Urbi et Orbi

It’s hard to believe our COVID summer is already over. In New York, the weeks failed to coalesce as a season, and most people got sick of being told they should be either buying a house far, far away or pining for Italy while stuck in a state park.

The New York Times offered beautiful photos of empty Italian streets but also an update on how businesses in Capri and other Italian tourist destinations miss “the interaction, the energy, the optimism, the shopping style” of rich Americans. (Funny thing: New York City’s small businesses miss “the shopping style” of rich Americans too!)

I have to give the Times credit for continuing to make me feel excluded from its “we” regardless of a pandemic. As for Italy, the paper of record would have done better quoting Billy Collins, whose 1991 poem “Consolation” semi-ironically defends “the modest precinct of home”:

How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy this summer,
wandering it cities and ascending its torrid hilltowns.
How much better to cruise these local, native streets,
fully comprehending every roadsign and billboard
and all the sudden hand gestures of my compatriots.

For New York City residents still residing in New York City, there is a deeper connection with Italy. It’s like we were both left alone in pre-op, side by side on our gurneys, bonding over fears about the triple bypass we might not come out of.

It’s hard to forget the March 27 image of Pope Francis delivering his Easter Urbi et Orbi blessing—“the city and the world”—from the empty St. Peter’s Square. You have this solitary figure in white, dwarfed by unpopulated space, warning the world against losing touch with the things that nourish people’s souls and thereby depriving us of “the antibodies we need to confront adversity.”

The photos by Guglielmo Mangiapane are striking—white figure under lamplight within a vast darkness, like a pair of illuminated Esso pumps somewhere in the desert of a Spielberg movie, or maybe Atticus Finch with his floor lamp in front of the county jail. Contemplating the misalignment of consumable space on Earth reminded me of the singer Beck saying that his album Hyperspace was about abundance and the internet. This ethereal image of the Pope on Easter was the very opposite of whatever visual impression I might form about internet abundance. The solitary Pope suggested the dire unbalance of resources when the world was caught standing still. The abundance had settled in different places, but for this small portal of time, every global inhabitant was equally deprived of a sense of wellbeing.

I also remember thinking how Marie Kondo would have approved of the scene’s decluttered esthetics, for on March 20, the Times had thought it important to ask her how she had spent the first week of lockdown in Los Angeles:

The first thing I did was light incense to purify the air and energy in my home. I went into the yard, stretched a bit and then picked some lemons. I made myself a cup of fresh lemon and hot water and then meditated to start my day. We just introduced some new self-care items in our online shop, and I’ve been using the meditation cushion.

Here’s the primary lesson about the immorality of abundance: it doesn’t have to consist of the ugly clutter of objects considered so horrid by people like Marie Kondo. It can consist of the weight of consumption and the weighted hyper-focus on self and one’s own tasteful family.

For many years before COVID, the United States led the globe in producing too much of everything—not just garbage waste, CO2, and plastic to fill oceans but an excess of consumable media and entertainment. There was too much too see, hear, and read, even though the population of readers was dwindling.

There’s a Grammarly ad in which a guy you don’t recognize from Adam says: “I write primarily all day, every day.” I kept seeing this guy and thinking, You’re no Joyce Carol Oates, buddy. And then next thing I know, there (like Marshall McLuhan in line for a movie) is Joyce Carol Oates plugging Grammarly, the Princeton gig and episodic novel-writing having apparently not worked out one hundred percent.

For a couple decades, proliferating American television concepts came at you like garment racks in Zara stores, where the objective for waiting in the dressing room line is to find out if you need a different size before everything in the store is replaced with new merchandise.

But of course these perceptions of abundance only mask the reality of deprivation in terms of what actually counts for wellbeing: healthcare, housing, and wages.

You can rely on the New York Times to carry the water for its most coveted readership by using the euphemism of “space” to describe the rationale for job-secure white people joining the real estate frenzy up the Hudson. It’s simply because your kids need a yard, not the prospect that New York City property will tank if the superrich don’t come back and the streets are overrun by the poors.

I took the Pope’s “city and the world” blessing as if he’d flung the incense canister directly at New York. Dangerously dense immigrant neighborhoods on 57th in Queens, blocks of empty billionaires’ apartments on 57th in Manhattan—we had the extremes of “abundance” covered.

In June, Francis warned against falling back into making “individualism the guiding principle of society” after the pandemic has passed: “It is easy to quickly forget that we need others, someone to take care of us to give us courage.”

In terms of Urbi et Natio, Americans are not doing a good job of taking care of one another. That’s because decades of abundance for some and deprivation for many others have left us with a toxic imbalance, a place where courage is difficult to cultivate. “The land of the free” still applies to many, mostly white Americans.

But as Francis knows, the brave people who call America home are still waiting for a voice. §