If a duck can look forlorn, the female waddling at the corner of my street appeared so. I recognized her from the park a few blocks over. She and her mate, with a fabulous green head, show up each spring in the enormous concrete and stone drainage ditch next to the park and have a brood of ducklings. They hang out with the plentiful turtles and this year the kids desperately trying to catch a fish while their parents desperately try to get a moment of silence and air out the quarantine funk in the house. Science will spend decades determining the chemical composition of that smell.
Ducks don’t normally wander. Geese on other hand will set up shop on your lawn and smoke cigarettes while defecating ten times their body weight. When you stroll out to suggest they might at least look at the brochure on community college you left in the driveway, they give you the we-both-know-I’m-a-protected-species look. Then they suggest you move along before they peck out your soul.
John Milton, defender of the beheading of kings (Charles I, 1649), composer of Paradise Lost (justifying the ways of God to man, 1667), went for epic strolls even after he lost his eyesight. Being able to compose flawless iambic pentameter in his head probably helped the miles just melt away. The final version of the poem has 10,565 lines, which happens to be the gematria (numerical code corresponding to letters, in this case those used by Cabbalists) for the name of God in Hebrew (YHWH) 10-5-6-5.
Coincidence? Probably, but worth kicking around as I set off for a mundane stroll after noticing the duck. The Quarantine Walk, slightly less debilitating than the Perp Walk, but filled with the same anxieties. What is going to happen to me and can I cope? There’s no way I can serve a nickel, yet I might not survive early parole. Fraught. Every move and choice you make. The official word of the pandemic.
After Milton literally went blind supporting Cromwell and the Puritans, they merely demonstrated, like so many other revolutionaries, they could be just as inept and oppressive as the order before them. He did eventually write the last epic in English, but he spent decades planning to write the history of England in verse before switching to divine pitch-man. Explaining God was his Safety Epic.
Nearly home, I noticed the duck hadn’t moved. Curious. I stopped to observe, and the duck held her ground. More curious. Then I heard a faint cheep and realized one of her ducklings had fallen down the storm drain. I could only assume some strange backflow had sucked the helpless thing out of the drainage ditch and deposited it there. The momma duck knew only her instinct to protect her duckling, but her mind could not hatch an escape plan, and so she stood watch.
Because we are Americans, we equate the Buddha’s call for detachment to material possessions. But our desire for anything, good or bad, leads to expectations, to disappointment and ultimately to suffering. Milton and his time raised their desire for transcendence and the Peaceable Kingdom and their version of holiness to a fever pitch: every action carried import; every phenomena delivered a sign; every occurrence nearly exploded with portent. War was justified as the means to fulfill those desires that could never be fulfilled. Suffering followed. The world was fraught.
I went and rousted Teenager: The Sequel. We lifted the cast-iron storm grate that easily weighed a hundred pounds. There, huddled at the bottom of the drain, was not one, but nine stranded ducklings. Momma duck had decamped to the other side of the street to supervise and call to her brood. TTS lowered himself down and started handing up ducklings. Momentarily bewildered, they wobbled in the sunlight and then headed towards mom. One duckling had a pale flap of skin where one of its eyes should be. Despite all its efforts, it never could right itself. Mom started marching the troops back home. She would have remained on vigil as long as even one duckling cheeped from its confinement; she had no time to mourn the one that would soon perish.
If I could have bowed to the dictates of evolution, I would have the left the duckling in the grass to become part of the food chain. If I could have summoned the compassion that demands aid until all resources have been exhausted, I would have taken it home for a futile effort at rescue. The deepest recesses of our brain still know when something is going to die. I had TTS lower the duckling back into the drain, away from predators and scavengers for the time being. The act felt merciful and cruel in equal measure. That’s about as far into the murky depths of morality I can wade these days.
This pandemic will change our society and culture forever or it won’t. Like any crisis, the vast majority of us will simply become more of what we already were. The person screaming at a minimum-wage employee about his right not to wear a mask did not become selfish and narcissistic overnight; he just has the opportunity for more public displays under stress. The single parent working grinding hours at manual labor to care for her family did not suddenly become heroic; we just weren’t paying attention.
If we can let go of our desire to figure out what this plague means, we might notice a duck standing on the corner. We might hear the cheep of a life we have the power to save for at least another day. We might make our corner of existence a little more hopeful. We might begin to justify our ways to ourselves.