Life in the time of Coronavirus


Memorial Day 2020

Yesterday J and I walked to Newton Cemetery to pay our respects at the military graves there, as we often do on Memorial Day. In many ways, this year’s cemetery visit was like any other year. J and I walked around reading the inscriptions on flag-decorated graves, noting how young or old each person was, or the commendations they had received, or other indications of the lives behind the stones.

In other ways, however, yesterday’s visit wasn’t like any other year. J and I wore masks on the way to and from the cemetery, and many other visitors were masked as well. There were more people visiting the cemetery than I remember in past years: with Memorial Day parades and other festivities cancelled, visiting graves was one of the few “normal” ways to mark the holiday.

J and I have been sticking close to home these days, so yesterday’s walk to the cemetery and back was the first time in months we walked past restaurants we used to go to weekly. It was strange to walk the same familiar route, but in odd and unsettling circumstances. Now unlike then, we notice who is or isn’t wearing a mask, and with each approaching pedestrian, we and they did a delicate dance of deciding which of us should step into the street to allow the other a safe distance on the sidewalk.

In some ways, it’s remarkable to see how quickly we’ve all adapted to this strange new world of masks and social distancing. It makes me wonder how we as a society will look back on this time next year or the year after that.

Waiting

Earlier this week, I read an article Teju Cole published in the New York Times featuring excerpts from his pandemic journal. J and I have been sheltering at home for seventy days now, and I’ve written in my journal every single day, but I’d be hard pressed to glean much in the way of profundity there.

When you are in the middle of a surging wave, all you feel is wet. You have no understanding of how far or high the water looms; all you know is your own specific swirl. I can’t speak to a global pandemic, so my journal pages describe the mundane details of my own experience: the particular deck chairs I am busy arranging as the Titanic sinks.

Last week, I skimmed a BBC article featuring the “last normal photo” people had on their phones: reminders of the Before-Time. The last time I went shopping–the last time I touched a grocery cart, walked down aisles thronged with other shoppers, and stood in line before interacting with a cashier–was Friday, March 13, when I took a photo of empty grocery shelves where paper towels and toilet paper had once been. It isn’t exactly a “normal” photo, but it is one that takes me back to that strange and surreal time.

The day before that Final Shopping Trip–Thursday, March 12–J and I walked to our favorite pub for lunch. I don’t remember what we ordered, but it was unusual for us to walk to lunch on a Thursday, since I usually teach then. But I’d cancelled my Thursday classes because I thought I’d be flying to Ohio to visit my Mom the next day, and I ended up canceling my flight after the governor declared a State of Emergency in Massachusetts.

That leisurely Thursday lunch–the last time J and I went to our favorite pub or any other restaurant–seemed like an odd but not yet apocalyptic time. The TV at the bar was tuned to the news, which was a litany of cancellations: first the NBA, then other professional sports leagues and major events in succession. On our way home, I snapped a picture of a dog tied outside a bakery, waiting for his owner inside, and J and I admired a sporty black Subaru parked along the curb, just as we’d do any other day.

That last time J and I walked to lunch at our favorite pub, we didn’t know it would be the last time. It was clear things were starting to get serious and weird: the weekend before, grocery shoppers were starting to stockpile supplies as if against an upcoming storm. We knew then a storm was coming, but we didn’t fully realize how long and devastating that storm would be.

Looking back on the last seventy days, I’m ashamed to admit how much ink I’ve spent in my journal pages fretting over groceries. People are losing their lives and livelihoods, and I’ve spent page upon page obsessed with delivery windows and weird rolling shortages: one week I can’t find paper towels or dishwasher detergent, and the next week there are no corn tortillas, dry pasta, or fresh produce. Groceries are something I once managed: I enjoyed making a list, going to the store, and stocking our refrigerator and pantry. Now, I realize the seemingly simple task of buying groceries is–like everything else–largely outside my control.

Seventy days after suddenly sheltering-in-place, I’m realizing it was never about the toilet paper, disinfectant wipes, or hand sanitizer. All the items that disappeared from store shelves were merely metaphors for the Before-Time, when we fancied ourselves in control of our lives.

Horse chestnut (aka buckeye) in bloom

If you’re looking for a way to stop a conversation during a pandemic, ask the question “What’s new.” Right now, on day 65 of J’s and my self-imposed quarantine, there’s not much “new” happening. People continue to sicken and die. People continue to lose jobs and businesses continue to fold. The divide between Haves and Have Nots continues to gape, with the only change being the light being shed on that chasm.

“What’s new” is exactly the wrong question to be asking right now. Instead, I wish we could ask ourselves “What matters” or “What remains and sustains?”

This year like any other, the trees are newly in leaf and buzzing with black-throated green warblers. Our backyard chipmunks chip and chirp, making up in fervent spring activity the long winter months they spent scarce and inactive underground. In every fruiting tree—the crabapples, cherries, and redbuds that abound in leafy suburbs like ours–male and female cardinals flit, juxtaposing their distinctive plumage with colorful spring blooms. Overhead, goldfinches spar and twitter, flitting from tree to tree as if spring days were entirely carefree and destined to last.

But these days don’t last: no days do. This isn’t news, but a perennial Truth we continually suppress, ignore, and deny. As we are hunkered down against infection, Spring emerges from her annual quarantine, just as she does every year. This isn’t new, but eternal. We are the ones who forget–either consciously or through unwitting ignorance–the ultimate truth of both nature and pandemic, and that is that only impermanence is here to stay.

Elegant

Whenever a student or colleague asks via email how I’m doing, I often respond with the generic statement “We live in interesting times.” On the surface, J and I are doing well: we both are healthy, we both are (currently) employed, and we both are adapting to this curious self-quarantine we’ve kept for more than 50 days.

