Journal 2 : It Did Not Just Go Away
May 15 - July 4, 2020
Art Never Dies
In art, we can find a humbling sort of wisdom. We see themes and ideas repeat over many lifetimes . . . our lives on this earth will always be part of something bigger. — Sonny Rollins
The pandemic, staggering into month three. I increasingly felt the need to push myself creatively, to stoke the fire within. It may have just been the circumstances, the relative isolation, the lack of the tactile, but those inner embers had blown up into a three-alarm blaze. It was, for sure, rolling out of having recognized the moment for all of its most fucked-up tonnage and historical weight (atonal grating things often found in tandem). It was no new thing, this arms out “get on with it” urging of self. I had had this thought bobbing about the rolling boil of consciousness since I could recall. A single line journal entry from about 15 years ago, having stuck in my head since and available in just such moments, says it plain, true. A chipped exasperated spike, I wrote:
Here, now, the miracle of living so so obvious, infection and mortality out there and spreading. Too close, too close. The seconds ticking away, a hammer-clang immediacy. Here, now. And I had damned well do something meaningful with it . . . Get on with it!
The tone was set in the first paragraph of that day’s entry, “Every day: create. Every day: try something in the moment.” The heightened sense of the instant was revealing nooks and niches that were always there, but had fallen outside the normal light of day, the ability to see it clearly from within the normal thrum and rush of before times’ busy-ness. But this, now, the heightened sense aiming flashlights into dark corners, the unknown reservoirs of things needing attention, of national possibility unrealized. All of it: anxious, eager. There was the gnawing sense that it was right there in front of my face, in front of our national eyes, things neglected, things having not lived up to their promise: my creative output, my nation asleep at the wheel. This required urgent action, things long shoved into recesses for their seeming incurability, the everyday headache they would bring, the crude reveal of who we actually were as a people, as humans. We were not living up to our potential. I was not living up to my potential. This here and now was a time for art, for creative light to flood in and step up. Its tried-true ability / utility to shine light into corners, to illuminate in a way that allows a side entrance into difficult subject matter—personal, national—showing where and how light can enter, reveal, cleanse, remake.
Of course creativity and art could do this. It would make the most of this moment that it could. It already was. We could see the lid gurgling atop a nation locked down, locked up, bored, fed up. The creative use of time and talent underwritten by effort and ingenuity. A guy created an amazing playground for his kids out of hardwood lying about his property, having used nothing but a chainsaw. Photographers criss-crossing the country: four wheels, tents, recording the isolation, the beauty within it and just at its periphery. Musical groups recording in separation, creating the unity and synch of song after-the-fact with post-production software. My own band, our weekly practice night a rarely missed ritual—its moon-howl therapy, its recharging of the bone-bag batteries having just entered its twenty-second year—blown up. But, how we quickly sub’d in weekly video hangouts (something not even fathomable to those isolated in 1918). And this, followed by our own ambitious recording project: one member at a time, one track at a time, record and upload the digital master, hand it off to the next, and then the next, until the song is finished. . . . Art is the ultimate survivor. It has survived the purges and partisans, the puritans and executioners, the small, the petty, and all those come-and-go egos humanity must endure and has long endured. Art has survived wars, plagues, and fanatics, the church and the putsch. It has outlived them all. Art will never die.
But at that moment, there was legitimate worry about so much art in the moment dying. All of the shuttered venues: all of the live music, comedy / improv troupes, dance, theater; all of the movie theatres, the chains and independents; all of the symphonies and ensembles and operas and choirs; all of the museums large, small, in-between. It was a cultural wipe-out in the making, the hit landing hard on ventures whose profit is not measured in massive fortunes, but the flush of creating a rich creative world worth living in. There are the brain numb down through history, and to this day, that would dismiss the arts as “not real work.” And this, as they listen to music on their way to work, watch Netflix at the end of their days of work, consuming art as if another bag of chips. It has always been so. And yet, what is the first thing marauding conquering hordes have done throughout history? Destroy the culture of the vanquished. Destroy the heart of the vanquished by appropriating their culture. Kill culture and you kill the soul of a people. In step (if in a less dramatic slow-drip frame), allow the die-off of culture and you are but a pallbearer for the soul of society. What’s the point if the only point is money-making and bill paying? Art is the sun that clears out the grey. It is the soft halide glow of the moon in the bone-dense dark. It is the light we seek, if not fully recognizing that fact. It is as indispensable as clean water, a roof over your head. It is the heartbeat of any nation professing to own greatness.
