The pink moon shines down. Through the window I can see its reflection on the lake.
It’s April 7, and 333,811 Americans so far have contracted the coronavirus; 9,559 have died.
The dog, Chloe, opens one eye. What’s the story? the dog asks. You know it’s 2 a.m.?
I wish I knew what to tell her.
A loon calls mournfully in the dark. Chloe is having none of this. Come on, Jenny, says the dog. Go on back to bed.
I’m remembering a song, Clocks and Spoons, by John Prine, whom I love. Shoot the moon right between the eyes, I’m screaming. Take me back to sunny countryside.
The moon doesn’t know it yet, but John Prine has just died, in Nashville.
The loss of normalcy, and the arrival of fear
The next morning, the five of us get to work: my daughter Zai and her fiance Ezra have remote classes for graduate school — Zai for a master’s in expressive therapy, Ezra for a doctorate in plant biology. My wife, Deirdre, teleconferences with her students at the school of social work at the University of Maine; I do the same with mine at Barnard. My brother-in-law, Uncle Todd, chops and stacks firewood, washes the dishes, sits in a chair reading a book.
We’re all more than a little fed up with the talking squares on our computers. I don’t actually feel like doing anything. I want to wear my sweatpants all day and watch reruns of The Honeymooners. I want to eat tuna fish sandwiches with melted Velveeta. I want to roll a fat one and play with an HO model railroad.
David Kessler, who wrote a book with Elisabeth Kubler-Rosssays that what we are feeling, in a word, is grief. “Things will change,” he tells The Harvard Business Review, “and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.”
Bob Dylan atop the Billboard
This is the same week that Bob Dylan’s new song, Murder Most Foul, becomes his first ever No. 1 Billboard single (on the Rock Digital Songs Sales chart). It starts out as a song about the Kennedy assassination, but by the end - 17 minutes later — it’s become a playlist of songs that might help to heal our souls.
Dylan’s playlist casts a wide net. It includes Jelly Roll Morton, Dickey Betts and Moonlight Sonata. It includes Blue Sky, and Misty and Anything Goes and The Old Rugged Cross.
My own playlist these last few weeks has been heavy on traditional Irish music, some of it performed by the musicians I knew when our family lived in Cork in the late 1990s. I’m haunted by Cara Dillon singing The Flower of Magherally, and Planxty performing The Pursuit of Farmer Michael Hayes.
I don’t know why I want to listen to Irish music now. Maybe it’s because our years in Cork were some of the happiest of our lives. Every day seemed to hold the possibility of a new adventure.
Or maybe it’s because, back then, I did not know what the future would hold.
I want to go back to Cork and sit on a stool at the Gables pub on Douglas Street and listen to John Neville play guitar. I want to sit on a bar stool and drink a long, slow pint of Murphy’s. I want to go to my cousin Mary John Boylan’s house in Ballyferriter and walk beside the sea.
Terre Roche on Facebook Live
There are so many musicians live-streaming music now I can’t keep up with them all. Jon Cleary. Bela Fleck. Pussy Riot. Melissa Etheridge. Each one is a gift.
On Saturday morning, I see Terre Roche on Facebook Live. She sings, Only love can save you, and my eyes fill with tears of gratitude and bereavement.
I can’t wait till it’s over so I can start it again.
A song to thank people on the front lines
On television I see people in New York and London applauding health care workers as they end their shifts: doctors and nurses and support staff trudging home exhausted after their heartbreaking, lifesaving work.
I’m acutely aware that I am far from the front lines, and that my existence is made possible by an army of people who weren’t given the option to work from home: truckers, grocery store employees, UPS drivers, farmers. I want to stand in my front yard and sing out Sam and Dave’s I Thank You. No one would hear me, in this remote region of Maine. But I want to do it anyway.
John Prine on the radio
My conversation with the pink moon takes place just a few days after the anniversary of my father’s death — Easter Sunday, 1986.
When I return to bed, I fall asleep and dream I’m back in my parents’ house. In the dream, Mum tells me she’s been talking to my father’s ghost. I find this doubtful. Then the ghost shows up, and holds me in his arms.
While Dad’s ghost holds me, I have this profound sense of being loved. I am right where I am supposed to be, I am safe, and things are going to be OK.
Maybe this is what I’ve been yearning for: the sense I had when I was child that something stood between me and the terrors of the world.
In the morning, when I wake up from this dream, it’s as if my father is still in the room. That feeling of solace remains as I get out of bed, brush my hair, put in my hearing aids.
Down in the kitchen, John Prine is playing on the radio.
On the 10th, we have a combined Passover and Good Friday dinner. After the Seder, we sing Go Down Moses: “Tell old Pharaoh to let my people go.
By that day, 425,889 Americans have contracted coronavirus; 14,655 have died.
The day before, to a nation in mourning, Donald Trump tweeted that his ratings for his daily press briefings were higher than the finale of The Bachelor.
Sometimes it makes me a little sad, that the president of the United States is such a complete and total idiot.
We sing The Weight, by the Band: I pulled into Nazareth/ I was feeling ‘bout half past dead. And an old Irish tune, She Moved Through the Fair.
One by one I hear the voices of the other members of my family joining in: Ezra, Deirdre, Zai, Uncle Todd. The dog comes over and lies down beneath the piano. Her tails thumps once against the floor.
The moon shines down. So long as this music lasts, I feel we are still safe.
Protect your heart
What songs are getting you through these days? I’d be glad to read your playlists. In the meantime: Wash your hands. Protect your heart.
— Jennifer Finney Boylan, a contributing opinion writer, is a professor of English at Barnard College. She is the author of the forthcoming “Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs.”
■ Murder Most Foul — Bob Dylan: Bob Dylan’s first original song release since 2012 is almost 17 minutes long. It’s a history lesson, but it’s also a meditation on the way music can help us understand — and make peace with - our troubled, and troubling, history.
■ The Flower of Margherally — Cara Dillon: Cara Dillon was a teenager when she first recorded this haunting song with her band Oige. There are moments in this when she sounds as if she’s singing from another world.
■ The Pursuit of Farmer Michael Hayes — Planxty: Christy Moore provides a geography lesson of Irish towns as he tells the story of a fugitive on the run. He outwits his pursuers in the end, makes his way to America, and concludes, “Now I’m in the land of liberty, a fig for all me foes.”
■ Only You Know How — The Roches: The song Terre Roche sang on her birthday this month on Facebook was originally on the Roches’ last studio album, “Moonswept,” in 2007.
■ I Thank You — Sam and Dave: I’ve listened to this song many times over the years as a way of expressing gratitude, most memorably on the night before we sold my mother’s house after her death in 2011. She’d lived there for 39 years. On the last night, our family lit a candle in the empty house and sang this tune.
■ Go Down Moses — Louis Armstrong: We sang this at the end of our Passover Seder. I like that the line, “Tell all Pharaohs to let my people go,” uses “Pharaohs” in the plural - making clear that there are a lot of Pharaohs in this world, and that we need to get free of all of them.
■ The Weight — The Band: I’ve played this tune in almost every band I’ve ever been in, and I never get tired of it. I always forget how much I love it. And also how long it is. I often forget the last verse.
■ She Moved Through the Fair — Sinead O’Connor: This ghost story always gives me the chills, and never more so than when Sinead O’Connor sings it.
■ When I Get to Heaven — John Prine: The night of the pink moon was the night John Prine died, and no one could ask for a better epitaph than this.: When I get to heaven, I’m going to shake God’s hand, and thank him for more blessings than one man can stand. Thanks, John.