It seemed a long, long journey as the train crawled along the green valleys. As we were coming down the Delaware towards Callicoon, where the Franciscans had their minor seminary, the sky had clouded over. We were slowing down, and the first houses of the village were beginning to file past on the road beside the track. A boy who had been swimming in the river came running up a path through the long grass, from the face of the thunderstorm that was just about to break. His mother was calling to him from the porch of one of the houses.
I became vaguely aware of my own homelessness.
When we had gone around the bend and I could see the stone tower of the seminary on the hilltop among the trees, I thought: “I will never live in you; it is finished.”
Feeling isolated and rootless, like Merton does here, is pretty familiar in these pandemic days. Yes, restrictions are being lifted, and people are coming together more and more. However, these steps toward "normalcy" produce a certain amount of anxiety for many, myself included. After almost 16 months of being told to stay home, I can't immediately climb into my DeLorean, set my flux capacitor for February 29, 2020, and make that leap back.
As a poet, I think I have a leg up on most people. Poets tend to be pretty solitary by necessity. Because they see the world differently. I'm not saying poets don't have friends or family. Whitman had plenty of pals and admirers. What I'm saying is that poets are very comfortable with their aloneness, Emily Dickinson being the extreme.
And these past 16 months have taught me a few things about people. Some friends who I thought were reasonable and smart gave into wild, unsubstantiated theories of Chinese conspiracy regarding the virus. Residents of my home state of Michigan denied the existence of the pandemic even as thousands of people died and hospitals were overrun. And the leaders of my country turned a global health crisis into a political debate instead of treating it for what it was--a catastrophic pandemic of a magnitude we haven't seen in over a century.
Usually, the only time I sit down to dinner with people who might believe that Donald Trump is still President or that "patriots" stormed the Capitol on January 6 is Thanksgiving. Maybe Christmas. COVID saved a lot of people from that particular agony last holiday season.
Forgive me, then, loyal disciples, if I don't want to completely rejoin the party fully just yet. Normal wasn't really working all that great before the pandemic hit, if you check the record. There was an overabundance of isolation and homelessness prior to March 2020. And environmental degradation. And racism. Homophobia. Islamophobia. Xenophobia. No vaccine made those things go away.
Let's not charge back to normal, folks. Let's think about what causes people to feel isolated and homeless. An economic system designed to keep rich people rich and poor people poor. A healthcare system that is seen as a privilege instead of a right. A country based on the principle of liberty and justice for all, but tries to disenfranchise voters of certain skin colors and tries to legislate who you can love legally. A society that stigmatizes mental illness.
If I have to wear a facemask until all of that changes, I'll do it. I don't really want to mingle in crowds of people who are okay with any of those realities. I'll stay home. Binge watch another Netflix series. See you when my son or daughter can love who they want. When the adopted African American son of one of my best friends doesn't have to worry about being pulled over by the police because his skin happens to be the wrong shade. When we can all admit that a person who was elected President of the United States with the help of a foreign power shouldn't really be President of the United States.
Until all of that happens, I'm not okay with normal.
Saint Marty would rather feel isolated and homeless.
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