Dear expectant mom,
Big with child, big with hopes and worries, big with plans, and big with searching and searing questions, I was struck by your coronavirus-era query the other day: Will life’s little pleasures still exist for my child?
I have been haunted by this poignant question. Because this is an unusual time of idleness and introspection, I’ve been stewing on it. What exactly are the little pleasures of life, and have they been extinguished by COVID-19? What are the prospects for all of us in that now seems hopelessly infected with fear?
Maybe my experience as a dad of two little girls who now are grown daughters living far from home — but both vulnerable to the great transformations underway in the culture and the economy — might provide some perspective.
There’s no short answer to your question about what awaits your baby, of course. More than a million Americans have contracted the disease, tens of thousands have died from it. There is no easy consolation for their families, no little pleasures will salve the hurt and the loss. My grandparents lost a son in combat in the Pacific in World War II and spent the remainder of their lives in grief so deep that little happiness could pierce their Salem home.
Winston Churchill once said that “the future is unknowable, but the past should give us hope.” The past that Churchill helped shape does indeed give us hope, because most of our worst nightmares never become daytime realities. The Nobel Prize economist Paul Samuelson, for example, was convinced in 1943 that the end of World War II would leave the nation with “some 10 million men . . . thrown on the labor market” at a time when the economy could not absorb them. He warned of “the greatest period of unemployment and industrial dislocation which any economy has ever faced.”
Instead, the redirection of resources that had been dedicated to wartime production created a Niagara of consumer goods to meet pent-up demand and fueled more prosperity than the world had never seen.
One thing coronavirus America has in surplus today is pent-up demand: pent-up demand for restaurant meals, pent up demand for cultural and sporting events, pent-up demand for travel, pent-up demand for haircuts, demand for shopping, even pent-up demand to go to the dentist. It’s very likely your baby will grow up in a world of economic abundance.
Not that your baby is being born into a world of prettiness and perfection. If she is pulled to civic and social engagement she will have plenty to challenge her. Racism persists. The wealth gap remains. The homeless crisis has only widened. Climate change still threatens.
But in all this there is more than simply work for activists. There also are slender green shoots of progress.
Carbon emissions were down 18 percent in China after the virus spread in the country that is the world’s largest emitter of carbon. We now know that the reduction of harmful climate-altering gases is within our reach. In the United States, consumption of single-use plastics is down significantly. We now know that we can live without these emblems of waste, and should.
The experience of being crowded in London subway stations in 1939 and 1940 during the Blitz of World War II helped create a sense of community and shared sacrifice in Great Britain. We aren’t crowding anywhere right now, but we are experiencing a palpable sense of shared adversity. Your child will be born into a country where people are relying on each other more than they have in decades. “We are not wearing masks to protect ourselves,’’ my friend John Dick, who runs the consumer polling firm Civic Science, told me the other day. “We are wearing them to protect others.”
And your child will be born into a world with a fresh sense of the benefits of family ties.
Some of us may be experiencing a bit too much “togetherness’’ this difficult spring, but events have conspired to remind us of the value of family, and of Robert Frost’s great truth that “home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.’’
And even those of us who — in our shyness, or in our stubborn determination to withdraw — have been practicing a form of social distancing for several decades suddenly crave the fellowship of gatherings: in the ballpark, for example, but also just in the park down the street, and maybe even at a charitable ball one of these days.
In our wanderings in solitude we have at long last seen, as William Blake promised in the 19th century, “a heaven in a wild flower.” We have heard the songs of birds perhaps for the first time; I swear that one birdcall I have heard repeatedly this spring exactly matched the four-syllable cadence of the name of a friend of mine from Melrose, Seaver Peters, who died during the coronavirus crisis from a different cause.
We have learned, as Thoreau sought to teach us nearly two centuries ago over in Concord, that “an early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.’’
All these things — along with the waves and white sands of Nantasket Beach; the quiet joys of fishing at Houghton’s Pond; the rush of the frost-laden air at the summit of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington; the thrill of a Celtics rally at TD Garden; the juicy bite of a roast beef sandwich at Kelly’s in Revere Beach or along Route 1 in Saugus; the sense of solitude at Thoreau’s Walden Pond; the twice-told tales of Salem’s Nathaniel Hawthorne; and the stories of the heroics at Lexington Green and of the bravery of the Black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment during the Civil War — are among life’s little pleasures.
Most of all we have learned that they are not in the end little pleasures, but big ones. Mark my words: They will be there for your baby, and surely for his or hers as well.
Your friend always,
David Shribman, former Washington bureau chief for the Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and scholar-in-residence at Carnegie Mellon University.