*“He’s back from New York,” she murmured into her cell. Forty-something and masked, she slowly pushed her shopping cart down the nearly barren cereal aisle in a west Los Angeles Whole Foods. We were two weeks into the pandemic.
“He’ll quarantine in the den,” she said, stopping to give a thoughtful glance to three lonely boxes of off-brand organic granola. “That means no touching, no hugging, no kissing and absolutely no sex with me—NONE—for at least three weeks. Girl, I’m overjoyed.” In the midst of an impending crisis, this woman found benefit.
One of humankind’s most awe-inspiring features is its intuitive, indomitable skill at finding light in the darkness of life’s most challenging chapters.
The Great Depression, World War II, the omnipresent threat of nuclear obliteration, 9/11, mass shootings, a rogue, unprincipled president, racism, sexism—the coronavirus is only the latest thing for us to fear, endure, survive, adjust to and ultimately conquer. Persevere is what we do best.
Still, this crisis, anything but over, is profoundly different. For one thing, it ain’t local. COVID-19, like “War Of The Worlds,” H.G. Wells’s chilling, apocalyptic 1898 novel in which Martians invade the entire Earth, is global. We’re doing battle with the most unforgiving of foes—one we cannot see, hear or smell.
But even a pandemic can have its bright side. The glimmer might amount to the sliver of an ethereal glow seeping out from under a bathroom door, but hey, it’s light.
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Take Social Distancing. While the procedure supplanted the parting phrase, “Take it easy” with “Stay healthy,” it also bestowed an unlikely gift: Downright divine, CDC-approved justification for not dealing with people we didn’t want to be bothered with even before the madness struck.
Annoying relatives, “friends” with whom you weren’t ever really friends; In-laws you’ve never been able to please; a couple of fringe acquaintances you truly believe could be insane—they were all on glorious, indefinite hold.
When all this is over, we could be a cleaner society. Like never before, our salvation depends on personal hygiene. Even now, as the nation moves into the vaccination stage, before I wash my hands, I wash my hands. It works: If the common cold could hire legal representation, it would sue COVID-19, charging unfair competition and interfering with Common C’s livelihood. Meanwhile, once-ridiculed germaphobes everywhere declare, “How ya like me now!”
Mask chic, now possibly in its last days, became a thing. Replacing smiles are mask messages–sports team and rock and roll logos, positive (and not so positive) sayings–that publicly communicate more about us than we ever did before the pandemic.
Yes, we were sequestered at home, but there was a worldwide decline in crime and reduced air pollution because of it. Los Angeles drivers, marveling at the dearth of traffic, texted photos from a ghostly 405 freeway the way tourists send pics from the Grand Canyon.
Staying home, you actually cultivated new friendships, and not just online: You finally conjured the gumption to strike up a conversation with the mysterious soul in worn Sean John sweats and headphones ferreting through your fridge. Who knew your son was so personable?
Being sixty and older got you VIP priority at supermarkets and other retail outlets and preference during early vaccine distribution. They (okay, we) strutted, walked, rolled and pushed their way to the front of the line with a pride the “classic human” hadn’t enjoyed in years.
From the planet’s lockdown emerged a spectacular, freeing surge of creativity—an explosion of fine art, music, prose, film and television that inspires and comforts both the creators and admirers of the work. One way or another, COVID-19 impelled all of us to make the most of the New Surreal.
Yet, and I’ve said this before, the virus continues to present modern civilization its most unusual and profound challenge: Get vaccinated, mask up, distance and wash our hands, not just for those we love, but those we don’t know and those we absolutely abhor, all for the good of humanity.
That is hard as hell to do, but we must find that next-level love. We owe it to the woman I overheard in the supermarket that day, wresting whatever positive to be gleaned from a world catastrophe. Forcefully, we owe it to the millions of people the world lost, both kin and strangers, to this wicked, sinister disease. Most of all, we owe it to ourselves.
Steven Ivory, journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org