“They’re acting like the sky is falling, and I tell them, ‘Stay calm and we’ll get through it’.”
“Well, the sky is falling, “ I said. “But it’s good what you told them.”
My husband’s business is considered essential, a term left to interpretation these days, it seems. But the electronic boards they manufacture are built into devices that treat the sick with an urgency our generation has never seen. His employees show up because they’re asked to, because they need to work for many reasons. They’re together with others in all corners who have less shelter, less cover, as they reach into the pit of their fear. I understand it was like this in World War II, when the world upended everyone, yet everyone to a different degree.
Now the virus makes us want to stop the world and get off, as there is nowhere on this planet to run. This thought is unfamiliar to many Americans who understand disaster as someone else’s. We live in a country big and rich enough for many to insulate themselves against the realities we know exist somewhere, just not where we are.
Unless you’re someone who’s been on a front line, or felt the tight bounds of prison, or ever woken to the undoubtable facts of the street, it’s hard to grasp what’s happening. That when we say, we‘re all in this together, it’s not a tag line contrived to light up your empathy neuron. It’s true as death, which is convincingly real these days.
But those who’ve gone to war or prison, those who’ve lived with the constant threat of not living, learn their limited options. If you want to survive, you fight, and all the moments in between, you take as they come, and sometimes you try to make sense. At that point, it’s all about time, which in a time before might have been like an overlooked, introverted friend, but who is now trending.
To first responders, doctors, and nurses, time can not be caught. For the rest of us in isolation, or like my husband’s employees, time creeps. In each case, there are decisions to make. We can let time wash over us, as if watching a bud unfold, which for many of us is as novel as the virus, and just what a doctor might order. Or we can mix our moments with other ingredients, such as action and ideas — just anything forward will do-—and shape something for time yet to come. Such as to work to save a life, to plant a seed, to attend that online class. Even to get food. All of it in hope of another day.
On my porch, I sit in slips of light illuminating, as if for the first or last time, the old fence, the greening St. Augustine, all of it looking like something to be framed and hung. The birds noisy in the trees, a bustling cafe. They’ve taken over or taken it back. I don’t remember so much sound from them before, and I feel like an eavesdropper. In a dousing of slow time I finish the last page of Anne of Green Gables; “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world,” whispered Anne softly.
I read that last line and I’m confused. By now, I know Anne and know her first understanding of the world was that all was not right with it. Yet somehow she didn’t form a shield, the protectant many of us grow. A layer, though, that can dull the senses. Anne’s skin, in contrast, seemed peeled away, her cells exposed to slights and stings, to all the ways she and the world were not right. At the same time, she seized the heaven of delicate white frosts. She picked blossoms for her hair, yet threw herself prostrate over some disappointment, as if to live any other way would be sorrowful indeed. And when her world loomed small, she let her imagination grow it.
I think maybe Anne believed there was room in this life for misery and loss as well as beauty so big it can barely be realized — a grace. And I take her imperative, to spy that enchantment and hold it. And if I can’t see it and touch it, I’ll just think it. Because nothing is as solid as what me might hope for, what we might allow ourselves to dream.
My daughter turned 30 in isolation. All our plans for a party, for friends and family united, for pink wine and a pink meld of sun into the Pacific, for the soft tinkle of glass and laughter, a careful distillation of strong honeyed bliss with a wish for more to come, was cancelled. If there’d been no virus and there’d been a party, everyone would have still known it was just a wish. Yet we must do it.
I’m having a bad day, my daughter said the day before her cancelled party. And she felt a little guilty, because she knew there were so many ways things could have been worse sitting in her apartment in Newport Beach. But, cry, I told her. Do it.
It‘s choking hot the afternoon I decide to watch The Shawshank Redemption at home. I never saw it at the theatre, nixed it right away as a prison movie. That day, though, I lay curled in a prison of my own making, having sent my husband and kids to the neighborhood pool for a few hours while I stayed inside. I’ve never acclimated to the Texas heat, and every year, from June to September, I build a mental and physical bunker. Time in summer moves for me like a drying river. But that day I also must have thought time with my young children was overflowing enough to throw out an afternoon of it.
Why I decided to watch this previously banned movie, I don’t remember. But for inexplicable reasons, I held in through the bleak violence of those first scenes to the moment in the mess hall when Brooks feeds a worm from Andy’s plate to a baby bird, and the afternoon Andy walks into the warden’s office, locks the door, and drops the needle to vinyl, releasing the indecipherable yet sweet sounds of a soprano to every outpost of the prison.
For those who haven’t seen the 1994 film, Andy Dufresne, a young, successful banker, is sent away for the murder of his wife and her lover, a crime he claims he didn’t commit. Andy, played by Tim Robbins, is soon befriended by “Red” Redding, a wizened inmate played by Morgan Freeman.
In the prison yard, rich with time, the two fall into debate of time itself. Andy seeing it like the banker he was; the value obvious, the potential even greater. Red, worn by time within those walls, looked at Andy as if his friend were engaged in a dangerous gamble. To Red, time was a weight to balance and bear. But it wasn’t only that Andy was smarter than most everyone around him, it was something else probably born in. A treasuring he had of time, as if it were his last buck, all the while imagining, even (literally) chiseling away at, a dream of more. Thankfully, reader, this is something we all can learn.
Without giving too much away, Red allows himself to take Andy’s bet, to glimpse the possible. Near the end of the story, he ticks off his list of dreams. And perhaps more important than any one of them is an admission of what he’s given into, hope, he tells us.
Like many who consider the movie their all-time favorite, I held the promise of that prison story and turned it like a smooth stone in my pocket. After years had passed since seeing it, I rewatched it recently and realized how many of the scenes I’d forgotten. It didn’t matter though; the fight, the resilience….the hope, had never left me.
These days I think of Andy, and how he realized the rock wall of his cell was not as impenetrable as he had thought, yet still presenting slim odds to a passage. It’s a slim passage we all take, though, from our conception cells. We are born of this push.
What will we do when it’s no longer spring? When the chartreuse has turned to a hard green, when all the flowers are spent, and the baby birds have flown. When the feather breezes turn to straight jackets of heat. At least a pandemic in spring holds promise, and reminds us that life goes on.
How can this be? All these endings amidst these beginnings. But this is something nature has always known. Even now, as I try to show you this beauty from my yard, my mind is jumbled, like haphazardly stacked blocks about to fall. On the porch, I hear the distant resonence of chimes. I hear a child’s voice, I hear the scream of an ambulance. All I can say is, I am grateful. I hear.
Each of us, in our different circumstances, wake each morning, if we’ve slept at all, knowing that wrapping this vacancy is time, infuriating in its haste or languor. Some days, watching the news, feeling powerless, it may seem as if we are all waiting to die. But the truth is, we were anyway. And as Andy tells Red one day in the prison yard, we can get busy living or get busy dying. Wherever we are, there is a siren. But in the chance of every moment, there is the song as well.