Sitting here at my desk with a second cup of coffee, on the cusp of the autumnal equinox and gathering darkness, after our third straight night of frost, with morning sunlight flooding the yard and garage doors (just as I planned years ago), with Kiki snoozing in the recliner behind me, it would seem there could be no rational explanation for a sense of foreboding. Yet, here it is. I half-expect to see the flying monkeys of The Wizard of Oz streaming in a flock across the sky.
It’s hard to imagine how the news could be much worse for an aged liberal, living alone (sorry, Kiki) in a house decorated by his late wife. Isolated also by a virulent pandemic that, like a besieging army, probes and penetrates every opportunity; constrained from traveling by a two-week quarantine upon returning; I sit tight, listen and read about the chaos swirling around us.
It’s likely that the reason Earth hasn’t yet been contacted by any intelligent aliens is that, viewing us from space and monitoring our communications, they’ve decided we’re a long way from becoming desirable acquaintances. Probably, in fact, farther from that status every year.
The hammer blows of John Lewis’ and Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s deaths have been hard, but those bruises will fade in time. The swift, cynical replacement of Justice Ginsburg, however, with another whose values will likely be utterly inimical to mine — well, that hurts worse, and will last beyond my death. Over it all loom the face and voice and presence that daily fill the news, the internet and the television screen. No longer can I turn on the news at breakfast wondering what’s happening in the world or my country. Instead, I mutter, “I wonder what he’s done now.”
Still, I remind myself, all these concerns are temporal, and even trivial, in the larger picture of our existence. The aliens surveying us from beyond the orbits of our satellites can, like the astronauts looking down, see the smoke from our burning forests drifting across 5,000 miles, and the ever more numerous nascent hurricanes churning toward the Antilles. Just as you and I get our temperatures taken remotely when we enter a doctor’s office, Earth’s can be, as well. We’re headed toward irrevocability, and there seems to be nothing we can do about it. Yet this climatic change, hardly ever acknowledged in the hubbub, is humanity’s greatest existential threat.
If we listen quietly, especially in our current isolation, we can hear the wails of small children and their distraught mothers in refugee camps and, in our own country, caged behind chain-link fencing in the Southwest. Armed, camouflage-clad goons stalk our streets and even state capitols; looters, operating behind a smoke screen of legitimate social protest, ravage apparently at will.
It would be easy to continue the litany, but we all know it, and each of us has a particular sore spot. The dilemma is, what’s to be done?
There are obvious answers — keep a journal, get more exercise and eat more kale, keep in touch with family and good friends — but those feel like the pull-your-socks-up type of advice given us by coaches with clipboards and whistles. I admit to some lightening of spirit when, after finishing an especially punishing Sunday crossword, Monday pops up and I cry, “Ha! I own you!”
There’s a quiet spot deep in the center of each of us where Mitch McConnell and COVID-19 can’t go, where music can stir memories of days past and impossible to forget. John McCormack singing “When You and I Were Young, Maggie” can take me there. As he sings, I reach almost reflexively for a bit of paper towel infused with my wife’s favorite lavender. Vivaldi’s “Spring,” done with only syllables and smiles by a women’s quintet, creates a lively, hopeful zone. “Spanish Is the Lovin’ Tongue” kindles a keen regret, but also reaffirms its uselessness. “The Log-Driver’s Waltz,” sung by the McGarrigles — I love waltzes! — reminds me I was born a century too late. Bach’s “Air on a G String,” which my wife requested (I smile as I remember the irresistible nature of her “requests”) for her funeral, makes everything else in life seem trivial. And finally, before bed, six Irishmen at an empty bar – nobody does heartbreak better than the Irish! — singing “The Parting Glass.” All the chaos and disquiet disappear, and I take Kiki out behind the house to pee.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.