Last week I saw the groundhog for the first time. He lumbered across the patch of lawn at the bottom of our garden, looking much like a muskrat or a beaver but for his tail—the muskrat has a tail, unsurprisingly, like a rat; the beaver of course has his paddle; whereas the muskrat’s tail is closer to a squirrel’s. By his tail, I knew him. I don’t know how long he’s lived alongside us; only now does he break cover.
He waddled through the rhododendrons and slipped beneath the chain-link fence that separates us from the sports field. An hour later, he returned, bucktoothed, wide-bottomed, almost jaunty. In the meantime, a tiny rabbit, the size of a fist, nibbled at the early shoots and cast a wary eye upon the prancing blue jay that hopped in the new mulch of the garden bed, scanning for lunch. For a while, they seemed to be in silent conversation, as overhead the cardinal sang his familiar song, and the newly arrived woodpecker plucked, at zany speed, at the bark of the Norwegian maples.
Life has a different tenor, in lockdown. We watch the moon rise, the sun set; we monitor the buds’ unfolding on the trees, their sudden pastel flowering; we marvel when a rare plane breaks the sky’s vast silence. The beautiful minutiae of life are returned to us, lost for a decade or more in the pointless race toward self-destruction. The reminder of Death brings reminders of Life.
My grandparents lived on a cliff above the sea. Lying in bed at night, as a child, those long-ago summers, I heard the waves against the shore in the darkness, incessant, the earth breathing. The sound of eternity. My grandmother, in her last years amiably demented and immobile, sat in an armchair by the window and watched for hours the play of light upon the water, the scudding clouds, the shifting colors, the intermittently discernible line between water and air at the horizon. Occasionally, a sailboat passed, a white gnat; a submarine surfaced; or an aircraft carrier slid by on its way to port, a child’s toy in the vast ocean before her. She knew—we all knew—in front of the sea and sky it was impossible not to know—the scale of our relative importance. That’s to say, our lack thereof. She sat for hours, hands folded in her lap, a half-smile on her lips, and when I came to offer her a snack, a shawl, she would whisper, politely but sincerely, “Elle est belle, la mer, n’est ce pas?” A generic observation, not the less true for that.
Though they had moved often, my grandparents lived almost all their lives in sight of the Mediterranean. My grandfather, a Navy man, loved the sea, and feared it appropriately. They were devoutly Catholic, people for whom God’s teaching—or the Pope’s—gave shape and reason to their lives and to their days. They slept beneath a crucifix draped with a rosary. They accepted even painful lessons with patience and in a humble effort to understand. They appreciated beauty, although they lived modestly; when they died, they left us great spiritual wealth and not a single item of monetary value.
My father, stifled by their antique mores, had escaped eagerly to the New World, married my Canadian mother, and lived the rest of his life an expatriate. After a number of years in Australia, they raised my sister and me ultimately as North American children: I grew up wanting things, restless for worldly engagement and recognition, avid for a place in the society our family had, albeit skeptically, adopted as our own. I wanted to belong in this world, to be acknowledged and respected by its measures.
But this American society, which scorns patience and humility, which celebrates individual agency and material success, must, in order to do so, forget about Death. And in order successfully to forget about Death, you must also ignore Nature, because Death is at the heart of Nature’s rhythms. Science and technology have helped to hasten that forgetfulness: we can make our bodies look younger, last longer; we can cure many ills; we can master information; we can distract ourselves and lie to ourselves with extraordinary commitment and efficiency.
Yet just as the sea beneath my grandparents’ house still breaks endlessly against the shore, just as the sun repeats its diurnal journey across the sky to plummet into the ocean at the western horizon, so too Death will come, and come, and come, inexorably, for each of us in our time. We have no control over it. What is unfolding now is above all a painful reminder of this truth. From Nature’s long perspective, the pandemic is a small correction. My grandparents would have understood it as the will of God; but one need not be religious to see its greater natural logic. In practical terms, it frightens chiefly those of us who fall particularly within its purview—I am over fifty, and Nature is ready to dispense with me—but the broader metaphysical alarm that it induces arises from the fact that we are humbled, our human limitations and inadequacies revealed. We have long wanted to believe that we’ve killed God, superseded Nature; but wanting to believe it does not make it so. Being adaptable and resilient, we might well be able in time to resurrect that illusion, but would do so at our peril.
When my mother had breast cancer, treatable, in her late fifties, we discussed the fact that she had been granted the opportunity to take stock of her life—she considered herself unhappy—and to make changes, if she chose. In the event she changed nothing, and continued unhappy for twenty more years, until eventually dementia, surprisingly, cheered her, and her last years were filled with unexpected if quickly forgotten joys. This pandemic seems to me not unlike my mother’s cancer: a threat, a warning, a reminder for society. Whether, like my mother, we ignore its import, is up to each one of us.
I am grateful to the groundhog for breaking cover; grateful for the silence that has allowed it. The devastating ongoing human suffering scars and shapes us; let it not be in vain. We humans, in our race to the future, in our faith in science and our own power, have forgotten much wisdom. We have so much to learn. Might we listen, in the unexpected quiet? The earth breathes around us.
May 5, 2020
Excerpted from And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again.
Edited by Ilan Stavans
Published August 25, 2020
Claire Messud (Greenwich, Connecticut, 1966) is the author of numerous novels, including The Emperor’s Children (2006), The Woman Upstairs (2013), and, most recently, The Burning Girl (2017). Her collection of essays, Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write: An Autobiography in Essays, will be published in 2020. A frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and the New York Times Book Review, Messud teaches creative writing at Harvard University. She lives with her family in Cambridge, Massachusetts.