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Stravinsky, March Madness, And the Coronavirus Pandemic

On Thursday, March 12, within a five-minute span, I received three big pieces of news: my youngest son’s school was going to close due to a coronavirus case in the district; the Archdiocese of New York was closing its schools to avoid spreading the virus; and the New York Philharmonic decided to cancel all its performances for a week. My wife and I had already purchased tickets — they were going to play the 1911 version of Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka, the original score he wrote for the famous ballet.

Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes performed the premiere in June 1911. Michel Fokin had created the choreography and the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky danced the role of Petrushka that night. When it comes to performances, one could hardly do better than that.

Two years later, Stravinsky ate some bad oysters and contracted typhoid fever. He spent six weeks in bed. In 1914, World War I had just started and he decided to go to Switzerland with his family for the winter. But the war wouldn’t finish fast — and then came the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, and the Communist regime took away all his properties. Stravinsky never went home again.

Petrushka, the main character of the ballet, is a puppet. I can’t help but think that Stravinsky, soon after composing it, would be a marionette too, in the hands of typhoid fever and then the revolution. In three years, he would lose his health, his home, his properties, his country and his entire way of life.

And maybe Stravinsky was not the only marionette. That same afternoon last week, a cascade of bad news jumped from my computer screen. The NBA canceled the season, the MLB suspended spring training, and New York City declared a state of emergency. The NCAA also canceled March Madness during that mad afternoon. At the same moment, a headline in CNN’s Business section read “The Bull Market Is Dead.”

The night before, President Trump had declared a travel ban from Europe. The Drudge Report main page screamed in all caps: “World on Edge – Panic After Travel Ban – Escape From Europe.” “U.S. Stocks Have Their Worst Day Since 1987 Crash,” was the main headline on The New York Times website.

“America’s way of life changes indefinitely,” CNN proclaimed. And it felt exactly true.

We may feel like marionettes to this pandemic. Our lives have been turned upside down, and every hour the situation changes again. We are all asking, “What is going to happen next?”

Albert Camus, in his novel “The Plague,” describes it: “Michel’s death marked, one might say, the end of the first period, that of bewildering portents, and the beginning of another, relatively more trying, in which the perplexity of the early days gave place to panic.”

There’s a short distance between feeling like a marionette and feeling massive panic. While the coronavirus is not, by any measure, the bubonic plague described by Camus, we are tempted to panic and despair. We shouldn’t. All we take for granted is always at risk. Like Stravinsky, we are always half a dozen bad oysters away from agony.

We, as Christians, are supposed to know that we are always in God’s hands. But we tend to just realize it when things get dicey. Of course, we worry and suffer like everybody else. Jesus himself cried for his friend Lazarus when he heard Lazarus was dead. But our faith teaches us that our lives have meaning and purpose. The randomness of a pandemic cannot erase that notion. Christians are “contractually required” to show courage and solidarity in a situation like this. We should pray to be able to behave as Christians in the middle of this pandemic as much as we pray for our health and the well-being of the people we love. We shouldn’t lose our heads during this March madness. Instead, we need to pray and be brave.

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