Ever since President Trump declared a state of emergency over COVID-19, the whole affair has felt like a slow-moving dream, or better yet, a banal nightmare. Everyone is exhausted for a variety of reasons: physical, economic, and existential. People are feeling voiceless, confused, and most of all, uncertain. They feel betrayed by the floundering leadership of many state governors.
At the beginning of this global mess, the intent (at least in the United States) was to “flatten the curve” (a phrase I’ve come to detest wholeheartedly) of rising COVID-19 cases. This meant that the objective was to prepare the hospitals for the incoming cases, dealing with the worst-case scenarios. We have certainly moved beyond that, and at this point, many state governors (especially those in New York and California) are using this situation as a way to exert ever-growing authoritarian control.
Every American was willing to cooperate in the beginning, doing what needed to be done to protect our hospitals from an unmanageable onslaught. But now? It has become clear that state officials are more interested in their own power than in getting people back to work.
I miss America. I miss the possibility of long travel—of getting into the car and just driving, and not worrying about some absurdity of wearing a mask. I think of the sheer size of this beautiful and often haunting country, and the possibilities it offers. Right now, all of that is in suspended animation.
There are also worries of a different but palpable type these state governments have thrust upon us. We may ask, but we will be dismissed for asking, when can we touch each other? When can we embrace? When can we stand side by side? When can we celebrate?
What the government leaders are asking us to do is to stop being human.
Being cooped up inside our homes is not easy because we are not experiencing the fullness of being an embodied America. It’s the mere fact that it is impossible to see the sights and embrace the fullness of being in this country that’s causing the sadness. It’s the mere fact that freedom is limited.
I find strange comfort in the radical return to the essence of America. I find comfort in America as a land, a concept, a possibility, a presence, even if all of these visions are not exactly securing and preserving comfort. If anything, an American idea is rarely about sitting on your laurels but about a constant forge. The land can be giving but also taking. It can be beautiful but also brutal.
No writer has expressed the possibilities and paradoxes of America more beautifully than Willa Cather (1873-1947). In her best-known masterpiece, My Ántonia (1918), Cather takes us through the American forge as seen by the narrator, Jim Burden, who tells us the story of Ántonia Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant who ends up spending her entire life trying to tame the prairie land of Nebraska. Of course, it’s also Jim Burden’s American story because he, too, was looking for the American Dream.
Throughout the novel, the presence of uncertainty is weaved into the striving of both characters. There is a desire to move toward something bigger than ourselves that nags and drives. At the beginning of Cather’s novel, Burden reflects:
I tried to go to sleep, but the jolting made me bite my tongue, and I soon began to ache all over. When the straw settled down, I had a hard bed. Cautiously I slipped from under the buffalo hide, got up on my knees and peered over the side of the wagon. There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. No, there was nothing but land—slightly undulating . . . the wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew not whither. I don’t think I was homesick. If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter. Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be.
Jim’s words are words of faith, even if he didn’t exactly say his prayers in a way that we might expect him to do. As I look through this beautiful description in which the landscape and a human being become one, I cannot help but wonder whether our beloved country is in our sights. Do we see this nation anymore? Do we recall the rough “material” that is its essence and embodiment? Do we see anything beyond the four walls of our rooms as we dutifully participate in these absurd restrictions?
As the days of these imposed quarantines drag on, what we’re really distancing from is the possibility of encounter with that constant forge, not to mention our more intimate encounters. It’s not merely our lives that are interrupted. The opening of America’s soul is interrupted as well.
The crisis has divided people even further, and what’s worrisome (especially now) is that fear is ruling the day. By living in fear, we are allowing only one thing to thrive and flourish: authoritarianism. By living in fear, we are psychologically, culturally, and even spiritually distancing ourselves from a uniquely American space.
By living in fear, we are saying no to the life-affirming verve that is not only American but quite simply, human.