In the low depths of the Great Depression, the FDR administration rolled out the massive Works Progress Administration. A New Deal shovel-ready program designed to shock life back into private enterprise having flatlined, to curb the mass unemployment and suffering (something here again, too close, too close), the WPA included a sub-project: Federal Project One. “Federal One” was a direct work relief program that provided not only a stage and a voice, but a living for unemployed musicians, writers, painters, and actors. It stands, still, as the most direct significant institutional support the American government (voice of We, The People) has ever considered. Many decried the expense then. “Get a real job,” many said. And then they went right out to attend one of the program’s thousands of musical and theatrical performances staged in cities, suburbs, and rural blink-and-miss-it towns across the country; they went right out and bought one of the 48 state or hundreds of other territorial, city, and regional American Guide tour books, mostly hard-bound guides (some 300+ pages in length including fold-out auto-tour maps) that flowed out of the prodigious Federal Writers’ Project; they went right on without missing a beat to fix pride to the countless civic and post-office wall murals laboriously painted by artists with no other outlet for the skill-set that defined them as individuals. At a bucket-drop 1% of the WPA’s average annual budget, the vast scope of creative output over its eight years in existence places Federal One atop, if not alone on top of the most cost-effective government programs in American history. . . . If we cared about the state of our national soul, we must care about art. Would we initiate a “Federal One 2020?” Could we? . . . Get a real job. Not real work.
Some cultivate their innate abilities to become carpenters or machinists. Some have all the skills required to find steady work in human resources or managing mid-sized companies that makes parts for cars, airplanes, shipping. Some have the frame of build and will to be shrimpers or to farm peanuts. Friends of mine have run restaurants, a few master chefs sprinkled in. In my family alone there are marketers and project managers, electricians and childcare professionals, account executives, an actual executive, engineers and computer scientists (including at least one actual “rocket scientist”), those having served in clerical roles, those working retail, teachers and counselors, a used car buyer, a boiler technician, a lawyer, a postman. A grandfather and two of my cousins gave the title “professional musician” a shot. They were both successful, though their careers in the arts were short-lived, all moving on to “more steady” work. For they found, as so many do, that in step with being a professional athlete, being a professional in the arts is a hard gig. There is little in place to ease the down-turn of fortunes in professions deemed, somehow, “not real work.” And though the pandemic had made clear that we do not, and may not be able to live without the output of creative artists, still, the not infrequent claim: “get a real job.” It is a fatally uninformed view most often falling out of those who have never taken such a risk, have no idea of the raw financial exposure and monastic fortitude required to take such a leap, opting instead to throw weak-kneed shade at those who do and fail. It seems more of jealousy than a realistic op-ed on “legitimate” work, a leveling tactic by those unable and unwilling to understand what makes fellow citizens who happen to be artists tick.
Some have all the innate skills to take up plumbing or programming. Others are artists. And the irony of the mentioned slam is that to be a pro athlete or a professional in the arts, you have to dedicate yourself with near, if not outright obsessive zeal. You have to work harder and longer and for less than the average project manager or general contractor, if only because we are a country that—still—considers such professionalism to be novelty work. Situations and innate skills honed over time deliver ways to make a living. Some have HVAC repair. Some have a plumb account services job or a position in forestry / natural resource management available to them. Some have art. And being forced to wait tables, work retail, deliver packages, is sidebar to the core skills of a person whose product is creativity. No thinking person would say that a hard-working dedicated sous chef should be a full-time grocery store shelf stocker / part-time sous chef. Yet that was precisely the average working artist’s lot in America, 2020.
And then, this thing gut-punching the professional creative arts harder than any other industry save maybe travel, restaurant services, event planners / rentals. Art would survive, but many careers in the arts might not . . . Would we? Could we? . . . Limping on into the third month of this mess, the virus calling the shots, there was that one thing gurgling up as painfully clear: as with the application of craft in professional sport, we could not do without the application of skill in music, theatre, art. Harry Hopkins, the director of the WPA (and by extension executive director of Federal One) said it true: “artists have to eat too.”
