This time last year, we were still Cloroxing Costco boxes and quarantining groceries in the garage.
My wife returned from one Meier trip dressed like an extra from Lawrence of Arabia -- layer atop protective layer, scarf on mask, hands triple-gloved.
She disrobed complicatedly and straight into the washing machine then ran to a scalding shower.
That’s a long time ago, the ignorance and uncertainty and clumsy improvisations of a world in freefall.
Remember police tape on playground swings?
Those of us who bothered with overcaution have since given it up and have settled, instead, into something less bottomless and absurd but also more permanently damaged and deformed.
Were there daffodils and crocuses in the yard last spring? I don’t recall.
The sky was much darker then, like the descending of volcanic ash after an eruption, the colors all coal-filtered.
But here they are, these lemon and aubergine blooms, opening to the sun.
And I see out back some peach-fuzz green has sprouted from the leaf bed of a woodland hillside.
Is there broader significance in this emergence, a springtime-in-America metaphor useful in a radio essay?
Let me ask:
Do you feel optimistic about the future?
What do you really think now of your neighbors, your country?
Are you ready for some baseball?
My brother died last fall, not a Covid death but a bad one. He was my only sibling, just 45, and was the last of that family.
He hovered in a coma for a couple weeks until I finally ended life support, which wasn’t a decision so much as a facing of facts. If you’ve been there, you know what I mean.
While my brother lay dying, a close friend in Chicago knew about it and said nothing.
After 25 years, another facing of facts.
In a year of monumental losing, I lost my brother. But what about the old friend, was that a loss? Like a lot about the pandemic, it depends on how you keep score.
If granted a wish, would I go back to normal?
If turned into a camel, could I thread a needle?
Some things don’t fit any more, maybe never did, maybe required passing through a crucible like Covid and its attendant societal and social-contractual failures to see them for what and whom they are and will now always be.
Is there anyone listening who has not lost something or someone in the last 13 months, or felt compelled to question or abandon some dumb piety, inherited system of belief, personal or cultural or economic truism, some sloppy shibboleth?
Who is going back to normal?
What surprised me most about my old friend was his lack of regard -- for me and our battered friendship, certainly, and for my brother, whom he’d met many times over all those years, including at Thanksgiving. But also for my little family, wife and young son, whom he knows and who have grieved alongside me.
In another sense, though, my old friend perfectly conforms to an age defined by disregard.
Disregard is the central motif of this crisis, of our time and place -- the giant foam one-finger salute, from you to me and right back atcha -- and like the splattered egg of my former friendship there is no putting back together what’s been so casually, carelessly, deliberately thrown down and ground underfoot.
I find myself studying the waxy buds on a crabapple tree out front and I am happy to share that with my son.
I’m happy for good music in the house.
I’m happy to rediscover Denis Johnson’s short stories, to read a Mo Willems book to the boy before bed.
But I will no longer just hear somebody out, not when that courtesy is no longer reciprocal and especially when the one-way mind is closed and boarded up.
The antennae are either extended and receiving or they are not; the cone of experience is either widening or it is not; the empathic heart is either beating or it’s not.
Bob Dylan drew similar lessons during an earlier national catastrophe and disgrace:
He not busy being born
is busy dying.
I am not getting back to normal or anywhere else.
I am busy being born.
I hope you are too.
Before we die and take it with us.
Brett McNeil lives with his family in Mishawaka.
Music: "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" by Bob Dylan