Dispatches from Quarantine

Notes from an Unknown Island

by Elizabeth Durham

In the early days of the pandemic, I was inundated with messages about writing. Some of them were directly addressed to me, like invitations from various sectors of the University to join writing groups, or emails from academic journals calling for real-time analysis of the events unfolding so rapidly around us, all of us, around the world. Other messages were indirect, floating in our cultural midst, like a vague sense I should be keeping a diary of this moment or emailing far-flung family and friends, just to check in, or making more headway on my dissertation and publications and while I was at it, maybe the next Great American Novel too. What else was a graduate student to do when work and home became one? (For all its annoyances, I am grateful for this merger and acutely mindful that many cannot isolate themselves as I and many others at the University have done.)

I gave up on the next Great American Novel pretty quickly—to be frank, I did not even start it—but I kept on writing. At 9:00 a.m. most days, I would sit down with a cup of coffee and think, feeling very wise, that writing was a way to hold onto the world amidst all this chaos. Come 5:00 p.m. most days, I would sit down with a glass of wine and think, feeling even wiser, that writing was a way to forget the world amidst all this chaos. Both perspectives were and are true: writing lends itself to connection just as much as escapism, depending on what the writer asks her words to do. Thankfully, I recovered a sense of humor as lockdown went on and I realized that my views on writing were not terribly profound or unique. I had just confused dehydration for wisdom.

Around this time, I started to have a vivid, recurring dream. Nothing terribly profound or unique about that either, given the brain’s incredible capacity for working through anxieties while we sleep. What struck me about this dream was that unlike others I had had during times of uncertainty, it did not ping-pong, bizarrely, haphazardly, from one thing to another, but always returned me to the same place. This was an island I did not otherwise recognize or remember, that to the best of my knowledge does not exist in reality, but that somehow I knew, intimately, every time I had the dream. I knew the path down the black jagged cliffs, knew that the surrounding water was too cold to even dream (as it were) of swimming in, knew that on this island I was completely, gloriously alone, save for some seagulls. Each time I had this dream, I wrote down as much of it as I could remember, trying to figure out what message my subconscious was trying to communicate, if any. “You’re overthinking it,” teased one friend. “There’s a literal plague! Of course an island in the middle of nowhere is appealing.”

I rarely have this dream anymore, for reasons that are somewhat lost on me, since the pandemic is by no means over for much of the world. Looking over the descriptions I jotted down, I have the sense that, again for somewhat obscure reasons, this dream will be one of the defining memories of this period of my life. I am glad I wrote about it so often and in such detail, especially since I came across Tamsin Calidas’ recent book I am an Island. In some ways, it is the perfect escapist fantasy for our times: the true-ish adventures of Calidas and her husband as they flee the stress and din of London for the tranquility of an unnamed island in the Scottish Hebrides. But in other ways, it is the perfect realist punch: even in paradise, it seems, people can still be selfish and cruel, and life can still be overwhelming. After their money dries up and her husband twice abandons her — first for another woman on the island, then for London — Calidas grapples, in a manner sharply reflected in her writing, with the age-old question of whether happiness lies more in embracing or rejecting one’s new world. By book’s end, she settles on embracing the natural island but largely rejecting its human inhabitants, a conclusion that is at once understandable and uncomfortable. (Specifically, the anthropologist in me flinches both at her reception by the islanders and her underexamined views and treatment of them.)

Pandemic-driven lockdowns, at least in the early days, made islands of us all. Depending on where and who you are, they still might. Writing allows us to lean into or against this solitude as we please and to change our minds as to what we find congenial, or necessary, every time we start a new page. If you have managed to write the next Great American Novel (or start the next Great American Revolution) in a pandemic, my hat is off to you. If you have woken up in the middle of the night, as if from a dream or maybe a nightmare, and realized that what you have written is in fact rubbish, well, my hat remains off, because as practice and product, writing knots up difficulty and ease, connection and diversion. If you feel like being an island right now, write like one. If not, write like John Donne. Either way, there are other people, sitting at other desks in other dwellings, who will, if you like, read what you write. And that’s a comfort if the company of seagulls is not, at the end of the day, enough.