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Keeping the darkness at bay
The streets are quiet, the shelves are bare, people wear blue masks and blue gloves, and even family and friends shy away from each other with apologies and make sure not to touch. It seems a different world we woke up to one day.
Of course we will survive this: human beings are practically as resilient as bugs. We will be haunted, but hopefully we will also be chastened and remember to prepare for the next one better—and we might take comfort in seeing how the natural world can rid itself of our pollution and rebound if only for a moment (when fish came back to the canals of Venice and the air in metropolitan Athens was certainly appreciably better).
But what a global crisis like this shows is how fragile we are as a species and as a civilization—something like this makes a mockery of our civilization. It’s like putting a hand through a carefully-constructed spider web: it can catch flies, but it can’t repel a human fist. Suddenly all our restaurants are closed and millions of people are out of work. They are begging for our service and their dining rooms look like caves. What happens to that luncheonette in Troy, New York that has been in the family for years? What happens to the trendy new café in Astoria where young Greeks spend hours arguing the problems in their lives and checking on their WiFi? What happens to the construction company that has no construction? The law firm that has no court dates? The runners that have nothing to deliver? The nursing homes that have no visitors? The hospitals that have no beds? The doctors and nurses that get sick themselves? The children that have no school and no structure in their lives and whose world is suddenly not an endless panorama but a shuttered place? What happens to a big and loving family that in a news cycle loses four of its members and becomes an internet meme?
When I was a kid living in Greece the world seemed such a sweet and simple place. It had its terrors after dark (when the dogs barked at phantoms), it had the gravestones at cemeteries where the dead appeared smiling in pictures, and it had the churches where all the saints were olive skinned and dour and their eyes looked enormous and seemed to follow you everywhere. But at night when there was no TV, all the neighbors would shuffle out of the dark to my papou and yiayia’s taratsa and sit there all night eating peponi and stafilia and visino dipped in water for the more formal visitors, and talk and laugh in the darkness and the shadows and the moths flying endlessly around the one lightbulb that lit up the scene. My papou would tease me and say he didn’t eat ice cream because it was too hot and “burned” his tongue, Sideri would blame the kivernisi for everything, Thio Stelio would spoon his yiaourti and kill flies with a fly swatter and pace in his flip flops, and my yiayia would scratch one leg with the other and realize she was only wearing one sock and two different-colored shoes. “I only have two pairs so I’m showing you my whole wardrobe tonight,” she would say.
And we would laugh, and she would laugh, and certainly we can use a laugh now. Those people went through a lot worse in their lives and they survived it with their humanity intact: certainly we can do the same and remember this cautionary tale we are going through now of how precious and frail life is and what keeps the darkness at bay is having each other.
Stay strong and be well and let’s talk to each other, and if all else fails, try wearing mismatched shoes.
Dimitri C. Michalakis