“Arithmetic,” wrote Carl Sandburg in a famous poem, “is where numbers fly like pigeons in and out of your head.”
That’s a perfect description of my experience as a child in class. But when my new baby looks up at me and smiles, I find I can do the math rather deftly. When she is 20, I will be old. When she is 30, if I am lucky to still be here, I will be much nearer to the end. When she is 40, I will likely be dead. And when she is my current age, 57, I will be long gone.
But this morbid calculating is not my first thought. Instead, I can’t help but think of the magic and healing power of my first daughter’s easy laugh, even as the pandemic continues to upend our world.
Born last fall, a few months before my most recent birthday, she has been one of the greatest of gifts, coming unexpectedly and long after the much earlier and equally joyful gift of my older two sons, who are now teenagers.
Yes, I am one of those people who had more children with a new partner, when I was much older. I said yes when I could have said no, and some might fault me for being careless in not thinking more about my parental longevity. But, as it has turned out, creating a blended family — one that’s become especially forced upon us by the circumstances of this health crisis — has been even more of a treasure than I could have imagined.
This newly formed trio of children and the coronavirus have become dueling reminders that we really live in the analog. This has been a much-needed lesson for me, since I have spent much of my career over the last two decades — and so, so many hours — trying to describe the growing power of the digital world over real life.
The reach of digital has certainly increased during the coronavirus crisis, as big tech companies like Amazon and Facebook and Google and Netflix have rushed into the breech to give us just what we need as we shelter in place. Groceries at the push of a button — and here they are! Streaming videos and digital posts and all the world’s information, voilà! Every movie you can imagine, just click here!
As I have written, tech and the nonphysical world it has built have never been more necessary and more powerful in our lives. And, growing ever richer, tech is on track to occupy even more of our mindspace in the post-Covid era.
And yet I have come to realize that the real power still does, and perhaps always will, remain with the analog, which has flexed its mortal muscle these days in ways that have surprised me.
The virus itself, of course, is the most twisted representation of that: It floats in the air and lingers on everything we touch like some kind of biological minefield we cannot escape. No matter the masks, the social distance, the contactless encounters, the online ordering, the virus finds a way in, completely alive and persistently present. There is nothing digital about this infectious traveler, as it hitches a ride on everything and everyone it can, on its deadly and relentless journey.
It’s so potent that it has stopped the twitchy world cold, keeping everyone and everything in place like a game of freeze tag that feels as if it will never end.
Americans especially are a restless people. It’s hard for us to stay still; many of us simply cannot do it. Sometimes, our motivation to be free may be selfish: “Don’t tread on my ability to guzzle a beer in sweaty close quarters” (even though it is unlikely that the founding fathers had that in mind when they championed personal freedom). And sometimes we get antsy for much more human reasons: “Don’t rein me in because my husband/wife/kids/pets are driving me crazy, and I have actually come to the end of the bottomless Netflix carousel.”
There will — though we can’t see it now — be an end to this crisis. And that is perhaps the most important analog lesson of this terrible moment: There is always an end. The crisis will end. And, eventually, all of our lives will come to pass.
Those of us with great jobs, savings and solid health care coverage have had an easier time during the crisis than those who struggle every day with financial and mental health challenges, and worse.
But we all share in life’s fragility. We’re all being reminded again that life is capricious, for every one of us, and that it can change and be done whenever it chooses and without warning.
These days, time has lengthened and also gotten more intense. No matter where you are in the world, the what-if has always loomed in the background — and now it’s in the foreground.
I am at the highest risk of our little quarantine group, as my 15-year-old has pointed out to me more than once. I assume it is his way of whistling past the grave in hopes that the grave does not whistle back.
But whistle it does, sometimes softly, like when I had a life-threatening stroke on a long-haul trip to China five years back, or more loudly, like when my father died unexpectedly more than 50 years ago from an aneurysm at 34 years old, at the start of what should have been a brilliant long life with his three children.
That is why I am thinking more often of math. Each of us has an exact number — whether it is of years, days, minutes or seconds. We don’t know our number, but it helps to keep in mind that this number exists.
I’m now more aware that our time here is finite. So I take an extra minute I might not have before watching my sons play with their new sister at the dinner table. It is a love that I did not expect to jell so quickly and so perfectly. My sons, with their phones down, are clapping their hands, making faces and doing anything they can to delight my daughter into yet another magnificent smile. Luckily for us, she is an endless font of those.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote that “the soul is healed by being with children.” And so, too, the body, I hope, as we all try to find our way out of this terrible time and into our numbered future.
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