Memento Mori

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I keep trying to figure out how to write about life anymore. Out here on the farm, it’s a little too normal. Yes, pandemic is in every headline, pictures of panic and empty shelves everywhere. The little box o’ sadness offers distant outrage at abject failures of leadership, at finger-pointing and me-first failures of civil responsibility. And the streets, when I do go to town, are emptier than you’d expect on such a bright spring day. But life on the farm goes on, and the Co-op is genial and well-stocked with fruits and vegetables. Only one shelf – flour and baking ingredients – is wiped curiously clean.

It’s what I imagine life during wartime must feel like – the statistics we cannot internalize: thousands dead, hundreds of thousands infected, and the uncertainty whether and how quickly those numbers will blossom into the millions. We all know someone who knows someone personally afflicted, and we all know many who are struggling to make do in this wartime economy. Many were struggling even before this all came down upon us and are staring destitution close in the eyes.

But for many of us, life goes on with an unnatural normality. Sure, we do what we can. In the movies, you see ladies selling war bonds, kids with wagons collecting scrap, young men running and jumping to civil defense drills. Mothers carefully taping window shades to ensure that no stray light betrays the city below to marauding bombers at night.

Here, we wash our hands obsessively to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and learn to be reflexive about our six foot circle of social distancing (a shoo-in for 2020’s word of the year, if ever there was one). We buy gift certificates and season passes for the local theater. We check in on friends.

I try to combine civic responsibility with indulgence, making it into town once a day for coffee at arm’s length from Velocity and a slice or two of pizza from Waterfront. It’s to help keep them both going, and I try to be nonchalant about leaving as big a tip as feels comfortable. Then I pick a piece of driftwood on that bit of shoreline at the end of Tyler St. to sit and gaze out at the loveliness of the place while I enjoy my lunch.

But the “new normal” feels a little too normal for what are clearly perilous times. Even after we’ve flattened the curve, after that war is won, we’ll face the economic devastation that’s going to crawl through the communities of this country like plague and famine following any conflict. We’ve already failed to protect the poorest and most vulnerable among us, and they will be the ones twice flayed by what comes next. 

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The thing is, I don’t see any of this, not first-hand. And it’s so hard to stay focused on it when everything is just PowerPoint graphs with hockey-stick inflection points and a legend that says “Things go to hell in a handbasket here.” I know I’m in a bubble within a bubble – privileged and protected in ways I can’t even see. As I said, life on the farm is frighteningly normal. Food is bountiful and everyone is busy with their work. My greatest personal peril has been trying to stay out of the way while the gang assembled a walk in cooler we acquired in trade for grazing privileges last summer. (In times like these, “Local Farm Founder Crushed by Falling Cooler Panel” wouldn’t have even made the front page of the town paper.)

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On yesterday morning’s ramble, Blue and I made our way up through the woods to an old abandoned access road that divides the farm’s North 20. Spring had not waited for her alarm clock that morning, but bounded out of bed early to dress the fields in a light, dew-drenched fog. 

I was looking for an old encampment there that I’d stumbled upon when we first bought that acreage: a tent, some half-buried sleeping bags, a plastic bin of men’s clothing rifled through and disassembled by the local fauna.

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I’ve never let myself get too close when I wander that area; it’s long-abandoned, but has always had the haunted feel to it that abandoned places do. Today though, I forced myself to take a closer look, to examine the traces left of a life from which the bottom has dropped out. I have always been a coward, but I wanted a closer peek at the memento mori all around us.

Among the beer and crushed quarts of motor oil I found a child’s Cinderella cup. And there, under the tarp, was a little woven basket and stuffed animal. A naked Barbie, head twisted backwards and eyes frozen open like death, stared into the salal, where the decayed remains of a red and yellow polka dot bra hung in tatters.

I tried to let myself sit with the discomfort of the place. A family had lived here. Even amid the peace and prosperity of our great nation this tent and this tarp was, for a period, someone’s childhood. Long before COVID-19 bought us a ticket for this hellbound handbasket we’ve so willingly climbed into.

I know, I know – we have so many invisible homeless, those sheltering in a wavering string above the bike path into town, those permanently bivouacked in protected corners of our beach. I have at least one friend who lives in her car. And I’m a pathetic snowflake for being so caught up in one unknowable story.

But it’s that connection to a single story that draws in our humanity. That literally puts a face on an unfathomable crisis. People so often quote Stalin as having observed that “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” Without that personal connection it’s too easy to glaze over at the numbers and switch over to the latest episode of The Bachelor (if you’re into that sort of thing) or The Witcholorian or whatever. 

Crouching there by that abandoned tent and the ruins of someone’s childhood was my attempt to turn Stalin on his head, to try and see the personal tragedy in those unfathomable numbers coming to us from the daily news.

So what am I going to do? I don’t know yet. But I promise I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, keep checking in on friends, and keep washing your hands (as a parting gift, I give you this link to twenty-second hand-washing alternatives to Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. You’re welcome.)

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