I am thinking about the moment in history in which we are immersed, and as usual my mind turns to the words of a great writer of the movies. In Robert Bolt’s screenplay of “Doctor Zhivago,” Lara and Zhivago, near the end of their drama, are huddled at his family’s old estate in the Ural Mountains, waiting for the local Bolsheviks to descend. All seems lost, all exits blocked. The wolves of the forest howl with foreboding. Lara comes awake in the night and begins to weep. “This is a terrible time to be alive,” she says. “Oh no, no,” says Zhivago in all his innocence and belief. “It is a wonderful time to be alive.” Life itself, whatever the circumstances, is good; it is a miracle no matter what.
He is right. She is right. It is a terrible time to be alive, it is a wonderful time to be alive.
It is wonderful right now. And not terrible but deeply, almost dazzlingly, strange. And we must take note.
* * *
You are perhaps reading this at the beach, or after a day at the pool, or at home in your den near midnight as you sneak a bowl of Häagen-Dazs frozen yogurt with fresh strawberries. You are comfortable, well fed, well clothed; the air conditioner hums. Everything feels normal. Everything is! Which is why you haven’t gotten your brain fully around the fact that we are living through abnormal times.
We are living Days of Lore. Days of big history. We are living through an epoch scholars 50 years hence will ask about and study. (Yes, I think there will be scholars 50 years hence.) They will see us, you and me, as grizzled veterans of something big. Which is funny since we don’t even see ourselves as soldiers.
This is the lore I grew up with, the folklore of an earlier era that brought with it pictures we still carry in our heads: The Great Depression came (bankers jumped from windows, men sold apples on the street). Then came the Dust Bowl (dark and whipping winds leave farms and families uprooted; John Steinbeck’s Joads move to California). Then the war, World War II, the big one (a million newsreels, films and pictures from Henry Luce’s Life magazine).
But we are living through an era just as big. Bigger, perhaps, or so ultimately I fear. And we haven’t fully noticed. The collapse of the bubble, the fall of the market, the sinking of the AOL Time Warner empire (once known as the great house of Luce), the emptying of retirement accounts, the declarations of the biggest bankruptcies in U.S. history—this is the stuff of Lore.
A picture to put in your head: The founder and former CEO of the sixth largest cable company in America, which is the great cable country, is hauled away in handcuffs, charged with looting his company of hundreds of millions of dollars and bilking investors of billions. John Rigas of Adelphia Communications, 78 years old, does the perp walk in Manhattan surrounded by photographers. His thick white hair stands up uncombed, his eyes seem perplexed, dulled by enormity. He looks like a defrocked priest.
That perp walk, that look, are as much a picture of our times as bankers jumping from windows and Okies selling apples on the street.
All this financial woe, all these economic headlines, take place against a backdrop of a Pentagon attacked, of falling towers and America at war.
Sort of. We know it’s going on, but unlike World War II few of us feel it. Do you know anyone who has died or been wounded in it since Sept. 12? Most of us experience the war as an abstraction, a background against which pundits occasionally explain that an event is occurring.
But it is an abstraction taking place within a new time, the Era of Weapons of Mass Destruction. An era in which the nature of war and warfare has changed utterly, an era that promises, truly promises, bad pain ahead.
* * *
The sitting president, our leader, was nine months into a new presidency when history’s assault began. He is friendly, intelligent, funny, not deeply experienced in terms of his personal experience but deeply experienced in terms of watching up close the experiences of his father and of the president before his father.
He was elected legally but with fewer votes than his opponent, a new-age whack job who, upon his loss, grew a beard and came to look like a portly Gilded Age banker. This man will have his rematch.
And there is the current president’s predecessor, who seems more and more like Warren Harding, president as the Roaring ‘20s came to a screeching halt—handsome, gray-haired, wayward, blame-deflecting and, as Alice Roosevelt Longworth memorably said, “a slob.”
* * *
The Mideast pot boils high, the Gaza front heats up, Osama remains uncaught or is dead.
