The Times We’re Living In
“We’ve only got these times we’re living in…”– singer-songwriter Kate Wolf
During this trying time…
During this difficult time…
At this most unusual period…
In these unprecedented times…
These phrases are everywhere in my news feed, emails from companies and organizations, post from friends. The words leave me adrift, lost, uncomfortable. They’re words to say after a hurricane, a tsunami, a tornado, a season of fire or flood like few others. They’re words to say when someone is laid off, when a house is destroyed, when a loved one is diagnosed with a known, threatening, disease. They’re words to say after offering sympathy and condolences when someone has died: can I help you in this difficult time?
Thousands of people have died of coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease, after all, all over the world, in China, Italy, Iran, Spain, the United States, and dozens of other countries. The world waits in fear and sadness for the next bad news, the next sad numbers.
The thing about trying times like fires and droughts and being laid off is that difficult times aren’t supposed to stick around forever. They’re supposed to be temporary. The flood comes in and recedes, leaving damage, destruction, and rebuilding in its wake. The climate changes, the fire burns, the weather changes, the firefighters fight and struggle, and the flames eventually die. The disease ravages the body, and if one is lucky, healing comes.
We are living in unprecedented times.
When America and the world faced an unprecedented time after September 11th, 2001, I felt my ordinary life suspend, somewhat. I had just started graduate school; administrators walked into an orientation gathering to tell the new students (in those days before smartphones and laptops with constant WiFi access) that the twin towers in New York had fallen. We gathered around televisions and tried to call friends and family as land lines and cell phone capacity jammed. Over the next few weeks, professors rearranged syllabi to talk about what had happened, or continued, as best they could, with class as planned. I feared to open my mail as the threat of anthrax loomed, however remote the possibility. Airline flights were grounded, passengers stranded, airports crowded and then empty, afraid. It felt like ordinary life could not go on, could not resume.
For some like myself, the world slowly reassembled and came to resemble if not match the form and shape it had had before. But for Muslims, Sikhs, Middle Easterners, South Asians, and so many living in America with darker skin, daily life had changed more, perhaps, than it had stayed the same. Discrimination, surveillance, and hate crimes became more prevalent; Immigration and Customs Enforcement was formed and remains with us in truly horrifying ways. The metaphorical virus, it seemed, was never far away, and daily life became more a question than a given.
Now, we face another unprecedented time, one that’s perhaps even more so. This month, I watched in shock as China, Japan, South Korea, and Italy closed schools and businesses and restricted personal movement to only the most essential. Lives collapsed, folded in, like the creases on a face mask. Too soon, too necessarily, cities across America followed suit, closing schools, emptying sports arenas, canceling concerts, suspending programs, silencing parades. I watched as stocks tumbled, grocery stores emptied, flights canceled, plans changed, and life restricted, shuttered, folded in.
And no one knows how long this trying time will last. Where I live, schools are closed for four weeks; experts now say we need eight weeks or more of school closures to truly make a difference. Other experts remind us, too, that eighteen months of social distancing may, instead, be what it will take to defeat this common enemy that plagues within. These are trying times, indeed.
Trying times are liminal times; they’re not meant to be a new normal. When we’re in one, we only know what came before and what we’re facing; we cannot know, yet, what comes next. We don’t know what will be different about our lives when we emerge (we hope) from the internet’s dense net and are once again able to meet each other face to face, hand to hand, shoulder to shoulder, embrace to embrace, over cups of coffee, glasses of wine, plates of sandwiches.
I know what I fear will come next: deaths in hospitals and deaths in homes, days of sickness, a sudden fear of other people that spreads like contagion itself. How will we know when it is safe to congregate, to assemble, to plan, to hope, to live? I fear the widening inequality of access to health care; I fear the hospitals filling up, the curve unflattened. I fear for children who don’t know, without school to attend, where their next meal comes from. I fear for those who are more afraid for their bodies in the face of immigration officials than of the virus that threatens still the same. I fear for those whose jobs rely on life as it usually is, jobs in restaurants, taxis, public transportation, or in stores and fitness centers and childcare centers and anywhere labeled non-essential. I fear fast virus testing for the rich and powerful while the poor are left to suffocate. I fear a society that callously hoards masks and toilet paper and far more callously calls a pandemic a political ploy. I fear for a society that cannot find the grace to cover the health care needs of its many millions.
I know, instead, what I yearn for in the days and months to come: for these difficult times to help us find the better angels of our nature. For society to find its common good. These are millennial hopes, eschatological hopes, hopes for times that I cannot think are end times, but which will and must, one day, move on.
Even if it’s too soon to think about, I yearn for the day when social distancing finds a way past its sudden sweeping distrust, so that we may stumble across the six feet of separation towards what my KtB co-editor Briallen Hopper calls “social closening.” I look for the day when the coffee shops and restaurants and schools and libraries and parks reopen, for national borders to reopen and markets to rebound. I look for the day when my family, scattered across the United States, can once again fly to see each other and not wonder what unwelcome pathogens we also harbor. I look for the day when I don’t have to think the thoughts that are too scary for daytime’s noise, the thoughts that only come, echoing, in the quiet of the night: When will I see you again? Will I see you again? See you again. You again. Again.
I look for the day when the lungs heal, the ventilators rest silent, the masks and gloves come off, the day when flesh might hug and kiss and reach again for the comfort of one another.
In the 1990s musical RENT, which told the story of another epidemic facing another generation, the characters gathered to sing about their times: “You’re living in America / at the end of the millennium…. And when you’re dying in America / at the end of the millennium / You’re not alone.”
Today, we’re living and dying in America and in the world in what’s still the start of a new millennium. I know it’s too soon for most of my millennial hopes to find fruition. Instead, I can only try in these trying times to live (and live, and live) into the times we’re living in.
Emily Ruth Mace is co-editor-in-chief at KtB. She's a freelance editor, writer and religious studies alt-academic with an interest in religious liberalism and life at the borders of traditional religion and spirituality. She holds a Ph.D. in Religion from Princeton University and a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. In addition to KtB, her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Mama, Religion Dispatches, the Chronicle Vitae, and others. A one-time bicoastal resident of California and New England, she currently lives outside Chicago, and can be found online at emilyrmace.com and Tweeting occasionally at @lemilym.