The Actors Fund had picked up its megaphone and was reminding us all not to forget the performing arts. The rallying cry went up from the National Association of Independent Venues, asking: would we “Save Our Stages”? Would the heightened sense of a stricken moment, one having already come wrapped inside a fraught fractured real, the nation toying absent-mindedly with autocratic solutions to democratic problems, could we see through all of the quaking and clack-clacketing-along to reframe what seemed, now, to be for all times obvious: That we cannot let art die. That we are soul dead without art. That letting the livelihoods of project managers and cabinetmakers and distillers and civil engineers and warehouse workers and all the thousands on thousands of other ways to work evaporate for lack of logistical and organizational focus, that demanding the work of politics does something beyond the sugar rush of its performative power mirage trappings (and how about starting with giving their all towards containing the fucking virus, let’s never lose sight of that fact) . . . that for all of these thousands and thousands of ways to work, we could, we should, add creative artists to that immense varied list and pledge to do what we must as individuals—as a nation, a culture—to save as many jobs in the creative arts as was humanly possible? We cannot know the all of what makes fellow citizens tick. But we can support their efforts to add to the world in pursuing their craft. That was where we were by mid-May. And creative artists were in the process of losing their careers, if not their shirts, as well.
I had no immediate logistical, political, or economic solutions. Few did. But I was every day mourning for those things of the immense varied national soul that we might lose along with all the actual souls we were losing every day. Here was the raw nerve reveal that ran through that day’s entry. All I had was the ability to push myself—a long-aspiring, occasionally financially successful creative artist—to work harder than before: to get to it. What did I have to lose? Why would I stick to a more conservative predictable path? This thing, staggering into month three, having recognized the trembling totality of this instant, why—how—could I hold back?
Go big. Create. Think beyond what I might have thought possible, what “normal times” had consumed in money-making, bill paying, the drone-on routine busy-ness of our unrelenting modern schedules. Go for it now. Now. Every morning, document this bizarre alternate world we had found ourselves in. Just get it down, capture the emotional now. I could come back to it later, pull out the central drift, try to make sense of it. In light of art withering all around us, here was my answer: See to your art. Document this moment. Do it with a creative slant. Rip quotes from headlines, dig out the themes hiding within. Be opinionated. “Stick to your guns,” I thought. But do so while making sure it was all lit from beneath by compassionate common sense . . . Don’t forget to be nice. . . . There was more than one way to interpret common sense in the moment, but there could be no mistaking the ultimate inevitable need to go about self-preservation with compassion and selfless respect, to go about both until it hurt, to look out for others as we all made our way through.
So immense. So much unknown. Beyond platitudes and prognostication and the sudden abundance of small frail egos. I would have to check mine at the door . . . Could I? I could push something meaningful into the world . . . Would I? I could and would attempt to do so through art. Every day: create art. Every day: work at compassion. And given the heightened sense of all things right then, the totality of it all, I felt not just released to do so in a way that the busy-ness of before times had invariably interrupted, I felt compelled to do so. All things that once stood in the way had fallen away. There was no time to lose. Reshape and remake my own existence around a driven creative pace stoked by the warmth of compassion, of caring, of giving a shit. It was a way to live. And in the midst of all the terrible tragic weirdness, that thought, that goal, settled my concussed mind. Art will never die. Make sure that this was so. Attend to your art.
Movie theatres are largely shut down. Concerts are on hiatus. Broadway has gone dark. The pandemic has turned the world of culture on its head. At the same time, the capacities of art—to soothe, to diagnose, to help make sense of these times—have never been more apparent. — The Atlantic Daily e-newsletter
U.S. Cases: 1.8 Million / U.S. Deaths: 106,195 — as of June 2, 2020
Yesterday was #blackout, the widespread posting of all-black squares as social media avatars in solidarity. It struck me that almost all of the ones I had seen were posted by whites. Good, I suppose. Great, really. But that I did not have more black friends.
Back in April there had been no police tanks or violent escalation stoked by the police or security guards of any sort, though “freedom loving Americans” (self-titled so that we can tell them apart from those Americans that apparently care not for freedom) all aggrieved and put upon by the attempts of state and local governments to halt an un-contained contagion (if in the heat of mass infections and death having over-stepped, mandates in need of refining, fine-tuning) showed up with rifles and in camo-fatigues and looked very serious. Though, in the end it did not seem all that serious, standing around yelling and cheering and live-streaming everything with camera phones as they paraded about menacingly (but not really) with semi-automatic weapons (“what? they were following proper trigger finger discipline”), even taking over a state capitol building, if briefly. There was a distinct lack of the riot / military-gear clad escalation by way of appearance alone, or any noticeable law enforcement presence at all, in fact. It came off as, almost, whimsical? As if to say: “Hey, look what we can get away with.”
