Friday, April 10, 2020

Rome Is Burning

by Eliza Factor

Wondering what other Extreme families are doing during this Time of Covid? A lot of us are making art. Here’s a piece I particularly love by Paulina Dunn. The words, from Richard Siken, draw on the old phrase “Fiddling while Rome burns,” an aspersion cast on Emperor Nero, said to have hung out in his version of Mar-a-lago, playing the violin while his city went up in flames. But really, what could he have done? At least he wasn’t telling people there was no fire, or to put out the flames with the eye of a newt. I, for one, would prefer the fiddle to a certain president’s talking or tweeting. 

I love the way Paulina’s collage links our present situation to other times and places, the plagues and disasters lived through before, the marvelous and comical desire to be holy as the world we know goes up in smoke. My vision of holy drew from Little Women: the mother and daughters sitting around the fire, knitting socks for Union soldiers. I could do that with my girls! We could sit around the computer, watching old movies as we tore up tee shirts and turned them into a big box of face masks for the workers at Felix’s school. What happened in reality was that I realized I don’t know how to sew. It took me two hours to make a single mask, and it’s not the sort of thing I would feel good about giving to someone else, though it suffices when I leave our little bunker for supplies.

My daughters have dubbed this the Boring Apocalypse because those of us not sick or not directly helping the sick do a lot of sitting around. We wait. We have Zoom seders and eat too many cookies. We repent. We realize how lucky we are: all these cookies, all these relatives and friends who are OK. Yet living alongside this non-eventfulness is a raging concern. We write condolence emails, condolence texts, condolence posts. We practice our own versions of magic by urging light, prayers, thoughts, vibes to wend from us to those we love. It’s not boring, at least not to me. The feelings of separation and connection are too powerful. 

This Sunday will be the first Easter I won’t be hovering by Felix, ready to grab a dyed egg before he chomps right through the shell. His absence is a hollowness in my heart, and yet I do not bear it alone. In Rome, in Bejing, in Maplewood, New Jersey, others feel this same ache. And probably also this same wonder at the creativity of our children, the new ways we find of helping each other, the clearness of the skies, and the thoughts that spring up in the quietness.

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