So much for the mention last month of my upcoming April interview with virtuoso author Anna Hope at the wonderful FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival, which is now like every other such event across many countries cancelled due to COVID-19. Can we do anything to counteract this crisis apart from frequent hand-washing, wearing a face mask, staying six feet away from others and not hoarding groceries? I think we can — turn the tide and dissipate the fear. Or at least, I am willing to try.
Years ago, I read a report about an older couple, snowbound in a cabin in a deep forest, caught out by a freak blizzard. For some reason the wife lost consciousness, and with no medical help available for miles around and no seeming way out, her partner began to pray. Apparently, at first he was at a loss — how to pray, what exactly to pray for and to whom to pray — but then he felt he could not go far wrong by beginning to list and celebrate the good in their lives.
One by one, traversing the decades, he began to enumerate: events, times, places, faces, successes, joys, sorrows that became auspicious only afterwards—the first time they met, the last words they spoke on this particular day. He kept a fire going while he stayed by her side, compiling his ever-expanding list. Some time later, perhaps that night or else in the wee hours of the next morning, she awoke to find her husband at her bedside, looking rested and fresh, smiling, unsurprised, as if her rejuvenation were to him one more beatific item on his by now very long list.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Good,” she answered, quite unaware of the lost time.
When Italy’s COVID-19 death toll passed China’s, I shivered. As with the tragic deaths of the Vietnamese economic migrants, discovered in Essex, England this past October, it felt like this was happening too close to home. Almost at once, hand sanitizers disappeared from local pharmacy shelves in my hometown, face masks could only be bought online, and bit-by-bit the lockdown spread across my beloved England.
Images of churches being used for morgues in Northern Italy struck me in particular. While the original strain of COVID-19 originated in a live animal market in Wuhan, China, too far away for me to be truly concerned, Italy on the other hand was just a two-hour flight away; part of my cultural DNA. Who hasn’t had some interface with Italy? I wondered what I could do. Then I recalled the story of that man and his wife in an isolated cabin in a snowbound wood.
I could list the good.
Italy? First, its boot shape, always such a memory jog in any elementary geography test—who couldn’t get that right? Then the way that my father, not a born chef by any means, always changed when making pasta: rinsing it in cold water, claiming in a sing-song voice, ‘This is how they do it in Italy,’ as if finally receiving permission to be real, to be himself–soft, vulnerable and feminine. Italy is also the home of my family’s faith: Catholicism. It is hard for me to imagine the Vatican right now, functioning in siege conditions; the Pope, representative of Christ on earth, in isolation. Things first experienced and loved while I was a child can still shake my soul today. That colorful line of Swiss Guards—defenseless against the plague. Impossible. Italy for me is the land of Luciano Pavarotti. Pizza Margherita. Opera. The aria ‘La donna è mobile’ from Verdi’s Rigoletto. My mother’s first love—the one she shoulda, coulda, woulda. Then there was my first love…Gregorio. My son’s solo as a basso bass, Antonio Caldara’s ‘Alma del core’. My first solo, ‘Sebben crudele’, also by Caldara. The list of all the good things about Italy goes on and on—the pasta; the football; the adventurers—Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci; the luxury—Versace, Armani, Gucci; the art—Leonardo, Michelangelo, Caravaggio; the automobiles—Lamborghini, Maserati, Ferrari. My list grows too long to record in this short space.
Could it hurt if everyone kept a similar list—alive, enumerating the constant good, keeping fear at bay, a light unencumbered by the dark? Not just for Italy, but for all the world as the pandemic sweeps over, ever reminding us to be mindful, vigilant and ready to exalt the good rather than give in to the ultimate contagion: fear.
Wake up! It’s Easter. Start counting, if you haven’t done so already, your irrefutable good.