My Life in the Plague

I spend most of my days and nights in a relatively small room, about 20 feet by 20 feet with about 8 feet headroom. I refer to it as my “cell” and like to say I have entered “the monastic phase” of my life. I sleep in my cell and write and read in my cell. I have just moved here after living in a much larger space, and also after having lived for the past twenty years by myself. I was alone but not lonely. Now I share space with the 84-year-old woman who owns the place and who has her bedroom on the opposite side of the house. We meet in the kitchen and the living room, occasionally eat together and share a common bathroom. 

Living with another person takes some adjustment, especially now with the coronavirus. We use separate dishes and silverware, wash our hands frequently and make jokes about washing and wiping surfaces. We also laugh about consumers buying and stockpiling more toilet paper than they’ll ever use in a year. That compulsion strikes me as an index of the ways that the virus hits people on a primal level. “Yeah,” Thora, my housemate, said last night when we were watching the news on PBS, which heightens my anxiety level. Thora added, “It’s life and death.” When I lived by myself for 20 years I did not own a TV, and rarely if ever watched the news on TV. Thora watches religiously and surfs from station to station. She’s an addict. I can only take it in very small doses.

One thing I have noticed, after watching TV news with her for two weeks, is how repetitive it is and how one-dimensional and simplified. The anchors, reporters and the so-called experts who are called upon to comment, sound like talking machines who don’t think much, if at all. In the wake of the crisis, I have put myself under a kind of house arrest, though I can and do go outside, get into my car, drive, go shopping in Cotati, to the local library for DVDs, and to the bank to deposit checks. I have thought about what many of us have gone through over the past five or six years: drought followed by fire, and smoke, forced evacuations, and now the coronavirus. It feels biblical. 

Indeed, it’s the plague, which is why I went to the library and borrowed Albert Camus 1947 novel, La Peste, which was translated into English in 1948 published as The Plague. I’m a Camus fan and am looking forward to reading the book and wondering in what ways it’s revealing about the current pandemic. I happen to prefer the word “plague” which conjures up all kinds of horrible images.

I’m inside my cell right now, on my computer. Occasionally, I look out at the flowers in bloom. I listen to the bird songs. I can hear, in the distance, the sound of traffic on Old Redwood Highway, which runs in front of the house where I am now living. Thora’s daughter and son-in-law have a house next door. I often visit them; we also eat together. It’s not communal but it has some aspects of communal living, including shared food and appliances such as a machine to wash clothes, and a line to hang them in the backyard. 

I’m at Thora’s because I was evicted from the place where I was living. The landlord sold the property and the new owners wanted to occupy the house, after ripping it apart and remodeling big time. One of the great pluses about moving has been downsizing. I threw away tons of stuff and I’ve stowed papers in Cotati. I also sold some of my archive to the University of Texas. I feel lighter. I like having nearly everything I want and need in my cell, with the kitchen a few steps away and the bathroom around the corner. 

Thora spreads out and makes messes. She seems to be incapable of throwing stuff away. She can also be forgetful. The hard part about living here is being in someone else’s space. It’s Thora’s house. She doesn’t have many rules, but she has some, including no watching sports on her TV. I can live with that. I like living through the plague with a small community. I know I can count on Thora, whom I have known for 40 years, and on her daughter and son-in-law. If we have to go down, we can go down together. I expect the plague will get worse and that it will linger. People I know and love will probably die. I think about the writers and thinkers who have urged all of us to be hopeful, to create community and to solve our own problems independent of governments. I know that some of that is possible. I also believe that the only way to survive the plague is if and when governments act in concert. Too bad Trump doesn't know how to cooperate or tell the truth. Meanwhile, I'm trying not to touch my face with my hands.

8 Responses to "My Life in the Plague"

  1. Elizabeth   March 19, 2020 at 11:02 pm

    This is just so stunningly beautiful. I’ve been up late every night this week with the same worries spinning and spinning. This piece slowed it down. I’m passing it around to everyone I know. I’m awed you can write with such clarity and depth about an overwhelming experience we’re having right now. When I sit down to write even an email my mind does blank, a loud blank. I appreciate you reflecting our world back to us but richer and sweeter.

    Reply
  2. Jonah Raskin   March 20, 2020 at 8:22 am

    Thank you very much. Be well. I send you a virtual hug.

    Reply
  3. Peter Byrne   March 20, 2020 at 1:36 pm

    I read this today and was cheered to see one of the old Swans’ crowd still in there punching. My own cell is an apartment in the toe of Italy blessed with a balcony. I can watch the highly sociable townfolk walking in lockdown solitude but not resigned to silence. They chat with themselves behind their surgical masks. Jonah’s impressions of Camus’ La Peste made me read it again here on the shore of the sea. The way the novel rises and rises, then falling again to where it began is for me inseparable from the Mediterranean.

    Reply
  4. Jonah Raskin   March 20, 2020 at 3:15 pm

    Wonderful to read your report from your part of Italy and to learn that the plague hasn’t stopped Italians from chatting behind their surgical masks. I’m glad you are still with us. I don’t think I gave Camus enough credit for creating his characters, especially Dr. Rieux. Camus must have been aware of the rhythms of the Mediterranean. Thanks for writing about that. Surely they were as much a part of him as the sun in the sky.

    Reply
  5. Pat Patterson   March 22, 2020 at 12:28 pm

    Good to hear from you, Jonah. Always have liked your books and, tho a couple months ago I let my subscription lapse for the 1st time since 1984, I still glance at the website and like seeing you added to the roster.

    Regarding the pandemic. Our Chosen One let loose the 4 horsemen, slammed the barn door behind him and now he has anointed himself our Savior and Maximum Ruler. Maybe he was put on earth to prove that Satan loves selling lies to children and imbeciles.

    Anyway, you mentioning Camus transported me back to summer of 1968. I’m a teenaged bush bunny back from Nam. I connect with a local girl who hands me Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Heavy going for a high school dropout; still the truth penetrates my thick skull. Sartre next, then Camus. Another blooded warrior, he stands out. Neither Victim nor Executioner–we’d both been both.

    Then I came across something he wrote that I memorized on the spot: “Freedom is what we do with what has been done to us.” Now our fate rests with that. The truth shall set us free.

    Best regards, pat. PS: got something you might like. You can get my phone # and/or email address from the office

    Reply
    • Jonah Raskin   March 22, 2020 at 5:55 pm

      Good to hear from you, Pat.I’m sure Bruce would comp you a subscription if you wanted one. Thanks for your memories of Nam and de Beauvoir and Sartre and Camus. His quotation about freedom hits me in the gut right now. I looked in my address book and found your phone number. I will call you.

      Reply
  6. Joan Hansen   March 22, 2020 at 4:24 pm

    I enjoyed your perspective until the last sentence. You sounded intelligent and then out came the Trump hating disease. Disappointed

    Reply
    • Jonah Raskin   March 22, 2020 at 5:56 pm

      I hear you. I guess I’m not as intelligent as I think I am. Be well.

      Reply

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