Lifeboats on the Coronavirus Sea
Why do we take the people we know for granted? It’s a question I have asked myself often. Why do we do this? Is it just part of being human, that the miraculous can become commonplace to us with the passing of time? A new city, a new home, another human being? So wonderful at first, before the newness of them fades into the background noise of daily life?
My family lives in New York City. It is the city we love dearly. Yesterday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo projected 116,000 coronavirus deaths across the state. Most of those fatalities will take place here.
A threat like this dials your thinking way down. Where I once reveled in our city’s glorious sprawl of human complexity, now I track the specific square inches where that vast complexity intersects. A turnstile at the 86th Street subway entrance. The checkout at the grocery store. No, not the checkout, the credit card reader, where all the hands brush by. Places where the dead have been, or will have been, soon enough. The places a million hands touch.
A postcard for a casino in Atlantic City is waiting in my mailbox, addressed to someone who hasn’t lived here in five years, offering a free bus ride from Port Authority. Wouldn’t be so free anymore. I wonder about the person who okayed this promotional mailing months ago, in a different world. Do they still have a job? I imagine one casino somewhere, still jangling and clanging away, its gaudy carpets trod by mad, grinning retirees who are forever fed up with being told what to do. Zombies in a coronavirus cyclone.
Then my thoughts slide sideways into politics, like they do a hundred times a day. I consider our President, who recently addressed doctors’ and health care workers’ lack of personal protection equipment here in New York City. “Something’s going on…Where are the masks going? Are they going out the back door?” he asks on national TV. Accusing embattled health care workers of black market profiteering is pure Trump projection. Meanwhile, our doctors and nurses are dying on the front lines of a war being waged right now in the nation’s hospitals, unable to get the masks and other protective equipment that would save their lives, much less ours.
This is how we are in the lifeboats. Reviewing the string of catastrophic mistakes, small and large, past and present, local and national, that will eventually let the water come surging in. Looping from Trump’s face, to credit card readers, to our children, to our lost jobs, to a $1,200 check that is out there somewhere, a token Lotto scratch-off winner from a lifetime of aimless scratching. These are the kinds of thoughts that roil in our heads if we are the lucky ones, lucky enough to not to have yet fallen sick. Lucky enough to be home instead of toiling in a warehouse on Staten Island to get someone an Xbox console in a day or two. We have the survivor’s guilt, because we have eked out a way of staying home, because we haven’t yet had to watch the virus boil through our families; through our own bodies.
Why do we take the people we know for granted? So madly in love at first. So amazed. So intoxicated. Later, less so, or worse, settling into indifference? How is it that my partner’s magical way of being in the world is suddenly amplified by the possibility of losing her to a virus? Why do we so quickly forget? Why do we become numb?
This is the question for the lifeboats. For all of us bobbing on a vast sea of uncertainty. Suddenly, we are aware of how fragile it all is. The beauty of the young man who brought our family take out food two nights back. He emerged out of the darkness on a still night. I, holding door open as he approached our building, his face, beautiful, his voice oddly rich and melodic. For a moment, our eyes met. He, who is young. I, who am old. He, a delivery worker in the ghost city. I, privileged in my life boat. Some, at my age are still delivering across the city late into the night. They all deserve so much better than this horror we have created, all of us.
The coronavirus is generating a level of complexity that I have never before encountered. It is shattering and shifting how we experience everything. Even the littlest of things. For years, in the Spring months, when the windows are open, we have heard a women teaching opera. She’s not teaching any more. Working here at my desk, I would hear, echoing down the air shaft, a man singing, or a women. It was a lovely, uniquely New York City sound. The man’s rich baritone always brought to my mind Bugs Bunny. There’s a cartoon where Bugs tricks a spoiled egocentric opera star into holding a single note until the entire opera hall collapses on him. There’s a larger life lesson here, but exactly what it is escapes me.
Things have not fallen silent. I hear a new voice in the airshaft now, even as I am writing this. The women upstairs is a school teacher. Before, I could hear her muffled morning routine before she hurried off to the school, now she is teaching online. I can hear her voice. It is the clipped delivery of instruction. “Here is the information. Here is our purpose. We are to learn this.” Some idea, on some page, in some book, because life goes on even in the lifeboats and we are to do this work. I imagine two dozen other lifeboats bobbing, tied together by this monotonous common purpose, the old world, soldiering on.
Why do we take the people we know for granted? It is an important question, but now, something about it nags at me.
We are so grateful when we escape the sinking ship, tipping to port on the vast ocean darkness. We scramble into the lifeboat and feel that dizzy relief as it lowers into the choppy waters. We hold our loved ones close. We move off from the stricken vessel. We are safe for the moment, and that is enough. Besides, our shelter at home version of the lifeboat is so full of ease and comfort compared to the millions of refugees surging across the world. Syria. Children in cages.
Jarred out of our day to day malaise, we are awakened to what is not yet lost. Awake to what we are blessed to have for one more day. The voices from other rooms, as we shelter in place, can be so melodic and lovely. We have time. We have just a bit more time. I think to myself of the poetry of human connection and of the memories we make, are making now. I love my little family fiercely as I write this. Through force of will, I bring to the surface my wakefulness and gratitude, taking advantage of the little nudge of self-reflection that catastrophic global pandemics provide us.
Why do we take the people we know for granted?
Like the Jews of the Old Testament, we have painted lamb’s blood on our doors and are waiting for death to pass us by. We are awake in the night and holding each other close. This fierce love is an act of mindfulness fully awakened now for those we hold dear. Such a lesson.
But here’s the problem. The question is woefully incomplete. The question isn’t why do we take the people we know for granted. It never was. The question is why do we take the people we don’t know for granted? Why this ugly arbitrary drawing of lines between who is in our little lifeboats and who is not? If we don’t get this singular question right, we will surely die. If not from coronavirus, then from the massive fires, or endless war, or predatory capitalism, or any other number of plagues born out of the “I got mine, now you get yours” mindset of America’s obsessive cult of individuality.
When the sun is shining, too many of us Americans give no more thought to the suffering of others than we do to a slight dip in the stock market. Millions suffer violence, hunger, sickness, homelessness, and death on our very doorsteps. In this pivotal moment in human history, we are not called to paint blood on our doors and wait for death to pass us by. We are no longer here to escape Pharaoh. We are Pharaoh.
We have been fooled into believing we are a nation built on individualism. The result is we sit in our gated communities, dying of loneliness and disconnection. And when the coronavirus comes, we have none of the collective resources we need to fight it. We are left to fend for ourselves, shocked in our final moments to realize we are, in fact, our brother’s keeper. That it is in the vast interlocking puzzle of interdependence that our salvation lies.
When the coronavirus comes, we see how interdependent we all are. We are a vast network of interconnected lives. For better or worse, the simple touch of a stranger’s hand holds the immutable truth of this, the fundamental fact of being human. The coronavirus is posing the most important human questions and if we don’t start getting the answers right soon, we will surely run out of chances to try.