That previous Monday, the president had throngs of unarmed and peaceful, if earnest, loud, and serious, protestors about Lafayette Square in front of the White House cleared with flash grenades and pepper-spray bombs so that he could stage a photo-op of him holding a Bible, a holy volume he had certainly never read, in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church in D.C. Slide that scene in alongside the April lockdown protests of almost all white people having gone down with hardly a traffic cop in sight and so continued the black experience in America, the brown experience in America, the experience of all those viewed by some—still, today—as “others” in America; not forgetting all those not “colored” Americans who would stoop to support their wanting things to be better. . . . Flash, bang, repeat.
And I could count only a handful of my friends who were not white. I did not feel guilty about this, but only found myself lamenting the divide having been so great across my life as to yield but a handful of “others” that I could consider “friend.” A life lived inside the bubbles that our culture had created for me long before I was on the scene, this life spent inside the confines to which I was relegated by matter of my skin tone. I had no grand thought on this. I wished that I did. All I had was to think over how stark that seemed across all of my life to this moment in time: how invisible one experience can be from another experience, how we all experience this life in a hyper-personal way based on what is put in front of us and what we put there. All of this, while realizing that what I could “put in front of me” was the product of a whole other plane of freedom (from want, from bigotry, from gender-bias, from barriers to opportunity, from living life on my own terms, etc. etc.) than those many “others” who were after the same basic things.
I grew up white, surrounded by whiteness and all that centuries of white primacy had secured for that experience. A lot of it was revolutionary, world-changing and for the better; exceptional, even. It was easy for me to accept and be indoctrinated by such views of my home country growing up. It had treated me pretty well, indeed. I was a white kid that grew up inside a secure white life. I was rarely surrounded by the black experience. And then, once I was (and still am, a resident of DeKalb County / Atlanta, GA) I could confidently dub myself among the more enlightened set on race, how as a form of societal sorting it is preposterous and fracturing, tribal and hateful. Over time, I would come to know the appalling alongside the exceptional about my home country, the violent exclusivity alongside world-changing achievements that made things better. I came to understand just how brute the violence and just how precious (and fragile) were the victories of those more expansive freedoms that had been secured. It had come at a very steep price and often in the face of the vile opposition of sadistic bigots. I was aware of all of that. I wrote in an entry margin: “Race is a myth, and one of the shittiest ones at that.” I had come to know well the deep wounds in bodies and blood and soul that systemic racism had sucked from American marrow. And yet, I did not—and do not—know shit about the black experience.
I knew of the 400+ years of institutions sculpted by racism that had, and does, imperil the black life in America simply due to its blackness. I knew of this and to a high-degree the specific horrific history: the convict-lease system, the redlining, the Emmitt Tills, the lynchings, murder, and rape. But this was an academic, not visceral, knowledge. I did not know and do not know shit about “blackness.” How the extractive trauma of centuries of slavery and bigotry settles over generation after generation after generation, post-traumatizing an entire new generation before they are even born: the ugly sub-humanity that was defined and often justified using the very same Bible held up during that photo-op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church—how it was enforced by a bigoted violence that was in every way VERY American. The result of this: a constrained and anxious mental pinball that accompanies every step for those not white, those most definitely black. The thundercloud of mortal violence hovering, hinted at, inferred, often delivered—and often with little consequence—against the black body. How would I, how could I know any of this? Even if I had more black friends and friends of color, and engaged those black friends and friends of color on this difficult fraught subject, how the fuck would I know even an ounce of it? I grew up in white America. I was raised to be respectful and inclusive and to deny prejudice, sure. And yet, despite those active steps, I knew nothing about Black America.
I had heard it said by a contemporary celebrity of color that a reason blacks smoke so much pot is due to that inherited and lived through PTSD. Therapy, constantly; this place, this country that often denies basic access to healthcare, mental or physical, as a matter of course—a choice made. . . . And then, C19. Only months in and it was already clear that this was hitting communities of color much harder. This pandemic (as all pandemics?) seeking out and exploiting those that were already weak and in poor health and strained by a myriad of stressors, segments of the American population that for reasons of class, or racism, or both, are outright fucked because of their class and their race—because of who they are.
