Pandemic Journal/ By Thomas Swick
The timing of this virus is interesting: It’s during Lent, so in a way we’re all Catholics now, giving up things we love and becoming, presumably, more introspective. But it’s also at a time of the year when we want to be outside, especially here in Florida, where heat and humidity are just around the corner.
Yesterday I started reading Curzio Malaparte’s Kaputt. More than the rejuvenated relevance of the title, I like the reminder that the world has been in far worse shape.
I used to think that, in times like these, readers had a distinct advantage. And we do. But one eventually gets tired of reading. The people with the true advantage are writers, for writing about a difficult situation is a way to get through it. (See Malaparte.) Who was the writer who wondered how non-writers were able to survive day to day? *
We have entered a strange time in which the most socially responsible thing you can do is keep to yourself. My envy of recluses at the moment is equal to my pity for hypochondriacs.
But at least now, staying at home is not accompanied by FOMO.
An email from a PR person, wondering if I’m working on any “staying in” stories and if so, do I “feel Bonterra’s organically grown wines are a fit.”
Any wine, or alcohol for that matter, would seem a good fit right now. A friend posted on Facebook a letter that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote while quarantined in the South of France during the Spanish influenza in 1918. After being told that households should have a month’s worth of supplies, he and Zelda “stocked up on red wine, whiskey, rum, vermouth, absinthe, white wine, sherry, gin, and lord, if we need it, brandy.”
Drove downtown to pick up some takeout food. The main street looked like it was getting ready for a hurricane – the sidewalks mostly empty – and no one had bothered to shutter their shops. Back home we found a note from our neighbors, telling us they were heading off on their boat and asking if we could water their plants. Boaters may be in an even better position than writers.
Another dull, glorious weekend. Saturday we drove to the beach, curious to see it empty on a bright spring afternoon. Two cruise ships floated idly offshore, spotting the double-blue canvas with white. I took a picture of one of them as it smudged the sky with a plume of black smoke.
This morning I got up early for senior shopping at Publix. Everyone in the produce section seemed to be wearing gloves, except me. Some people wore masks. There was a sad, subdued urgency in the air, different from a hurricane, when people of all ages jostle for supplies; now there’s a personal anxiety, an uneasy feeling of being targeted. The very fact that a special hour has been set aside for seniors highlights our vulnerability and, like ghettoization, creates a glum community.
“BORING? NOT BEANS.” The headline in the Tropical Life section of today’s Miami Herald reminded me of the first issue of Zycie Warszawy that appeared in Poland after the imposition of martial law in 1981. It carried an article about oats, one of the few foods that was still in ample supply. The paper’s challenged food writer wrote about how they give us beautiful skin and hair as well as a regular stomach.
My alma mater sent out a message that included a thought from St. Augustine: “Bad times, hard times, this is what people keep saying; but let us live well, and times shall be good. We are the times: Such as we are, such are the times.”
Today, Saturday, there is a strange stillness; it’s as if the world is taking a long nap. I am so desperate for outside contact that, yesterday, I scrolled through the People You May Know photos on Facebook and studied every face and bio.
Covid-19 is omnipresent, even in the Herald. “Hockey equipment maker shifts to medical shields” reads a headline in today’s sports section. On the obituary page, one of the death notices ends: “Due to the current global circumstances, the family is unable to host a formal service, and is asking Matthew’s community to honor his legacy through small acts of kindness.”
Trump is calling this a war; apparently he likes the idea of himself as a wartime president, which is strange, considering that he is proving an even worse wartime president than he was a regular president.
But it has struck me that this is the closest I have come to living through a war, exceeding even my experience in Poland with martial law (stan wojenny or “state of war”). There, despite the presence of tanks in the streets, I didn’t feel personally threatened; I had my American passport, like a kind of immunization. After the opening of the borders, I was free to leave. Now I am as susceptible to injury (sickness) and death as anyone – with, clearly, nowhere to go. And it is this, more than all the martial terminology – casualties, frontlines, heroes – that creates a forbidding atmosphere despite the absence of soldiers and the deceptive quiet in the streets. True, I am safe at home; I don’t have to fear a knock at the door. But as soon as I step outside I enter enemy territory or, weirdly, I become the enemy. (It’s estimated that 25 percent of the people infected exhibit no symptoms.) Differentiating this lockdown from a city under siege, and dramatically raising the stakes, is the fact that whenever people go to the store they are putting either themselves at risk or – if they have the virus – their entire community. If you ventured outside during the Blitz you endangered only yourself.
But, as a small blessing, come Easter I can eat chocolate again.
*there have been many
Thomas Swick is a travel writer and journalist, author of „The Joys of Travel and Stories That Illuminate Them” https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25986729-the-joys-of-travel