The coronavirus seems to be the only topic of conversation these days, assuming you can even find someone to have a conversation with . . . as we stand separated by our fears. I write this sitting on the front steps of my little cottage in Massachusetts, where I came a few weeks ago, when it suddenly hit me, in a burst of intuition, that if we were to be quarantined, which no one was talking about yet, I wanted to be up here with my family. Little did I think they would not dare to come close to me, for fear of passing on an infection. We wave from a six-foot distance or talk by text or phone.
Now in the third week of isolation and sequestration, I sit in the cold sunlight overlooking the strangely empty street, and write to you, my computer on my knees. Today I am on a media fast. I don’t want to hear any more about the death toll, or the anguish of those suffering, or the fear of those homeless or about to be. I don’t want to read some of the ugly internet jokes circulating—one, for example, of a gunpoint holdup for toilet paper and cleaning supplies. It’s supposed to be funny. I don’t want to hear about casting blame or bureaucratic incompetence or why we didn’t do things better and who or which Party is at fault.
What I am aware of, instead, is the absolute GOODNESS of humans. I am overwhelmed by gratitude and humility in the face of those who reach out to feed the lonely and elderly and immune-deficient, or who still work in supermarkets and fire houses, police stations and hospitals and homeless shelters, feeding the rest of us both emotionally and physically.
A stranger has just left a mask on the front porch for me, and another recently brought over two rolls of toilet paper— strangers reaching out to a stranger for no reason except altruism.
Not long ago the New Yorker ran a long article about the great plagues of former times, like the Black Death of 1348 that killed one-third of the population of Europe, yet resulted in a shift from a Feudal to a mercantile and more egalitarian society; or the London plague of 1665 followed by the 1666 fire that destroyed that crowded city of shanties and hovels and allowed a magnificent one to be rebuilt. For thousands of years, plagues have wiped out entire populations, and in every case the frightened writers predicted a dystopian end of civilization and humanity. Just as we are doing now. At present, a fifth Horseman, Fear, gallops beside the mythic Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (war, famine, pestilence, death). Add fear.
Yet all around I see people reaching out to each other. Offering hope. Encouragement (from the word courage, which itself comes from the word heart, le Coeur.). Offering heart. This is an interesting time.
For me, it forces me to go deeper, delve into quietude. In this period of sequestration, when we are being stripped of pretense and have only ourselves for company, I discover unpleasant aspects about myself I haven’t recognized before. I’m vulnerable in surprising ways. Stubbornly refusing, for example, to acknowledge the stress, I broke out in a scalding rash—a recurrence of shingles? I’m lonely. I burst out in anger unexpectedly. I find that the people I relate to — and to whom my heart goes out — are those confident enough to talk openly of their own fear, anxiety, worry, loneliness, or feelings of uselessness and lack of self-esteem. I find myself stumbling in new ways, and having therefore to forgive and hold myself. Again. And again.
I am aware of my need for TOUCH. I had no idea. I’m touch-starved. Do you remember the videos of elephants in the wild, and how when one elephant returns to the herd after being separated for even a few hours, all the other elephants rush toward her, trunks lifted in welcome, and they pat her and touch her and and rub their trunks along her flanks, drawing in her scent . . . and that’s what I miss. That’s how I want to be greeted. That’s how I want to connect with others. I didn’t know how much it meant to me to be able to hug my granddaughter, or kiss a friend — even on the lips.
(I think the angels and spirits on the other side must envy us. I think they must miss Touch. For they have no hands or arms with which to enfold one another in an embrace.)
These days we touch only with our eyes, and these, too, are sometimes curtained by fear. Lucky the ones who have a dog or cat, or child or husband, or partner to touch.
I don’t know where I’m going with all this. Just my way of reaching out and touching you in our current virtual way, wishing you well. Offering love. Offering hope. This is not the end of civilization. Or of civility. Or of caring for one another. We shall not let each other starve. And when it is over, we shall rush toward each other like elephants, to touch and pat and embrace and recognize in the others our very selves. Our shared humanity.
© Sophy Burnham, 2020.