By now people are dying. Many already have, and more will join them. So far, we are the lucky ones. The survivors bearing witness to this once in a generation phenomenon. Human mortality, front and center and fading. The centers of outbreak expand into a diaspora of fatality that almost looks like lace, showing the biologic tendency towards beauty, even in those places one would least expect it.
In the parks you wouldn’t think it was anything other than a weekend. The breezy days of early spring sun still show a priority of Vitamin D over quarantine, but we shall see what happens. Already in Austria and Rome, one is banned from going to the park, but not yet in Berlin. Here we can still go and see the bluebells blossoming, signs of spring after a winter that hardly happened. Finally humans are experiencing the feverish respiration the earth has been suffering since some decades. Finally we are feeling the impact of our movement and expansion, our desire unending.
By now the frenzy has taken root; markets and pharmacies are overloaded with customers and there is a definite distinction between those with a primary sense of self-interest and those with a community mind. People are aggressive and impatient, and likewise occasionally attempt to make light of it all. A cashier in the grocery store jokes about selling a roll of toilet paper for 25 euros, and I tell him I appreciate his sense of humor. I hope his light heart preserves his immune system, because it seems the virus is already among us, most especially in these condensed human gatherings of fearful acquisition.
With the streets as full as if it was a holiday it seems the only people still going to work are those paid hourly in commerce, cashiers and the like, day laborers, postal men delivering all the packages of supplies to people that are stock-piling. And though I look on with a certain amount of detachment and even black-humored amusement at this open air social experiment, I myself buy a 5 kilo bag of rice and 3 kilos of red lentils, and 2 kilos of flour and yeast, for of course they are already sold out of bread. The man at the Lebanese dry goods shop tells me that they wholesale wine, and if shit hits the fan, they have 60,000 bottles in stock. We both smile in a strange way that I anticipate will become more common as the days and weeks to come.
The mixture of fear and reality is like a big soup pot of confused intuition. For while I have the urge to organize elicit dinner parties amongst close friends, there is a growing pressure that really seems to indicate isolation as the only action that makes sense. Of course I do not want to increase the transmission of the virus, but I also see it as vaguely, and unfortunately, inevitable. Which unfortunately reduces us to a very palpable feeling of ‘every man for themself.’ What do we sacrifice for our survival? What is the human cost of our physical health? For now the weather continues to be beautiful and spring-like, a strange contrast to all the foreboding societal pressures.
“We call it collective resilience.”
There arise the question, of whether faith is also contagious. I’ve seen a few simple smiles, people enjoying the gift of time despite it all, elbow bumping in the park with a wry sense of humor. Children ignorantly playing with parents who would otherwise be at work, here in these spontaneous moments of coming together. It is a bittersweet bright side, as is the lack of traffic. Once in a generation, once in a lifetime, we all share the same challenge, we are all in it together.
Starts to remind me of one night a long time ago when we lost the war. It was only a restaurant kitchen, after all, but people made it seem more real. There was miscommunication, lack of organization, and then suddenly we were so much further behind than we ever were ahead. Once one end of the chain got backed up, so did everything else behind us. The machine broke, and we were left scrambling around with pieces.
Tell me what you need, I said. (Despite all our systems, we were forced to resort to direct communication). Like this I worked on, diligent and numb. If we already lost the war, what good would it do to become hysterical? Though strangely, calm fortitude was the last thing most people want to encounter when they are already in a panic.
In this time, the old birds came back, because construction has stopped. We can hear again. The mood is somber at the cafe, but the birds are singing, and the willow has green buds again. We will get through this, that is for sure, but also as sure is that the world will never feel the same way again.
Impotence, in the face of this siege. Bodies piling up outside of churches, no one to dig the holes, no one allowed in. Each body takes over an hour to burn, and there are far more than 24 in each day. He sent his father to the hospital on Saturday, his mother on Sunday. They both died on Tuesday. Then he was quarantined.
At 9pm on a Monday evening in Berlin the trains are nearly empty. Earlier, at the cafe, a woman walked by and shot a dirty look at the three Italians sitting outside exactly one and half meters apart drinking aperitifs and smoking. She was clearly not pleased to have a beating social heart as a neighbor, God forbid, it could be contagious, and thus she returned to her apartment to commiserate judgment alone surrounded by sanitized surfaces. Before I leave I buy a croissant to have the next morning; almost feels like a strange act of resistance. Or perhaps more a consolation. For I don’t know when I will see them again.
It was the last day in the world today. Not the last day of the world, but in. Everything is closing down, despite the sunshine, despite our social hearts beating. In the mixture of sun and shadow I feel a slight fever, and am forced to wonder what I am harboring in my resilience.
I go to the Asian market and buy dried mushrooms and spices. I go to the outdoor Turkish market, and it is half-dismantled, but there are still a good number of vendors there, and the ones with bright eyes are more than willing to talk. Nobody knows what is going on, when they will be shut down, but as I am leaving I hear someone say that the big department stores are closing, and it is only a matter of time.
I wonder how many piles of fruits and vegetables will be left to rot in piles on the asphalt. I wonder how many crops will be left on their vines in the coming time, due to economic fallout. It is not even yet fully spring, but people are already predicting a Great Depression, another one.
Like this our worlds become smaller. We move back in time to a point when we weren’t allowed to go on public transportation alone, or drive, and suddenly we are again on foot with local parks and neighbors. On the continent we are suddenly given the opportunity to see what it really means, to be existing within particular borders. The French response, versus the Austrian, or the Italian, or the German. We place our faith in what we must, that which is local, and it warms my heart to see us all in the sunshine lining the banks of the canal just like it was any other day, even though it isn’t just any other day, and we all know it.
In the meantime I can’t help but feel that this is part of the lesson, for all of us. Everyday reality is the only thing we have, a lack of plans in the midst of spring’s onset. How long has it been, since we’ve had no plans? Since we haven’t even been able to make a plan? Since all our plans and dreams have been canceled? One woman said she went to three shops looking for toilet paper and didn’t find any. But one can always use pages of a book! The Bible, she says, has very soft paper.
A few weeks ago when this was only affecting China a friend suggested that this might be just a conspiracy of sorts, biowarfare set upon the Chinese to topple their economy. While this still remains a possibility, if that were the case, it show a definite lack of foresight in regards to the workings of biology, because of course such a thing would spread indiscriminately, quickly overtaking in power its human makers, as it has.
We have not yet begun to really grieve what was lost, but it is significant. It is a whole world, accessible at our fingertips, at a click. The possibly to go anywhere in the world, see people all the time, participate in everything. All those places the old explorers used to risk their lives for, the places one reads about in storybooks. The beaches, the sunsets, the paintings of the old masters. Mountains, jungles, opera concerts. All of it. Cancelled or postponed, until some future date that may be much further in the future than we even want to contemplate.
In this time, distance is real.