I was a white boy born when being a white boy was about the most beneficial thing an average human on down the long scroll of history could have lucked into. I was born into a place and position that landed me in a slot above almost all other humans who have ever lived: coming into this world as a white male in 1970 to a financially-secure white family living in the United States of America. I view this, increasingly, as the signal stroke of great fortune that it is. But—but—to do it full justice, I could not measure that lucky stroke as anything outside the frame of what it is: a position of privilege, one that I damn well had to do something with outside of and beyond myself and my tidy little universe of wants, needs, desires. Only these questions remained: Would I? Could I?
I could not look at how my parents lived their lives and fault them for living their lives as secure opportunity-rich white Americans. If participating in a system systemically unfair, they were not consciously choosing to uphold the unfairness. They just knew nothing of it, as I knew nothing of it (and to a larger degree can never know anything of it). One can say that ignorance is no excuse, and that would be right, but . . . was that on them? Was it on me? Sort of? Is there no difference between active knowing participation in a purposefully racist system and participating in a system that is racist but does not readily appear to be to those within its bubbles of security, ones that are rich with opportunity and the financial advancement that such security from want and bigotry provides? Well, it would seem that was what the country was right then weighing. And that was fair. And it is fair to call unwitting participants in a racist system participants nonetheless. But, what of those who were not consciously racist, and those who did not espouse any such thing. . . and, well. . . . I did not know. I did not have any thorough answers and could never know what it was like to live a life under-served, or outright unserved, all the daily wounds and trauma of subpar healthcare, subpar nutritional options, subpar housing options (and the often toxic environmental conditions of areas where they put up such housing), the subpar educational and economic opportunities—all choices made.
This, then, having funneled tragically to this point in time and in more ways than one. It had led directly to a segment of Americans (who, I have to guess, prefer freedom too), who found themselves unhealthy at least in part by design, having been set up over decades, centuries, to be wiped out at a far greater clip than the average white American by a roar-through novel coronavirus. Here was a system having been designed and enforced by choices made serving up a perfect breeding ground for a pathogen to do its bloody work. This, as if one final racist insult. And on top of the all of that, racist cops and white racists exercising vigilante “justice” here in the twenty-first century, armed and ignorant white people suspicious of blacks killing young black people over minor offenses, or mistaken identity, or nothing at all, heated situations that would almost never end up in the death of a young white person. Could we . . . ever?
Was I racist for having been brought up participating in a system that produced this? Did it require that I somehow atone? I did not think that was it. The system has done other things that were not this and do, seem, well, good? White people are not monolithic. Black people are not monolithic. We are physiologically the same walking talking bodily containers of blood and heart and soul. We are 99% exactly the same. And yet, we still—still—cannot fully overcome the 1% of tribal instinct that renders the 99% irrelevant. Acknowledge my own participation in a system inherently racist? Certainly, but with caveats. Atone for the actions of others? Atone for racist assholes? Fuck no and fuck them. But, even if I called on myself to do and be better, would the actions of one white man who had, without question, benefitted big time from such a system matter? The question itself hurt my brain for all its pretzeling contortion around just how hard this seemed; and this was a conversation of one that I was having only with myself.
Would my actions matter? I had to believe yes, if only due to it being better than nothing. There would still be a world full of assholes, and I had no answers on how to cure a world full of systemic assholes, especially all the racist ones. I did not feel a need to atone for that so much as acknowledging “my poor power to add or detract” to the work at hand and simply try to be better than my parents’ and grandparents’ were in their present, and be better than I had been in my past to that point. And I should do this if only for the sake of the present and future. It was what I had. Would history judge me harshly for that being all I felt I had? Maybe. Probably. It would almost certainly judge me harshly, and most likely deservedly so, for something if not that. (From 2120, someone will look back and they will say: “Wait now, they did what in 2020?”) But, that was all I had in the moment: a call to be and do better. It did not seem insignificant . . . but . . .
