The Covid-19 crisis has turned off so many lights—economic, emotional, physiological—in so many lives; the task of those of us still breathing is to see what lights it can possibly turn on. What can we learn from the catastrophe that will help us live more thoughtfully and soulfully in the future? What did it remind us we were missing before, in terms of contact with family or time for reflection? What, if anything, will we miss from this period of enforced seclusion that we can productively bring into our new lives?
?I once lost my family home and every last thing I owned—every photograph, every keepsake, every note for my next eight years of writing—in a wildfire in California. As my mother and I worked on a design for a new house, we also, inevitably, began to think about how we could fashion a new life, perhaps closer to the life we’d always wanted to lead. In my case, I found I could live with far fewer possessions, much more lightly on the earth. I realised that, having lost all my notes, I’d have to write much more from imagination and my heart.
With no physical home to live in, I had to recall that home might consist of what lives most deeply inside me—my loved ones, my inspirations, my values.
?The forces of Nature wiped me clean. But in so doing, they opened windows and doors on a better life in the future that might otherwise have remained closed forever.
?During these past eight months, stuck at home, I’ve been much kinder to the environment than when I’m in movement. I’ve lived, often happily, without things I thought indispensable. I’ve found myself thinking about uncertainty and hope and solitude rather than just the latest movie or sports score. And even as I’ve lost almost all my revenue for the year, I’ve had a chance to make a life instead of just a living.?? ?
? I’ve cherished, in other words, the rare chance to be with my mother, now 89, every day for one hundred and fifty straight days. I get to be at my desk, as a writer, for months on end, as hasn’t happened since 1986. For all the losses that move all of us to tears, I feel it’s my obligation, to the people I’ve lost, to think about what opportunities lie within this devastating season.
?? We have a choice, at every moment, whether to dwell on what we have, which can be a cause for gratitude—or on what we lack, which can lead only to frustration. But we all know that an argument with reality is one we’ll never win.
? One hour after I lost everything I owned in the forest fire—my only possession that night was a toothbrush I went out to buy—I wrote an article about the disaster for the magazine that then employed me. Because I’d been spending time in Japan, I ended with a seventeenth century haiku I’d run across:
?? My house burned down
??? I can now see better
??? The rising moon.
? If nothing else, the coronavirus season has reminded some of us, of what we care about most deeply and the necessity of keeping it close as we return to whatever new kind of life awaits us.
Pico Iyer is the author of 15 books, including The Art of Stillness, Autumn Light and A Beginner’s Guide to Japan. He took part in the first digital edition of the Khushwant Singh LitFest, themed ‘A New Life’