Friendship always matters, and during the worst of the 2020 pandemic it began to matter more than ever to millions locked down at home and wondering what lay ahead. Jack Miles and Mark Taylor, whose friendship began at Harvard University in 1968 and continues to this day, had been in the habit for years of exchanging almost daily email messages, often with extensive attachments. Both were widely published writers, but they had never collaborated for publication. When the pandemic erupted, Mark proposed to Jack that now might be the moment for them to attempt something together. Jack countered with the suggestion that they simply expand their existing epistolary habit, exchanging more serious letters at one a day and determining only after the fact what the longer exchange might amount to.
Mark agreed, and between March 15, 2020, and January 6, 2021, they produced an electronic text fully 475,000 words (1,700 pages) in length—the equivalent of several published volumes. A Friendship in Twilight: Lockdown Conversations on Death and Life (Columbia University Press) is a substantial selection from what they wrote, offered as an invitation to enter their friendship as you might enter a private home and listen to the conversation around the dinner table.
The following July 5–6 exchange occurred just after Mark’s daughter, Kirsten, and son-in-law, Jonathan, joined Mark and his wife, Dinny, in the family home outside Williamstown, Massachusetts, bringing along grandson Jackson (6) and granddaughter Taylor (4). Later, Kirsten’s older brother, Aaron, and Aaron’s wife, Frida (born in Sweden), joined them with older granddaughters, Selma and Elsa. This was to be for the middle generation a break from working at home while also schooling at home. It became rather more than that. Jack’s July 6 reply opens with reference to an earlier letter of Mark’s before replying to Mark’s July 5 letter. Kathleen and Brian, mentioned in the letter, are Jack’s daughter and son-in-law. Kitty is his wife.
July 5, 2020
Three weeks ago today Kirsten, Jonathan, Jackson, and Taylor arrived; one week ago today Aaron, Frida, Selma, and Elsa arrived. This morning both families left to drive back to Potomac (seven hours) and Chicago (fourteen hours). I wonder when, if ever, they will feel that it is safe enough to fly. With childcare responsibilities and Kirsten working in the barn, this is the longest time I’ve been away from my desk in years. [A repurposed barn has been Mark’s office for decades.] With me trying to remain attentive to world events raging out of control and clipping articles as well as jotting notes to try to keep track of what’s going on, keeping up with Jackson and Taylor has been more than a full-time job. No, that’s not right—it was not a job, it was a delight. The opportunity to spend three weeks with Kirsten, Jackson, and Taylor was an unexpected gift of the pandemic. I doubt it will happen ever again. After we visited my parents with Aaron and Kirsten, my mother would always write how unbearably silent the house was without us. This afternoon, I hear that deafening silence.
Play and work combined to transform the past three weeks into something like fieldwork in the world now aborning. During the entire time they were here, Kirsten, Jonathan, Aaron, and Frida all retreated to a different room where they worked all day. They all have very high-powered jobs, which have become even more demanding since the pandemic broke out. Most days they were on their phones or Zoom 75 percent of the time or more. Dinny and I were responsible for entertaining the kids and preventing them from bothering their parents. Dinner-table conversation consisted of reports on their work that day and reflections on the deteriorating situation in the country. As you can imagine, between Alabama and Sweden, there was a broad range of opinions.