I used to think there could be nothing lonelier than boating, but these days, I have reconsidered.
I used to think I could do without. Without a partner, a child, a family making a ruckus in my clean house. Now, I turn off the news and scrub one more cupboard, empty it of all things that have been neglected, forgotten, expired.
There was even a neighbor once, more religious than anyone else I knew, who made “Rapture kits” and showed me where she stashed them.
How she must have sensed, even then, my faith too frail to save me. How she must have known, just by looking at me, I’d be among the ones God chose to leave behind.
Quarantine, when I calm down enough to realize, is not much different than my everyday life. I busy myself in the house, read books, watch tv, make my dinner and eat it alone while doing a crossword puzzle. Finding the solutions word by word.
That’s not entirely true. My dog joins me, watches from afar and close up, has faith that something good always wins out in the end.
In an essay my student submits for class, he explains that “quarantine” comes from the Italian quaranta giorni, meaning “a space of forty days.” In the 1600s, a ship suspected of carrying disease was required to wait forty days in port before unloading.
For us, no comparable time has passed. Everyday life continues apace, albeit quieter. Everyone seems to sleep a little bit more but a little less well. My love and I quip how naturally quarantine comes to our cats—prodigies of the lazy day, safe-harboring in a warm pile of laundry.
But when exactly did the story change? One morning newscasters spoke calmly, looked directly into the cameras as they said: Abundance of caution. Another morning—was it maybe the very next day?—a palpable strain as they mentioned a new phrase: Shelter in place, we heard them say.
Forty days and forty nights, Moses fasted on Sinai to receive the ten commandments.
Forty days and nights, Jesus fasted in the wilderness while battling his demons.
Forty days and forty nights, the sky rained while Noah steered his cargo through the flood.
Forty years, my people wandered in the desert to the promised land.
Forty, it turns out, means a long, long time.
Or it means the time it takes for a world to be purged, a world to be renewed.
My first twenty years their own kind of quarantine—childhood of scritch and scuttle, of hiding from others and myself. Every year the ashes sticky on my forehead, the forty-day promise to forego all sweets, followed by the Easter basket bellyache. How did I never learn?
It’s been a fortnight now since my love came home, training out-of-state for her new job. We wake in the dark in the all-too-quiet—the missing swish of traffic, the missing blare of horns. A coxswain guiding her crew north along the waterway—“Pull! Pull!” How her voice rose toward our window every morning: time reset, renewed.
Once you notice something’s missing, is that the same as missing it?
My mom’s senior living facility has gone on lockdown for at least two weeks. No visitors, no dining room, no activities, no leaving the grounds. The residents must all “focus your time in your own apartments.” The staff calls every day to take meal orders, check in, but these elders, many of them in their nineties—accustomed to their benign routines of exercise class, book club, bus trip to Trader Joe’s, dinner with a rotating group of friends—are now isolated in small cubbyholes.
Lucky for us, my mom has a ground-level apartment with a sliding door to her small patio garden. I can still drive up to the curb, deposit groceries behind her fence, lean back against my car and talk to her while she leans in her doorway. Her poodle, Maggie, waddles up to the gate, whines at me through the wire, glances back at my mom as if to ask why isn’t she coming in?
My mom tosses me the newspaper; I place a jar of chicken soup on the fence railing for her to fetch when I’m gone. So far, we laugh and laugh. We give each other virtual hugs and throw dry kisses into the air.
I haven’t touched another human being in a fortnight. I didn’t know I would miss it so much, even those quick hugs that don’t mean a thing.
I opened my arms wide, leaned forward, then caught myself in time. Blushing as I stepped back, I said, “Oh, Zach! I’m so proud of you! I wish I could hug you right now.”
“It’s OK,” he said, shrugging, setting his notebook down. “I’m not afraid.” Then, he opened his arms wide, too.
For a little while, we stood that way, like two anhingas drying our wings in the sun. How South Floridian of us. Finally, we clasped them around each other, and that’s when I felt it—the brace in embrace. Our eyes gleamed a little when we let go.
Braces, back then, were medieval clunky things, with headgears and rubber bands constantly tightened. As a result, I often had headaches and rarely smiled for two years; when I accidently bared my teeth, the braces gleamed like railroad tracks. Metal mouth. I spent long afternoons in my room alone, spinning Simon and Garfunkel on my pink turntable, gazing mournfully out my window as if I were an anchorite, walled up in solitude.
Now I’ve been to an orthodontist again because my teeth are shifting like my father’s did, a lower canine jutting out of line, poor posture in the gum. My father’s teeth bothered him until the end, insisted on attention. Even in the nursing home, he took out his partial denture at night, soaked it in fizzy water, returned it to its place the morning. One thing he could still do.
Until he couldn’t anymore. Then my mother needed to help, holding his single tooth like a relic, brushing it carefully, placing her hands, ungloved, in his mouth. And yet—even then, with all this care to the small details of keeping a body intact—his last breath gasped through the hole his bridge left behind.
“I want to watch a movie where no one dies,” I tell my partner as she navigates our Apple TV.
“But they’re all going to die,” comes her measured response. “We just don’t know if the film is going to show it.”
Which is to say: I never had enough faith to be worthy of a cloister. A rogue nun I’d be, like Fraulein Maria—a nun on the run.
