Wednesday, April 15, 2020
Susan and I take a walk in Whatcom Falls Park, going early before too many people are on the trails. We cross the mossy sandstone bridge at the falls, a beautiful structure built in 1939 by the Works Progress Administration during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. As my parents passed through the difficult days of the Great Depression and World War II, they turned on their radio at night to listen to the warm and reassuring voice of FDR delivering one of his fireside chats. They had the good fortune to be led through troubled times by one of the nation’s greatest presidents. We are not so fortunate.
This thought stays in my mind for a while, darkening my mood, but then we approach Scudder Pond where red-winged blackbirds flutter through the reeds and mist. It is a Japanese nature painting come to life. We linger before the scene. The poet Wallace Stevens wrote, “A man and a woman / Are one / A man and a woman and a blackbird / Are one.” A wise and lovely insight that alters my mood for the better.
As a member of a vulnerable demographic, I have been thinking often lately about my own mortality. I do not believe in an afterlife, but if such a thing existed, I would want red-winged blackbirds to be there.
A friend sends out a group email. She is doing volunteer work, helping distribute Food Bank groceries at pickup locations. This sometimes places her in close contact with others. She asks if anyone has a mask they can give her. The next morning she finds a bag sitting by her front door. Inside are masks and chocolates.
The phone rings, a call from old friends in another state. They joke that as they picked up the phone to call they realized that since they haven’t been anywhere or done anything, they don’t have anything to talk about. We still manage to carry on a long conversation. Later in the day I can’t remember anything that was said. It’s not important. Hearing their voices and knowing they are well is all that matters.
For a long time I’ve been meaning to reread Tolstoy’s War and Peace. This seems as opportune a time as I’m likely to get. As I lose myself in the lives of Pierre Bezukhov, Natasha Rostov, and Andrei Bolkonsky, I feel as though I’m reuniting with old friends. The story unfolds during a brutal era, Napolean’s invasion of Russia. The historical events that form the background of the story have faded into history. It is great literature that endures.
We frequently walk in different neighborhoods around town. As we approach other walkers, they shift to the far side of the street unless we have already begun doing so. Though we are distancing, I have never encountered so many strangers who wave, ask how you’re doing, and wish you well.
If we pass the house of friends we will stop and call them. Some of our most gratifying conversations have been during these times, standing with friends in their front yards six feet apart.
For years I taught Advanced Placement English to high school seniors. One of the books we read was Albert Camus’ novel The Plague. Set in the 1940s in a quarantined Algerian city, the novel explores how individuals react to the crisis. In the final section of the book Camus writes, “What we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”
COVID-19 has indeed brought out the despicable: the hoarders, the price gougers, the scammers, the thugs who spew racist abuse at Chinese people or send death threats to Dr. Fauci. But for every reprehensible person taking the low road, there are thousands of individuals performing acts of generosity and kindness. A woman sits at her sewing machine making masks to donate to those who need them. A neighbor grocery shops for the elderly folks next door who are afraid to go out. A couple, seeing that there’s a little money left over after paying the monthly bills, writes a check to a cash-strapped charity. A restaurant owner who had to lay off his workers supplies them with free takeout meals. A classical violinist gives a solo concert on her front porch, bringing a moment of beauty to passersby.
“No longer were there individual destinies;” Camus writes, “only a collective destiny, made of plague and emotions shared by all.”