dubious. How are your boys?
One afternoon, when my boys seem briefly interested in what I’ve been doing, I tell them about The Ambassadors. I try to describe James’s late style: the dependent clauses, the circumlocutions, the intimations in dialogue that pivot on the words “all” and “nothing.” Lambert Strether roams Paris and awakens to the sensual life, through which he produces “nothing.” I tell my boys that the novel is about finding freedom. Many people, it comes to my attention, are trying to find it. Just look on Twitter: #HankJim2020.
Is there a plot? asks my middle son.
Who’s the bad guy? asks the youngest, jumping up and down on the sofa.
No crisis can eliminate their animal joy. They have located sticks in the woods and watched YouTube videos about how to fight with swords. They have dug many muddy holes. My middle son, claiming the lake to be warm, shucked off his clothes and ran into the waves, whooping. Yet inevitably, for some part of the day, boredom hits. Yesterday afternoon my youngest looked a little lost—or rather, I’d lost him, letting him meander from room to room, checking our screens. He drew, he snacked, he whined for my attention. Finally, he stood up on a chair, spreading his arms like wings, like the characters in yesterday’s book who mimic Leonardo da Vinci’s big mechanical bird. My son took a deep breath and leapt out of his chair, falling to the ground, rolling on the floor with wild laughter.
Was Lambert Strether ever a child? Does he remember?
A friend of mine from New York, at the center of the crisis, quarantined by himself in his apartment, sends me an essay by James Baldwin. The Ambassadors was a lodestone for Baldwin, who sees Strether as defined by his middle age, his country, and his whiteness—a Puritan, who learns to relinquish the values of a utilitarian way of life. Strether experiences some of the “sorrow and joy” that is the human condition, that—for Baldwin, in 1966—belonged most visibly to Black Americans who felt the pain and possibility of the civil rights movement, when the achievements toward equality were less palpable than the beautiful struggle itself. Strether has come to “trust life,” to experience it fully without proof of its value. This is the realm of art, of the sensual, of human meaning that cannot be bought or sold.
It is April 20, 2020, and no governor has yet to “open the economy.” Light strikes the water in a patchwork of green and grey, modulating the afternoon hour. Off and on, I watch the arc of the sun before it disappears behind the flatline in the direction of Chicago. I look for a conclusion, then, behind that blaze, a revelation of meaning. It is hard not to demand something from all that beauty. There it goes again, the sun! says my youngest. Yes, there it goes. v