Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

What a way to start the day! I awoke with words from Macbeth’s final soliloquy playing like a dirge in my head:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time…

The Scottish king had just learned that Lady Macbeth was dead. His whole world was about to come crashing down on him. By contrast, my wife was very much alive. Yet the whole world had certainly come crashing down — not only on me but on everyone. We had just marked the one-year anniversary of the COVID pandemic. I had hardly gone anywhere or seen anyone in a year; not been to church or a restaurant; not gone to the gym; not hugged our granddaughter. My wife and I had planned a big to-do in New York for our 50th anniversary. We managed a very small outdoor event on our back patio, with everyone wearing masks and keeping six feet apart.

For all that, I have not felt unduly disadvantaged. My wife and I were already retired and comfortably ensconced at home, with no small children or elderly parents to worry about. (I guess we might be considered the elderly parents, but we are not unduly worried about ourselves.) Several family members came down with COVID early on but recovered quickly. A former colleague and several members of my church died of the disease but no one I was close to. If anything, I have been feeling vaguely guilty that we have been getting along so well while others have suffered the brunt of the pandemic.

While in lockdown I had been reading The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larsen’s day-by-day account of the Battle of Britain, when Hitler unleashed the Luftwaffe on the U.K. in 1940 as a prelude to a planned invasion. Hitler’s air minister, Hermann Goering, had anticipated a quick knockout blow, but in this he was disappointed. The Brits proved stubbornly resilient even in the face of nightly bombing raids. They continued to go about their business much as before, clearing the streets of rubble as necessary and getting right back to work building more Spitfires. Although badly outnumbered, the plucky RAF eventually forced the Nazis to call off their air campaign and abandon plans for an invasion.

The British have an idiom that describes their habitual response to disaster, which is to muddle through. They are no strangers to adversity in their long history, and one can often see the same dynamic at work. One need only consult Samuel Pepys’ famous diary of life in London during the mid-17th century. As a high-ranking civil servant in the Admiralty with close connections to the Crown, Pepys (pronounced “peeps”) had a front-row seat to some of the momentous events of the period, including the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the Great Plague of 1665-66 and the Great Fire of London, also in 1666.

Pepys was hardly indifferent to the toll taken by the plague, which killed a quarter of London’s population over a period of 18 months. But neither did he allow it to diminish his fondness for wine, women and song. "I have never lived so merrily (besides that I never got so much) as I have done this plague time,” he admitted in his diary. With his wife safely packed off to Woolrich, he ventured forth on deserted streets to make merry with his mistress, Mrs. Bagwell. He was undeterred by the corpses he might encounter along the way or the fact that Mrs. Bagwell’s own servant was dead of the plague. Whether attending to affairs of state or affairs of the heart, Pepys apparently concluded that life must go on.

As indeed it must. The pandemic we have lived through for the past year is by no means as deadly as the one Pepys endured. My wife and I have now been vaccinated, a sign that we may eventually be able to put this whole thing behind us. Most days we go about our business without giving much thought to the disruptions that have become part of our daily routine. And yet the fact that Macbeth’s final soliloquy was there to greet me on awakening the other morning might suggest that the pandemic has indeed taken a psychic toll. The sameness of each day, the absence of so much, the thousand and one tiny griefs that have gone unmourned, as life creeps forward at its petty pace from day to day. For now I must accept on faith that all this will one day end. Until then, there is only another tomorrow much like today and then another and another.

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