Lazaretto

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By: 
Matt Geiger

There is an old Russian adage that people who are destined for the firing squad need not fear drowning. 

In the end, only one thing will get us, and all the thousands of other perceived threats we worried about during our rich and varied lives will ultimately fail to triumph over us. All these wolves that give pursuit will pull up short. All but one. 

There is also a famous parable about a poor beggar covered in oozing sores, probably a leper, who grovels for scraps that fall from a rich man’s table. His name is Lazarus, and from his name comes the term “lazaretto” or “lazaret.” A lazaretto was a quarantine station for maritime travelers, an island or ship where people at the end of a long journey would be locked up in isolation for a period before rejoining the general population. The crumbling ruins of old lazarettos still stand on islands off the coasts of the many countries that had bustling ports during the Age of Exploration. 

These days, it feels as if our homes have all been transformed into little lazarettos, into tiny islands from which we can see society but not quite walk its busy streets. In fact, these columns are starting to feel like dispatches from a weary sailor; journal entries about a voyage spent eating salted cod and swilling grog while the neck of my cabled blue sweater becomes threadbare and my beard sends out thick black tendrils as if a sea creature in search of light or land.

I keep this in mind as I and my tiny crew make our way through each day; that this is an adventure we are on, and when we arrive at our destination, it won’t be long before we look back on this and yearn for more excitement, more voyages and lazarettos and times that defy normality. I’m sure it was the same for those old explorers of the past. I’m sure they spent their voyages and their quarantines longing to return home. And I’m sure when they returned home, they longed for the adventures from which they had returned. 

Journeys are strange things, in that way. Always terrifying in the moment, but after it is all said and done they are the thing we look back on most fondly. One time, many years ago, my future wife and I were riding with a friend who was driving to a restaurant in Boston. I knew the location, while the driver did not. It was a 40-minute ride, and it seemed like every time we approached a side street, no matter how small or how dead its end clearly was, the driver would take her foot off the gas and position her hands on the wheel as if getting ready to turn. 

“Here?” she said each time. “Do I turn here?”

“No, you can keep going straight,” I’d say. 

“How about here?” she’d quickly counter. “Right here?”

“Not yet. It’s still about 20 minutes away.”

“Left here?”

“No…”

“What about Lakeman’s Lane?” 

“You can actually go straight until otherwise directed,” I said. “That might be easier than this.”

“So, turn right here?”

“You can just assume we aren’t turning until you hear something new…”

If you are lucky enough to have read The Lord Of The Rings, you know there is only one truly sad part of the story. It is not when the hobbits and people and elves and dwarves are scared by beasts or haunted by ghosts. It is not when they are thrown into violent battle. The sad part comes at the end, when the little hobbit whose story it all is tries to return home and finds he can no longer find normality, and he must leave again. Because once you have been on adventure, you are forever changed. 

In our middle age, many of us find ourselves worrying about the various ways we change. We are not the same as we once were, and we wonder if that’s bad. But to have changed is often merely a sign you have been on an adventure, just as coming home is a sign you once left. 

As we sit here in our own little lazarettos, modern versions of old things named after a character in an even older book, we do sometimes feel the hot breath of wolves at our heals, even in our seclusion. But again, that’s just part of any good adventure, running away from things, and to them, even when you are sitting still, waiting, to return to normal life. 

 

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