I wrote a haiku yesterday for the first time in two years:
Eyes are moistened by
The whiteness of gravity.
Snowflakes in April.
At first, I thought this poem had nothing to do with the Covid-19 pandemic that we are all facing, but now I know different.
First, let me say that for me – like most of you, I imagine – each passing day is much like the previous one. Very little stands out. In my case, I don’t visit any schools to talk about my writing or travel anywhere. I don’t do any interviews. Nothing “big” happens to me. What I've come to value are tiny events like baking a new batch of oatmeal-raisin cookies or finishing a hat that I have been crocheting for a friend’s baby or listening to my husband Alex read me an article he is writing for a literary magazine in Portugal, where we live.
Or writing a haiku.
And here’s something new: it no longer matters whether the haiku is any good. Its “worth” is of no importance to me at the moment – which gives me the wondrous feeling of having escaped a trap that was set for me (or that I set for myself!) twenty-five years ago, when I started publishing novels.
I rarely try to “explain” what I’ve written – to say what it “means” – because I believe that it’s best for readers to come up with their own interpretations. But I want to make an exception at this exceptional time.
From my perspective, my haiku has to do with the pandemic because it is about appreciating seemingly unimportant things like snowflakes. If we are able to do that, we may find our “eyes moistened.” Why? Out of gratitude for the beauty of the world, of course. For being alive. For being well. And for those of us who aren’t alone at this difficult time, for being with those we love (including our pets!)
The haiku is also about linking very personal discoveries – like the joy of watching snowflakes falling – to something bigger, in this case, gravity. I did my best to find a surprising and unique way to say that in order to awaken the reader with a jolt: “The whiteness of gravity”.
To me, the second and third line of the haiku are an accurate representation of what this health crisis has taught many of us (or reminded us): that small and intimate things are connected to much bigger and important situations. For instance, those of us who stay at home and spend our days involved in little activities like baking and knitting are helping to keep our neighbors safe. And by extension, helping to keep safe everyone who isn’t already infected.
I am very glad that insignificant activities characterize my current life. Because they are calming. They require little or no intellectual effort. And, as I say, I don’t care whether the results are any good. Also, they seem timeless – to connect me to everyone who has ever lived. After all, human beings have been making hats and baking cookies for thousands of years.
Being in quarantine has also made it clear me that writing is fundamentally different – slower and more gentle – than playing a video game or driving our car or sending messages on our phone. Not that I find anything wrong with those other activities. Any way that we can get through this crisis without hurting others or driving ourselves insane seems like a good solution to me.
But I think that focusing on what is small and quiet – and therefore overlooked during normal times – has an advantage; it may keep us from panicking.
I have a lot of experience with this because I panicked all the time during the last pandemic, of Aids, back in the 1980s and 1990s. You probably think you wash your hands a lot now. I know I do. But in the late 1980s, after visiting my dying brother in the hospital, I used to wash my hands up to 100 times a day. Because watching him die destroyed nearly all my faith in the world and convinced me that every person and object I touched might infect me with a fatal disease – if not Aids, then one of the drug-resistant bacteria that reside in hospitals.
Unfortunately, the language of panic has been adopted by our media and our worst, most incompetent leaders. They speak of the “war” against the virus and characterize nurses and doctors as “battling on the front lines” and patients as “winning” or “losing” their fight against this illness.
Are they aware that they are terrifying many of us? Unfortunately, I don’t think that most leaders and journalists analyze the language they use. And so they have no idea that a dangerous lie crouches behind their metaphors of war: that we will end the pandemic by crushing it through sheer force.
No, sheer force isn’t going to do any good. Scientists and researchers will bring an end to this crisis by finding useful drugs and – later – a vaccine. Meanwhile, intelligent government officials will reduce the scale of the pandemic by investing in all the infrastructure and hospital equipment needed to deal efficiently with this extra burden. And doctors and nurses will help not just by saving lives but also by reminding us that they care about our well-being – that they will do all they can to help those of us who may become ill over the next weeks and months.
The fact that there are people who don’t know us but who care deeply about whether we live or die is a great testament to the inherent nobility of human beings. It’s very likely what we need to keep remembering in order to try to stay calm.
The extraordinary work of our doctors and nurses makes leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro seem ever more irresponsible, selfish and juvenile. In part because they clearly understand nothing about the nobility of which human beings are capable. They have no idea that other people can act nobly precisely because they themselves are unable to do so.
You cannot see in others what is completely lacking in yourself, of course.
And so, you and I will halt the spread of this disease by staying home and re-learning to value what is tiny and mostly useful only to ourselves – by bathing our kids and walking our dog and choosing books to order. By not panicking.
In one of my novels, The Warsaw Anagrams, the narrator says that his definition of heaven is of a place where the most soft-spoken people win all the arguments.
I realize now – and it’s a big surprise – that that is the world I’m currently living in. So maybe that’s the challenge that this terrible health crisis poses to all of us: to make our homes into own small and quiet version of paradise.