Protesters ignored Tuesday’s 7 p.m. curfew in D.C., a large group gathering and taking a knee in front of the White House. — NBC
Most Negroes cannot risk assuming that the humanity of white people is more real to them than their color. And this leads, imperceptibly but inevitably, to a state of mind in which, having long ago learned to expect the worst, one finds it very easy to believe the worst. — James Baldwin, Letter From a Region in My Mind
Did my own generation—GENERATION X—fail to move the needle? Did we accomplish much? If no, it did not seem for lack of desire; but only because for all our youthful railing against the systems and the institutions, we did seem go along with them all in the end. — Note to Self
The Great Influenza of 1918-1920, coupled with Allied victory in World War I, was an immense seismic rocking of the world order, and America’s “order” within it. And in its wake this country did two things: took firm hold of its place at the table of global power—and—fell into the most overtly xenophobic moment in the country’s history beyond the nineteenth-century.
And here we were, this most unexpected twist: Was “our pandemic” setting up to roll out the exact opposite America as had bled out of “their pandemic,” what can only be viewed by the honest as the bloody racist-as-fuck 1920s? It was far too early to tell how this would end, the pandemic, the protests.
Systemic societal retrenchment back-sliding into an often bloodthirsty assertion of “order” (executed by “law” and, or lawlessness where it was more convenient) ran over 1920s America. It was the Jazz Age. It was also one of lockdown segregation, rampant lynching across the nation (not just in the South), and displays of white power super-spreading hate and fear—the later achieving its peak on August 8, 1925, as some 30,000 fully-robed / hooded Klansmen came together in Washington, D.C., and marched proudly down Pennsylvania Avenue. I had recently come across images of that day. They are shocking, but mainly for their not being that shocking. The rebirth of the KKK (its ceremonious reconstitution having occurred atop Stone Mountain, but a few miles down the road from where I sat pecking away at my keyboard), the cold murder wipeout of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the killing of blacks and browns without so much as a hint of consequence. Yes, we were decades on decades of progress away from that. But—but—if not probable, that some form of deep societal collapse was still, in our pandemic moment, possible . . . We would most likely muddle through. But that it could not be ruled out, completely. . . . Remote. Distant. Yet, for the first time in my fifty+ year life span, a thing.
Okay, there was that. But, how about seeing the cup as half-full: the more likely scenario being an inversion of the 1920s. America in 2020 was not America in 1920. We were better—way better. Still, we needed to get to better than this—way better. We were not “there” yet, not by a long shot. And here, this unexpected twist, the result of a grotesque camera-phone-streamed death—a lynching—one having tapped into ALL the others that had proceeded it, all the others that were not caught on live-stream but had proceeded it, all the wretched past full of lynchings and murder and “legal” law and order segregation, etc. etc., all the way back to August 1619, all of that: was all of that about to be buried for good, systemic change knocked into place by this moment and all the generations coming up behind mine?
I thought long and hard that day about my generation’s response, what we had been able to do. And what had we done? It seemed we had moved the needle towards better, somewhat, but for the wavering needle and its regression, its aggrieved revanchist backwards-to-the-future-ness, the lockstep brick-and-mortar systemic-ness still there, still firmly entrenched. And some of that was on some of us. If anything, we had grown too complacent once we could see complacency working in our favor. Systemic change was messy, unruly, occasionally lawless (while new laws are forming), and without order. But, it is always thus. It is John Lewis’s “good trouble.” It moves needles for good. And yet, had we, Gen X? It was hard to tell within all the public battles still raging after all the twenty or thirty years of my generation having had any manner of clout to deal the old order a blow; and in part for the lack of wanting to strike blows. But also for the inability to escape the still looming shadow of the generation directly proceeding our own, the raucous ideological and political field-salting that had come along with the Baby Boomers having never fully let go.
I felt regret for all of this, but stowed my tiny violin long enough to think: It is a time for the young to lead, and those older to follow. Guide, support, give wisdom if it was there to give; but mainly get the hell out of the way and fall in behind the lead ranks, those with the message, the mettle, and the bullhorn. Here was a moment for the young to change things and to do so now. Would it end in violence as it always had? As it did in 1992 and in 1968 and in the 1950s and in the 1920s and in the 1870s and the long tail violence that set its appalling course for its eventual (now?) oblivion in August of 1619? Would this all end in the usual course rebuttal flying its blood-soaked banners of law and order? Or, would the waves of protesters right then flowing down and over American streets finally crest the institutional levees having held the racist program together for so very long? Would this go to the vote, or the gun?
