I am blessed with and by with what I do. As a personal columnist, I come to you every week with the truths of what I am — warts and all — what I’ve experienced in the past, what I’m thinking at the present, what I’m hoping for in the future. This is a rare privilege in journalism, and I treasure it as the best of a long writing career.
As I wrote this — a few days before our now-over first seder, but in time for the second — I started out with humor: a cousin’s view of “social distancing” a la Dr. Seuss: “I do not want you in my house. I do not want you or your spouse.” And I meant to go on with some ”fun stuff” I’ve also already received from several others. I know as well as anyone, maybe even better than some, that there’s precious little to laugh about in our current circumstances. But we can try, can’t we? We should try, shouldn’t we?
But then a memory resurfaced, as memories always do to folks who write personal columns. The year was 1955. I was married in June to a classmate; we had both completed the first year of graduate study for our masters in social work, and jobs as unit directors were waiting for us in Narrowsburg, one of two summer camps in the Catskills offered by the Jewish Welfare Board of Metropolitan New York.
It was an exceedingly dry summer; our lakefront had receded so far that we were having trouble thinking up enough new activities to replace the usual water-based ones. On one of our blessed evenings off, my husband and I headed for town to see a movie: the never-to-be-forgotten “Marty” starring Ernest Borgnine. When we went into the theater, it was raining; when we emerged, it was a flood. A cab took us as far as possible back toward camp, then let us out to swim the rest of the way. This was Hazel, a category 4 hurricane that had already killed more than 450 people on its way north from Haiti. In our absence, the kids had all been evacuated; tents and cabins had disappeared, and our lakefront reappeared – now as a newly created flood plain.
Our staff — everyone from camp director to kitchen help — sat huddled together for warmth. We didn’t cry; we asked about what would happen next; of course, nobody knew. But we were happy just to be there together — no one missing, knowing that our campers were safe and so were we. Uncomfortable, but alive. By the next morning, the crisis had passed; we woke up to dry, still air and sunshine. That’s when one of the men in our group rubbed his stubbly chin and said “I want a razor. And I need to brush my teeth!” When another man responded with “Hey! Last night you were glad just to be alive!” The first one said the words I’ve never forgotten: “Yes. But that was last night. Now it’s today, and I know I’m alive, so I want other things.”
That’s where we all are now, here, on our own “morning after,” wanting what we took for granted the day before. We can shave and brush our teeth, but our deep needs are for that elusive “more”: the human interchanges we cannot be fully human without.
I’m now searching my shelves for old copies of Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” and Camus’ “The Plague.” It’s a good time to reread them and be thankful for what we had before our own plague hit. Yes, we want more now, and one day we will have it all back again — somewhat changed by circumstances, somewhat diminished by personal and public losses, but somewhat like being handed a razor and a toothbrush when those immediate needs are all you can really think about.
And as for humor: please look here in this space again, next week.