Shiny & Blue

I live in the hills just outside the city limits. We have no lawns where I live. Driveways are dirt and the oaks have been growing since the Civil War. But where I live is less country than when I moved in. The rolling landscape that shoulders the two-lane road between the urban center and my small home has been filled with new rooftops. The night’s dark sky isn’t as dark as it used to be. And the sound of tires across pavement continues deep into the wee hours of the morning. Austin has grown.

I bought my house back when the roads were quiet and Austin had its voice. I chose this piece of land because of those things that you can only describe by describing: The structure sat on a cliff’s westerly edge and overlooked a wet weather creek and a wooded valley; the property offered a 360-degree view with no houses in sight; it afforded me the life of a vibrant city, and yet its lawn was a field upon which the deer were grazing when I started my day. It was the best of both worlds, I could listen to the birds in the morning and Austin’s Blues at night.

The 5 Stages of Cool:

Stage 1: Artists discover an affordable town nestled within natural beauty. They set up shop.

Stage 2. Trendsetters discover the hidden art community. They christen it hip. Tourism follows.

Stage 3. Chic visitors become residents. Wannabees follow their lead. The town becomes a city.

Stage 4. Multinational corporations follow the money (because wannabes love nothing more than white chocolate mocha lattes). The city’s unique personality withers.

Stage 5. Demand pushes prices higher. Local artists and entrepreneurs are forced out. And all they see in their mirrors is the fog of once cool.

Austin has been thriving for years. It’s been the influx of tech and its money. We’ve gotten shinier. Sexier. Cosmopolitan. New York, LA, Miami, Austin.

The dozens of rising skyscrapers along Lady Bird Lake create a facade of Life. Appearances. But for those of us who’ve been here for decades, for those of us who know her, we recognize that our city’s mortal coil has been growing increasingly cold, a grayer shade of blue, as the out-of-staters price its people — artisans, musicians, regular folks — out of their homes and from the city.

Imitation has replaced authenticity. Glam has replaced us.

Austin, Texas, has died.

I grew up in the 1970s. My parents both worked but were home by 5:30. We had four TV channels. No decent radio stations. The internet wasn’t a thing. So while one of the kids on our lakeside road might have had Little League, that was about it. Our nights and weekends were left to us. We rode bikes, played in our yards, found shit to do with the clutter in our basements. Our lives were slow. But they were our own.

Last night, bored amid a pandemic and without a basement, I sat in my yard and listened. The two-laner up the way, the one to town with all those new houses which was once a slow winding farm to market road, has been widened and straightened to accommodate the newcomers who want a country existence like mine but with the shortest possible commute. This new high-speed pavement now never falls silent. Nor slows. But it was quiet last night like it used to be. And through its silence I again heard Life.

Friends in Houston have posted similar observations about the slowing of their lives during Covid-19. One wrote that for the first time he saw the family across the street playing in their yard, parents and children together. I’ve read the same from strangers on Twitter. Soccer practices and high-intensity vacations have been canceled. Nights out with buddies have turned into nights home with wives. Not everything is peachy. It never was. Yet the amplitude has been turned down. We seem to be decelerating to our natural speed. Funny how the presence of death seems to lead to that.

The threat of the grave is everywhere now. All we talk about is Covid-19. We look at everything with suspicion, as if but for this virus our bodies would live eternal. But that, of course, is a lie. Death is always near: bullets, illness, weird accidents that would be funny except for the human toll, the flu. The sheer variety of things that can kill us inoculates us to the truth that we’re not long for this world. A distracted driver could hit you three minutes from now.

…gone.

But succumbing to mortality is only one form of death. There are more subtle ways of dying than your final heartbeat. Do you sense them now that you’re still? They — as sure as that distracted driver, a stage-4 diagnosis, Big Macs — have been killing us for years. They’re the quiet deaths that rob you of time just as certain as your conclusion: death of home, death of intimacy, death of time. These are the deaths that no vaccines can cure.

Covid-19 is like Austin today. It’s the bright shiny object getting all the attention. But Covid can only end you. And surviving its passage cannot alone bring Life. That’s because it, Life, requires more than functioning lungs. It requires wide eyes and an open heart that allow an inflow of the natural world and the love of your people. It requires you to be present for them and to them. It requires that you give it your time so that it can enrich the time you receive back in return.

Covid-19 will pass. What will you do, then, if you make it through, with the time that you’re offered between this black death and the coming white sheet? Will you sell it? Pass it by? Value its every second?

Nobody wants a pandemic. But nobody says we can’t learn from one.

Use its time wisely.