When I consider how many Christmases have painted themselves as bright sugary memories in my mind, I really have had a charmed life. But not all Christmases sparkle. One of the ugliest is an angry green sea, with orange limbs and black heads gasping for life while I crumple thirty bucks in the first I’ve shoved in a coat pocket. It’s the day after Christmas, Dec 26, 2004. I’m standing at the front door of my brother’s home, stepping out into winter, wondering what right I have to spend it on myself. The giver intended for me to spend it as I’d intended, on a the embossed, leather-looking box set of The Two Towers.
Fifteen minutes before while I was pulling on my boots, preparing to wade through waves of dissatisfied people returning their Christmas gifts, when I caught the news. In the living room, my brother, father, husband and other men in my family reclined with their eyes glued to laptops. “Did you hear?” I asked. They confirmed the tsunami that struck Indonesia and beyond had 10,000 reported casualties. 10,000 people washed into walls of the sea, grasping for their children and their lovers.
Two and half times the casualties of 9/11.
I clutched the bills and felt as I had when I was young, watching the destruction of Alderaan in Star Wars. Somewhere far away in the universe there was a disturbance. A world obliterated. Thousands of lives silenced in seconds.
Fifteen minutes later, the walk in Walmart felt surreal. The crowd noise silenced everything. I recall listening for my own heartbeat and feeling the radical injustice of fate or nature or God or whatever. I felt a kind of disgust at myself that I would carry on with my purchase of entertainment while a whole world of Rachels were weeping in great mourning. Weeping for the children, their mothers and fathers. Because they were no more.
If we watched The Two Towers that night, I didn’t pay attention. I checked the news. The body count climbed over the weekend, over 100,000 by that night. Over 227,000 in total. My life was preserved because I was born in the United States.
“There are some years that ask questions,” wrote Zora Neale Hurston. “There are some years that answer.”
This year, my life is fragile, because I was born in the United States. The richest country in the world, the country that published Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” I teach that story to high school students every year in American Literature. They love the vivid imagery and the macabre Red Death infiltrating a medieval soiree.
In 2014, when Ebola swept six of Africa’s fifty-four nations, I drew parallels between Ebola and the Bubonic Plague for students. That year, an acquaintance in Atlanta expressed outrage that the CDC brought Ebola infected doctors to Emory University. Surely they’d risked American lives, the social media post intimated. Surely noble doctors could risk their lives on some other soil, but how dare we risk American lives to find a cure at the best facility in the US?
This year of our Lord 2020 Poe’s story is as beloved as ever. This year I asked my students about the symbolism of Prince Prospero’s moniker and why he chose his wealthy friends to hole up in one of his “crenellated abbeys.” Do the wealthy think they can escape death? I asked
Not that our wealthy all holed up literally, but our presidential leadership team used access to any and every possible treatment at all costs to prove that Americans can buy their way out of death.
While millions in poverty struggled to work, feed, and shelter themselves, while vulnerable populations died in disproportionate numbers, while those with addiction overdosed in desperation, while kids and parents struggled to find an equilibrium of connection, emotional health, work and education, while doctors and nurses nursed themselves to precipice of exhaustion, while some churches risked the connection/community that makes them strong by going on-line, while some businesses policed personal behavior, while some demonstrators distanced but showed up, others made the decision that this pestilence would devastate only if we believed it would.
This year, the pestilence became most fatal and hideous when individual liberties, collectively practiced, created chaos. It seems that wealthy nations maddened themselves on free markets and free will. They proved that a crenellated abbey cannot keep out even Quiet Death. For this plague is no virus that makes eyes weep blood and pustules seep life. This virus is subtler.
This virus seizes the respiratory system, veins and arteries, and it squeezes the life out of them as stealthily as the flu.
In The Masque of the Red Death, the plague or something is evil. Sorry to bring up the “e-word,” a word that umbrellas such varied applications that it’s bound to sound judgey or existential or hyperbolic, if one doesn’t subscribe to it.
This virus, to be clear is not the “e-word.” The e-word is evil. Evil doesn’t generally look evil. While we are screaming about “evil” over there, the evil that threatens has cloaked itself, infiltrated, and run amok. It’s the threat we think we can control. It’s a force we both believe in and remain skeptical of. What do we call evil with some certainty? We call Hitler, his syncophants, and the Holocaust evil. We call Pol Pot and Khymer Rouge’s murder of Cambodians evil. Stalin’s own 14-20 million dead, that’s evil. Mosquitoes: evil. Psychopaths: evil. Serial rapists: evil. Known evils.
After that, we have lesser evils about which we disagree. This year’s pandemic demonstrated that our lesser evils are individualized and polarized.
One person’s evil is another person’s freedom. I don’t wear a mask, freedom. You don’t wear a mask, evil. I travel for mental health and can’t give up a year or I’ll regret it: freedom. You travel: evil.
I’m going to say, this pandemic polarized further what was already divided. I have relationships so strained in my life, I’m not sure they’ll ever recover. They will work, seize up, work, seize, then one of us will die. Not unlike how the virus wreaks havoc in some.
I’m not here to say whose side is freedom or whose is evil. Some of the things labeled evil no longer seem so evil to me. Another Christian might kick me out of the abbey for that view.
Some years ask questions.
After 2004’s tsunami, my questions included: Is God the ultimate maestro? Is there a god? Or do I have to resign myself to unknowns? Can I live that way?
In 2020, my questions include, Do humans know how to make wisdom out of knowledge? Could we ever be selfless enough to save the race? Is there such a thing as good humanism? Are we really progressing?
Some years answer.
I don’t remember what answers I walked away with in 2004, except: I have a life long battle to live less for myself alone. I choose to believe in God and God chose to believe in humans even if we really ‘eff it up.
In 2020, the answers are as thin. I don’t think we’re progressing. I think the same global problems start within individuals. Until we work on our own salvations, we cannot can’t save the race entire. There is a God. It’s a wonder that God goes on loving bodies and souls in this condition. Not the condition of dying or being ugly or imperfect. The condition of being unable to love others as we love ourselves. 2020 may be the year we realize the narcissism within. Then again, we are pretty terrible at saving ourselves.
In Ireland, there’s a tradition at midnight to open all the doors and windows to let the old year out and the new year in. I’m part Irish. My heritage shows up in my grandmother’s nose, which I inherited. My husband is mostly Scotch-Irish. His nose is short and flat too. Our year had its griefs and blessings. He weathered COVID and contentions. We postponed a sabbatical, then a mini sabbatical. We celebrated a milestone anniversary and birthdays without much fanfare. What happened to us sickened me less than what has been happening to those people we work with in our vocations.
Yet the doors and windows have started to open. I’m ready to throw up the sashes and bang the pots and wait. Good fortune, like salvation, is a work of patience.