There was a news story I read some time back about the famous Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman, while playing at a concert at the Lincoln Centre. Itzahk Perlman was handicapped by childhood polio and needed to walk painfully on crutches to the seat where he sat to play. He always played sitting. Some way into the concert one of the strings of his violin broke. The audience sat in stunned silence, wondering if he would have to get up to replace the string, whether they would have to watch him move painfully across the stage again. However, nothing of the sort happened. He continued playing, ignoring the fact that his instrument lacked one string. He improvised, using the three strings left to him as they had never been played before. His explanation was simple, ‘Our job is to play with what is left.’ The phrase stuck in my mind.
Life has been rather like that for the past year. A year when we have had to play with what is left. A year when the possible had to serve, had to content us. It was a reminder that we can’t go on rushing unthinkingly. We have to batten down, rather as the natural world does, rather as the seed scattered by the wild trees wait for the fall of rain to take life and grow into plants, and later into trees. This pandemic has been a shock to us, reminding us that we can’t always live as we wish to, when even something as simple as seeing loved ones was impossible. Anything that we could achieve was a bonus, not something we could demand as our right. That there are hardly any rights, any entitlements that we can be assured of. And yet, it is possible to make do, to live, to play with what is left.
Sylvia Plath, in a poem on winter says how, ‘On chastely figured/ trees and stones/ fate is augured in bleak lines/ With shorthand scratches/ on white scroll/ barks of birches/ tells a tale.’ She calls it ‘a landscape of chagrin.’ We too, (and this time the ‘we’ included people all over the world, it was no localised tragedy or crisis like the floods two years back) suddenly found ourselves in this landscape of chagrin. As ever in such situations, the first shock brings doubts about how we shall cope. We are sure we cannot manage without going out, without seeing people, without shopping, and without eating out. And again, as ever, human ingenuity finds ways to cope and life goes on, limpingly sometimes, but definitely moving forward across days, weeks and months, until almost a year has passed. I have looked back and wondered where the days of 2020 vanished. Life has, to a certain extent, been pared down to the essentials, a sort of life without frills. You cook, you eat, you sleep, you keep in touch with people through telephone calls, video calls, Zoom meetings, Skype calls. It looks as though a portion of 2021 too is going to be a period of waiting, of caution and endurance rather than freedom and movement. Oh, I’m sure we’ll go back to our careless ways once the extremes of danger have passed, that is in the nature of the beast, but this is certainly a time for taking stock and reassessing our priorities. A time to pause, to look around, to make sure nothing has been neglected, and nothing left unrepaired against disaster.
When things go back to normal, I wonder if we shall remember that we could manage without cars on the roads, that pollution need not be as bad as it used to be. I wonder if we shall remember that physical labour, cleaning the house, gardening, could be rewarding, that simple meals can taste good. Unlikely, I guess. We have such short memories. We learn very little from experience, we repeat our mistakes, we rush around again. And yet, one can but hope that experience has taught us to step back a little and think before our old bad habits take over. Each new year is a time of hope, of renewal. That is why we keep making those good resolutions. So, let us hope for sense, for thought, and for new good habits.