We’re coming up on the third anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many seem to have put it all behind them and simply want to forget it. But we learned a lot from that experience, and we shouldn’t forget those lessons, so as a reminder, I combined a couple of my early pandemic columns from March and April 2020:

I see friends shaking hands, saying, ‘How do you do?’ They’re really saying, ‘I love you.’

Louie Armstrong
What a Wonderful World

Well, maybe not shaking hands. Bumping elbows. Or a friendly wave. But the question has taken on new urgency, deeper meaning.

“How are you?”

Things are different now, as you may have noticed. Impossible not to notice, really. We’re using words like “isolation,” “quarantine,” and “lockdown,” which send shivers up the spine. “Social-distancing” is a kinder, gentler euphemism, and “shelter in place” which sounds positively benign, though it also sounds like “running in place,” a metaphor for expending a lot of energy to go nowhere. Some might call that an apt description of our world — before this global pandemic altered (permanently?) that world.

And how we live in it.

So how are you? Are you well? Are you coping? Are you thriving in spite of circumstances? Are you down? Struggling to adjust?

I feel for high school and college seniors whose last semesters have been cut short. The final semester should be a golden time of savoring, looking back, and eagerly anticipating what comes next. I feel for athletes whose encounter with a bigger stage has been canceled after years of extraordinary dedication to their sport — high school and NCAA basketball players, baseball players on the brink of making the major leagues, teams that might have won championships, hundreds of Olympic athletes around the world.

I feel worse for those who live paycheck to paycheck and have been furloughed or laid off, and those who will lose businesses over this. And those, in the wealthiest country on Earth, who still don’t have adequate access to affordable health care.

I worry about those who are frail and fragile and most at risk. I worry because we’re all vulnerable. No one is exempt; no one’s privilege can protect them. It’s scary, and the loss of life is staggering and unnerving.

But after I work through these emotions, I look around and notice what’s happening and what’s not happening.

Distractions have been reduced. Consumerism is based on distraction, exploiting our impulses, our willingness to serve our appetites. With so many businesses closed, distractions are reduced — radically. With less hustle and bustle, noise has been reduced.

We can hear ourselves think.

We’re all in, people are saying, but we’re also out. Normally when I’m walking, the only people I encounter are attached to dog leashes. Now whole families are ambling along, taking their time, taking it all in, going nowhere in particular. It’s like every day is the day after Thanksgiving. We’re in permanent holiday mode as the economic engine idles — minus the afterglow of celebration.

We have been given the gift of time. Not short-term “time off” but time with no end in sight. Time to remember or, for the first time perhaps, realize what’s important and what isn’t. Time enough perhaps to think about what is unnecessary in our life and in our world. Time to imagine a whole new world. A world in which we are not reduced to bowing at the altar of capitalism and serving the 1% priestly caste.

Or as Rebecca Solnit said in her On Being interview, “There is so much other work that love has to do in the world. … What if we can be better people in a better world? … Unpredictability is better than certainty. It creates an opening, but you have to walk through it. … We can become the storytellers rather than the person told what to do.”

In ways we cannot yet see, our current cloistering could lead to a healthier, better world. A global time-out. These are “The Days the Earth Stood Still,” and like that sci-fi classic, it has the potential to bring us all to our senses. We have time to think about the world we’ve created and wonder whether we can’t do better.

Most of us now have enough toilet paper — our security blanket — to last us for a year. Grocery stores have become our new community centers. Mostly we’re sheltering in place, but we’re reaching out to one another, sending emails, using our hand-held devices as actual telephones.

And we’re asking the most profound question of our time:

How are you?

I’ve been walking quite a bit lately. You too? It’s a gratifying experience. I’ve never been thanked so often for going out of my way to avoid people. And I’ve never been so tempted to use my favorite line from the end of every Lone Ranger episode: “Who was that masked man [or woman]?”

Feels good to get out, though, if only to survey the display of seasonal flowers, which seem to thrive in our chilly, not-in-any-hurry spring. The daffodils are dazzling, nodding as if to say, “We’re cool.” They shine like yellow glow sticks. Even the magnolias, burned by sub-freezing temps and burdened by two snows, have shown real hardiness, struggling through and even thriving.

Flowers are vulnerable, but they are not fragile. There’s a lesson in this.

Sidewalks are a-bloom with chalk pastel bouquets. Hopscotch is making a major comeback. Creative expression abounds. Front windows are full of teddy bears and encouraging messages. My favorite is “April distance means May existence.”

And speaking of creativity, I never expected to be singing “What a Wonderful World” to my grandsons on a computer “platform” called Zoom.

Here’s a quote I found, attributed to Chekhov: “Any fool can get through a crisis. It’s this day-to-day that’s killing me.” But what happens when the day-to-day is part of the crisis?

Another, attributed to Oscar Wilde: “It is because humanity has never known where it is going that it has never been able to find its way.”

Or Henry Ford: “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”

Plenty to think about. Plenty to ponder.

Nothing has ever been so dangerous for the status quo — or the status quo’s guardians — as so many people having so much time on their hands to contemplate the flaws and unfairness of the current system.

Maybe a revolution is building.

The powers-that-be desperately want the economic engine restarted — mostly as a distraction — because the longer this goes, the more clearly the inequities come into focus. No wonder the privileged are in such a hurry.

Yet so many families are spending so much time together. You see them out on front lawns and in the parks, whole families, mid-day, mid-week. Kids today will be telling stories about this extended recess when they are grandparents themselves.

We shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to reopen. Never underestimate the power of a pandemic to reorder priorities.

What’s important … and what isn’t? We’ve been given a great gift: slowing down so we have time to think … about the world we want to live in, a world where the economy and the powers-that-be serve us instead of the other way around.

April social distance means May co-existence.
Will the lockdown set us free?
Pollution is fading. Gas prices falling.
The system needs overhauling.
We’re all in eLearning,
Is fairness returning?
A revolution a-brew with revelations.
Think about it. You have the time.
Who are all those masked men and women?
It’s us, the Lone Rangers.
Just keep thinking:
What a wonderful world this could be.

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