I live in the hills at the edge of Austin City Limits. We have no lawns where I live. My driveway is dirt. The post oaks in front of my house have been inching higher since the Civil War. But where I live is less country than when I moved in; the rolling ridge that shoulders the two-lane traffic from downtown past my small neighborhood has been framed by hundreds of new rooftops, the night’s dark sky isn’t as dark as it used to be, and the swoosh of tires across that ridge of pavement continues deep into the night. Austin has grown.
I bought my acre when that night road was silent. I chose this place because its small house sat on a cliff’s westerly edge that offered a 180-degree view — no houses in sight. It was located within minutes of an extraordinarily vibrant and off-beat city with a voice all its own. I could listen to the birds in the morning and the Blues at night, and in-between was silence.
The 5 Stages of Cool:
Stage 1: Artists discover a beautiful affordable town. They set up shop.
Stage 2. Trendsetters discover the hidden art community and christen it hip. Tourism follows.
Stage 3. Chic visitors become residents. Wannabees follow their lead. The town becomes a city.
Stage 4. Corporations follow the money because wannabes love nothing more than white chocolate mocha lattes. The city’s unique personality withers under the weight of international branding.
Stage 5. Demand pushes prices higher. Local artists and entrepreneurs are forced out.
And all that’s left in their mirrors is the fog of once cool.
Austin has thrived economically since the 1990s. The influx of tech and its money has made us shinier, sexier, cosmopolitan. New York. LA. Miami. Austin.
Our new chic has brought us dozens of rising skyscrapers along Lady Bird Lake with sparkling lights that offer a facade of life. But those of us who lived here before their rise, those of us who knew Austin, recognize that the city’s mortal coil is growing cold. Austin has become increasingly a destination and less a home. Out-of-staters have priced the people who shaped us — artisans, musicians, regular folks who once could afford to march to their own beat — out of their homes and away from our city. Imitation has replaced authenticity. Texas the brand has replaced Texas.
Austin has become a grayer shade of blue.
Both my parents worked but were home by 5:30. We had four TV channels and no decent radio. The internet wasn’t a thing. Neither did we have the overly-scheduled lives that children have today. Our nights and weekends were ours. We rode bikes, played in our yards, found things to do with the clutter in our garage. Our lives were slow and they were our own.
Last night, a man bored within a pandemic, I sat in my yard and listened. The two-laner between all those new houses was widened a few years back to accommodate the boom of newcomers who wanted a country existence within the shortest possible commute. That high-speed commute now never falls silent. But it was quiet last night — like it used to be.
Friends of mine in Houston have made similar observations. Lives have slowed around them. One wrote that for the first time since he moved into his neighborhood he saw the family across the street, parents and children, playing in their yard. I’ve read the same from strangers on social media. Soccer practices and high-dollar vacations have been canceled. Nights out with buddies have turned into evenings home with wives. The amplitude of our existence has been turned down. We are decelerating to our natural speed. The presence of death has offered us a remembrance of life.
The threat of the grave is everywhere now. We view 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 toll. The sheer variety of things which 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.
But succumbing to mortality is only one form of death. There are more subtle ways of dying than a final heartbeat. Do you sense them now that you’re still? They — as sure as a distracted driver, a stage-4 diagnosis, Big Macs — have been killing us for years. They are the quiet deaths that rob you no less than your conclusion: death of home, death of intimacy, death of self. These are the deaths which no vaccine can cure.
Covid-19, like Austin, is the bright shiny object getting all our attention. But Covid can only end you, and surviving its passage won’t alone bring you back to life. That’s because life requires more than functioning lungs. It requires wide eyes and open hearts that inhale the natural world and the love of your people. Life requires you to be present. It requires that you surrender your time today so that it may enrich the time you have left.
Covid-19 will pass. What will you do if you make it through? With the time that you’re offered between the black death and white sheet? What will you do with your mortal coil?
Nobody wants a pandemic. But nobody says we can’t learn from one.
Use its time wisely.