This past Wednesday marked the one year anniversary of my hometown going into lockdown. It was Lent then, it is Lent now, and every step forward comes with warnings from public officials that we are not out of the woods yet.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel, hope at the sight of Spring, and what survivors of the pandemic face next – whether survivors of physical, financial, or emotional suffering – is a lazarean question: having been saved from death, how should one now live? As we approach reopening and contemplate both personal and collective healing, Katherine Ann Porter’s novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939) can help us to answer that question, giving us a timely reflection on the value of life, regardless of the terms.
Set during October and November of 1918 in an unnamed American town, the story chronicles a young woman’s month-long struggle against the Spanish influenza, which claimed over 600,000 American lives and 50 million worldwide, further adding to the already devastating death toll of World War I. Miranda is an unremarkable heroine but her insignificance and ordinariness are precisely what make her such a relatable character. At twenty-four, she barely scrapes by a living as a theater critic for a local newspaper. She rents a room in a boarding house, eats in cheap diners, smokes countless cigarettes, worries about money, and, like so many young women her age, is going out with a freshly uniformed soldier who is waiting to be deployed to the Western Front.
Like anyone during a global pandemic, not to mention a world war, she is merely one of millions trying to get by, doing the best she can to live and stay alive. In the grand scheme of creation, her life is a speck, but, by compelling us to care about what happens to Miranda, Porter subtly reminds her readers that life is good and worth having, no matter the person or their circumstances.
As she lies bedridden with influenza, (her symptoms strikingly similar to some of those of COVID-19: excruciating headaches, loss of smell, mental fog, debilitating fever, and exhaustion) waiting two days for an ambulance due to the surge in cases, she tells her beau, Adam, “I just lived and never thought about it.” But despite the hardship and mediocrity of her life, she would be “glad enough” to have it back, even with no improvements.
Faced with death and the prospect of not living at all, Miranda grasps at what makes life worth living in the first place. “Don’t you love being alive?” she asks Adam, whose tender bedside care will save her life at the cost of his own. “Don’t you love weather and the colors at different times of day, and all the sounds and noises like children screaming in the next lot, and automobile horns and little bands playing in the street and the smell of food cooking?” None of the things she mentions have any material or practical worth, but practicality is exactly what Miranda is no longer worried about as she contemplates death. Everyone has struggles and failures, banal routines and trivial pleasures.
It is not what we do that matters so much as what is, without our doing anything at all – even the poor and disadvantaged can hear the birds sing, feel the sun’s warmth, or see the stars shine. From her little room, in humble recognition that, by the world’s standards, her life is nothing impressive, Miranda is able to see that life itself is abundant, intrinsically good.
After finally receiving medical attention, Miranda spends nearly a month in the hospital slipping in and out of consciousness, delirious with fever, tirelessly cared for by a kind nurse. Porter invites us into Miranda’s stream of consciousness and allows us to see her beatific vision as she wavers on the threshold of eternity: the faces of all the people she has ever known “transfigured, each in its own beauty, beyond what she remembered of them, their eyes were clear and untroubled as good weather, and they cast no shadows. They were pure identities.”
With her compelling prose, Porter is able to craft a nuanced perspective on death and life. She doesn’t oversimplify death as bad and life as good, or life as pain and death as release. Instead of being a qualitative dilemma, life vs. death is a question of timing. Just as Miranda’s subconscious is readying to consent to death, she is called back to earthly life. For what purpose we do not know, except that she has left something “unfinished”.
Symbolically, she returns to consciousness to the sound of cheering in the streets. It is a beautiful day outside, the Armistice has been signed, and her temporary victory over Death coincides with the temporary peace the world will enjoy until the next war, the next pandemic.
Given a second chance, does Miranda live her life differently? What did Lazarus do after he was called back to life? We do not know for certain, but Porter’s insight is that the survivor’s life is not meant to be extraordinary but grateful. Readers are not told what happens to Miranda after she is discharged from the hospital, though we learn she needs a walking stick and that her loving Adam himself died from the influenza shortly after she went to the hospital. It seems she will pick up the pieces by returning to her old room, her old job, and will go on much as she did before, though with an altered perspective. “I shall be glad when I hear that someone I know has escaped from death. I shall visit the escaped ones and help them dress and tell them how lucky they are, and how lucky I am still to have them.”
There is no indication that Miranda’s life will be easier or better than before. Perhaps it will even be more difficult due to the aftereffects of the illness and the grief of losing a loved one, and yet she will go on living with deeper appreciation for life as a gift – an appreciation she will share with others. “No more war, no more plague…Now there would be time for everything.” No more war or plague, for now that is; nothing but time, until our time is up, but the temporality of earthly resurrection is irrelevant to the resurrected because to be at all is cause for joy, no matter the conditions.
When everything shut down a year ago, we were made to reconsider what was essential and nonessential in our daily lives. As it turns out, most of what we are used to having and doing was nonessential, and having and doing less was a humbling reminder that being alive is blessing enough. Not when things go how we expect or want them to, not because we enjoy the freedom to do this or that, but because life is and continues to be good, regardless of what is happening in the world. And even in the darkest times, we are given so much more than merely breath: the beauty of creation, human kindness, like that of Miranda’s devoted nurse, divine love, like Adam’s self-sacrifice. To be and to belong to Being is to share in abundance, always.
How should we live having survived COVID-19? Pale Horse, Pale Rider suggests a simple answer: with gratitude.
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