CANTUS FIRMUS v COVID-19

 

As if the Corona virus and the state of the economy were not sufficiently disruptive, Ann and I are in the process of relocating. The moving itself is not all that difficult. We’ve done it so many times, we’ve gotten the hang of it. We’ve developed some small tolerance for extended periods of not being able to find things, and this time, I think I can manage to be moderately patient in the face of repeated “where’s this go?” Besides that, we’ve downsized twice in the last three years, so we have fewer goods to move.

But one aspect of this move is concerning. It’s the question, “why are we like this, why have we moved so often, are we mentally ill, what?” Consider just Austin, for example: since college, I’ve moved out of Austin five times, and five times I’ve moved back, and leave-taking number six is underway. We don’t expect to return, but we’ve said that every time we’ve left. Normal people don’t live his way.

While packing boxes, I’ve been thinking about musical terms. (The mind will find ways to make tedium bearable.) The term “cantus firmus,” an existing melody used as the basis for a polyphonic composition, for one.  Also, “leit motif,” a recurrent theme throughout a musical or literary composition, associated with a particular person, idea, or situation.

It’s just a step from there to, “What is my personal cantus firmus?” and “what leit motif is associated with me?”

In the past, I’ve said that I was at the core frequently anxious, rarely satisfied, always restless. It would make a catchy epitaph. Trouble is, it no longer fits me well. Maybe I’m enjoying a positive variety of age-related dementia in which I’m being pushed from that earlier dead-end state to a sense of acceptance, even peace. (Christians understand this as moving from sin by grace to reconciliation.)  Not constantly, of course, but even now and then is welcome.

Nevertheless, restlessness has caught up with me again, and Ann is sharing it. A moving van is on the way, and we’re going back to New York City where we feel more at home than in any place we’ve ever lived. I can’t explain that. Feeling at home is like sexual attraction; it just exists, or it doesn’t.

We were so far into the moving process when the force of the pandemic became apparent, that reversing course seemed more problematic than continuing. Whether that was correct remains to be seen, and it will be determined by forces beyond our control.

Anyway, somewhere in Virginia while driving up to close on the purchase of an apartment, we learned that New York was more or less shutting down. We kept going, though, and didn’t get especially alarmed until we encountered strangely light traffic around Newark airport and on the New Jersey Turnpike. It felt like we had the Lincoln Tunnel to ourselves. We spent the night in a posh midtown suite (two bathrooms yet) for less than we had paid for a room at a Tennessee motel. Because we had traveled so far, the title company stayed open for our closing before suspending operations.

We brought a futon, a coffee pot, and other stuff with us so that Ann could camp in the apartment and paint it, while I returned to Austin to finish final preparations to leave. We gave up on that plan before we even got to New York. Painting clothes and survival gear are still in the Prius.

The movers say they will transport our goods into New York in early May as planned. That could change, of course. The building may not permit it. A shelter-in-place order is being discussed, and the city could be shut down completely even as the truck is en route.

So far, Ann and I are merely inconvenienced. Genuine suffering, though, is widespread and growing. As disheartening as the situation is, a salutary sense of community seems to be developing.

Yo Yo Ma’s #Songs of Comfort, featured on the PBS NewsHour, calls up Vera Lynn singing about the white cliffs of Dover during World War II. If you squint your eyes and allow for obvious differences, sheltering in place can be seen as a version of sleeping in the London Tube Stations during the blitz. Victory gardens and rationing come to mind. And stories of the Spanish flu the old people talked about when I was a boy. While driving, Ann and I listened to the Great Depression songs of Woody Guthrie. And imagining the new Depression that may well be on its way, we sang the Civil War song “Hard Times Come Again No More.” As painful as those earlier trials were, they were ameliorated by a sense of solidarity.

We could sure use some of that now, and the songs that go with it. This crisis is different from any we’ve ever known. We cannot even touch each other, much less enjoy the comfort of an embrace. Nor do we have the succor of Churchill’s soaring eloquence or FDR’s reassurance and governing skill or Lincoln’s steady persistence or Obama’s brilliant cool during the financial collapse of 2008 or Bill Clinton’s empathy.

Even so, at our house, we’re in good shape. Ann and I are not sick; we have lots of rice and beans; we listen to music, sing, read, and reflect; we stay inside except for solitary walks; we wait with hope for the all-clear signal.