My wife and I have now spent over a month in social isolation in our house in Chicago. We're fortunate to have a building with an apartment upstairs and a storefront studio and small apartment downstairs. I work on new work or print old work and archive it in the back apartment. We have a forest preserve and tree-lined streets to walk in, and the grocery store offers curbside pickup. My wife retired from nursing a few years ago, and I have retired from teaching. In some ways we are quite cozy and secure, though we miss seeing our granddaughters, who used to spend after school afternoons with us. Now I read to them over video chat.
Chicago is a hotspot for Covid-19 and yet we have been somewhat more fortunate than other cities in the U.S., perhaps because the governor of Illinois and the mayor of Chicago took prompt action. The mayor has become a meme—images of her looking stern show up on Instagram
, superimposed on public parks, restaurants, and porches. Inveterate news junkies, we are daily aware of how desperate the situation is for some people. I am happy to report that the city is making emergency funds available to undocumented immigrants and the homeless, far more than the federal government has been willing to do. The plight of prisoners in the county jail and stat prisons however is very concerning, in this nation where incarceration is nearly as popular as guns.
I said some time ago to a friend online that I was more concerned with the slow accumulation of sorrow than with the immediate pangs of social distancing. Anticipated grief erupts sometimes in unguarded moments when emotion overwhelms me and just as quickly subsides, swift and ingenuous as a child. I wonder if Boccaccio's young men and women celebrated their freedom at the same time they held grief at bay. Did they confront a mix of privilege and guilt, or were they just grateful for a respited from the dire motion of the world around them, however brief? In the meantime, they told stories. And so we do. And just as surely, the world is going to return to us and we to it.
Here in the U.S, we also confront a government led by an incompetent, who boasted once that he could commit murder and the crowd would still love him. People are dying because of his ignorance and narcissism. It remains to be seen whether he and the party that supports him will be held to account. This much is clear: a system of government that does not seek the trust of all of its citizens, but plays at power games and propaganda to divide them, is ill-prepared for crises on the order that humanity now faces. The hierarchy of slow-moving disasters we locate under the rubric of "climate change" are going to be much more massive than this pandemic. We are all ill-prepared, but countries mired in convenient mythologies that conceal brutal histories or devoted to authoritarian visions of social order are especially vulnerable to reality. One handles reality by getting real. Getting real as a society seems to me at least to mean not just confronting the world crisis our very success as a species has brought about, but engaging people in a new vision of democracy.
And on we go, to lunch. A locus of universal agreement that we can still arrange to suit our needs, if we be so fortunate.
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