When the smoke cleared, off I went looking for one good thing. This is what I found south of Market Street in San Francisco.
- A little boy, no more than five, pushing his little brother in a blue stroller on an uphill road. He’s the back end of a rocketship.
- Twenty men on motorcycles racing down Mission Street, creating acute angles with their bikes as they lift their front tires. Roaring, loudly, shaking the street with their youth.
- The stitches of my friend’s yellow dress, sunflower yellow, as she twirls in front of me on the crosswalk. She holds onto the skirt and makes faces behind her mask.
- A group of friends in Mission Dolores Park, crammed into a socially distanced heart painted on the grass. Inside the white lines of their world, there is laughter and bare shoulders and White Claws placed between criss-crossed knees. I hear them talk about beer die.
I think of a time when I stood at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. It was late at night, midnight, no stars or anything. Just this great big wall somehow still standing. Even at this hour, you could feel the holiness holding everyone in place. I watched an older woman press her face to the limestone. Her mouth moved wordlessly in a silent prayer. I felt in that moment so a part of human desire, of human suffering — the whole black night heavy with our longing. In the cracks of the wall were thousands of prayers folded into pieces of paper. I thought of the oldest prayers, stuck farthest in the back where everything is wet. Probably a paste by now. I wondered if they’d been answered.
And then I saw them: two Orthodox Jewish men in their seventies, standing towards the back. I thought they’d smile at each other and keep walking, maybe exchange some words. A tip of a head maybe. But no. I watched as one man started tickling the other beneath his wide black coat. He wiggled his fingers, and the other squirmed. The second man started giggling — and I mean giggling, not laughing — and there they were: two old men, seventy-something, giggling at the Western Wall in the dead of night.
It’s been easy to forget that lightness. But then you see it again and remember. That for every unanswered prayer there’s two Orthodox Jewish men tickling each other and a third boy pushing a fourth in a stroller. All of it counts for something good.
Do you remember that time in quarantine where we blinked and six months passed? Time to graduate! School starting! I glanced around and wondered what alien rapture had taken place while I slept. Who had stolen all this time, and where did they put it?
But then the smoke clears, and the sky is blue. You’re walking in San Francisco south of Market Street. The clouds have returned. You look around and see the passing strangers. All of them: red, beating hearts. Somehow they are bravely choosing to live, still, and to laugh and be silly, to roar past the taqueria in the Mission and to make bright yellow dresses. You see the towers of the Financial District in the distance and the man drumming outside the grocery store and the green onions at the farmer’s market and you realize that all this lost time you were talking about for so many months, all of this waiting room time, Purgatory time, Zoom rectangle postage stamp time — it had never had any prefixes to begin with.
It was always just that. Time.
It’s just that now you see the one good thing, which forks into a billion. Everywhere around you, a world brimming with care: 7 billion people circling a sun, enduring so much, ablaze with the choice to fill that time with joy.
Contact Valerie Trapp at trappv22 ‘at’ stanford.edu.