I’ve taken to daily two-hour meandering walks through my neighborhood since that’s all we’re still allowed to do. Yesterday, I stopped under a cluster of trees in bloom. Their white blossoms fell around me in slow motion, surrounding me in springtime snow. I couldn’t help but think “what are you doing?! Springtime is cancelled. You blossoms have to stop congregating.” They didn’t get the memo.
It’s warm out now. Warm enough for me to be ok with Misa taking her hat off right after I finally get it on her fuzzy blonde head. The warmer spring air brings levity to our souls. It’s easy to get lost in the yellow of a daffodil. The first time we feel the sun warm our skin after a long winter serves as the annual reminder that sheesh, being outside feels good.
But this year is different. The dark heavy blanket of grief and suffering creeps closer. Moments of joy feel like they need an asterisk next to them. Hugging our friends is out. Definitely no dinner parties. What about a walk in the park together, six feet apart? Best not. What about our dog? Does he need to socially distance to when he sees his canine friend across the way? How did the cherry blossoms figure out a work around?
I picture myself 50 years from now trying to explain this time to my grandkids. They roll their eyes at another grandpa story. “Yeah right,” they’ll say when I tell them that grandparents couldn’t hug their grandkids and that’s why I need one more hug. “Yeah right,” when I tell them that schools and restaurants and theaters and sports and shops and hotels and colleges and gyms and libraries were all closed. “Yeah right,” when I try to tell them that this was real.
Creatives, we need your eyes, ears, and mind right now. It’s up to us to make sense of all this in the months and years to come. How sharp is our attention? Are you saving some of the texts and emails you’re sending? Are you taking note of our daily ups and downs and how your heart reacts to this strange new way of being human?
I’m trying to keep this heart of mine open, approaching each gut-wrenching piece of news with a long view of time. Will this be done by Easter? First of all, no… But that’s the wrong question. At times like this, when it feels like life as we knew it will never return, I look for wisdom from those who have been through this before.
Marcus Aurelius oversaw Rome during a 15 year period where it was ravaged by plague. Reading over the Wikipedia page for the Antonine Plague of 165 AD feels eerily prescient. It came out of China, probably from an animal. No one had immunity to it. It crossed borders and oceans and overwhelmed the entire world. Fear took a stranglehold. Doctors had no idea what to do. Governments dawdled. All gatherings were cancelled. The economy plunged. Bodies piled up in the streets. During the plague, in his Meditations, Aurelius wrote “Bear in mind constantly that all of this has happened before. And will happen again— the same plot, from beginning to end, the identical staging. Produce them in your mind, as you know them from experience or from history: the court of Hadrian, of Antonius. The courts of Philip, Alexander, Croesus. All just the same. Only the people different.”
Change a few dates and names and Marcus’ plague is suddenly COVID. Later on he writes that even the pestilence around him is “less deadly than dishonesty, hypocrisy, self-indulgence, or pride… These are the true plagues — worse than anything caused by tainted air. This pestilence can only threaten your life; these others attack our humanity.”
This virus is mean, aggressive, unrelenting, and callous. We try to balance this new palpable energy by doing the opposite — we bake bread. We cook, garden, put teddy bears in windows, and the kids chalk messages of hope onto sidewalks. We’re seeking the antidote, that which is gentle, slow, forgiving, and brings us together.
I said recently to a friend that my greatest fear is that everything does go back to normal. Two years from now, if we’re back to a world of unfettered consumption and divisiveness, I’ll feel like this time of isolation and reflection will have been wasted. For now, may we do everything we can to take care of one another. May we not lose our humanity and take a longer view of time. This too, as it has before, will pass. May the cherry blossoms always be allowed to bloom, the dogs to play, the kids to chalk every inch of sidewalk, and may we all seek and sustain that which softens our hearts. May our future be gentler than any past we’ve known.