Train travel, A Writer's Burden and Mothers in the time of Corona - Dinner Table Digest № 12

The Dinner Table Digest is an intermittent collection of interesting material from around the internet, curated by Peter Thurley at Dinner Table Don'ts. Subscribe today!

Hi friends!

It’s been a few months since I have written anything, not the least because my mental health has been poor. There are a variety of reasons for that, which I plan to write about soon, and post for subscribers only, health permitting. If you haven’t already subscribed, please do that today. In the meantime, I’ve decided to write another Dinner Table Digest, and share a few links that I think are worth paying attention to.

Labyrinths - Laura Miller, The New Yorker

A few weeks ago, I decided to take The New Yorker up on its 12 issues for $6 offer which is advertised constantly to me on Facebook. I’d done it once before and remembered it to be a firehose of information, but there is just something about reading a paper magazine that cannot be replicated online. In the September 12th edition, there was a very moving story about fantasy author Susanna Clarke, who is just now finishing her sequel to 2004’s book, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. The reason her new book, Piranesi, has taken so long to write is because, after writing a hit novel and doing the usual writer’s tour, she became sick with an unexplained but very debilitating illness. This illness sidelined her writing career, resulting in days and nights of deep depression becoming weeks and months, and eventually years.

For the past fifteen years, she has suffered from an elusive, debilitating illness—seemingly, a vengeful return of the malady that had briefly afflicted her in Bilbao. She has been given various diagnoses, including Lyme disease, Epstein-Barr virus, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Her most constant symptom has been overwhelming exhaustion, joined at times by migraines, brain fog, and photosensitivity, as well as by nausea, for which she now takes medication daily. At times, she said, bright sunshine has felt “like an oppression, a weight leaning on me”; she often retreats to a darkened room. In the late two-thousands, when her illness was at its worst, she was unable to get out of bed, experiencing depression, social anxiety, and agoraphobia.

By now the parallels to my own situation should be obvious. As I noted above, my depression has been particularly bad lately, along with increased body pain in my abdomen, frequent nightmares, and insomnia that results from rarely getting to REM sleep. And I have been particularly hard on myself, frustrated at my inability to help around the house, let alone sit down at the computer and write. Throughout the New Yorker piece, Clarke talks about how, with the help of her partner, she was able to get through some of the deepest and darkest moments of her life and start writing again. The piece caught my attention precisely because it gave me hope that somewhere over the rainbow, another world is possible. While I may feel down and out right now, that doesn’t mean I’ll always be this way.

During the pandemic, travel has been limited in so many ways. I know many people who had planned trips to Europe throughout 2020 that have obviously not happened. That doesn’t mean that you can’t dynamically enjoy one of the most beautiful parts of northern Europe from the comfort of your living room. Some of you may have already seen this, but I think this live feed of the train trip between Oslo and Bergen, Norway is just mesmerizing.

Mothers Are the ‘Shock Absorbers’ of Our Society - Jessica Grose, New York Times

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on all of us, but few people have taken as much of a hit as mothers have. Dharushana Muthulingam, a research scientist and infectious disease physician, was forced to give up her job as a public health researcher and go down to a part-time physician role in order to keep up with the heavy demands made by life in a pandemic. Explaining that her partner had already put in his time as the primary domestic, she says,

“My decision keeps me up at night,” she said. She knows that she can come back to this important work later, but right now her well-being and humanity are stretched too thin. “I have a lot of optimal circumstances,” she said, “A successful career trajectory, an A-plus feminist husband who tries to step up and do 50-percent plus, and I have a workplace that’s supportive. But at the end of the day that’s not enough.”

Of course, Muthulingam is privileged, in that she is highly educated and her employers are much more amenable to the shifting roles of parenting during COVID. For many others, including single mothers, they simply do not have the choice to stay home with the kids.

[Jamie] Brody has a 3-year-old daughter, and she lost her job as an account executive for an insurance company in May, which she described as “quite traumatic.” When she was unemployed and without consistent child care, she would spend all day teaching and playing with her kid. Then after she put her daughter to bed, Brody estimated that she spent three to five hours each night scouring job sites looking for work.


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