Our Plague Year: In the beginning. . .

A friend last night suggested that we have no way of knowing how big this will grow in our minds, how monstrous will the disease’s impact be on the imagination. Will we look back ruefully at a disaster that never came? “Remember social distancing, you guys? Remember coronavirus? What was the deal there?” the comedians might quip.

Or we might never forget, we might curse the illness daily, or bless it, or simply always recall it. Another friend suggests that there will be a baby boom in 40 weeks, as we withdraw into our homes. I joke that Corona is a nice name for a girl. Covid for boys. It might be gallows humor. Or I might just be an insensitive prick. It depends not on some character inherent in me or the joke, but on the virus, and what it does.

I grew up in Westchester county, the notoriously condemned hotspot of COVID-19. My parents still live in my hometown of New Rochelle, a mere ten minutes outside of the dystopian “Containment Zone,” where the national guard has been called in to guard a perimeter and nominally aid the affected. I get calls most days from distant friends and acquaintances who have just remembered that. They ask me if my family is all right. I tell them my parents are in remarkably high spirits, that they joke and laugh. My mother lightly refers to the zone as the Zona Corona. My mother, who obsesses over every cough, every sneeze of her loved ones, is cool as a cucumber in light of a global pandemic.

Likewise, though my friends are fretting away, stockpiling groceries and cancelling events, I find myself oddly unaffected by the thought of the disease coming for me. Oh, I take precautions, I limit my contact with crowds, I protect people around me, I wash my hands for the requisite time while singing verses of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” But I’m not afraid. Everyone around me is afraid, and I’m not, and I don’t know why.

My wife thinks it has something to do with my long life as a fearful and anxious person, the time I spent in therapists’ offices and in-patient treatment facilities talking about my irrational fears of failure and disappointment. She means that I’ve spent a long time learning how to handle and manage my and others’ anxieties, but I like to imagine she means that there is some sort of economy of fright. In this view, I am as much a spendthrift of fear as I am of money, throwing it away on friends, on small matters, never saving up for an emergency that might truly warrant its expenditure.

If there is a psychological explanation, I don’t think it lies in my history of anxiety, but in my history of opposition to all that is good for me. I have always screamed “No” in the face of my best interests. As I said, I don’t know why I’m not afraid, but I do know I’m angry. I’m angry at all my friends’ careful preparations and timidities. I’m angry at each verse of Dylan’s song as it comes and goes above my soapy hands. I am angry at the governments and their various responses to people in sickness and need. I’m angry at the Virus. I’m angry at the Fear.

I have been feared. When I had my first struggles with depression and psychosis, I was living overseas, and my sister was the closest family member. She’d hear my litany of miserable ramblings and her eyes would go wide and she’d say, “You sound crazy.” I’d sob. Later, as I went through treatments and communities of the mentally ill, as I came to think of the Mad as my people and my comrades, I came to see the demonization of illness as a great evil. We can not help the moments when we are weak and frightened. We can not help the moments when we are miserable and screaming. We can not help the moments when our body breaks away from us, and pursues some other program, of coughing and vomiting and bleeding. And yet we are vilified in those moments, as irresponsible, as foolish, as a danger to others.

And while we must, yes, wash our hands and not touch our faces and socially distance and buy groceries in bulk, I think we must also say no. We have forgotten that an appropriate response to crisis is to pray, and we have forgotten that prayer can be an anguished refusal, an enormous screaming “No!”

No, I refuse to fear my own hands and their desire for my face.
No, I refuse to view my neighbor as a vector of infection.
No, I refuse to let the realm of the microbe rob me of my humanity.
No, I refuse to abandon the weak and the dying to their fate.
No, I refuse to care for my body before I care for yours.

One day this will all be over. One day all will be well. One day all who have survived will gather together, and lovingly raise our hands to each other’s faces and wipe away the tears.

Published by Mordecai Martin

A luftmensch, a Jew, a way with words, all in one.

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