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A SUBSTITUTE LIFE


“Where is the life that late I led?” This poignant question from Shakespeare is on everyone’s minds as the coronavirus pandemic deepens all over the world. In the space of a few short weeks, ordinary life seems to have been cancelled, and we are all in mourning for the life that late we led.

The list of things we can no longer do is growing. Can’t go to work and see our co-workers, to say nothing of feeling worthwhile because we had a job to do. Can’t travel, can’t go to the places we were looking forward to in our next vacation. Can’t see our friends, can’t have a cup of coffee at our favorite hangout, can’t hug the people we love or shake their hands or pat their shoulders. Can’t exchange greetings with neighbors or strangers to feel, as we have done for millennia, the continuum of human life.


But, “Thank goodness we still have the internet!” is a sigh of relief we have all voiced, including me. The internet, in this crisis, has given us:


A place to laugh. Ordinary people post videos of Rube Goldberg-like contraptions involving notebooks, broom handles and rolls of toilet paper that deliver food to the dog or ring the doorbell. They allow their four-year-olds to apply their makeup or play guitar riffs for their parrots to dance to.


A place to feel better. Good deeds warm the hearts of people on the other side of the globe. Many people use their talents, music, artwork, drama, or stop-action animation, to give us a smile. At the very least, they put up pictures of their flower garden edging into spring, cuddly pets doing heartwarming things, their latest forays into cooking. Increasingly, they put up photos of childhood toys and games, or themselves in high school, looking back on a simpler time.


A place to learn something. There have been more things available online to learn this year than ever before. You can take virtual tours of museums, botanical gardens, famous buildings. You can learn how to make a washable mask, how to plant seeds, how to teach your child to read, any number of things. And most of it is offered free of charge. I myself took advantage of the Metropolitan Opera’s free streaming to experience Wagner’s Ring cycle (at least, three out of four of these immense operas; by the last night I was all Wagner’ed out – I’ll have to catch Gotterdammerung some other time).


A place to be encouraged. Many memes encourage us to DO SOMETHING instead of just sitting on the couch; to think of this whole virus thing as a learning experience; to rise above, to discipline ourselves, to take the high road; to use this precious time at home to reconnect with flagging yoga regimes, one’s own kitchen, pets and children, nature in general.


A place to count one’s blessings. Dire footage of emergency rooms, makeshift hospitals set up on football fields, yawning urban landscapes devoid of people, all make us consider what we do have left, health, family, a roof over our heads, life itself. Sometimes they make us feel superior – “I thank Thee, Lord, that I am not as other men are” – places on the globe that have handled the outbreak better, or people who have decided to make the quarantine a competition that they are winning, as “Best Quarantine Mom”. Comparing one’s lot to that of others has its light and dark side. I myself briefly joined a site that offered the view from one’s window, but I got discouraged seeing the magnificent views of mountain, ocean, countryside, that others were enjoying daily. What had started out as a sharing of beautiful scenery had become, for some, a way to say “Look what I’ve got!”


A place to connect. Who doesn’t have friends they are glad to contact on social media or email? Especially now when the post office is curtailed, and face-to-face encounters are fraught with suspicion? Living in the countryside as I do, far from the physical presence of friends, I admit I use this method of connection daily.

But in the end, the internet fells silent. We need more. We are being entertained, but not fed. It increasingly feels like bingeing on junk food. Maybe satisfying for the moment, but apt to make us feel sick and insomniac in the small hours (as now, when I write this blog at 3:30 am.).


I admit to being a bit of a Mennonite when it comes to the digital age, perhaps because so much of my life was lived before it all exploded and took over. Can you imagine, a life without Google or smart phones? Yet we lived it, as did everyone before us. I watched this great force, this (let’s be honest) wolf in sheep’s clothing, offering us the Universe with one hand while stealing our lives and peace of mind with the other. I say this, and continue to think it, even while using it to connect with friends, and with you, my readers. It does feel like a devil’s bargain.


For years I have been waiting for the other shoe to drop – for some kind of electrical apocalypse that makes the screens go dark so we can get back to “real life”, reconnect with our physical world and our wonderful bodies and minds that have been sufficient for generations of humanity up to now. How ironical that contrary to my every prediction, what has been left to us is the internet, and what is being lost is everything else.


We are living a substitute life. Virtual reality is not reality, or at best it’s a shallow, tawdry version of it. I am luckier than most – I do have a large garden that allows me to enjoy the physical world, and am able to go for walks and otherwise enjoy the outdoors – and yet, I mourn. Psychologically, if not physically, I am being wounded by this life. And, I suspect, the rest of humanity is too.


Where is the life that late we led? I don’t call for a “return to normality” – I know that what we had before, with its frenetic pace, its weird imperatives, its cruelties and its inequalities, was in no way “normal”. But just to be able to go somewhere, to feel part of the larger aggregate of physical humanity, to share the buzzwords and customs of my fellow man, without worrying that I will catch something from them… I do miss that. It was a little thing, but it was normal, and it’s gone, at least for now. I hope we don’t find, when all this is over, that we have paid a terrible price for our safety.

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