On the one hand, my eleven-year-old daughter is pasted to the screen five hours a day, participating in a sad simulacrum of school. Bleary, she gazes at a moving collage of her classmates trying their best to glean companionship. During “recess,” she plays “tag” at six feet with the neighbor kid, the only child Gwyn interacts with during this stay-at-home order. I want to cry.
On the other hand, for the first time in her life Gwyn can’t wait to get off the computer and race outside. Attention disabilities and sensory sensitivities have made outdoor, solitary play nigh impossible for Gwyn, but the combination of medication and an abundance of time have introduced a new arena of fun. She builds a tent. She makes fairy houses. She hangs a zip line for her dolls. Secretly I watch from the window as my daughter loses herself under the lilac and finds that generative inner quiet I’ve always wished for her.
Meanwhile, the sky over our house, usually roaring with planes, is silent. Instead of breathing fumes first thing in the morning, the air is fresh. I don’t know if this year’s migration is more lively or I’m just noticing it—yesterday a bald eagle circled over my garden. When I walk to the park, total strangers swerve to avoid me but then look me in the eye, smile, and say hello. We’re all so desperate for human contact, we welcome everyone into our sphere of interaction.
That tiny sidewalk dance—steer clear (out of fear? as an act of care?), then deliberately connect—is emblematic of this awful time. We have to avoid one other for the sake of the whole. It’s tragic, especially for those who are lonely and vulnerable. Our inability to be together magnifies the suffering wrought by illness, loss, care-giving, economic hardship, and unparalleled global change. Our hearts hurt.
Precisely because our hearts hurt, however, we’re willing to see the stranger whose proximity we’re avoiding and offer a greeting. Where before our fearlessness in passing inches from an unknown shoulder was thoughtless, now our connection is intentional. Those who say hello do so consciously.
Gwyn is doing something similar in our small urban yard. She’s choosing to be in relationship with the grass, with her cart-wheeling body, with the ladybug she meticulously “rescues,” with the robin who teases her overhead. Deprived of friends, she’s making new ones. Mentally taxed, she’s moving into a fuller way of being.
As can we. The question that presses at me daily now is this: Will I allow myself to be changed for the better by this pandemic? Today? Even in the midst of grief and anger and fear? With Christine Valters Paintner, I offer this sincere prayer:
And when this has passed, may we say that love spread more quickly
than any virus ever could.
May we say this was not just an ending
but a place to begin.
–“Praisesong for the Pandemic”
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew