Several years ago, I read an article in The New Yorker called “Estonia: The Digital Republic”. It named the small Eastern European country “most digitized government in the world”. In Estonia, government services – like legislation, voting, education, justice, health care, banking, taxes, policing, driver’s licenses and registrations – transact online in a fast, easy, secure, reliable, and effective system available to everyone. I remember thinking at the time, “This wired-up nation is providing a glimpse of what a more rational and inclusive future could look like.”
I was reminded of this last week when Joe Tierney, who runs our local building department, notified us that building permits are now available online. No more driving to town hall hoping to find Joe or his assistant Jeff. No more paper to copy, collate and deliver. One silver lining of our pandemic-hammered newly shuttered socially-distanced society. No way that’s going back to normal when this is all over. Yes, some personal contact will be lost. But more will be gained. Progress never comes without consequences.
We are no longer at the beginning of this pandemic. We are nowhere near the end. With many lives lost, others threatened, and all of ours fundamentally different than they were a few months ago, it might seem too early to be looking for the silver linings.
But it’s never too soon for that.
In many ways, our lives today are more stressful than ever: Widespread illness and death. Massive job losses and economic disruption. Deficient federal leadership (the silver lining here is that Trump is clearly taking himself down and all the way out.) Those who are already poverty-stricken endure even more hardship. The curtailment of freedoms we treasure. The confinement. The constant veil of uncertainty. Walking around in masks like it’s Halloween (you can’t even recognize friends and neighbors in the grocery store aisles).
But in other ways, you could say our new life has picnic-like qualities (although it does seem a bit like a dog came by and swiped all the sandwiches when nobody was looking).
In mid-April, I scribbled a note to myself: “I love the Vineyard roads during these shelter-in-place times. Mostly empty. Like the winter of 1975 – nearly half a century ago – when we would drive from home in Chilmark to Vineyard Haven. Often, we wouldn’t pass a single car during the 20 minute trip. It’s kind of like that now. Instead of staring at the car in front of me, I can watch the road ahead and look left and right as I drive. I appreciate the signs of gratitude for the grocery and hospital workers. The cherry tree in front of Edu-Comp is in full bloom, at one of the busiest intersections on the island, now quiet. As I head up-island, I enjoy the living tree canopies that reach out over the road – for light – and join with their counterparts on the other side.”
Here at South Mountain, as in so many other companies and households, we spend our time gathering and collaborating on Zoom. We’re getting used to it. And better at it. So much so that the idea of meeting in a room sitting around a table is starting to seem old fashioned, like making a call standing in a phone booth after putting a dime in the slot. You’re right. . . it’s not that good of a replacement, but virtual meeting comfort and competence will surely serve us well, far beyond this pandemic. And when the time comes that it makes sense for certain meetings to be face-to-face, it will be all the sweeter.
Here are a few witnessed on MV, from the mundane but poetic, to the lifesaving and essential:
• Kim’s puzzle exchange at the end of our road. She and Livey do puzzles. They ran out. She said, “Let’s make a puzzle exchange.” I sketched a crude drawing and got some old lumber from the SMCo yard. Our friend Rob built a sweet little shed. Kim and Livey made signage and instructions for use. When Kim announced it on the “Islanders Talk” Facebook group, 200 people responded with likes and comments. Countless puzzles came and went.
• Civil engineer Chris Alley waking up the morning after his office closed with nothing to do and deciding to walk Barnes Road, every day, bit by bit, picking up trash, including 400 discarded nips bottles in one stretch.
• Parents faced with their childrens’ at-home education discovering new ways to relate to their kids and new respect for the teachers they sometimes criticized. By the way, March of this year was the first month without a U.S. school shooting since March 2002. Eighteen years.
• Breaking free from the traditional political handcuffs caused by six different towns co- existing on one small island. One town wants this, another wants that. Regionalization used to be rejected by parochialism. But now, like never before, the towns are collaborating and acting in concert. Selectpersons, health agents, hospital – all on the same page. One island, one town at last.
• An outpouring of support for essential community institutions – non-profits that serve those most in need and iconic local businesses in trouble.
Silver linings galore.
More than anything, maybe, this time is a rest for the planet – a vivid testimony to the importance of consigning the sacred growth-at-all-cost economy to the dustbin of history. Overcoming the pandemic foreshadows the real work ahead: the long and hard but fully negotiable road to an absolute reckoning with climate change. According to the New York Times, the United States is on track to produce more electricity from renewable power than from coal for the first year on record, a milestone that seemed all but unthinkable a decade ago. Accelerating the transition to renewable energy is the sure path to restoration of the economy (that has been ransacked by the pandemic) and healing the planet (that has been ravaged by our insatiable appetites). Maybe, just maybe, we will look back on this as a hinge point that straightened our crooked path.
We may be developing a new sense that we are truly all in this together – that what I do, affects you, and what you do, affects me. And that each choice made affects the home we share. Columnist David Brooks calls this “a hidden solidarity, which I, at least, did not know was there.”
To assert that there is good news could seem insensitive to our current collective troubles. But there’s a door opening. And if it’s possible to walk through that door and use the good news to inspire transformation, it would be a terrible mistake to overlook it.
Our resilience is remarkable, as is our transcendent ability to create joy in the face of tragedy. The strength of our collective will to work together is tangible and unshakeable. Maybe it leads to renewal.
Yes, every cloud truly does have a silver lining, even this tragic and frightening pandemic cloud. Especially this one.