“Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”
I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five for a community college class called “Banned Books” just after I retired from teaching. Retirement at age fifty felt very strange! I guess it’s no wonder that line has stayed with me for over 20 years now. Once again I feel like I have come “unstuck in time.”
And I don’t think I’m alone.
It feels like March 14, 2020 was an eternity ago … or does it seem like it was just a moment ago?
In a way it doesn’t matter because we have all spent the past two and a half months in a strange sort of limbo that our grandchildren may live to tell their grandchildren about.
And when they do, it will feel to them like it happened just a few moments ago.
Still retired, and with a very empty nest, I’ve had more time than most to think about how future generations are going to frame this period of history. If how it is being “framed” right now is any prediction, the conversation is going to continue to explode exponentially as we all try to understand something that is simply beyond our comprehension.
People who study the nature of conspiracy theories tell us that they flourish at times like these because they provide an illusion of control. We seem to need someone or something “out there” that we can blame. Anger, rage, and revenge somehow feel more powerful, perhaps even more satisfying, than fear, despair, and helplessness. A compelling conspiracy theory is a good target for that “free-floating anger” that is so unsettling,
Those of us who try very hard not to buy into the latest conspiracy theory, and wouldn’t be caught dead in a tin-foil hat, still try very hard to understand.
But in the final analysis, it comes down to the fact that there just may not be anyone or anything to blame. In fact, future generations may very well look back and put the first few decades of the 21st century into a context as profound as the early stirrings of the Reformation, or the Industrial Revolution, or the advent of microchip technology. Perhaps the only difference will be that history will see this as a time of profound spiritual rebirth. I would like to think that future generations will see this as when when something as tiny as a virus was able to teach us about something as enormous as tribalism.
That’s when I began to feel like I’ve come “unstuck in time.”
I’m 74 years old. It seems like just yesterday I was sitting in a dorm room with my roommate, and now playwright, Micki Shelton, contemplating the nature of time. As 18-year-old college freshman, we were not being particularly philosophical about it, and as far as I know, neither of us had ever read Slaughterhouse Five. But as I think about it now I realize that we were touching on an idea to which greater minds than ours have given a lot of thought.
We were only thinking about how time seems to move too fast when we’re having fun … and way too slowly when we’re bored – or having to study for a test. We were trying to figure out how we could “save time” when we were doing nothing so we could spend more of it having fun.
Some other ideas we had never heard about back then were meditation, living in the moment, or what we’ve now come to think of as “savoring time.”
Artists are able to express big ideas, like the coronavirus or tribalism, in ways that provide a frame, or context within which we can slow down and think a little more deeply. “Puzzles and Borderlines” is a very short play with a twist. I wasn’t sure what I was watching at first. Then I remembered an image that I have carried since I was a very small child. Just like the astronaut in Micki’s play, I’ve loved the feeling I get when I imagine floating far above the earth experiencing the moment from a detached, but very beautiful perspective. The “twist” for me came when I realized that it wasn’t the tiny virus, but the ugliness of tribalism that is the true villain. That’s what I learned from this play:
As a child, my name for that wonderful, detached feeling was my “big/little” place. As an adult I have a better understanding of what I was feeling, but back then I just enjoyed it. I think it was probably triggered by the scene in Alice in Wonderland when she becomes very Very BIG …. and then becomes VERY Very little. I’ve seen so many movies and children’s books that play with these same Ideas that I know I’m not alone.
Micki’s poem takes my mind to the other extreme. My first thought was of Madeline l’Engle’s science/fantasy children’s novel Wind in the Door. Meg is able to save her little brother’s life by becoming tiny enough to bring a message to a single cell in her his body. “Voice of Coronavirus” suggests that if we take time, this tiny virus might have a message for us before it leaves.
And it will
It’s just a matter of time.
Voice of the Coronavirus 2020 April 1, 2020
[My poem was greatly inspired by “Letter from the Coronavirus” by Kristin Flyntz,
3-12-20. My eternal thanks to Kristin for inspiring my poem.]
Do not be afraid.
Wait for me to speak. Do not try to speak for me. Just listen.
I chose a bat as my host because I could not begin my journey in you.
You are too strong and powerful and have too many ways of fighting.
I had to search for a weakness through which I could enter you
And I found it.
I had to find a way to speak to you.
It was imperative. Is imperative.
The little bat gave me entry.
Please listen. I am still speaking.
Speaking because I love you.
How otherwise can a thing as tiny as a virus find a voice
Against all your defenses?
My name is Coronavirus.
I began my journey in China because it is the most populous on Earth.
I need to reach as many people as possible.
I am traveling now through the United States
Because you are the most powerful on Earth.
I apologize for my stop in Italy.
A land of poetry and song and love.
It did not deserve the horror I left there.
But, you see, once I began traveling,
I was guided by science.
That is the way I travel.
It is the only way I can.
But maybe something in me also knew
That the West as you know it
Began in Rome.
And being who I am, I was drawn there.
To the beginning of what you call “civilization.”
You ask why I am here.
I am asking you to stop and rethink.
What of all your inventions?
What of all your technology?
What has it brought you?
Has it allowed you to better enjoy a sunrise?
Does it sharpen your ears to hear the birds sing in the morning?
Or hear the crickets as night begins?
Is swimming in a river more pleasurable now?
Is your ascent to mountaintops
Or your descent into valleys more full of wonder?
Does the scent of the rose bring you more joy?
Or the giggles of children bring you more delight?
Does the taste of the peach burst more brightly inside the vestibule of your mouth?
Can you see more clearly into the tide pools?
The insects are disappearing.
The rivers are drying up from your unquenchable thirst.
The views from the mountaintops are occluded.
Your flowers altered for easier transportation
So they have lost their scent.
The children are sad and ill-equipped for enchantment.
Our fruits too modified for travel, not taste.
The old stories are lying untold and unread.
The reefs too are dying.
Wake up beloveds.
I am here to awaken you.
Why did I choose you as a host?
Because you are the most beautiful of the creatures.
All creatures are beautiful.
Were they not, why would the love that made them have called them so?
Most of all.
Who else can sing? What other creatures have created
Guernica, the Sistine Chapel, or Starry Night?
The great sculptures of ancient Greece and Europe?
The cathedrals along the Rhine
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony? Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” or Leonard Cohen’s?
Who else the great gardens of England or the delicate ones of Japan?
They pyramids of Egypt? Those within the rainforests of America? The Taj Mahal.
Who else has written the Arabian Nights, The Brothers Karamazov?
Les Misérables? The Razor’s Edge?
It has been you, my hosts.
Yet all this majesty has made you proud.
It has made you believe you are invincible.
You have become self-important.
These gifts were given you
Because you were meant to be co-creators with God
But too many of your gifts have been ill-used
Used to build your egos instead of your art
It is time now to
The cataclysms that were meant to stop you
The hurricanes, and floods, and fires
Did not make you stop.
You kept using your creativity to kill instead of birth.
So the fire has come inside your bodies.
It has come through me.
I am your teacher.
I am your lover.