It’s been three weeks now since this started. Two weekends ago, we knew that the world was getting odd, that the virus was coming, that this slow-motion juggernaut was headed at us, and that it was likely to pick up speed. We’d have to figure out how to get out of the way.
We knew that, but we didn’t believe it. We read the stories, we saw people walking around wearing masks, we felt the jitters, but restaurants were open, shuls were open, Purim was coming and yes, some carnivals were being canceled, but things seemed not entirely abnormal, on the whole.
We generally knew that things would change but there still was an innocence to that knowledge.
Last weekend was different. By last weekend shuls were closed, restaurants were closing, supermarket shelves were denuded, and everything seemed fraught with an invisible danger that we knew was approaching but couldn’t sense.
Last Shabbat morning, instead of going to my closed shul, I took a long walk with my dogs. I went later than usual, in full daylight, and what I saw was both unsettling and entirely normal – and unsettling in its normalcy.
It’s turning into spring. Forsythias are blooming, and so are some cherry trees. There are some tight buds on trees, and others, just a few others, are starting to have that baby green fuzz that is one of the most exciting colors in the world, because it means spring.
How can this plague come for us in springtime?
I walk in Manhattan, on the Upper West Side and in Morningside Heights. There’s a lot of construction and it was going on last Saturday morning. The huge yellow crane did its dance; the building it’s working on is to my eyes vulgar and hideous, but the crane itself is an ungainly kind of lovely.
I walked past the McDonalds on the corner of Broadway and 125th Street that had been a haven for cab drivers and out-of-towners for years, with its out-of-place parking lot and the bench with a larger-than-lifesize Ronald McDonald out in front. For some time now the building had been enclosed behind construction walls as its owner, Columbia – a world-class university but a locally loathed landlord – fought the neighborhood zoning board. Last Shabbat there was work being done. The doomed building, which I’d peered at through the windows in the wall for a long time, knowing that it was soon to be executed, was gone.
I also passed a man walking a cat on a leash.
At the end of my block, on a hill that looks down to Riverside Drive, sits the Fireman’s Memorial, an elegant 1913 marble remembrance to the firefighters who died keeping the city safe. It’s very much of its time, and also of ours; every year since 2001, firefighters from around the region gather to remember the horror and heroism after the September 11th attacks.
Last Shabbat, much of the flat plaza in front of the fountain was in sharp shadow, but there was a patch of very bright sunlight. A young man stood in that patch of sunlight, wearing a kippah and a tallit, holding a siddur, davening.
It was extraordinarily beautiful and moving, and it spoke of hope.
If you can’t go to shul, go to nature in springtime, which doesn’t care about viruses that don’t affect it. If you can’t daven in community, do it alone, with a community walking its dogs around you.
Spring will keep unfolding gloriously around you. The figures on either side of the fountain, representing duty and sacrifice, will keep their watch over you. The man with the cat on the leash will keep trying to turn his cat into a dog, until the cat decides she’s had enough.
Until this very dark storm passes, let’s be good to each other. Let’s be resourceful. Let’s not let enforced physical distance allow us to create emotional distance. Let’s never forget to acknowledge reality – which includes such nightmares as an approaching virus against which we so far have no vaccine, no treatment, and no immunity – but let’s also never forget that still it is spring.
Stay safe. Stay strong. Stay kind. Stay resilient. Stay sane.