Monday 21 December 2020

How We Live Now: Scenes from the Pandemic | Bill Hayes


I had no idea that Bill Hayes was working on another scenes of New York book that would focus on the March-April Covid-19 lockdown of 2020. If I'd known, I may have experienced fewer angsty days of my own, knowing that Bill was going to somehow make it all right!
It’s a little like losing your life while still being alive, this experience.
How We Live Now is presented in a very similar way to Insomniac City from three years ago. A lovely hardback edition, with black and white photographs scattered throughout. Photographs, or more precisely portraits, that Bill takes of strangers as he is out walking around New York (with their permission). You can see some of them here. The photographs are usually accompanied by a vignette - whether it's what was happening on that particular day or a little personal story about his meeting and conversation with the stranger in question.
Behind me a small line had formed....A family was looking for books for their kids to read. I felt like I was in a metaphorical breadline - a breadline for feeding the brain and the soul.
Insomniac City was a love letter to New York and to his recently deceased partner, Oliver Sacks. How We Live Now continues this theme. Losing Oliver is obviously still a painful memory for Bill, but three years later, his stories are fond reminiscences rather than emotional outpourings. While his love for New York continues unabated, despite the changes that lockdown brought.
When you look out & see the empty streets & sidewalks & shuttered shops, a friend tells me, see it as solidarity - everyone doing their best to keep themselves & everyone else healthy....Even so, I can’t deny how sad & disorientating the absence of life in these once busy streets seems.
It's only a small volume. A slim slice of life as we are living it now, by someone who has a tender eye for detail, for the unusual and the routine. Hayes is a thoughtful man who reflects on how is feeling throughout this time as well as documenting the impact on some of those around him.
In the enforced solitude and silence, you can sometimes hear yourself replaying moments in your life, things said or not said, done or not done, love expressed or not expressed, all the gratitude you’ve ever received, all the gratitude you’ve ever felt.
He captured some of the feelings and moods that I also experienced during our Sydney lockdown. The moments of anxiety as well as the odd moments of peace - being able to listen to an individual bird sing, watching a skateboarder roll down an empty street from his apartment window...
Because I’ve worked at home for years now, the mandate to stay home and work from home is, I imagine, a little easier for someone like me. I’m also a loner and an introvert (except when it comes to strangers), which helps too.
Even so, there are times when I feel spooked - not scared but spooked.
However, what I found most endearing or comforting as I read How We Live Now, was the sense of solidarity that we are all in this together, and the reminder to live our lives now. Our collective here and now may not be the one we planned for or expected, but this is what we have right now. 
Because what IS is what matters most. What was will only make you blue in New York.

This is our life. We are living it. And that's all we have ever been able to do - to live in the world we are in.

Wishing that things were 'normal' or talking about when things go back to 'normal', will only lead us to despair. This is our normal now. We're living it. Whatever happens afterwards, will be different to what went before. This experience will change us all, in big ways and in small. We don't know what or how yet, but change is one of the few things guaranteed in life. Covid-19 has simply been a real in-your-face reminder that this is so. If we fight against it, we can become bitter and disappointed. However, if we accept it, and let go of our desire to control everything (one of the hardest lessons I've certainly had to learn as an adult) we can learn to roll with the punches and find some grace in just being, here, now.

And like Hayes, I am curious to see what's on the other side. 

I am climbing the walls here. But I also know I am among the most fortunate: I have a roof over my head, food in my fridge, and my health to be thankful for. So, if this is how we have to live - with masks and gloves and almost no human contact for several more months - then so be it, this is how we have to live. I just want to see what's on the other side of this f***ing mountain.

My Previous Plague/Pandemic Reads:

My Current Plague Reads:
  • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century | Barbara Tuchman (non-fiction The Black Death)
  • How We Live Now | Bill Hayes

Up Next:
  • Pale Horse, Pale Rider | Katherine Anne Porter (Spanish Flu)
  • The Decameron Project: 29 Stories from the Pandemic | The New York Times (Covid-19)


  1. Just requested this one. I read and enjoyed Humans of New York and (the more recent) Humans, which sounds like it has a similar format and emphasis.

    1. I haven't tried the Human books, Deb. I think they have more photography than Bill's book. But I enjoyed this and Insomniac City for the vignettes and you can also visit Bill's website to see the photos better.

  2. I'll be reading A Distant Mirror in 2021. What do you think of it so far?

    1. I've only read the first chapter so far...I'm trying to finish several other non-fiction titles that have been by my bed for longer first.

  3. What an interesting book. I have read three of your plague/pandemic books so far (The Plague, Oryx and Crake, and A Journal of the Plague.

    I think reading about it makes us understand better how essential isolation is.

    Thanks for your review.

  4. That's a lot of pandemic books you've read. I read 2 this year: The Pull of the Stars and The End of October which felt like plenty with my headspace during this. Also Station Eleven years ago and Oryx and Crake. It gives perspectives reading these ...

  5. I just added Insomniac city to my TBR, I'm not too eager to read about covid now, but it will probably change in a few months :)


This blog has now moved to Wordpress.
Please visit This Reading Life to comment.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.