Nevertheless, I am told, at such a time, Isaac Newton sat at a country estate with an apple tree. His reflections upon the forces between distant bodies, propelling them together and apart, gave us gravity and enfolded the moon and the apple in a shared system of invisible laws. He saw a spider’s web of formulas spinning across untold space, in which the stars hung like dewdrops, and from them beams of light pierced his own seclusion. All kinds of lofty things entered the brain of Isaac Newton, some of them traveling great distances, and when he emerged, science was permanently different. Such was the life of Isaac Newton during the plague year.
I am secluded, too. Perhaps, for a proper miracle, I should go look at a tree. I go for a quiet walk six feet away from everyone I encounter. The trees are blossoming, though there are no apples. Sometimes, the continuity of trees reassures me; today it feels like an affront. We make much of them, these trees, as though they exist for us. But have you seen a root push its way up through concrete? The trees will wait us out. There are so many so indifferent things in this world. Is this thought useful?
I am supposed to be having my annus mirabilis now. My phone, on which I am watching everything unfold, does not believe there is such a phrase as “annus mirabilis.” It suggests other things. Isaac Newton did not have to carry a glowing box full of worries, in which, also, all his friends and family were trapped. This is one advantage I possess over Isaac Newton. Is “advantage” the word I want?
Other people pass along, distantly together in this space. We nod at one another. How far is too far? How close is too close? The force that propels us together in ordinary moments is currently propelling us apart.
Here is something funny: I wanted to see my parents. I happen to be fond of them, which I realize is a symptom of luck. But I do not know what I may be bringing with me. I am terrified I will get too close. Thus, I take a telescoping metal stick for roasting marshmallows and brandish it at the end of my extended arm, to mark out six feet. So armed, I go for a walk with my dad, swinging it between us on the sidewalk, trying to trace an arc of safety. Is this funny? It feels almost funny, but for some reason, I am crying.
Let me try again. See your family, without hugging? Please, we are of Scandinavian extraction! We have been training for this moment our entire lives!
Let me try again. I will keep trying. This must be a year of miracles — not the common miracles we only see after they vanish, the miracles of people in a restaurant or a room or a theater together. No, other miracles: the shield we build for one another by briefly deserting those places. The connections that persist across distances, the formulas that make a familiar face appear in glowing pixels on a screen. Who would have thought that our old enemy the conference call would be an ally, in the end? Who would have thought that phone calls, long disdained, would come to the rescue? This is an advantage we possess over Newton.
I cannot see anything easier than inventing gravity during a time of plague. How can you think of anything during such a time but bodies and the distances and forces between bodies. I feel nothing now but the pull of distant bodies too far away to touch. I feel nothing but the invisible ties that bind us across spaces, the imperceptible, far-off vibrations in the web that signal: Yes, there is someone here.
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