It’s bad, but it’s not all bad. To be confined in your home with the people you love most against an invisible plague may be, at times, uncomfortable. But it can also be like living inside a poem, the pressures of form and protocol concentrated on the everyday.
For me, especially early in the pandemic, it was also more than a little like living in a war zone again. The danger is real but also in some ways random. You gauge risk constantly. In the first days of New York’s lockdown , at the market closest to my house, the handle of the shopping cart stared up at me. It was a bluish-purple strand of plastic that seemed to hold death in its opacity. I had left the house without wipes. My son was climbing on everything.
People said it felt like living in a horror movie. That was not the sensation. A horror movie glides on the space between fear and the delighted anticipation of fear. The feeling in the market was the leaden tug of dread. It was steady, and pressed you down, the way a survivor of a bombing says a blast wave does.
It was also a kind of gift. Against this backdrop, what you value in life is more vivid. You can’t call it a silver lining, but there is a quality of light involved, a limning that illuminates edges: say, the rail of a child’s bed. The contrast has been turned up, but not way up like the flat screens in the Television and Home Theater department. Just enough to add definition, and a certain depth. As a friend said after receiving a stage 4 cancer diagnosis, “A mirror doesn’t work without backing. You need the black.”
That is the value in these days.
Ordinarily, to experience what much of the country was experiencing in kitchens and family rooms, you would have had to get yourself down to a recruitment office, produce proof of age and ask for the infantry. In the days when news organizations had steady incomes, you might also get posted as foreign correspondent. In Baghdad, I ran a news bureau for a while. The danger was real but also in some ways random. We gauged risk constantly. And it was understood that any one of us would die for the other: Rifaat, Anthony, Omar, Pamela, Mohammed. This is what experts call “small unit cohesion.” It is the basis of any military. “The truth of war,” David Finkel wrote in Thank You For Your Service, “is that it’s always about loving the guy next to you.”
And if you’re already in love with that person? Think of a man in bed, his family asleep down the hall as he dreams of faraway places. I was in faraway places, dreaming of a family asleep down the hall.
After we left the market I kept telling my son not to touch his face. (Remember those days?) So of course he reached for his cheek. Then he scampered down a sidewalk that was all but empty. Knowing what’s important, people were staying home.