[O]n the one hand it is self-awareness, and on the other it is a longing to escape from ourselves. Solitude—the very condition of our lives—appears to us as a test and a purgation, at the conclusion of which our anguish and instability will vanish. At the exit from the labyrinth of solitude we will find reunion (which is repose and happiness), and plenitude, and harmony with the world…Solitude is both a sentence and an expiation. It is a punishment but it is also a promise that our exile will end. All human life is pervaded by this dialectic.
—Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude
To write in the time of coronavirus is to become a chronicler of history, whether or not one aspires to such a lofty title. Journaling has, apparently, exploded in recent weeks; people all over now realize their thoughts on these weeks and months will be of interest to posterity. We detail our tedium, our glimmers of hope, the moments that we know will define a generation. The indelible images: a hospital ship steams past the Statue of Liberty into the New York harbor, a very different beacon of hope; Pope Francis, resplendent in white, before an empty St. Peter’s Square under an ominous, rainy sky. Deadened streets, all commerce at a standstill, silence save from the very welcome pets and children in the background on Zoom meetings.
As with any crisis, coronavirus produces some case studies in uncommon heroism. I now thank grocery store clerks for their work in the way I’ve seen some people thank soldiers for their service. When I do takeout or delivery to support local restaurants, I leave the largest tips I’ve ever left. The body shop down the street has a sign offering a discount for healthcare workers, and I look out at the snowboard bro of a FedEx driver who lives across the way in an entirely new light. While my role is somewhat distant from the front lines, a situation that leaves me feeling an odd remove, some of my colleagues in economic development and local government are putting in yeoman’s hours trying to keep their communities’ businesses afloat. My firm was born at Duluth’s economic nadir in the mid-80s, when northeast Minnesota found itself in need of someone to facilitate recovery processes, and we may get to play that role again in the coming months and years.
In my own mundane quarantined corner, I adjust to a work life of marathon Zoom meetings, which means I spend an inordinate amount of time staring at my own face on a screen. My attire regresses to that of a ten-years-younger version of myself, and after toying with the idea of growing my hair out again, it now seems safe to say it’ll happen unless I decide to get creative with scissors. My work habits take me back to days spent struggling away at term papers in my glorified closet of a bedroom in Burleith. My life is an eternal return. Perhaps the best piece of advice I read over the first three weeks of working from home: wear real pants every day.
I recognize my luck: I can spout off in droll good humor while a third of the country gets furloughed or laid off, has to navigate a convoluted system of unemployment benefits and business support programs that seems designed to maximize confusion. This crisis has only exacerbated the gap between those of us who trade in the knowledge economy (even for those of us who are not in its more lucrative arms), and the people whose jobs are not so easily sustained via screens. Tech skeptic that I am, I’m not sure my class will get off so easily next time crisis hits—or if this one drags out—but for now, we sit pretty, American divides exacerbated once again.
The biggest divide I encounter myself, however, is the one I find between myself and other people. I live alone, and have not had meaningful contact with another human in weeks. Sorry, those of you who feel like you’re cooped up with your families too much: I’ll trade places in a heartbeat. Individual living may help slow the spread of disease, while multigenerational mixing, as the Italians can attest, can cause more harm than good. But the virus, if we needed one, is a reminder that humans are not built to live like this long-term. “Never is a man more active than when he does nothing, never is he less alone than when he is by himself,” Hannah Arendt wrote in a quote from Cicero attributed to Cato, a bit of wisdom passed down the chain. It’s a sentiment I need right now, because never have I been more by myself than I have been these past few weeks.
“Do you live around here?” one acquaintance calls to me in pleasant surprise as I scoot by on my daily run. “No!” is my cheery reply. I might just run every street in Duluth by the time this is done, or at least all of them on the east side, more easily accessible from my front door. I’ve started tracking my destinations on a calendar, a register of Duluth neighborhoods and other convenient destinations. Even as I run, the signs of a changed world abound. The morning the stay at home order comes out, the streets are eerily dead. I wonder if the young couple I pass sleeping in a running car off Kenwood Avenue are among the newly homeless.
For the most part, though, these runs are my saving grace, a luxury afforded by a blessedly mild Duluth spring. Every few days I scoot past a work colleague or a stray acquaintance, all of us pulled out into various forms of activity as our only release. A profusion of chalk art decorates the streets of Morley Heights and Congdon; in Woodland, kids wish their friends a happy birthday in chalk on the driveway. A few houses throw up impromptu art exhibits in their windows. The Lincoln Park parkway, liberated from traffic, teems with hikers and disc golfers. I idly house-hunt as I cruise the streets, check out lake views and front porches and bay windows, along with those more practical concerns like the quality of the roof and the siding and the garage. Rarely do I feel more alive as when I climb the Hillside in driving sleet; and one evening, I round a bend on the Scenic Highway and gaze down a coastline swathed in a California late afternoon glow, and any weight of the world lifts away into the haze.
I take a vacation that gives me glimpses of the whole world, which means I sleep in my sleeping bag on the spare futon in a second bedroom whose walls are papered in maps. This exotic locale is less a bedroom than a dark, wide hallway to a back door that happens to have a closet, but for one long weekend, it will do. This room has become my refuge now that my living room is part of my office suite: every evening I retreat here for at least a little while with a book or this laptop to inhabit a world away from any of those thoughts. I need just a little more space to endure this easily.
I travel vicariously, learn of the chance meeting between two cyclists crossing Asia, and of the party of rafters on the Colorado who left a world with no coronavirus fears and came back to it when they emerged. I travel away from thoughts of where I would’ve been on my planned vacation by now, away from wondering if a backpacking trip in July will still hold up. The social distancing paradox: if we flatten the curve successfully, the restrictions may go on for longer, the terror of overwhelmed hospitals and pop-up morgues replaced by a low-grade, endless dread, a fitting new normal if we truly are in an age of decadence.
One thing I am not, thankfully, is bored, except perhaps when the Zoom meetings drag on for too long. I will never lack things to read or write. I won’t pretend the coronavirus has led to any great writing projects—there’s a challenge, perhaps—but I have been able to noodle out some mindless stuff, and make a real dent in the pile of books. (The latest addition: an advance copy of a new book by a reader of this blog!) Hearteningly, sales of classic literature have exploded over the past month. We are still indeed all readers, a reminder that deteriorating attention spans are not some congenital defect but an entirely correctable drift forced upon us by our thoughtless consumption of certain forms of media that are ill-attuned to human focus.
Technology has made this misery infinitely easier to bear. Even two years ago, my office would have been hopelessly lost, lacking laptops or file-sharing opportunities. Still, the shortcomings of that world become more and more glaring with each passing day, and my hope is that, instead of accelerating the move to more online existence as some forecasters have predicted, coronavirus will remind us that screens have their shortcomings. Deprivation can lead us to place new value on certain forms of human interaction, better appreciate why it is we go to concerts or sporting events or festivals or bars or even just hang out with large groups of friends or family. I don’t know when I’ll be able to do any of those things, but may we never take them for granted again.