It’s Tuesday, St. Patrick’s Day as I write this, 6 a.m., dark still. I live on a busy street, where on a normal morning, I would have heard sirens already.
I haven’t heard sirens in days.
After Sept. 11, 2001, when the world was quiet like this, we gathered in our small downtown, holding candles, holding each other. We gathered in churches, restaurants, and bars. In groups we felt buffered. In groups we felt hope.
It’s different this time. We can’t gather.
After Sept. 11, we lived in fear, waiting for the next shoe to drop. It didn’t take long. Within weeks after the attack on the United States by terrorists, letters containing anthrax and threats -- like “This is next” and “Death to America” -- were mailed to major news outlets in New York and Florida. Then more anthrax was mailed, this time to politicians. Twenty-two people were sickened and five died of anthrax poisoning. While this was happening, a passenger plane flying from Israel to Siberia exploded in mid-air, killing all 66 passengers and 12 crew members.
In America, newspapers were advertising gas masks and printing instructions about what to do with a piece of mail thought to contain anthrax. It was all terrorism and anthrax back then. But we continued to open our mail; and we flew anyway. Broadway did not go dark for weeks. Games went on. The Patriots won the Super Bowl that season. In a most fearful of times, it was, in many ways, business as usual.
Now is different. Now is science fiction. A virus, something we can’t taste or touch or feel or see, has immobilized, not just some of us, but all of us. A virus has done what nothing, no war, no plague, no disaster has ever done before -- shut down the super powers of the world.
We’re not used to being shut down, not as a nation and not as individuals. Being passive, being told to stay inside and wait, to do nothing? That’s not how we roll. What can we do, we ask, because doing is who we are. Doing defines us.
This, simply being, is uncharted territory.
“What did you think was important? What did you neglect? What do you pledge to make important now?” I remember hearing those questions asked on a talk show after the Twin Towers collapsed. The guests were men and women who had been affected by Sept. 11, whose friend or co-worker or family member had died in the attacks. “I was so selfish” “I should have… I could have…” people said. No one regretted places they didn’t go or things they didn’t see. They regretted the time they didn’t spend with their kids, their parents, their family. They regretted time they had wasted.
Now all we have is time.
In the weeks and months after Sept. 11, all over Manhattan, surfaces were covered with pictures of the missing. Storefront windows. Park benches. Subway walls. Bus schedules. Tree trunks. Hundreds of men and women, maybe thousands, walked the streets every day, vacant-eyed, clutching photos of sons and daughters, friends, husbands, wives, carrying signs that said, “Have you seen?” and “Missing.” At night they wore bulky coats and huddled by makeshift fires still clutching those signs.
What these people wouldn’t have given for the time we have now, time to spend together and just be.
Of course, we worry about tomorrow and what it might bring and when this will end and how it will end and how we will pay our bills. But even in these worries we are not alone. Who will get sick? Who will live? Who will die? Will the world ever be the same? We share the same fears. We live in different places, different houses, different cities, different countries. But all of us, who aren’t actively in the business of taking care of the rest of us, are in this crazy, unimagined worldwide lockdown together right now.
Together makes things better. We can’t gather but we are joined.
We could have all the freedoms we don’t have now. Restaurants, bars, theaters all open. Sports on TV. No restrictions at all.
And in a few weeks or months be outside holding signs searching for people we love.
Instead, if we’re lucky, we’re stuck inside right now with people we cherish, people who cheat at Monopoly, and watch TV with the volume up high, and hum incessantly.
Irreplaceable people, which is why we are hunkered down.
Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at email@example.com.