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  • Karl Thunemann

A Topical Pandemic

As the coronavirus settled itself over my community, squatting on its haunches at the entryway to every shopping mall and mom-and-pop enterprise, on church steps classrooms and gymnasiums—even drawing up a chair at the dining table—I  began to think of addressing it in an epistle.

I opened a virtual folder, trusting my unconscious to guide me. Several days passed as I tried to imagine the inner colloquy, and one morning after I had meditated a simple answer came to mind. Safe harbors, it said. Compassion.

Ah, but what would I write?  My favorite cable TV hosts, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell, have interviewed all the doctors, scientists and politicians. What can I add, beyond complaining about the “sheltering in place” that has visited itself upon the coop where I live, my wife’s insistence on taking over the shopping and her objections to my visiting my Scrabble partner? Apparently, she thinks the scourge will find me a more attractive host, susceptible to giving it a ride home. Not to disparage my wife, for she is a maven of the antivirus world, learning to organize “Zoom” conversations for groups that formerly met in person and vigorously participating in discussions of how sheltering in place should manifest itself in our community.

I am not a Zoom aficionado yet, though I will have to immerse myself if I want to continue my Feldenkrais body therapy for the duration. I appreciate that my wife has pitched herself into spring cleaning. And I’m grateful she allows me to continue as the primary cook in our household.

So—having the resolution to write but not the substance—I opened a virtual folder, trusting my unconscious to guide me. Several days passed as I tried to imagine the inner colloquy, and one morning after I had meditated a simple answer came to mind. Safe harbors, it said. Compassion. I understood them readily. The subject of safe harbors often calls to me in meditation. But there I have always focused on emotional and spiritual refuge, living as if I needed no sanctuary from the hazards of everyday life. But here, a safe harbor would shelter one from exposure to the coronavirus. And for people who contracted the disease, compassion and safe harbors would provide shelter and treatment. Think of everyone who’s homeless—and that brings you to compassion. Well, most people, anyway. Some seem to think that compassion need not extend beyond our shores, or beyond their intimate communities.

I had my instructions, so to speak. Yet the days continued slipping by. Two nights ago, I thought—in the morning I will act! And so I thought I would, until I opened the door to pick up the daily newspaper to find it wasn’t there. This made me think of my delivery person, though I’ve never met her in person. I surmise her gender from her name, for I send her an annual gratuity. But now I thought of her as a person at risk, walking every morning through quiet multi-family buildings, laying the paper on doormats, using the same door handles and elevator buttons as her customers—classic surfaces that can harbor and purvey the scourge of our times to new victims. I know nothing about this person, not her age nor whether she is married or has children. I don’t even know if she is regarded as an employee—with medical benefits and other effects of a safety net—or is treated as a gig worker not entitled to these “extras.”

I mention this to my wife, and she immediately leaps ahead to imagine the day when there will be no newspaper at our front door. For workers, the risks will outrun the rewards. But when I call the circulation department, it is treated simply as a misstep. Would I prefer a credit, or having the paper on the morrow? Oh, the morrow, I said. Over the years I’ve come to think of the feminine voice as an actual person, not as the everyday face of artificial intelligence. Even though I know better. In the past “she” told me the press had broken down. Surely she would disclose whether the contravirus had devastated the work force. 

Well, my girlfriend in circulation is not incapable of error. Yesterday’s paper was delivered in the early afternoon—and again this morning, along with today’s edition. But today this does not unhorse my resolution to write. Here I am, writing a topical essay. It reminds me of the 16 years I spent writing editorials for a small daily newspaper that has itself bitten the dust. (†) Virtually all editorials are topical, whereas I strive to send my epistles for this blog elsewhere, Meditation, in effect, dwells outside of time.

And this topic—the contravirus—is doubly topical: Not only the subject of the day, but by its mode of transmission—from shaking hands to touching one’s own face to touching seemingly clean surfaces. Applied just like a salve! May I be mindful of the threat posed by this disease and strive to help block its path with safe harbors and compassion. (†) I calculate that I must have written between 8,000 and 10,000 editorials. Think of it—and I hardly remember them. The other day I bumped into a former officeholder who asked what I meant when I referred to him as Machiavellian in an editorial written long ago.  I have no idea. But if I were to apply the adjective to someone working in that jurisdiction, it would be to a mayor, long vanished from this vale.


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