But under the surface, these are strange days. I read the news with a mixture of sadness, horror, and outrage. At any given moment, I alternate between wringing my proverbial hands and rolling up my figurative sleeves. I intentionally keep myself busy with work, housework, and pet tasks. Every day, I look forward to the afternoon walks J and I take to get exercise and fresh air, and every week, I look forward to the drives around the neighborhood we take to keep each of our cars running.

J and I are, in other words, settling into something that passes as “almost normal”…and that itself seems strange. It almost doesn’t seem right to turn a global pandemic into a domestic routine, but ordinary rituals are the only way I know how to make sense of the world and my place in it. For good or ill, I am a creature of habit, and I take a surprising amount of solace knowing my daily routine is one thing I can control in a world of unknowns.

Backyard buckeye buds

Today is the fortieth day that J and I have been self-isolating at home. Etymologically speaking, a true quarantine lasts forty days, but ours will last much longer. The first forty days are just the start of it.

I waited patiently for the Lord
He inclined and heard my cry
He brought me up out of the pit
Out of the mire and clay.

In my childhood religion classes, we learned that in the Bible, forty was shorthand for “a very long time.” Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days and nights, and it rained on Noah’s ark for just as long. Our current quarantine feels a bit like both: a long, dry spell in the desert, sustained by prayer, and a crowded, sometimes smelling stint in a storm-tossed vessel full of creatures seeking safe haven.

I will sing, sing a new song.
I will sing, sing a new song.
How long to sing this song?

How did Jesus stay alive in the desert, and how did Noah keep all his passengers fed? In the Bible, these are questions left unasked and unanswered, trusted to the authority of faith. But during this actual quarantine, they are real questions that occasionally keep me up at night. What happens if we can’t get groceries while we’re isolating at home, what if our medicines or other supplies run out, and what if one or both of us get sick and have to shelter at home in the absence of available hospital beds?

He set my feet upon a rock
He made my footsteps firm
Many will see–many will see and hear

In the absence of definitive answers, I try to push such questions aside. This morning I found myself humming U2’s “40,” a rock anthem the band used to perform at the end of every concert. Its lyrics come from Psalm 40, which itself is a song of longing.

I will sing, sing a new song.
I will sing, sing a new song.
How long to sing this song?
How long to sing this song?
How long, how long, how long
How long to sing this song?

How long will this quarantine last? Certainly more than forty days, which is itself a very long time. I’ve decided “how long” isn’t a helpful question: like a child asking “Are we there yet” on a long car drive, “how long” is a question that is both unanswerable and annoying. You miss a lot of scenery if you’re only asking “how long.” Instead, each day you sing whatever song that day delivers.

Maple leaves

Last night I dreamed I was at a bustling marketplace: a place similar to Boston’s Faneuil Hall or Seattle’s Pike Place Market, but not actually either. It was a setting I couldn’t identify in real life, but in dreamtime it was somewhere I’d been to before, albeit not recently.

In my dream, I went to this marketplace to browse: I was just looking. I walked among other shoppers without buying anything: I had no shopping list and no urgent need. I was by myself and free to duck into any store that looked interesting. I was enjoying the simple anonymity of being among other random shoppers: no rush or hurry, just gentle mingling.

At one point, I passed a corridor I’d never had time to explore. It was a passage I had always hurried past or through, as it was a narrow connector between two shops you could more easily reach from outside. In this corridor I found a favorite shop I thought had closed. It carried the kind of jewelry and beautiful tchotkes I adore: paperweights and snowglobes, pottery mugs and wooden puzzles.

Then through the nonlinear logic of dreams, I wandered into a science museum, admiring exhibits with no particular agenda or hurry: a desultory ramble through the land of Look Don’t Touch. Next I found myself in a quiet church in between services, with random strangers lighting candles and praying quietly in pews. I blessed myself from the communal font and gently touched a rosary someone had left beside a stack of church bulletins.

Only on my way home did I remember I was supposed to be in quarantine, the strangers around me all potential vectors of invisible contagion. After more than a month of meticulous isolation, I would have to start my quarantine anew, worrying for fifteen days whether I had been exposed to sickness by the innocent act of walking unmasked among strangers.

Was it worth it, this risk of contagion in exchange for a casual afternoon spent window-shopping like we used to do without worry? The dream ended before I could decide.

Bloodroot in bloom

Today was sunny and cold, with winds rattling the windows. During these days of self-isolation, I’ve come to think of our house as a storm-tossed ship: all our energy is focused on keeping the elements out and the creatures inside safe, well-provisioned, and sheltered.

This morning as I wrote my journal pages, a chickadee or titmouse called right outside my window: not a song, but an alarm note. Chickadees and titmice have distinctly different songs, but their call notes are similar. Since the two birds often feed together, they share the same language of alarm: hey, watch out!

Earlier today I watched Congressman Joe Kennedy’s daily Facebook Live update, which he posted from his home. He talked about the surge of COVID-19 cases in Chelsea, MA: an outbreak fueled by the high percentage of essential workers living in densely packed neighborhoods there. It’s difficult to practice social distancing if you live in multigenerational households packed to the brim due to a shortage of affordable housing.

Kennedy gave his update in English and then in Spanish: many of the working class residents of Chelsea are immigrants. In English or Spanish, the message is the same. All bodies are vulnerable to infection, but some lives have been deemed by society to be disposable. If a job is essential, why isn’t the worker who does that job essential as well?

Viruses are natural, but inequality is human-made. Sickness preys on the most vulnerable: the poor, the medically compromised, the immigrants who are too scared to venture into an emergency room. We all wait anxiously for a vaccine against the Coronavirus, but when or how will we inoculate society against a plague of injustice?

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