“A man who carries a cat by the tail,” wrote Mark Twain, “learns something he can learn in no other way.”
I have shelves and piles of books in our home, and I visit one or more of them daily, now with so much more time to read. But the worldwide pandemic that surrounds us tends to put anything I gain from them in stark perspective: it is real life that is providing all the lessons.
A friend has tested positive for the coronavirus. At this writing, his symptoms are mild, but it is cause for concern. I have been repeatedly texting and calling him, apologizing for my intrusiveness. I just can’t dodge the anxiety. I am confronted by the fact of how much I care about him. It reminds me of the days when our children were small, and we would repeatedly sneak into their bedroom at night to see if they were still breathing.
We have been calling friends, some distant, some from long ago. We have been reaching out, on the phone, online. “How are you?” now seems a freighted phrase. “Stay safe” has special meaning, as if the words themselves can protect.
This danger brings relationships to the fore. We have taken our friends for granted. Think about the phrase “take for granted”: we have granted to each other the status of friend, forgetting in better times what that meant. It means caring.
Beyond friends and family, we have a community, and it, too, is besieged. While there are no exact analogues, there will be many attempts to find parallels to this pandemic. Of course, the horror of the AIDS epidemic comes immediately to mind. Provincetown became a center for the afflicted; it still is. Further back, mid-19th century, smallpox was the scourge.
Those two crises illustrate a stark difference in the reaction of our townspeople over the years. Victims of smallpox were isolated in a “pest house” out past Shank Painter Road; even their bodies were shunned, buried in a little graveyard with only 14 numbered stones. It is still there, near Duck Pond, overgrown.
But in the 20th century, Provincetown became a sanctuary for the beleaguered victims of the new unknown AIDS virus; people flocked here from all over the world for comfort, or to die in a caring community, or, later, to learn to live with the virus. Lauren Ewing’s sculpted memorial next to Town Hall celebrates the compassionate attitude of our town, along with the tragedy of the disease. I am proud to live in a community that is synonymous with caring.
This caring takes many forms. Most affecting is the group of people who are making masks. It is wonderful, really, that each works in her or his own space, making a small cloth accessory that may afford a modicum of protection — probably not so much to those on the front lines of fighting the virus, but perhaps to those of us who are making the necessary forays out into the unknown, to Stop & Shop, or wherever we absolutely have to go. There is scant evidence of their effectiveness beyond “better than nothing” — although there is debate about this in the scientific community. These flimsy pieces of cloth are akin to talismans: invoking safety, warding off the evil spirit of Covid-19. But to be given one, to hold it in your hands, is to experience the love of a fellow being, to be part of a community.
“Only connect!” wrote E.M. Forster: “Only connect … and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”