The clues are coming from all over the world. You see many of them yourself. When I couldn’t sleep one night, images popped onto my computer screen of Italian green-camo army trucks rolling in convoy toward an iron-gated cemetary that needed help because there were now more caskets than the mortuary staff could handle. A friend in upstate New York started a web page updating neighbors on which businesses in nearby Woodstock are still open and where a person can pull up to the curb for groceries, pizza, bread, even books. Woodstock. The Grateful Dead played the festival there in 1969—I checked. Before so many things shut down in Michiana, the carpenter installing a window in a dismal part of our house told me about the dozens of their concerts he attended over the years. Grateful Dead fans would look out for each other, he said. Fans called it protecting the scene. If somebody’s in trouble, you’d look out for them, and doing that, you’d protect the community, he said. I thought: that’s a beautiful concept, protecting the scene. And about that new window: daylight streams in now where once there was darkness.
This week you’ve probably seen Italians on high balconies singing beloved songs across city streets with their neighbors. In isolation now, droll New York City straphanger types are posting snapshots of themselves standing alone in the bathroom, one arm raised as it would be on the subway, one hand holding the chrome of the shower rod, the other hand working the cell phone. Seeing that, a family elder writes that imagination is everything. He’s right. Protecting the scene takes place at the soap dispenser as well as in hearts and minds.
Shakespeare imagined his way deeply into our hearts, as you probably know. Lady Macbeth descending into madness, sleepwalking, recounting the murderous sins and crimes that made her Queen, desperately trying to wash her hands of the last imaginary, self-condemning speck of blood. King Macbeth himself, so cold of heart by now that when word comes of his wife’s suicide he has no room left in there for her. He says, “She should have died hereafter. There would have been a time for such a word.” Somehow Shakespeare imagined, in a crisis, how deeply, desperately wrong our human hearts might go.
We are thrown back on inner and outer resources now. This week one witty American living in Glasgow reports “washing my hands like I convinced my husband to usurp the throne of Scotland.” And washing our hands is a way of protecting the scene. We need to take clues from the Italian trucks and the Woodstock websites, and we’ll need to find other good examples. We’re facing isolation but we mustn’t go it alone. As writer Raymond Williams said, our job “is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.”
And in the Christian New Testament, after presiding over the trial of Jesus, Pontius Pilate imagined wrongly that he could simply wash his hands of another person’s fate. I ran into a gentleman the other day who sometimes finds me and asks for a bit of paid work. His bike’s in good shape but his clothes are pretty rough. I assume he’s living close to the edge, somehow getting by. I confess that sometimes my heart has no room for him. I’m sure he knows things about life in our town that I am ignorant of. This time I fished out a ten dollar bill and passed it over. He saw that I didn’t want to shake hands, so he held up a fist and offered a back-of-the-hand bump.
Music: "Uncle John's Band" by the Grateful Dead