Photo credit: Zach Bonnell
A few months ago, my wife and I took our 11-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son to see Come From Away at the Durham Performing Arts Center. Before going, all I knew about the show was that it told the story of the planes that were diverted to Newfoundland when the tragedy of 9/11 shut down the US airspace. As I learned after the amazing performance with cast members playing multiple parts with no intermission, it was that, but also so much more.
I’ve been thinking about the major theme of community togetherness from Come From Away a lot over the past few days of isolation and social distancing, and not just because the soundtrack seems to be on repeat in our house.
The diverted passengers almost doubled the size of the small town of Gander and the community responded with donations of food, shelter, and transportation. In that time of fear and confusion, these Canadian citizens responded to their better angels and made their guests as comfortable as possible. Instead of falling prey to any number of negative ways this could go, they instead recognized that they were more similar than they were different.
The very nature of air travel and the fact that the flights that landed in Gander from all over the world perfectly illustrated the interconnected nature of the world. Planes take off and they have to land somewhere. Everyone on the plane puts their trust in the pilots, air traffic control tower personnel, and ground crew. These fundamental truths were what the islanders–as the Newfoundlanders called themselves–recognized even as they shared little in common with the passengers except the small town they were occupying together and their humanity.
Compared to 9/11 which descended on us with an unsettling speed and then burned for days, this COVID-19 pandemic and particularly the US response has been more akin to boiling a frog. All of the economic, political, and infrastructure decisions that have been made at a macro level for generations have been warming the water as many of us blithely swam around the pot. And now we’re starting to notice that water is getting too hot for our comfort and we know it’s going to boil over, throwing hot water and boiled frog everywhere around the kitchen. We just don’t know when.
Still, despite these differences, both 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted our interconnectedness as well as the depths of humanity.
The COVID-19 virus is a physical manifestation of our interconnectedness. The virus can’t travel by itself, so the only way it’s been able to travel from its point of origination halfway across the world to my rather small community in North Carolina is the connections between people. Connections that we may have taken for granted, especially since social distancing began.
In our community of Durham, NC, community members are taking steps to minimize the impact on local businesses by identifying ways to support them that still allow for social distancing. Whether that is purchasing coffee from one of our local roasters or creating spreadsheets where community members can identify restaurants offering takeout and delivery to ensuring that our local schoolkids get fed even though school is cancelled, we are coming together in ways that many couldn’t have anticipated.
If we can take ourselves back to the first few hours, days, and weeks after 9/11, they were some of the scariest, confusing, times of many of our lives, even if we were geographically far from the impacted areas. And yet that time was also where our country showed tremendous resilience, courage, and community.
And birthed out of those contrasting feelings came Come From Away. Looking at Come From Away in this context helps me see the performance for what it is: art. Art has always served as a critical tool in helping people to cope with tremendous challenges while also honoring those who are doing the yeoman’s work to help others.
While we don’t yet know the global health, financial, and psychological impact of COVID-19 will be, I can only hope that we can channel some of the same power that those brave souls who played parts of the larger 9/11 response and contribute art that will help us honor, appreciate, and mourn everyone and everything we lost.
As I settled into my seat a few months ago to watch Come From Away, I still didn’t know what the title referred to. Turns out it’s what Newfoundlanders call those who weren’t born there that end up on their remote island. The 7,000 plane people were all “come from aways” who found out that indeed “a candle’s in the window and the kettle’s always on.”
And in introducing rocky and isolated Newfoundland to the audience in the opening song, “Welcome to the Rock,” the cast sets the tone for that time after 9/11 and still holds true now as we wrestle with COVID-19: “Welcome to the land where we lost our loved ones/And we said, we will still go on!”
Yes, we will.