The abstraction of it all, that seems the most durable through line. — Note to Self
June 16, the day on which James Joyce’s epic Ulysses takes place. Leopold Bloom. Bloomsday. A day to celebrate (or revile) that wandering, often infuriating, confusing, and more often than not surreal scrawling tome having been run out in the (then) lingering Dadaist style. A modernist disruptive intervention of staid repressed tradition, cards thrown into the air—anarchy. (“And I thought it was the U.K.!”) No past, no future, only a weird odd now. Having been published in 1922, the Great Influenza (let alone the historical wipeout of World War I) having just blown through, abstracted and upset the world into which that book fell, I could not help from my 2020 quarantine fire-tower but see this angle: Did the broken mirror refractions of that plague, that f-d up upset world, come out in the “wait, what was that?” ink-wash of Ulysses?
Bloomsday. Such a perfect observance for “our” pandemic moment, considering the great trundling word salad that is Ulysses. It was a book I put off reading for years, if only due to the lip-curl reactions of those I had known who had. At turns they had wanted to claim it the greatest literary work ever created—and—hurl the thing into a dumpster. But after stumbling across a stylish late ’50s edition in a book shop one night about a decade ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, I decided to take the plunge. It was all of what everyone I had known who had read it had said: a phenomenal creative masterpiece and the most infuriating mess of absurd rolling rambling adjective piles I had ever read. . . . And what of now? . . . A fantastical imagination run out as if just any everyday reality . . . It is without boundaries, without any real guidelines. . . . I could not describe my reaction to reading Ulysses any better. I could hardly describe my pandemic experience any better. Unfamiliar, absurd, this COVID-19 world.
The rolling rambling disruption of all that was average, routine, normal, had required us to reframe how we thought and talked about the average, routine, and normal; just like they must have in 1918, 1919, 1920. “Are you all okay? No, for real?” It was as if I was learning a foreign language . . . Este foarte ciudat (or “this is very strange” for you non-Romanian speakers). . . . It was at the very least a new version of a known language—like cubism, Dada.
And yet, as I wandered about the newly defined circumference of public proximities, the newly distant way that, mask-muffled, we interacted with each other, the old phrases rarely used put onto the contemporary conveyor of the oft-used (stay safe), it hit me just how absurd before times had really been. Fissured and fractured, we had been carrying on a ridiculous dance in which our ideological tribes could barely understand each other, had looked on at the absurdities of the other, treated those not “us” as unintelligible and other. That had been disorienting enough, a ridiculous thing to look back at longingly and call “normal.” Sure, we had Spotify and Netflix and Zoom and 5G. But we were failing at decency, common purpose, camaraderie.
This here, the surreal whirl, a fucking pandemic, was just a more honest representation of an already upset world, refracted, not at all what it had seemed and anything but average, routine, normal. Here I was actually measuring out the length of time a roll of toilet paper would last (by dating the previous empty roll, if you must know), evaluating our meager cache and projecting out how many days left until we were onto leftover gift wrap. And the while, we Americans continued as before to publicly hate each others’ guts over guns and, or God and, or LGBTQ, living inside the hot gusting selfishness of a clown car executive branch intent on fiddling while democracy and an independent press burned, young blacks being executed in their drivers’ seats for failing to properly signal or an untreated mental illness made untreatable by another long raging and now fentanyl-laced epidemic—outrage, outrage, outrage, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner . . . that had been normal? That we had so thoroughly normalized a so thoroughly abstracted real?
We had all forgotten what a fucked up mess we had made of things. Modern American life had been an abstraction of normal all along. It “only took a pandemic” to see it.
This Present Sea
The reality of this pandemic is that nothing is definitely safe, and nothing will definitely give you a bad case of COVID-19 . . . We almost always exist in grey areas now.
— James Hamblin
A vast ocean of fathomless present. That is how it seemed. That was not a new sensation, but was still a most observable trait. In a row boat, a simple pair of oars, no land in sight. This sea did not seem necessarily angry or forbidding; more tepid, rolling, endless. There was so little motion it made it hard to gauge what was happening, at all. Were we turning a corner? Well, no. One thing was obvious, things were getting worse. But how much worse? Was this the end of the “wash back” of Memorial Day weekend? Probably not. Hope wanted this to be so, even as reality wanted to shout: no, no, and not by a long shot. In a boat on a horizonless sea. If only to beat the fatigue of inaction—the quarantine blues—rowing in circles, around and around and . . . rowing in circles preferable to the brain-numbing evaluation of a contour-less void, this grey sea.
