Decades ago I read the magically surreal Garcia Marquez classic with a sense of suspended admiration and disbelief. It was magical and real for sure, but it also seemed like such an impossibility. Last week while staring at a bookcase I rarely take the time to notice, I saw the tattered spine. It was shelved conveniently next to Camus’ “The Plague.” Haven’t we evolved beyond global plagues and epidemics? Hadn’t science buried those primitive catastrophes, and forced us to confront (and ignore) our more capitalistic instincts like war, globalization and climate change? I guess not. In fact, our broadly hedonistic dispositions, and naïve arrogance, has merely blinded us from the basic patterns of history. And so here we are, sequestered in our homes, fingers crossed that we’ll avoid Corona, or at least make it through an inevitable infection. Scarier still, nobody knows with any confidence what the future holds. Politicians, medical professionals, civic and business leaders are largely just as blind to the future as any of us who read and watch the news vigorously. There are infinite scenarios for resolution. Many of them seem feasible, but none of them seem concrete enough to provide anything akin to certainty.
There are, however, quite a few things to be grateful for. We live in a time when the history of film and TV is now accessible directly in our living rooms. We can stream virtually any song, album, millions of live shows or remixes, directly to phones, computers and wireless speakers. The history of literature is now just a download away. Imagine that it’s as if we have been preparing for this since we started distancing ourselves from the natural world.
We can now not only speak to our estranged love ones and friends, but we can also see them as well, just like in a 70’s sci-fi movie. Life can now be a massive Hollywood Squares reunion at almost any time of the day. We are alone, but at least we’re alone together. A year ago, “alone together” was a sort of brutal acceptance of our own internet addictions and our collective inability to put down our devices and communicate directly. Today, that alienating instinct has morphed into a collective glue. All of these optional communal experiences (concerts, movies at theaters, sporting events, or meals at restaurants) that we bypassed for self-imposed isolation now seem like distant memories.
How could we have taken them for granted for so long? How could we have traded good old-fashioned human interaction, whenever, wherever for intentional self-exile with asynchronous lightly tethered human connections? Although there are only a few bright spots to date, the much-reduced pain that we are inflicting on the environment seems to be an important one. The skies seem unusually clear. Very few cars are on the roads, many factories are shut down, and refineries and other fossil fuel production is vastly diminished. Of course, with it comes mass unemployment, increased homelessness, and illness.
I have no answers, but have been finding relief in the arts. In reality I always find relief there: music, film, books and TV. Art is life’s great distraction, even though I acknowledge that it is a privilege while so many are struggling in so many ways. But something funny is happening.
Perhaps it has taken this harsh realization to best understand that connection and community is the most important thing for all of us. Just a few months ago we buried ourselves in screens ignoring the power of the freedom of being able to go wherever we want and gather with whomever we chose. Musicians are now entertaining starving fans on the social nets and other facilitating platforms. People are gathering similarly to meditate, exercise, dance and even drink. I suppose the planet needed a break. We all needed a break to understand all that can be taken away so quickly.
Right before we shut everything down, albeit a bit too late, I went to Cuba and wandered the streets of Havana all day and night for a week. Cubans live out in the streets of their community, on stoops, and parks and bars interacting, laughing and dancing and being in an unhurried state of contentment. There isn’t much internet there, and as such we put our phones away, signed off of Netflix and just kind of slid back in time. The country is poor, but there is art everywhere. There is live music in every bar, paintings and murals are everywhere, and there seemed to be a general sense of optimism among the people within their simplicity. Out of deprivation, creativity thrives. There was a sense that things can only get better. Cuba looks like Miami, but under the surface it is the polar opposite.
Who knows how long we’ll have to merely sit think about the world we want to have when the dust settles and we are blessed again with personal choice? Until then, we should take a beat and bathe in what is a simpler way to be. Simplicity is often hard to appreciate, especially when faced with complexity and “progress.” Every generation seems to think that things were better when they were younger. In part it is merely nostalgia that we mistake for truth. On the other hand, the world has definitely abandoned community for capitalism.
As we stare into the unknown, there is nothing better than a great song, or story, a home cooked meal, the sun warming your body, or disappearing into the horizon or genuine human interaction. Moving slowly through life makes it last longer. At some point I think we lost that plot. Once we clear the last case of Corona, will we forget everything we learned, or will we move forward with purpose and desire to be better to each other and the planet? Nothing will ever be the same, but perhaps that will be a good thing. This time will go down as one of those rare collective memories that we share as a species. I hope this is the grinding pause we have been pushing ourselves to find for the past hundred years. If not, this will not be last time we are faced with some pretty obvious realities.
In 1980 David Byrne pondered the question “How did I get here?” on “Once In a Lifetime.” Forty years later Byrne is perhaps even more relevant than he was forty years ago. I doubt he was imagining this current reality but who knows maybe he was: “Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down / Letting the days go by, water flowing underground / Into the blue again after the money’s gone / Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground.”
Be kind. Be Calm. Be Curious.