Opinion

Love and art at the edge of apocalypse

Ever since Grade Seven social studies class, I’ve been walking around waiting for a piano to drop on my head. I remember going home to my parents and asking why they’d never told me about the prospect of a nuclear war turning our world to cinders, and why on earth they weren’t as terrified about it as I was.

In a rare moment of agreement, they answered that nuclear annihilation was a highly unlikely scenario, since whoever initiated first strike would ultimately be ensuring their own destruction via retaliatory response. I was to rest secure in the knowledge that my fate lay in the wisdom of adults who had stupidly created the damn bomb in the first place – while observing my parents continue to fight their own unwinnable battles with each other.

Forty-odd years later, youthful faith in my own wisdom has long faded, having fought many unwinnable wars myself since then. My convictions of righteousness were untested by the weight of experience and the defects of my own character.

But the gnawing unease left by the insufficiency of my parent’s reply has never quite left me. Additional threats such as climate change, environmental degradation, and communicable disease have long since been added to my list of concerns as I continue the humdrum activities of daily living – brushing my teeth, putting food in my belly, and enjoying the luxury of toilet paper.

The automaticity of these rituals has a numbing effect; their very ordinariness sometimes belies my hope that I am special – that life is special. I confess that long periods have passed where the threat of annihilation has paled beneath the weight of such important considerations as coloring my hair or checking my Facebook status. Sometimes I’ve found myself despairing of the very routine of daily existence; um, is this all there is?

Occasionally something happens that alters the predictable rhythm of daily life. Sometimes, it’s something wonderful, like falling in love, or some unprecedented career success. Other times, it’s awful – the loss of a loved one or a long-held illusion. Once in a while, an event external to my own sphere of influence impacts from beyond, reminding me of the fallibility of all my assumptions.

I remember the wave of Y2K hysteria in late 1999, as the fear of computer meltdown gripped the public imagination. I remember the horrified astonishment of the 9/11 attack and it’s resulting fallout on societal norms. I remember the Alberta flood of 2013 that devastated my hometown of High River – how the best, and worst, of human nature emerged in the months of chaos that followed.

Every time something like this has happened, I’ve been relieved to discover that, as terrible as the circumstances might be, the piano hasn’t quite dropped – yet. But the preciousness of ordinary existence is thrown into sharp relief; how thoroughly I’ve taken for granted the context upon which I’ve been able to enact the insignificant drama of my own life. I’m reminded of the things I’ve left unsaid and undone, and of the people that are important to me. I’m also conscious of the insistent instinct for self-preservation; the world can go to hell as long as I can just get my hands on whatever I need to make it through the day. Unfortunately, however, I need the world not just to provide for my needs but also to make life worth living.

Walking through the grocery store yesterday, I saw chilling evidence of my own selfishness reflected back by my community. Many of the shelves were empty; I did my part by snapping up items for myself and my family that I hope will see us through the unknown challenges that lie ahead. Gripped by fear, people want to do something tangible to protect themselves; in our wealthy society, buying things is how we do it. Someone said to me that the current pandemic is Mother Nature’s way of separating the weak from the strong, and that survival of the fittest will reign supreme. While firmly resolving to survive myself – by whatever means necessary – I think of those I love who are most vulnerable. I damn well mean for them to survive, too.

To protect our families and friends, we are well advised not to touch; there is to be a famine of human contact ahead. There will be no concerts to go to, no bars open, no audiences to play for. The music industry, along with everything else, will become secondary to more primal concerns. The comfort we take from music will have to come from recordings and from our own instruments. Perhaps the songs that emerge from this period will have a depth and an urgency like none before as the poignant reminder of the “non-essentials” that drive art – like freedom, exploration, and access to the ones we love – are highlighted by their temporary absence. Whatever weight we place upon our careers will pale beside the importance of minimizing the death toll.

Part of that means stocking my 84-year-old father with a month’s worth of supplies and strict advice to remain homebound and to receive few visitors. I question whether I should visit myself, since I work in health care and have an increased risk of carrying the disease. When I think of the isolation my old dad will experience as a result of this advisory, I ask myself what quality of life remains for him? And what about for all the other elderly and health-compromised individuals imprisoned in their homes?

So I sit here on my day off with a full pantry, staring out the window at the dregs of winter, contemplating the imminent disruption of all I’ve held dear; not just easy access to necessities and the comforting flow of routine, but face-to-face connection with the humans who give my life meaning.

Perhaps in the weeks or months ahead, hours empty of social contact will provide an opportunity to rediscover the value of simplicity and the preciousness of togetherness. Ultimately, each of us lives alone within the sack of skin that carries us from experience to experience. In each of us resides the capacity for realization of the value of all that has gone before, and how character influences our outcomes. When trouble strikes, I ask myself, how can I make things better? Can I balance the weight of my own self-interest with the needs of others? If I can’t, will I be able to live with the person my actions have revealed me to be? Is it worthwhile to wipe my own ass at the expense of my neighbor? When social contact has ceased, who will I communicate with if I can’t even look myself in the eye?

In North America, where we have never known war, famine, or pestilence, I’ve often wondered how my own nature would reveal itself under such circumstances. Despite the piano that has been hanging over my head since Grade Seven, I don’t think I’m fully prepared to answer these questions, since my mind has been otherwise occupied upon the treadmill of self-interest.

But in the absence of ordinary life and the noise of social connection, perhaps now there is time to consider what makes life truly worth living and to alter the trajectory of my impact upon the world. There is no war harder to win than that with oneself; especially if there is no time for honest self-examination. When this current crisis passes, perhaps those of us that survive will all be a little wiser; while the sacrificial lambs of pestilence will be remembered for the role they played in our understanding.

As for music, it’s role as a mode of self-expression, catharsis, and celebration will remain, while it’s worldly trappings of ego gratification and financial reward diminish. Perhaps the losing the first part of that equation is not such a bad thing – while the levelling of the music business, which has already taken such a beating in recent years, will be matched by the rest of our economy. We are all in the same boat. Music in its purest form has always been, and will always be, a refuge and a weapon against hopelessness – for everybody, not just those who do it for a living – and the royalties are paid in the currency of spirit. I think of the Italians singing from their windows and know that the joy in their hearts during those moments could not, would not have occurred without their imprisonment. 

The statistics I’ve been reading say that something like 98 out of a hundred of the people I know will survive this pandemic. (Please God: spare my own.) The strong will indeed survive, and lots of us too; it is largely the elderly and health-compromised we are protecting in our compliance with the loving act of social distancing. The irony that they need us close by not just for sustenance of the body but for the spirit remains a bitter pill to swallow – as is the realization that we too need them.

I am awed that despite the economic consequences of taking our children out of schools and staying home from work, concert venues, and other gathering places, we are collectively showing how much we value the weak and frail. It is not power that makes them precious to us; it is the softness that they engender in our own hearts. These realizations are the lifeblood of our art. Once the air has cleared from supermarket aisle fisticuffs, the truth comes a little clearer: instinct to the contrary, we are prepared to sacrifice as a society to protect our loved ones from the blows of outrageous fortune. That says a lot about who we are and how far we have come. By removing the opportunity for the virus to make the first strike, there is no battle to be fought but the one with our own demons. In solitude, by realizing that the value of existence is measured by love, we have already won.

Leslie Alexander is a writer, musician and nurse. Her words and music can be found at www.lesliealexander.com.

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