Late one night I read the announcement on the parish Facebook page that there would be no Easter services this year. The moment had the acute precision of a pin meeting a balloon. I wonder if I had been holding myself together all along.
I am far from pious though my faith (bewilderingly) remains impervious to neglect, inquiry and disillusionment. I have let go of things. But I hold on to Easter as the keystone, the thing that makes sense of Christmas. Both are times for sitting in the dark, safely.
Over the past couple months I have taken in how the virus works, what it does to the human body, the stories of pain and dread, the inequities that have been compounded, the leaders who took too long, the stream of updates on what is no longer allowed. Time compresses and dilates at once: an acute density of events at a point on a field that stretches beyond sight. It is metacosmic, almost trippy.
We will not be gathering for Mass at Easter: a disruption that has not happened in my lifetime. It suddenly seemed to carry meaning beyond liturgical practice.
In the grip of a pandemic it is Good Friday, indefinitely. The darkness of anticipation no longer feels safe without end.
This virus has been so thorough that it has penetrated time itself, reconfiguring its material.
Shabbat Shalom friends. This week has gone on for 2 years, so please remember to drink water, breathe, & look after yourselves and each other. Tonight I light candles with kindness & reciprocity in mind. We are together in this. May this Shabbat bring you peace. May you be loved.
— daddy trejo (@derridalicious) March 27, 2020
does anyone remember monday which was also five years ago
— Scott Ludlam (@Scottludlam) March 27, 2020
Anyone else feeling like a seriously huge glass of wine right about now? Days feel like weeks, weeks feel like months. I've aged horrifically since my last birthday; will be totally grey at the next one soon
— Amy Coopes (@coopesdetat) March 27, 2020
The things that mark our progress through the day: an alarm clock, the trumpet-burst of a suburban train, the clang of a city tram, a school bell. The acts of leaving and arriving take place in an ever smaller radius; we are become archipelagoes.
In the first week of March I was casually slipping extra items into the shopping basket. In the second week I stood mid-aisle in front of long-life milk, unable to solve for x where x= amount of food / time (y). In the third week my practical placement at the zoo was postponed indefinitely. We made the call to keep our son home from school. In the fourth week we cancelled a holiday to Bright that had been booked last November (the same month that this novel coronavirus made the jump into humans). It is still only March as I write.
The sense of simultaneity that technology enables bends—captured in the dismay that Italians felt as they shuttered their cities and the rest of the world did not do the same. ‘I am writing from your future,’ Roman novelist Francesca Melandri addressed fellow Europeans. ‘We are now where you will be in a few days. We are but a few steps ahead of you in the path of time, just like Wuhan was a few weeks ahead of us.’
I thought this had been published a few weeks ago but check the date and it is only four days in the past from what was the future.
I start counting in covid time. From exposure to the manifestation of symptoms: five to six days. From onset of symptoms to critical breathing difficulty: seven to 10 days. The consensus for self-isolation lands on 14 days. The lag between transmission and the need for a ventilator is described as a long fuse. I track time—only loosely, I tell myself—after any of us gets back home from the supermarket or after a walk or bike ride.
Everything becomes charged. The cobbled together dinner, the video-conferences that my husband takes from his desk, access to utilities, an outdoor yard. I feel the sharp edge of lives that run parallel to mine: why should I be so lucky?
I try not to dwell on the accumulation of choices and non choices that brings me to the point where a pandemic hits. What I thought had been a circuitous life flattens to a line. I perceive the physical distance between me and my birth-family in a new way; I will not be able to catch a flight if anything happened.
I read the text in a comic series drawn by Stacy Gougoulis for ABC Life: ‘We are learning what it’s like to live through history; it turns out you just get swept along.’ A burnt orange leaf fixed mid-air on the screen.
I used to think that acting before knowing things for certain was the riskier proposition. But this, too, has been flipped sideways. Maybe waiting to be sure had never been so safe.
What if delay was only ever a mode of control rather than circumspection? It would make sense of reluctant responses to welfare, climate change and asylum-seeking. It is also how human beings are drained of their will for life, whether on borrowed shores or inland.
If bureaucratic inertia was mostly potentially fatal before, that potential is realised now. The principal matter for governing becomes clear.
A respiratory disease moving at speed through populations tugs at the veil: there had always been enough money to help those in need. And we should.
Time may have been the master’s tool—but the arc of its wielding has been intercepted by a virion not more than 0.0002 millimetres.
The hours accumulate, straining the membrane of our lives, our home. There is only interminable time and minutiae to fill it. I read something about socio-emotional selectivity theory and wonder what happens to our sense of motivation when subjective sense of time goes awry.
The old seafarers used to navigate by calculating the angular distance between the horizon and a celestial object. And I think: Is time a bit like that—a horizon? Is that why uncertainty can feel worse than grief, having no lines to cross?
Long-ago posts and photos that turn up as ‘memories’ on my social media now seem missives from another galaxy, with the immediacy of light that arrives from a vast distance. We were never innocent. Yet the past feels golden.
I notice my friends re-posting memories of convivial gatherings and faraway places, in lieu of more immediate updates. Is that why we feel dissonant—the mechanics of memory-making grinding at nothing? What would it mean to be caught in a nostalgic loop as we wait to un-pause, caught in the ever-present present?
I’d like to think that we might recover a more wholesome attentiveness, the intense focus of a child on just about anything, as well as delight. But then I stop short, torn by how inane this sounds as thousands of people lay dying even as I wonder at the kind of life we will have preserved after the doctors, nurses, cleaners, drivers and shelf-stackers have done their jobs.
Still we remain. The sun rises and sets and rises and sets, which feels rude under the circumstances. The moon continues its orbit, phase to phase.
How do we reconcile ourselves with the dimensions of a paradox: where things will likely remain the same and also constantly shift for an unknown duration? How will we endure the change of seasons suspended, nature carrying on without us—visibly, palpably?
I never was able to reorient myself after the summer we lost. It will be winter sooner than we’d rather. Maybe we will have what feels like a very long winter.
But time has altered in a positive way, too. From the identification of a new coronavirus last December, to the publication of its genetic sequence as open data in January, to the preparation of diagnostic tests in the same month, to scientists being able to grow live samples of the virus—critical to lines of investigation that have led to pre-clinical trials for vaccine candidates in April—this is all at an unprecedented pace. The vaccine for the SARS outbreak early this century took 20 months to get to clinical trial.
So it is a pregnant darkness we are in, where life continues to hold promise despite a monotonous dread. The fallow ground, untilled, seeds unsown, but not empty.
I once thought that this sense of expectation is what leavens the devastation on Good Friday, heightens the joy at Christmas. I am now finding that hope is at its plainest—and purest—in the throes of uncertainty.