Sometimes it’s hard not to see symbolism in everything.
On the Sunday of the Fourth of July weekend, stir-crazy and firework-deprived (visually, that is; there was far more than enough of the bombs-bursting-in-air sound effects), we invited my sister over for a barbeque.
We did the social-distance dance that everyone does. Everyone’s configuration is different; we have different size families and tables and yards, as well as different understandings of the rules and tolerance of the risks. Our dance involved the six of us from one household — us, the (ohgodhowdidwegettobethisold?) grandparents; our daughter and son-in-law, and the 6-year-old sophisticate and her 4-year-old brother in his newly made bug costume. And then there was my sister, who is widowed and came alone. How do we do this? How do we distance socially but surround emotionally? How do we not leave someone out when we are, well, leaving her out?
Viruses respect nothing. No, that’s silly. Viruses are microscopic bits of RNA. So actually it’s true. They respect nothing. They love nothing, care nothing, feel nothing. They’re not even really alive. So we should expect no social skills from them.
But this idea of having to adjust to aloneness, to have to convince ourselves that it is better to disconnect, is profoundly odd.
So at that barbecue, once we finally worked out the logistics — two tables, the five of them at the bigger one, my sister and I at the other one, but sitting at opposite ends, six feet apart, sort of like Charles Foster Kane and his wife in “Citizen Kane” — we began dinner. It was delicious.
And then things started falling on us. Hard, sharp things. Things that came faster and faster.
It turned out that they were pieces of fruit — pears, maybe, certainly inedible and possibly unidentifiable — that squirrels seemed to be hurling from the huge trees that canopied way over our heads. They seemed to have been cracked open and partially chewed, so the edges were knife-like. They didn’t cut us, but they did knock Miriam’s glasses entirely off her face, and leave a red mark on her cheek.
It seemed to be old movie night. This time, it was the “Wizard of Oz,” the scene where the gnarly old trees throw apples at Dorothy and her friends. That wasn’t the “Surrender Dorothy” part, but it was working up to it.
We moved the tables out of chewed-fruit range, and we were fine. It was funny. But it also seemed like the comic-book version of the world turning on us, as it seems to be doing, on all of us. (Did anyone catch the headline about some scientists somewhere in some remote part of China discovering bubonic plague? I don’t know what the rest of the story was because I could not bring myself to read it. I will file it in my mind with this spring’s similarly unread stories about killer hornets.)
The three weeks that begin the countdown to Tisha b’Av began on Wednesday evening with the Fast of Tammuz. It’s a grim period in Jewish life, leading up to the reading (really, the incantation) of Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, with its powerful and terrible images of death, devastation, desolation, and mothers eating their children. It’s a time that reminds us that what we are facing now — at least those of us not dying of covid-19 — is infinitely easier than the horrors people have faced over many historic periods. Both as Jews and as people, we are the descendants of people who have endured and survived much much worse.
It seems unlikely that this year we will be able to sit on the floor, in the dark, and listen to the painful words and their hauntingly beautiful melody, and then move up the emotional arc as the words take on hope. We will have to listen at home, on Zoom, or on a livestream. It might seem very different this year.
Which doesn’t stop me from wanting to hug my sister, go to a squirrel-free restaurant, and live what used to be normal life. But at least it does offer some perspective.