What’s true in an unreal time?
Last week, my five-year-old son discovered the question mark.
He’d seen it before, mixed in among the colorful letters, numbers, and assorted pieces of punctuation in the set of magnets we’d bought him years ago. But on this particular day, he decided to spell out his name and then finish with a decorative flourish, this charming curve with a dot at the bottom that seems almost silly, like an afterthought.
When he proudly showed me his work, I laughed and told him how that single symbol made the fact of his name questionable. He loved the idea and laughed with me. The rest of the day, we’d say his name to each other, our voices lifting inquiringly at the end.
Just one mark can change the certainty of everything you knew, even your name.
It’s a good time to learn about the question mark. It crops up constantly now, its color far darker than the assertive navy blue it wears in my son’s letter set.
So, I really won’t be able to have my birthday party,Mom? Will I get sick and die? Why can’t you play now? When can we go outside?
Sometimes my gaze wanders to the window as a bus or tram passes by. And I wonder, Where are the people inside going? What would happen if I caught the next one? Would the police catch me? How long will it be before I can see Notre-Dame again?
How did things get to this point? A few weeks ago, I wouldn’t have believed it. What made the librarian let me, and only me, into the library they’d shut down early, where I desperately stacked books into my crumbling arms, crumbling inside, and breaking again and again as others who felt the same were turned away? What would have happened if I’d said, “I was a volunteer librarian once. Let me volunteer now. I’ll find the books they want. I’ll return the old ones to you. I’m not afraid”?
I’m afraid of closed libraries.
I’m afraid they’ve got us where they want us now.
Who is “they”?
Every night, I read article after article until I pull myself away. Why are you doing this to yourself? But I want answers. Another young person struck down by coronavirus? But there was a pre-existing condition, right? You have to force through tangles of fearful paragraphs to find it — Yes.
Why isn’t the media covering this more clearly? What can forty-five days locked up do now? Isn’t it too late? They say it’s not, but how is it not too late?
Where are all the voices? Why have so few spoken out when suffering from mild coronavirus symptoms, or after being cured? Are they being told to keep quiet? Is it for our own good? Or for the good of someone else? Not the endangered, but the powerful?
What does it mean that fear and misinformation can change so much, so quickly? What does it mean that for all their skepticism and education, people still believe everything so easily? What does it mean that when you question it, or when you say you’re angry, or that you want to go out, you’re shamed? This is the turn humanity has taken.
Why is no one trying to get things running again? We could open stores and services that have automated check-outs, ordering systems. Why did they close the book aisle inside the supermarket?
Why do they tell us to stay inside and keep busy, then chide us for ordering things to do from online stores? Why did my mother-in-law and so many other fearful people like her see a report that assured them they could make a perfectly safe medical mask out of two paper towels?
It’s not that I don’t believe it’s happening. I know the suffering must be horrific, the deaths of those stuck in false sleep lonely and cold. I could easily be one of them — the suffering or those suffering their loss (another loss….).
I can’t imagine what people working in hosptials are going through. I’ve read their first-person accounts, but I can’t imagine what it feels like inside, that exhaustion. We stand at our window every night at 8 and cheer and applaud them, and I hope it lifts their spirits, at least for a moment.
But these facts don’t make the question mark fade. Why did we just stop the world instead of adapting? Why didn’t we try to find answers while still living? Was it impossible? Is this the only way?
I grasp answers sometimes. Tonight I read about Stephen Curry doing what so many journalists haven’t: interviewing an infectious disease expert. The expert, Dr. Fauci, told him and the 50,000 people listening: “We have to get rid of the misconception that either ‘the world is going to end’ or ‘we’re not going to do anything.’ It’s somewhere in the middle.”
But why aren’t large masses of people reacting? 50,000 people, including a former President, watching on Instagram, and more watching later, or reading about it. Why aren’t we trying to rebuild?
Is it all of the other news that comes like flaming arrows? The latest stories about young people dying, with no information about their health prior to catching coronavirus? Those are what’s keeping so many people I know inside the house. Very powerful weapons.
Or maybe most of the world is tired and wants to give up and rest for a while. I understand them. But they’ve fallen asleep without locking the door. I’m one of those in the living room with the light on. I’m surviving on four hours of sleep. They’re closing schools but leaving cigarette shops open. They won’t let people who fuck each other walk together on the streets.
Sometimes, some days, it doesn’t seem so bad. I’m exhausted, with work, writing, a child to care for, meals to make, a house to manage, phone calls, video calls, not enough time. Quarantine’s going by quickly and there are good moments. And people are becoming so funny and creative, so generous sometimes, and there are new shows to marathon and so many books to read, and all of these activities to do, and let’s do a yoga video now and then some long put-off household project after! Am I becoming complacent? Is it just a matter of time before I fall asleep, too?
I open a new screen and read. New question marks float in front of my eyes. Why is coronavirus killing hospital workers who wear masks and other protection?
Is that true?
What is true?
What is true is that my son and I walk outside every day for our allotted time. On a wall around the corner, someone has pasted a large drawing of a howling wolf. The first time I saw him, I nearly sobbed. The wolf stares upward, and you can hear him belting out his cry in the mostly silent street.
Two symbols have been hastily sketched above his muzzle. The first is a heart. The second is a question mark.