There is strange weather: forest fires historic in their size and destruction, weird temperatures—134 degrees, according to news reports, in a California town two weeks ago—earthquakes, landslides, floods, hail, melting glaciers, weird thunder, weird darkness, everything but locusts . . . and then the Chinese report locusts. Signs, portents of signs, wars and rumor of war.
Time magazine does a cover on Christians who are wondering, for the 2,014th time in history, if we are in the end times, and Christian Web sites buzz with this question: Is God taking the institutions on which we normally lean away from us one by one in order that we might learn to lean more completely on him?
* * *
The great man of the age, a giant, the old pope, comes to our continent, to Canada, and arouses now a thing he never inspired, pity. Well, pity and awe. The Toronto Sun called the trip “a stubborn act of courage” and said his arrival was “magnificent.” On Wednesday when a little girl was pushed forward to greet him on behalf of the children of Canada, she seemed to flinch, accepted his kiss and fled in tears. Her mother later said she was so moved she wept. But she seemed frightened to me, and understandably. Why would God allow the slow public withering of the man who fills the shoes of the Fisherman just as the Church rocks with crisis? Is God allowing the beauty and gallantry of John Paul’s soul to be obscured and hidden from us by the now-rough outer shell? Why? Is the pope bearing the woe of the world outwardly, for all of us to see? What does his suffering mean? What are we to learn from it?
Meantime in the Church the pope leads, a gathering of American lay Catholics is held in Boston. They seek to wrest some control from the hands of the bishops, and good luck to them. They call themselves “Keep the Faith, Change the Church.” The group is only five months old but it draws 4,000 Catholics to its first conference. They gave an award to a priest who has for years acknowledged and uncovered sex abuse within the church. The priest told them that the clergy sex scandals are equaled in their horror “only by the bloodshed of the Inquisition.”
Equaled only by the Inquisition! There’s a man who isn’t afraid to define.
* * *
A congressman who regularly fills the Capitol with his deranged banter and whose head looks like the last sanctuary of tree squirrels is expelled this week from the House, the second man to be so removed since the Civil War. The vote was 420-1, the holdout being the congressman famous for being assumed to have murdered his young lover.
And Wednesday came reports that an asteroid hurtling toward earth could hit us in 2019. Which gave me cause for optimism. Think of all our warring parties. We’d come together to battle the asteroid, pooling our best talent and sharing our genius, wouldn’t we? And then once we blew the asteroid up, and had a party, and felt safe, we’d get back to fighting again.
* * *
It is amazing that all of this is happening, isn’t it? This rush of history. Amazing that we are aware of it, see it, shake our heads over it as we eat the Häagen-Dazs, and don’t see it.
Maybe we are living in a perceptual warp, in a time when so many stray images and thoughts are coming at us that none of them successfully and completely come to us.
Five hundred years ago there was Agincourt, a battle that changed Europe’s history. And yet most of Europe slept through Agincourt, far from its fields. Most of Europe continued in peaceful oblivion to the fact its life had changed. Word spread but slowly. By the time an old lady living in a hut in Winchelsea heard the news, the news was old, which meant she already knew how the story ended: The world did not end. Her tree hadn’t shook.
She absorbed the new information by imagining what it was like, and by picking up reports from the gossip of travelers over fires in homesteads acres away. Months away. Years away.
Now we hear of an Agincourt a day. And we don’t know what the outcome will be. We don’t know how the story will end. We don’t know if we’ll be able to say: Yes, but the world did not end.
* * *
This is big stuff, isn’t it? I don’t know where to go with it. Do you? I have a sense of our initial and surface duty to the facts at least as I’ve presented them. That we know, first, that we are living in a time of Lore. That we pay attention. That we see the oddness of our time. That we recognize its majesty and bigness, and assume that we were made as big as the time we were born in. That we plow ahead. That we do our best. That we keep our head, talk to God, say our prayers, set an example. That we take notes. And not only park them under a heading that we won’t remember but print them out, too, and past them in a book. That we remember that each day, every day, we go into the world and either make it a little bit better or a little bit worse. And maybe you’re in a time of life now that you’re making it better. And maybe that’s good.