Why write about the pandemic? None of us want to think about it more than we already do. Are you still opening doors with your elbow? Do you smell faintly of scented alcohol-tinged hand sanitizer? Have you bought kitschy masks that showcase your personality? (My best one says “Do You Wanna Die?” and has The Toadies band logo on it. I figure if people get the reference, great, they get a laugh— and if not, well, they hopefully find me vaguely intimidating.) OK. I acknowledged it. This is the worldwide panic attack. This is 2020. That’s not what I’m here to talk about, but you need the setting before the song hits you the way it should.
“I belly-up and disappear
I ain’t really drowning ‘cos I can see the beach from here”
Jason Isbell has been singing those lines since he was so young, it’s almost unbelievable; he wrote that song, “Goddamn Lonely Love,” while still with the Drive-by Truckers. And love, like everything else in the time of Corona, is a goddamn lonely enterprise. For people like me, who are lucky to be able to co-habitate with my family, it is less lonely— but as a college professor who teaches on Zoom, who has meetings that seem otherworldly with longing and need and then the screen turns off and there’s just a vacuum left in the wake— well, I feel lonely. And I know we all do.
The beauty of those lines, though, is that we know something the narrator doesn’t, though it’s a dark truth: he is only trying to convince himself he can see the beach. A drowning man tries to fight and reconcile and make a deal with death or God or the universe. The rationalization “I ain’t really drowning” is perfect and beautiful because it is what we all do, all the time, every day
“How are you?” a well-meaning friend asks.
“Fine!” you might reply, lying your ass off. But I don’t think you know you’re lying: I think we have made a collective agreement in the social contract that we are fine, everything is going to work out OK, dammit, and if we just pretend, we are happy, maybe it will happen for us.
That’s the beach, right? Can you see it? Sometimes if I squint— if I ignore politics and the virus and the anxiety, the fact that I haven’t been able to see my family and I’m scared— I can see it, too. And it’s beautiful, isn’t it? It’s how we know we aren’t drowning. We’re just swimming.
The companion line to this one is just as bleak:
“Belly-up and arch your back
Well, I ain’t really falling asleep, I’m just fading to black”
It’s 1:06 AM right now. I know because I’m writing and editing this on my cell phone, because I have to work until I pass out or I don’t sleep. Because I have to keep swimming, even if I’m just doggie-paddling in place.
How am I?
I’m not really drowning. I can see the beach from here.
No. You know what, no. I’m drowning.
It feels good to admit it. And though I don’t really drink or do drugs, when I hit the chorus— “I’ll take two of what you’re having, I’ll take all of what you got/ to cure this goddamn lonely, goddamn lonely love”— I empathize deeply. I’d do anything to fix this ache. To allow my kid to have a normal year at her high school instead of having her work from home. To be able to hug my students when they need it. To make a joke in class and tell whether or not it fell flat.
There’s no more laughter in classrooms, you know. “Mute” took away the energy I used to feed from: sometimes I will catch a student laughing and I will say, “Thank you, Justin,” or “Love the eye roll, Chris,” or even, “I can tell you have something to say, Emma.” Maybe that’s the beach.
Maybe that’s the rationalization. Maybe because this is the only option I have to teach safely; I see a different beach now.
Thanks for the companionship here, though, Mr. Isbell. It’s been pretty goddamn lonely: when my students turn off their cameras and I am left in my living room, alone, wrung out from performing my act of “not drowning” so that they have a safe place to drown— your Alabama accent helps smooth things over a little. Thanks for giving me the language of rationalization. I was already trying to do it: you helped me do it better. That’s what friends do: they make the loneliness feel less hollow. And “Goddamn Lonely Love” has been a friend for a long time.