The Plague

It’s like a fire came through here, even though everything is concrete and asphalt. Whatever it was, it reduced everything to one or two rooms, concealed behind masks, wearing protective clothing like prison uniforms. My friends were made crazy, and so was I, burrowing into ourselves, creatures I no longer recognize. We are like the abandoned buildings of bankrupt businesses, withdrawing behind curtains, looking outside and seeing only a strange desert. The only time I’m not alone is when I leave this empty city, traveling in landscapes, listening to the words coming out of speakers in my metal travel pod. These voices are my new friends, reliable, regular, opinionated but never threatened, storytellers. As I drive among these hills, under the sky, they comfort me, never judging and never giving advice. There is always sunlight here, and these places on the road are never empty. There is nothing I can do for anyone.


Revelations

Living through the plague and having cancer at the same time is sort of like entering a mysterious room where all the doors and windows are locked, then finding at the back of the room a strange door. Behind that door is another room, smaller, with fewer doors and windows. You get used to the fact that there are at least two exits between you and anything resembling the world outside.


My body started mysteriously falling apart just before Covid descended. It began with my hands and wrists, and gradually it spread to my whole being, until I could barely stand without reaching desperately for breath.


I had ways been proud of my youthful appearance, my enduring health and stamina and ability to heal quickly those rare times I was injured or sick. When people told me they couldn’t believe I was as old as my age I’d tell them smugly, almost arrogantly, that it ran in my family. Perhaps I thought I’d never truly get old, or even die. At seventy most people saw me as fifty, and until this turning I’d mostly felt the way I looked. 


In those first months, just when I’d passed the age of seventy, I assumed that  the vicissitudes of age had finally caught up with me. The work I’d done for a living had taken its deep toll on my body. My shoulders were a tight mess, the tips of my fingers had grown numb with the effects of carpel tunnel, and when I took out my bike for the first time in the Spring I had trouble lifting my leg high enough to mount. My plans for the future, the paying off of debt and for another sort of life were all in serious question. Suddenly the question of mortality descended like a mysterious spirit taking possession of my bones.


One day early on in the pandemic, before things became really dire and after the panic closed down most of the tourist businesses and bars I took a walk into the center of my city to find a public mailbox and to appreciate the beauty of an early spring day in Santa Fe. The streets were mostly quiet, except for occasional cruisers in huge pickup trucks and a flotilla of motorcycles that wove themselves in circles around the Plaza. A few couples and isolated characters wandered like me, past closed galleries and restaurants, museums and churches, appreciating outside of our dwellings the blossoming trees and an opportunity to briefly breath without our masks and appreciate their scents in the open air. As I walked I listened to podcasts of Zen talks from Mount Tremper in New York while contemplating my own conflicts and contradictions in regards to the present and the future. 


Although the final diagnoses wasn’t yet in I could see that the world around me was in straights that reflected my own distress. All that was familiar had changed.  


It took months to find answers, the search delayed by the plague, as alarms were sounded and offices for inquiry and treatment were closed down. At long last I was diagnosed with cancer and by that time my hands were severely crippled and I was no longer able to work. As the plague spread its shadow across the land I was, like most of us, forced to retreat into my own private wilderness.


Meanwhile, as we careened toward an election and a clash of alternate realities, the deeper shadows of collective victimization had become the undercurrent of an American culture overcome by grievance fed by media madmen. America was sicker than I was. The creeping diseases that we’d been feeding for decades had broken fully to the surface and the future filled with hope had been replaced with a question of survival. Most of us prayed that whatever was overcoming us would just end, but it had become harder to see the future beyond the violence, the isolation and the plague.  


My birthdate is the same as Thomas Jefferson’s, April 13th. From what I’ve read, I can personally relate to his personality of restless passions and contradictions. Particularly familiar to me is a sense that my vision far exceeds my own grasp. Jefferson was a privileged and prosperous inheritor of great wealth in an economy based on slavery. As an obsessive tabulator of facts and figures and an elevated member of a race and culture that considered itself inherently superior to all others, his restless mind wouldn’t allow him to reside in any fixed station. His thoughts propelled him toward an ideal world – nonexistent in his time, where every human being had – by virtue of being, inherent and inalienable rights. His was a world where the term ‘human being’ hadn’t yet reached an equitable definition. I live in a different world, where the notion that the welfare of one is inseparable from the welfare of the whole is contradicted daily. As a nation we worship the pursuit of personal wealth as the perfect embodiment of pure ego and self interest, substantially devoid of considerations that transcend the possession of individual power and the illusion of control. We have, in fact, managed to turn every ideal taught in our various catechisms of church and school entirely on their head. 


Now, one year since the plague jumped us I’m looking at a civilization that is slowly coming apart. Although the traffic is once again flowing as people strive to maintain some kind of life as usual, there are more closed and abandoned businesses, empty real estate and a pervasive feeling of alienation and wistful uncertainty. Friendships have become more distant and physical contact still mostly a wishful dream. The brief month-long sigh that so many of us felt after the election is replaced already by the anger and dread and fallout promoted leading up to it. Even if the Covid shadow passes us by we’ll still be left with the deeper shadows of racism, bigotry and general thuggery at the heart of the long American nightmare. The monster has been unleashed and is tearing out our heart. The next two years will most likely resemble the past five years. We are in parallel acts of slowly dying and transforming as a culture and the serpent is not about to let us off the cross. 


When I look in the mirror I see an emaciated old man, someone who has aged ten years in one. There are red rings around my eyes, my teeth and gums are hurting, I look like a starving inmate. At the same time the doctors tell me that my numbers are improving. My stamina is up. My hands are still crippled but may be slowly getting better month by month.  I still can’t walk very far and I can’t get on my bicycle. Soon I’ll be seeking another place to live, and it may be somewhere out on the road.


We are told as Americans that there’s a light at the end of this tunnel, that our numbers are improving. I’m not sure what the numbers mean anymore. I’ve been on the list for a vaccination for several months but haven’t been given a date. That all appears distant and unreal, more than two exit doors and a couple of hallways away. Whenever I hear the phrase ‘back to normal’ it evokes a feeling of mass delusion. Life is something that passes quickly, day by day.


I’ll keep in touch.
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