March 16, 2020
Writing you from Portland, Maine. To this point, with only three presumptive cases of COVID-19 reported (this was true when I wrote it yesterday; we now have seven, which probably won’t be true when you read this), Maine has been lucky. As I write this, the view from my office window is impossibly beautiful, the sky clear and blue, Casco Bay a deeper shade of blue. The world looks clean and healthy. People are out jogging and walking their dogs. Not a single one is wearing a mask. But we are all too aware that our eyes deceive us. This morning there were lines outside every supermarket when they opened at seven. In the one where I shop, the paper products aisle was bare and good luck finding a bottle of cough medicine. Standing in a checkout line fifteen shoppers deep, one man surveyed his neighbors with undisguised bemusement. His own cart contained maybe forty items, clearly his regular weekly shopping list. Everyone around him had trolleys full to overflowing. Seeing me heading for the fourteen items or fewer lane, he shrugged and said, “I feel like I’m underperforming.” I knew how he felt.
I myself am not frightened, at least not yet. I’m seventy, my wife sixty-nine, an age demographic that is at risk, but I’m healthy and I don’t feel particularly vulnerable. Except for my short shopping trip this morning, we’re practicing the recommended social distancing. There’s no question it’s the right thing to do, but I have to admit it doesn’t sit well with me. My whole life, as a writer and as a man, I’ve lived by the motto: Do something. If it doesn’t work, do something else. Write the page. If it’s wrong, fix it. But don’t sit there paralyzed by the possibility of making a mistake. Granted, it’s not a philosophy that works in every situation, and it could have dire consequences in this one, but so can doing nothing, which in addition feels like cowardice. If there’s work to be done, do it.
But what exactly is the job here? That’s the part that, unless I’ve somehow missed it, hasn’t really been explained to me. Not by the World Health Organization, or by the Centers for Disease Control, and certainly not by the president. I’m being told that since I’m vulnerable because of my age, I should take special care of myself, when my instinct is to take care of others, especially my loved ones. My age, together with the fact that I’ve lived a long life full of good work, should put me on the front lines, not the sidelines. There’s work to be done. I feel like I’m underperforming.
But no doubt other psychological matters are in play. Too often when people tell me I need to be safe, I hear that I’m in the way, that the heavy lifting must now be done by my children, by others who are stronger and more agile than I, and that doesn’t sit well with me either. One of my mother’s most bitter complaints when she grew too old to work was the feeling of uselessness, and I’ve always congratulated myself that writing was something I could probably do reasonably well into my eighties. That, I’ve long felt, was my job, my work. The virus is attacking that certainty. So far it’s kept its distance, but I can feel its malignance, its design, its need to take something from even those of us that it doesn’t directly infect, turning us into hoarders, causing us to lash out at our perceived enemies, sowing doubt about our most deeply held convictions.
But epidemics teach us, too. My philosophy—do something; if it doesn’t work, do something else—is the philosophy of an impatient man, a bull in a china shop, really—and too often I have been that very man, one who can’t be bothered to read instructions, who wants to use the wrong tool rather than delay, the one who doesn’t check his tire pressure before embarking on a long journey. I’m more like Sundance (“I want to fight ‘em”) than Butch. As their enemies closed in, it was always Butch who had a plan, one that usually involved flight. (“You just keep thinkin’, Butch,” Sundance says derisively, “That’s what you’re good at.”) I want my marching orders. I want to enter the fray, to storm the beach, like my father did. I want a big task, which probably means I’m ignoring a hundred small ones. Maybe that’s the job I’ve been slow to identify: Maybe we all need to make a list of things that we can do. My list won’t be yours or yours mine. But there will be overlap and the work will direct us to other jobs that need doing. Though it runs contrary to my nature, the right tool here is apparently wisdom. (My father wasn’t seventy at Normandy.) We all have an obligation to read and follow the instructions, to not make things worse, even if it feels like cowardice. Because it’s not like there will be nothing left to do when the virus is finally defeated. There will be plenty of opportunities to take action, plenty of work to be done.
In lieu of payment, our friends and contributors to the Corona Correspondences are dedicating donations to nonprofits and independent businesses in their communities. Russo’s contribution will be directed to the Maine Locker Project.