And again, there was no immediate and obvious malevolence on which to fixate, just a fucking microbe beyond the ability to size up with the naked eye, but for its watershed effects. And that lack of a discernible enemy, the invisibility, the world as same-seeming as it had ever been to the naked eye; this, though we knew—though we all should have damned well known—that it was not the same, not by a long shot. It was a real we had to sense as much as feel, though we dared not touch it, or breath it in too deep. Suspended in mid-air, an uncertain gravity having rewritten the rules of physics and mortality: the malevolent tick-off statistics, the infected, the irreversible death. Those remained the same, as true as they had ever been.
This sea of the present had spread out beyond all visible horizons. Deal with the virus. Deal with the new normal. Carry on, keeping calm. Row in circles if you must. Continue on. An unknown like anything most of the world had faced in a century. The horrid face of Ebola and SARS and HIV had been limited in scope to those caught in its whirling malevolence. But this was global. A great global unknown . . . It’s a virus we don’t know enough about. . . . And yet, there were those attempting to lay claim, grasping at overarching truths, proclaiming those truths as certainties—these people all the more coming off as people we should not be listening to. A healthy skepticism queried those who claimed to know all. For they, like we, still did not know shit. We would have to row through this non-storming grey in circles, if need be, awhile yet.
All that, even though it seemed more obvious than at any point since I had first put ink to page back on March 18, that though this be a fathomless present, a grey void, we already had the ability to move through—and always did. We just had to scale up, be as big as the void is wide. Answer the listless roll-along drone of an invisible killer in our midst with constant motion. Move, do so relentlessly towards bigger better versions of our previous selves. To sweep away the ideological sludge that had turned our mechanisms for complex government into some nihilistic cult of ideas. To redress 400+ years of economic and societal privilege having fallen on the backs of the brown and the black and the “other.” Restore a galvanizing sense of equitable reward for work, and do this by revoking the hall-of-mirrors distortion that was rewarding wealth above all else. We did not have to agree. To agree was not the point and never was the point. But we did need not devolve on ideological religion in which each side casts the other as arch-angel v. demon. We need not face-plant into a talking-point oblivion, a carnival of chaos capitalizing on the fury of extremes. There was work to do. It was work worth doing.
If this was the beginning of a national reset, a reboot, a retooling (and if it was not, then shame on us), then what now? At present, there was grey sea. A boat. A pair of simple oars. And yet, quite suddenly, here on June 27, that did not seem to me like nothing. We were three months into a state of suspended animation. The world at a glance still seemed very much as it always had. But the world, we knew, had been upended by what we could not see. I was still hammering on hope, leaning on the playbill of “better” . . . Coming soon, if only via Zoom, to a screen near you.
If this next act was a great remaking, then we would have to straighten our course, and soon. Where were the lines to be drawn? George Washington was a slaveholder. We need not tear down the Washington Monument, but we must deal with the fact that the symbolic father of our country held human beings in bondage. “We hold these truths to be self-evident. That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men.” Indeed. How did we forget that? At what point did we dismiss the act of democratic governing as important? Why did we forget that? “We must historicize more, memorialize less.” Statues are not history. Statues are an interpretation of history most often told long after the fact to clear the way for nostalgia. Instead of letting statues prolong half-truths, if not flat false myth, how about we tear down those that symbolize the many having chosen the wrong side of history and reckon with that history, as painful and ugly and vile as that might be? This would all require a thick skin and mettle, at the same time requiring equal doses of civility and modesty—all of those things and more. We would have to widen the aperture, greatly. Did we have it in us as a people? Did I have it in me?
Circles. In circles. This listless, often listing grey void. It had done us one solid, having revealed from its obscure oceanic depths all the foundational cracks, all of the quiet relentless suffering, that all of our modern grasping at greatness was as void as this grey sea was obscure. It had been a mirage of enlightened progress in its best moments, a mockery in its worst. But that we now knew. That was not nothing. And that listless present, as lethargic as it seemed, was passing through rays that hinted this tragic mess would not be in vain, that deep systemic bedrock change was possible, and possibly inevitable.
This grey, this present sea might yet reveal sun-soaked horizons in what was next to be. We just had to be willing to see it for its long game. And if that meant I needed to row in circles for some time yet to come, if only to keep up strength / fortitude, then so be it. I still believed with all that I had in this country, this world. It would, it could, seem a relentless slog-through journey yet to go. But there it was, in a spot-lit corner of my brain: In Union, Strength.