Lately, I’ve become a bit melancholy under our social lockdown. Not because I mind staying at home most of the day. I have been doing that for years since I began writing. Not because I’m worried about the economy, though I am concerned for the millions of workers who are hurting. It’s because I am experiencing life receding, drifting away, as if I’m in a dream from which I may never wake.
I use Zoom for social interaction with friends or colleagues. It’s as though I’m conversing with them across the river Hades, saying goodbye forever when the session closes, like Orpheus looking back at Eurydice. I can’t touch them or smell them, or hear the full tenor of their voices, with all the subtle inflections that give them life. They’re just images on a screen, fading out and disappearing at the end of our talk.
A sense of irrevocable separation
I think this sensation of irrevocable separation might be what people on their deathbed experience when parting from loved ones for a final time. I’m melancholy because the pandemic—and our halting, inadequate response to it—confirms our impermanence, our helplessness in the face of the implacable forces of nature.
Life goes on outside the windows and walls of my home. Drivers deliver packages from Amazon. The friendly mailman chugs in every day around noon. The roofers repairing the leaks exposed by the heavy winter rains clamber up their ladders and start banging away at 7:30 a.m. Neighbours walk their dogs, and emergency vehicles occasionally shriek past my driveway.
I watch all this as from a seat in a movie theatre. When I venture out for a walk, others avoid me as though I am a ghost—a fellow ghost. Some smile and wave, welcoming me to purgatory.
My wife and I often watch television in the evening, after dinner. We like NOVA and Nature on PBS, and we troll Netflix for movies that tell human stories and tell them well. The pandemic has made me nostalgic for old movies in black and white that I saw in movie theatres while growing up in New York.
I skip through the offerings on The Movie Channel and record the standouts. Recently, we’ve watched Laura, The Lady from Shanghai, The Last Picture Show and Shoot the Piano Player, among others, and in a lighter vein, Francis: The Talking Mule. Still to be seen are some Marx Brothers films, and the “Road” pictures of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.
But these movies, though they bring us back to a simpler, more innocent time when America’s promise was bright and believable, only heighten my sense of being a ghost.
Where does my real security reside?
The isolation makes me aware of what is necessary, as opposed to what is needed. Unable to shop (except for groceries and medications), to go out to a movie or a concert, to have dinner with friends in a restaurant, or even to take a bike ride along the beach, I am forced back onto myself in a test of my purposefulness and self-reliance.
Escape from the bareness and simplicity of the present moment, through visits to my Facebook page or Twitter feed, leaves me feeling dissatisfied and guilty over my neediness, my flight from the solitary self. The question arises, where does my real security reside?
Might the pandemic transform us and awaken us to the indispensable essentials of our lives, such as food, shelter, safety and companionship? Might it make us grateful for them, and help us shed the inessentials, such as the endless acquisition and ‘improvement’ that throws us out of equilibrium with the universe?
The threat of death looms over all of us, not simply from the Coronavirus, but from our human condition. Could the lesson of this pandemic be that death not only comes for all of us—“the bell tolls for thee”—but it can also liberate us from the empty attachments and meaningless distinctions that pass for a semblance of life?
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