Most of us Americans sense a great underlying health that has paradoxically reemerged during and despite this pandemic. Most of us feel a fresh appreciation for our families, our homes, our friends, our daily bread. This situation has given us a renewed appreciation for the freedom to make our own decisions, to exercise prudence, and to be responsible.
More than once in the past few weeks, I have been reminded of what it felt like to be in Middle Georgia in October of 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. My hometown was well within range of the Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba. Our community of 3,000 or so souls had no strategic importance, but the threat of nuclear attack was not a mere abstraction, because we were close enough to a major Air Force base to be affected should such a strike come. For a time, our school not only had the usual fire drills, but also preparations for The Bomb. Suddenly, during English or social studies or math, the great siren atop the town water tower would start up and slowly swell in pitch and volume. Was it a drill or not? We could almost see the mushroom clouds (familiar from school films) sucking up into the stratosphere our courthouse square, our quiet streets, our Dixie of red clay and pecan groves and planted pines.
The comparison to the pandemic does not lie in my sense that annihilation is imminent. Rather, I think of that time because of the way we imagined the aftermath. My friends and I talked all the time about fallout shelters—not that anybody we knew could afford to build one. We pictured ourselves surviving the first attack and living underground for a year or two with supplies of canned foods and paperback books (but no TV). What would survival look like if we came back out from underground with our Geiger counters into a radioactive world? Would we survive the first attack, only to be die when we reemerged into a world gone toxic?
That sense of aftermath is the link between our current situation and that distant crisis. Last Friday morning, the state relaxed its strictures on many businesses, and that beautiful spring day felt like the occasion for many to break loose from what has felt, in these strange times, like a kind of imprisonment. Main Street in Lander was alive with traffic. Barbershops and hair salons were open. Downstairs from our faculty and administrative offices in the Baldwin building, the reopened Crux Coffee did a brisk business all day long, albeit with masked baristas. People in numbers were out on the sidewalks for the first time since early March, some masked, but most of them not.
Easing up on isolation raises many questions, but for the first time since early March, it has begun to seem feasible that Wyoming Catholic College can get the seniors back for a last time together and host some form of the usual graduation exercises. But masked or not? Masks have become a major metaphor, not least for national and international confusion. For some, covering the face defines civic virtue; for others, it’s a concession to government overreach, a denial of individuality. These opinions tend (very roughly) to trace the political divide before COVID-19. For anti-maskers, the government response to the pandemic has been absurdly irresponsible and outrageously overblown. For maskers, on the other hand, any easing of restrictions seems like a way of condemning the most vulnerable in our society to a dismaying, solitary death.
Those of us in rural Wyoming simply cannot feel the clear and present danger that those in crowded urban areas in the East certainly must feel. Wearing a mask in a crowded urban area, sure—but when I see someone in Lander all alone, no one else on the street within blocks, walking down the sidewalk and wearing a mask, it strikes me as a display of more-responsible-than-thou COVID chic. Has the world gone toxic? As I write, I am looking out over a pasture of sagebrush and newly green grass. Rising a mile or so to the south and west are the foothills of the Wind River Mountains, and, though invisible from my angle, peaks of 13,000 feet, still covered with snow, rise much higher still. Our lawn is a rich May green (needs mowing, in fact). All through the budding lilacs and Russian olives, the birds have returned in force—robins, scarlet tanagers, bluebirds, and meadowlarks. Midway down Squaw Creek bottom behind our house, geese fly honking to the pond behind our neighbors. Bison from the nearby ranch pass every morning just on the other side of our dirt road—massive, yet curiously light on their feet. Everything around shows the great surge of springtime, and yet, somehow, absurd as it might be to think so, this year the season seems to present itself conditionally (well, we’re going to go ahead and try this) as if nature were as much in question as the economy.
But the world outside our shelters is not radioactive. Those who enjoyed Main Street last Friday (and millions like them across the country) sense a great underlying health that has paradoxically reemerged during and despite this pandemic. Most of us feel a fresh appreciation for our families, our homes, our friends, our daily bread. The natural rhythms of the day mean more, and family prayer unfolds more graciously, though we miss the sacraments. Politics aside, economics aside, most of us resent supervision, even when it might be temporarily necessary. This situation has given us a renewed appreciation for the freedom to make our own decisions, to exercise prudence, and to be responsible. The current controversy, of course, revolves around precisely what reason tells us in this circumstance, but we lose something vital when we give that decision away.
Our way of life depends on the risk of freedom.
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College’s weekly newsletter.
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