People have written me saying that I’m too pessimistic about the coronavirus, describing unpleasant air travel experiences, jumping to conclusions about our ability to fly for family reunions, to bridge the distance between ourselves and the people we love.
It’s not all somber. Outside, Jerusalem is enjoying fabulous weather, cooler than the hot temperatures afflicting my home in Massachusetts, and at Jerusalem’s golden twilight, my favorite time of day here, when I take a daily fast walk for exercise, the parks are full of orthodox Jewish families enjoying these last weeks of school vacation.
Nevertheless, I feel that many of the stories of my life are failing.
That’s the great thing about this business of not-knowing—our stories fail us: What we planned to do, where we planned to go, the vacations we were counting on, the camps we were going to send the kids to, the schools in the fall, the museums/films/plays/exhibits we were going to see, and most important, the people we were going to visit.
The vast uncertainty of things also affects us on deeper levels—the meaning of our life, the nature of the tasks awaiting us, what matters more and what less. I find that even the usual vocabulary fails me. I want to act with compassion—what does that mean at this time? Nice Buddhist concepts don’t help me face the grit of what is happening now.
Covid and quarantine throw me back to bearing witness moment by moment; there are no stories to hide behind.
I wrote to a friend of mine yesterday: “Tell me, are we in that time of life when we’re just letting go and letting go and letting go?” I find myself reaching and trying to understand. Is covid a premonition of something? A warning? Of what? What are we being asked to do?
Clichés come to mind: restoring our humanity, restoring a humbler and more natural relationship with the Earth These have no meaning for me, in fact, it’s too early to come to conclusions. I’m in quarantine, can’t go out into life to see what’s going on, play a role, talk, do. Right now, I’m being asked to just lie here on this bed as I type, listening to voices in the other room from whom I must keep distance. They are in earnest discussion about something or other, just as I get into earnest discussions about things. But not now. Right now, it’s staring at a computer screen and beyond that a white wall broken by the door to the bathroom.
It’s too early for conclusions. I try one story, it fails. I try another story, it fails too.
I do feel strongly about one thing. People say that after a vaccine comes out things will go back to normal. No, I think, I don’t want things to go back to normal, I want this to affect us deeply, to help me make changes I wouldn’t ordinarily make.
What are these changes? How should we live post-covid?
I see my mom twice a day. Yesterday I found her lying cheerfully in bed. These months haven’t been easy for her. She misses going to the synagogue on Shabbat or holidays, no friends come to visit. In fact, in the early days Israel had a complete prohibition on visiting elderly members of the family and my sister and brother obtained special permission from the doctor and police enabling them to visit.
“Ima,” my brother says, “imagine that you’re the last Holocaust survivor left in the world. Everyone else has died, no one is left but you. What would you say?”
“What should I say?” she repeats dubiously.
I take it up, too. “Mom, Holocaust Remembrance Day arrives and you’re the last one left standing, or more realistically, lying down. Imagine all the international networks putting their microphones right in front of you and asking you for a message. What would it be?”
We’re having fun with it, but secretly we’d like to know. What would she tell us? What crucial piece of wisdom, after a lifetime of experience, would she share?
She shrugs as if it’s all nonsense, says nothing. She won’t save us the work. Once she had all the answers. Not now.