Which is to say: Now that all the beaches and boardwalks are closed, we run down side streets before dawn, my love and I—the one thing we can still do.
Which is to say: There are police checkpoints on all the bridges now, reminding us that we live on an island.
John Donne reminded us that we are not islands, though, even when we feel cut off or distanced from the main.
Remember when John Donne wrote, “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved with mankind”? And he was good at faith. He was downright metaphysical.
Which is to say: Today I am diminished by 16,313, and tomorrow I will be diminished further.
Which is to say: I never had braces, but I was still lonely. Also: Though I have no symptoms, I am still afraid.
But Virginia Woolf was right too, when she wrote, in 1929: “If I could catch the feeling I would: the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world.” In 1929, the stock market crashed, much as it is now, leading to the Great Depression.
One by one, the things that make us us are withheld, put in abeyance. I sing with a group called The Threshold Singers; we visit the bedsides of the ill and dying to sing comforting songs. We always strive to blend as one voice, vibrations moving between bodies and keeping us on pitch. Our clients hear our songs but also feel them in their bones. Now, we cannot visit anyone, or get together to sing, as we must maintain too much distance between us.
Yet, people are singing. We’re singing when we wash our hands, to keep our hands lathered for the recommended amount of time. In Italy, people are opening their windows and doors, stepping out onto balconies, singing folk songs and arias. Some recline on a windowsill with a ukulele, others sway with a loved one. In Spain, policemen screech their cars to a halt and jump out with guitars, shout up to the apartments and demand that everyone sing, sing, sing!
When I visited my mom yesterday, a man stood in the parking lot with a violin and an amplified music box, serenading the residents. Elderly women in shawls and coats stood on their patios and balconies, clapped their hands, brought out their drums to play along. Betsy—nearly a hundred years old, a tiny woman with bones thin as a bird’s—began dancing a jig while holding onto the fence. For a few moments, the music wove a net that held us together.
The lyrics pour from my earbuds as I run through vacant streets. First light. Last rites the priest gave to a patient over the phone. News stories swirling in my head again. “Tell me with the Rapture and the reverent in the right, right/ You vitriolic, patriotic, slam fight, bright light.”
Police sirens now, blaring up the beach, forcing pedestrians to clear the widest walking path we have, the widest bike lane, too. Does that make sense? Shouldn’t they be shutting down raves on South Beach, spring-breakers in Tampa Bay?
I try and tend to my own breath, the rhythm of my footfalls—the whole poem of the body, as my poet-friend says. To hear music within I would have to turn off this alt-rock sound, but right now the sound is buffer and balm against the all-too-quiet days.
No lockdown yet, no official shelter-in-place for our state. Just keep running, keep listening, ride the wave of the song. The chorus comes on strong: “It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine).” Repeat, repeat. Teenagers coughing on lettuce and taking selfies in grocery stores. Friends laid off from their jobs. A delayed stimulus package stuck in Congress. Who feels fine?
Maybe the dolphins frolicking now in Venetian canals, since water buses run infrequently and most of the gondolas are gone. As our local traffic trickles to a stop, an end to road kill. No more moments of flinching, then turning away. Fish teem again in places where pleasure-fishing is banned. Cats and iguanas lounge together on our warm Hollywood roads. Even the boats in the waterway are slowing to a lull, a blessing for the manatees sometimes caught in their blades.
When I search for more songs by R.E.M., the algorithm recommends “Everybody Hurts.” An article circulating on Facebook recommends: “Lie down, turn off your phone, close your eyes, and listen like a teenager again.”
So I do it. I try and mute the volume of the world. I try and believe what Michael Stipe is promising across the wingspan of 28 years:
“So, hold on, hold on
Hold on, hold on
Hold on, hold on
Hold on, hold on
You are not alone”
Might this song be the new (old) anthem for our time?
An anthem used to be a hymn, a religious expression of devotion. A song that required call and response, many parts sung together as one. You couldn’t sing an anthem all by yourself; you needed a choir or, even better, two.
Last night my Threshold group tried to hold a rehearsal via Zoom, that gathering place where now we try to connect our voices to other voices, our bodies with other bodies. People are having virtual happy hours, raising their wine glasses and cocktails to one another’s images. Meetings are held, seminars, live concerts. Almost every day, I have one reason or another to face my laptop and enter this grid, so much like the Hollywood Squares of my youth, each of us boxed off, but trying to act normal.
Nothing is normal. We try to sing a song together, but there’s too much reverberation and feedback, so we mute our microphones and sing by ourselves along with the leader. We watch each other’s mouths move silently; I can’t help but keep looking at my own mouth, which I see now has a tightness at the right corner of my lips that keeps my voice from blooming. Turns out, I’ve always been holding something back.
We learn a new song that’s for kids: Every little cell in my body is happy, every little cell in my body is well. I watch us all sing this jaunty affirmation from our various cells and wish I could believe it.
When our time is up, we all get up to sing our customary closing song: I will be your standing stone…. With no prompting, we automatically hold out our hands, palms up, and for a moment, there’s an optical illusion that we really are touching one another, breaching the digital barriers between us. When we’re done, we blow kisses and wave goodbye, goodbye, goodbye!