I remember life in the year 1 BCE, and I’ll bet you do, too.
I’m not referring to Second Temple times, to ancient history. I’m talking about life a year ago, which only feels like ancient history.
I’m talking about life in the Before COVID Era, when we lived life in person.
A year ago, we were in the final weeks of 1 BCE, but we didn’t know it. We didn’t know that time was about to cleave in two. We went about our lives as usual, unaware of the abyss ahead.
Whenever time fractures into ‘before’ and ‘after’ we only see the ‘before’ in retrospect.
I’m thinking back to how I lived, how we lived, in the final weeks of 1 BCE. I’m remembering what it was like when human contact was life’s currency, the measure and meaning of how we spent our days.
I remember when Shabbat and holidays meant an overflowing house, when we needed folding chairs lugged up from the basement. Those folding chairs haven’t seen the light of day for a year. My husband and I are a table of two, so grateful to have each other. But we are surrounded by empty chairs. We are waiting out the pandemic in isolation, counting the days until those chairs are filled again. Worldwide, there are over two million chairs that will not be filled again, chairs whose occupants perished from COVID-19.
In the final month of 1 BCE our youngest grandchild was born. We were able to wait at the hospital and hold him when he was moments old. He blinked up at us with that bewildered newborn look, as if to say “What happened? Where am I?” We inhaled his sweet newborn scent, touched his little hands, whispered in his tiny ear. If your grandchild was born a month or two later….well, were you still able to do those things, especially if it involved travel?
Two weeks before the end of 1 BCE, I attended the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC, with 18,000 others. Now that my world has contracted to single digit humans, this seems unimaginable. On lobbying day, I strolled to our congressional meetings alongside a pillar of our local Jewish community, a friend I’ve known for decades. We sat in those meetings side by side. Three weeks later he was on a ventilator and fighting COVID-19 for his life. It would take four months in the hospital and rehab before he finally returned home.
In the final week of 1 BCE, I spoke at several local high schools, as part of my work for the JCRC Speakers Bureau. In the last class, a cooking class, I taught students how to create a few ethnic Jewish favorites. The teens cooked and ate in small groups, and I went from table to table to join them. We shared food from the same serving dishes. A few days later, schools across the US were closed. Some have since reopened, many have not.
On the final day of 1 BCE, we had Shabbat dinner at the home of dear friends. Our local kids and grandkids were invited too. All of us sensed this might be the last time we could gather this way for awhile…..you know, for maybe a month or two. We sat closely around the table, talked and ate, then sang and danced with the little kids. We clung to every sweet moment of that last Shabbat.
And then, like a curtain falling at the end of a performance, 1 BCE was over.
Lockdown began. Everything was closed, canceled. A week later, eating Shabbat dinner at our table for two, the Shabbat of just one week earlier was a sepia-colored photo. A long-ago memory from the ‘before’ time.
BCE ended almost a year ago. But we are a long, long way from ACE, the After COVID Era. I wish we could do what was done when the Gregorian calendar came into use in the 9th century. Time skipped right from 1 BC (or BCE) to 1 AD (or CE), from one era to the next, without a Year Zero.
We are in the midst of Year Zero, and it will probably last much longer than twelve months. It’s already been almost twelve months.
We have reason for optimism- there are now vaccines, an astonishing achievement! But the rollout in the US? Well, trying to get a vaccine appointment for your elderly parents should not remind you of scrambling for front row concert tickets. But this is exactly what it’s like for my friends who are fortunate enough to still have parents, and who are desperate to protect them. They wait hours on hold using a couple of phones, keep hitting ‘refresh’ on vaccine websites, look for an angle, source tips from friends. A few lucky ones have scored the sought-after ‘tickets’, many have not.
My parents have been dead for decades, but if they were alive, they’d be in their nineties, and I’d be just as frantic to get them vaccinated. And just as frustrated.
I’ll leave it to others to assess all the ways this process has gone sideways, and all that must be learned so we are better prepared for the next public health crisis. Will our federal, state, and local leaders learn? Or will they be determined not to learn?
I will turn my thoughts, instead, to what it will be like when we finally leave Year Zero behind and reach the other side, the After COVID Era. We will know it in retrospect.
We will look back and recognize when we began, bit by bit, to live life in person again.
Life in person. Hugging and holding hands, whispering and singing, comforting and celebrating, smiling with all our teeth and laughing out loud. Sitting close together around a table. Folding chairs will be needed.