Today, more than any day in many weeks, I am acutely conscious of our changed world.
One year ago yesterday, I took to my car for a very long drive, over the US-Canada border, thorough Detroit and then southwards. I got caught in rush hour traffic around Cincinnati, and then in another huge snarl before I reached Louisville. But there were friends at the end, and good food, and the promise of the following evening. One year ago today, I made that final drive down to Nashville, stopping in at Churchill Downs, a pilgrimage site of my youth, and the Corvette Museum, where I saw the remains of a famous disaster amidst so many years of car history. I walked the streets of Nashville, the sounds of a constant honky-tonk party filling my ears. I ate a Goo Goo cluster, and then I entered a gorgeous, neo-classical building and fulfilled a truly bucket-list level goal, the Jerusalem of my long pilgrimage, and I heard the Shostakovich 4th symphony played live, and it was everything, and I ate it all, as Shostakovich had willed the audience to do when the symphony at last saw the light of day after 25 years in the shadows of Soviet disapproval. Today, it feels impossible. Improbable. Unreal. It could not happen that way. It may not ever again.
I rejoice that it did at all. Somehow, I felt an urgency, the ticking of time, the overwhelming and irresistible urge to take the opportunity as it was offered, to drink deep, to accept this gift. And I know now that is just what it was. I listened to the universe, and it told me, “You are mortal. Every day brings you closer to the end. Do these things now.”
And I did.
It does make this easier. I can pull forth those memories, still clear, still new, still resounding in the air, in the blink of an eye in the symphony of time. And the music has not left me. I can pull up any number of recordings of the Shostakovich 4th, and listen, and they are a constant. They do not change. Someday, this music will be played live again, I am sure of that. It waited, hidden, for 25 years before it was heard, but now it is in the world. The music lives. It gives me life.
But the journey itself–and others like it, once planned in the blink of an eye– is lost to me now. The pandemic, someday, will end. I will travel to see concerts, I am sure. What has ended is the casual crossing of the border into the land of my birth, the feeling of comfort as I travel familiar roads, knowing that as much as I have spent most of the last 30 years in Canada, that the US will always be home, that I will always feel a sense of belonging there. It will never be the same as it was one year ago. It cannot be.
My country as I knew it is dying. It is passing into memory, and there is no CD or video recording to comfort me, to tell me that with time, it will be what it was–or at the very least, what it aspired to be–again. It cannot be, and if it is, it will be a lie.
I cast my ballot to the international mails, like sending my RSVP to a funeral, praying that it won’t be a funeral at all, but somehow, the patient will be saved miraculously. I look for tiny signs of hope. Anything. But belief is no bulwark against facts. I have seen the symptoms for years now. And now the shadow on the x-rays, the wordless, exchanged glances of the doctors, the cancer. I know the treatment is painful. It is not guaranteed to work, and even if it does, the cure is not assured. And that is even assuming that the patient accepts the diagnosis, that it does not turn to quacks who sell the comfort of snake oil and miracles. That is not a certainty. In fact, that is the biggest danger of all.
This has not stopped me from doing what is required of me as a citizen, and more. Of course I will. I am not so cynical to abandon all that I believe in when hope is dimming. But the rituals seem hollow now, even as I cling to them fiercely.
When Shostakovich withdrew his 4th Symphony during the height of Stalin’s terror, he did not destroy it. He kept it, even turning it into a redaction for two pianos so that he might play it with a friend, just for himself. And it survived, just as he did. The world in which it once again saw the light of day had changed, the threat to his very existence now greatly diminished–but at great cost to him personally, and even greater cost to his country, and it was by no means insignificant–even then. Shostakovich knew how to protect the things–and the people–he loved, to keep them safe, to keep them held close, quietly but fiercely, over many, many years. He learned to walk the thin line of resistance and existence–but not without personal sacrifice, because protecting these things against an inexorably brutal system sometimes meant bitter public acquiescence to reality, and choices that cannot be simply explained away, but can be understood only in context.
It has come to this, where the parallels to life under totalitarian regimes are not just hyperbole or agitprop, where the practice of subverting laws to serve only those in power is no longer done subtly or secretly, but openly and proudly, where daily the government pits its loyalists against any who would question it. I have read about such places in books with horror and thankfulness that my world was more enlightened. And now idealism devolves into sarcasm, the humour of those whose naivete has been clubbed by reality.
Whatever happens in five weeks’ time, it will not fix anything. Healing, if it comes, will take years, and it will be hard, and people will be hurt. People will die. Dreams will die. Perhaps they will be replaced by new and better dreams. Perhaps they will be hidden away in a drawer somewhere, protected, until someday it is safe once again to reveal them. And people will conspire to keep them safe, to keep each other safe, and still find a way to resist.
In my dreams, I am still driving to Nashville–or perhaps Chicago, or Cleveland–perhaps Columbus–and the storm has exhausted itself. The roads, travelled many times before, look much the same, but though the wounds are fresh, the broken places are starting to be healed.
I place my dreams in the desk, and close the drawer.