Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never had begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with "normal life." Life has never been normal. Even those periods we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of cries, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes. Periclean Athens leaves us not only the Parthenon, but significantly, the funeral oration. The insects have chosen a different line: they have sought the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumably they have their reward. Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on the scaffold, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature.
—C. S. Lewis, from "Learning in War Time"
I'm writing to you from the past. It's likely early April when you're reading this, and I bet 10 days ago feels like the distant past. Time has sped up as we watch the advance of this pestilence. We clock the hours in confirmed cases and deaths.
At the time of this writing in late March, across the globe, there are 328,275 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 14,366 dead. New York State has one third of the all the cases in the country and five percent of the cases globally. Dutchess County announced its first coronavirus-related death this morning. Hospitals in New York City are not yet overrun with the infected, but Mayor de Blasio looked equal parts angry at the president's dithering and frightened for his constituents on "Meet the Press" this morning. "April is going to be worse than March," the mayor said. "And I fear May will be worse than April."
All the numbers I've listed above are climbing. I just refreshed the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center map. Another 10 people have died since I started writing 20 minutes ago. If the worst comes to pass, 1.7 million people could die in the US alone. Hopefully, given the measures that the federal government is belatedly taking and that state and local authorities are instituting, we can forestall that gruesome fate.
It will get worse before it gets better, this strange emergency, in which to help is to hide ourselves away.
Time has accelerated, but it has also, paradoxically, slowed down. Time hangs suspended. It's been indefinitely postponed, like the NBA season. All the appointments in our overscheduled lives have been cancelled. There is nowhere to rush to, as we can't go anywhere (except to see if they've restocked the toilet paper in the supermarket).
Right now, in the past, it feels like that long, long moment right before a car crash when you know what's about to happen but it hasn't happened yet, and you think it's going to be bad, but you don't know how bad. The succession of these thoughts in an instant of total clarity makes you realize that the brain is a frenzied computer processing masses of data at impossibly high speeds and that the stream of time is in fact very slow if you stand still in the middle of it and notice it coursing around you. Time can almost come to a stop in situations like these. We are usually just oblivious to it, hurtling forward, cycling to yoga class or sitting on the couch watching "The Great British Baking Show."
You have time to think these things as you brace for impact.
But "normal life" still goes on. I wake before sunrise and walk the dogs to the park where we meet our friends, both human and canine. (The humans keep their distance; the dogs...not so much.) The church bells of the Immaculate Conception still chime the hours, though no one goes to mass. The trains of long black tank cars carrying a volatile mixture of gas and oil from the Bakken shale fields of North Dakota continue to rumble through the middle of Kingston. Last week I found a tick engorged in my armpit. You know, normal.
The forsythia is in bloom. Spring is beginning to exist again, which still feels miraculous to me, though I've witnessed its emergence almost 50 times now. Snow is in the forecast, which is, ironically, the most normal thing to me for late March—in like a lamb, out like an asshole.
At the park this morning, June, who lives alone, said to Wendy and me: "I need a hug." The three of us stared at each other from our respective social distances. "I'm hugging you with my eyes," Wendy said, with as much empathy as one can muster in an eye hug. "Me too," I said, remembering not to touch my face as the tears streamed down.
I want to hug June. I want to hug everyone—now that I can't. When this whole mishegoss is over, and we're all in the clear, I propose we create a new international holiday: Day of the Hug. The rule being, if you pass within six feet of someone, you give them a hug.
In the meantime, hug the people in your house. Smile at strangers. Slow dance with your wife in the living room. If you still have a job, help someone who doesn't. Be kind. Take pleasure. Be generous. Be brave. And know that sometimes bravery is as simple as believing in the collective good—that we'll get through this, together, and that you don't need to buy all the toilet paper.