Grate

February is hard. Years ago, I repeated Jo(e)’s claim that February is the longest month, and she is exactly right. Come February, the novelty of winter has long worn off. The snow is cleared from streets and sidewalks after each storm, but it piles and ossifies in yards and corners. Our dog pen is as slick as a rink, with weeks of snow trampled and saturated with last week’s sleet, then frozen hard: snow covering ice layered atop treachery.

The daily winter drill is now familiar and mundane. The piling on of coats and hats and gloves, then the pulling on of boots: it takes so much effort to take the trash to the curb, the dog to the pen, one’s own self to the car. Along with any obligation, there are these extra intervening steps: almost inconceivable are those summer days when stepping outside was as simple as slipping on sandals.

By February, winter has grown old, a tired routine that wears thin. And this year, we are in the February of the pandemic: a crisis that has lingered so long, it seems almost unremarkable. Last March, the governor declared a state of emergency, back when the pandemic was newly emergent. Nearly a year later, I no longer know if any given day is an emergency or merely life as we now know it. After nearly a year of being vigilant for viruses, our perpetual state of high alert is almost mind-numbing: an old ordinary that dulls more than sharpens.

In the early days of the pandemic, J and I kept a calendar count of our stay-at-home days. A quarantine is defined as forty days of isolation, but now we’re approaching a full year of deprivation: not socializing in-person with friends, not eating in restaurants, not shopping inside stores, not traveling or attending events. J and I no longer count our stay-at-home days; instead, we’re counting down until late April, when we hope to be eligible for the COVID vaccine–the closest thing to Spring we can hope for in these interminable pandemic days.

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.