In April, when New York City was at the peak of COVID-19, when sirens were screaming in the streets and emergency rooms were overloaded with very ill people, when the elderly were dying first and fast, my husband and I jointly vowed not to go to the hospital, certainly not to be intubated.
If we fell ill, we would die consciously, with dignity. He is 87. I am 75. I did not wish to put younger doctors and nurses at risk caring for me and, firmly believing what we said, I tried hard to keep us well, as we never do know whether we can live up to the pledges we make to ourselves.
Now it is July and, a bit to my surprise, here we both are, alive. Doing what the living do.
In our case, that means making theater, even when the theaters are shuttered. It means marching with Black Lives Matter. When the protesters come streaming up our street, we throw on masks and join them, cheer them as they pass, shake our fists with theirs, The marchers are gloriously beautiful in that way of youth feeling what is still new to them — their righteous rage, their sorrow and their hope, truth, possibility.
Last night we had a lovely dinner with friends in their garden, our first time to anyone’s home since the pandemic struck. Our friends, like us, have been being careful and remain virus-free — for now, one always hastens to add. Oddly, or perhaps not, the good food and lively political talk left me sad.
We’ve had many dinners in the same garden with 10, 12 or more friends. Last night we were only four. And the talk — about the disastrous Trump regime, the latest draconian pronouncements, the lies, assaults on science, on decency — leaves all of us infuriatingly sad. Have we said anything new, anything that has not been said by many?
Sometimes, I think there is no such thing as private life anymore. My daily reality, my COVID-inspired dreams, my worries about my child and her children (living in Texas, one of the new hot spots, and she an essential worker), my boredom, inability to sleep, endless tiredness, my grief, my rage, determination to eat less (I’ve just started trying to fast 16 hours a day), are so like everyone’s.
How do I live a life of purpose? How do I make meaning? How do I become of use?
Surely, we are all alone together in a maddeningly stultifying reality that keeps on getting worse with no end in sight. Is this, as a friend in Australia writes me on Facebook at 6 a.m., as bad as the Black Death? How many millions are yet to die? Then, again, will the acceleration of climate change overtake the coronavirus in severity? Where do we go when the sea level rises? How do we evacuate while maintaining social distancing? What do we eat when drought destroys the crops?
“Will we live to see the end of this?” my husband and I and friends our age ask.
But, in truth, whatever age one is brings its own terrifying challenges: What will I do with my life? Will I ever have a job, a career, fall in love, have sex, marry, be produced or published, finish my degree, go on stage, have a child, do the work I long to do again? How? And for what?
At my age, I’ve at least done a great deal of what I wished — which does not mean I don’t want more of every effort, every joy.
The same questions remain for everyone, whether we have only one or 81 remaining years, or the next five hours. How do I live a life of purpose? How do I make meaning? How do I become of use?
The mistake is thinking we can go back. We’re in the middle of systems collapse and we might as well learn.
Open the schools, by all means, when it is safe enough to do so, but open them up outside, in nature — the forests, the parks, on the High Line. Let the young learn how things grow, how life struggles to renew itself; let them run and dance and tell stories, count stones, and build little huts. Hire young people supervised by teachers to run around with them. Teach survival skills, cooperation, regeneration.
Even in New York City enough open spaces might be found. Outside the cities, it’s easy. It’s safer and better educationally. There is plenty of theory to back this up. No more stigmatizing of “attention deficit” kids. Let them run and explore, find, describe, draw, and engage their particular abilities to focus intently. No more discipline problems, let them wrestle in the mud. Let them learn cold and wet and hot, and the stories that go with the seasons. Let them grow food.
In every way, we should not go back, but “open up” in the true sense of that term — to the unknown that is before us, the difficult path of survival, the true path of care for Earth and her creatures, all of us.
I’m attempting to learn how to teach online at CUNY-John Jay College where I have nearly 100 students taking classes in theater and justice and environmental justice. I’m thinking about what I have to teach now to the young. Age feels like an advantage.
I’ll be teaching theater in extremity, from Euripides through James Baldwin to the present. And climate science, concepts of “othering,” “sacrificial zones,” regenerative ecology. I’ll be asking students to understand and write about their own experiences in light of what I teach. I know from last semester that many are essential workers, a number have experienced COVID-19, and deaths. I know they need to tell and to be heard.
In my experience, two actions give life meaning. One is bearing witness to the suffering of others, to acknowledge and comfort them, to militate against dire circumstances, so that your suffering, too, may count. The other is imagining a brighter future, a better, more engaged, equitable way of being — what we can imagine we might yet be.
Without vision, we remain victims.
If we engage empathy and imagination fully now, in the midst of this pandemic, we live richly, humanly, hopefully, despite our sorrows and fears and our confinement, despite our age and inevitable losses. We reach out to one another empathically across divides. We bind to the life force, beleaguered by our own neglect, yet present, and longing to be embraced.
Karen Malpede is a playwright, writer, director and professor. She is the co-founder, together with her partner George Bartenieff of Theater Three Collaborative. They will do a live reading of her ecofeminist climate fiction drama, Other Than We, on July 26 on Andrew Revkin’s “Sustain What? Sunday Arts” program.