earthweal weekly challenge: MODERNITY’S HERO QUEST

Empty streets into downtown, late April 2020


Beautiful weather here in Central Florida as cool fronts still make it down this way this late in what we here call spring. They bring rain and then clear days so crisp you can make out the angel’s smile up there in the cathedral. Temps in the low 80s, breezy with the skies so blue they savor an almost amniotic grace—so fine, so fine.

Of course this will pass into the primal season of summer, and with oceans getting so hot the forecast is for one of the busiest hurricane seasons ever—22 storms: Vicious summer stuff for these parts. That’s coming, as surely as more wreckage and division as American humanity struggles with pandemic, depression and Donald Trump. But for now, how sweet and fair the days, a lolling stroll in Paradise, akin to the summer of 1938, before the long guns of August began tolling …

Sweet indeed. My wife and worked all day Saturday planting blue daze ground cover plants in an island by our kitchen window. Projects like that have been the sane backbone of our stay-in-place out-of-work sequestering; we’ve painted and organized and planted our way to this moment where Florida begins its premature reopening and hurried fantasies of returned normalcy. You should have seen the garden center of our home improvement box store yesterday, busier than the week before Christmas, social distancing, masks and care for essential home improvement workers be damned.

It’s not really apparent here that the curve has flattened—spikes were always elsewhere, in nearby Orlando or South Florida—but the herd has decided so here in such surly, commercially-afflicted moods, everything shouting We’re Baaaaaaack.

Indeed. What do you do with a truth no one lives according to? In so many ways this pandemic behaves just like the impending climate disaster upon the world’s most conscious and reckless citizens—not a collective problem each individual is responsible for. Someone gave us permission to believe whatever we want to believe—blame the Internet, FOX News and Facebook—and now the avatar of our cultural We is Alfred E. Neumann, lost between asshole and hole in the ground.

Ed Yong of The Atlantic Monthly has been brilliant writing about the pandemic; in his latest, “Why The Pandemic Is So Confusing,” he takes a step back to look at science in real time and the difficulties it imposes on a world become everything and nothing at once. Solutions aren’t pulled out of a hat, and the distance between this moment and the one in which a vaccine is available to all is neither straight nor short. (The average wait time for vaccines is around 13 years.) We’re dealing with a tricky virus with a host of strange properties and complications; it carries well into the crowd because so many of the infected don’t show symptoms, but those who sicken quickly imperil a health system never meant to sustain waves so high.

Indeed, there is so much about our modernity which makes pandemic its perfect foil, Gawain and the Green Knight. Yong writes,

… The desire to name an antagonist, be it the Chinese Communist Party or Donald Trump, disregards the many aspects of 21st-century life that made the pandemic possible: humanity’s relentless expansion into wild spaces; soaring levels of air travel; chronic underfunding of public health; a just-in-time economy that runs on fragile supply chains; health-care systems that yoke medical care to employment; social networks that rapidly spread misinformation; the devaluation of expertise; the marginalization of the elderly; and centuries of structural racism that impoverished the health of minorities and indigenous groups. It may be easier to believe that the coronavirus was deliberately unleashed than to accept the harsher truth that we built a world that was prone to it, but not ready for it.

Prone to it but not ready for it: That’s the space where pandemic and climate change come at us in exactly the same way, of course for their imminent danger but moreso our inability to response to those threats, looking for other things to blame, complaining about the economic costs, ignoring victims on distant shores.

Perhaps the perfect example of this is my wife and I working hard Saturday in the full sun of the front yard, pulling weeds, laying landscape fabric, planting blue daze from 1-gallon pots, laying mulch and watering: A full day’s effort in upper-80s heat and blazing sun, kneeling, digging, lifting, moving, raking and watering; bitching too, and laughing and sweating with play-by-play meows from Domino, the stray male tuxedo cate who has adopted us with a passion and who sat mostly in shade watching us fools work in the sun.

What did we learn there, I wonder. What did we earn. We sure were exhausted at day’s end, and I have sore muscles today in calves and back and shoulders and neck. Moving slow. It feels good though to have done some hard work for the sake of the house my wife and I call home. Common ground and purpose in the face of unrelenting chaos is good. It’s also an suburban indulgence that turns separation intos something too sweet for torches and pitchforks and campaigns for change.

Maybe that’s why these earthweal challenges and open link weekends are spluttering out after four months: Of that real earth and its dire need for change there is just not that much to say, especially not now when difficulty and despair feels close, comes in the daily mail and weighs so heavily on dreams. Who wouldn’t work in the garden and sing of blue daze? Is that making the best of difficulty or whistling in a growing dark?

Yong, again:

In the classic hero’s journey—the archetypal plot structure of myths and movies—the protagonist reluctantly departs from normal life, enters the unknown, endures successive trials, and eventually returns home, having been transformed. If such a character exists in the coronavirus story, it is not an individual, but the entire modern world. The end of its journey and the nature of its final transformation will arise from our collective imagination and action. And they, like so much else about this moment, are still uncertain.

Hmm, how about that for a weekly challenge.  If you could speak for that global persona—modernity as hero—what would his/her task be in this changed new world, the travel and trials, the treasure and its rewards? Have pandemic and climate change turned the kingdom into a wasteland, if so, what is it that can heal the aging king/queen and restore the land to vitality?

A starting point could be to illustrate the change. Is pandemic the Fisher King’s wound or its cure? Frank Bruni had a great column in yesterday’s New York Times, speaking with Laurie Garrett, a journalist who had predicted both the HIV crisis as well as this pandemic. What she sees ahead, Bruni writes, is bleak if you’re all for small government and protect-the-rich tax policy. (Progressives, gimme a high-five.)

Bruni asked Garrett how much of the world had changed before our eyes:

I asked, is “back to normal,” a phrase that so many people cling to, a fantasy?

“This is history right in front of us,” Garrett said. “Did we go ‘back to normal’ after 9/11? No. We created a whole new normal. We securitized the United States. We turned into an antiterror state. And it affected everything. We couldn’t go into a building without showing ID and walking through a metal detector, and couldn’t get on airplanes the same way ever again. That’s what’s going to happen with this.”

Not the metal detectors, but a seismic shift in what we expect, in what we endure, in how we adapt.

Maybe in political engagement, too, Garrett said.

If America enters the next wave of coronavirus infections “with the wealthy having gotten somehow wealthier off this pandemic by hedging, by shorting, by doing all the nasty things that they do, and we come out of our rabbit holes and realize, ‘Oh, my God, it’s not just that everyone I love is unemployed or underemployed and can’t make their maintenance or their mortgage payments or their rent payments, but now all of a sudden those jerks that were flying around in private helicopters are now flying on private personal jets and they own an island that they go to and they don’t care whether or not our streets are safe,’ then I think we could have massive political disruption.”

“Just as we come out of our holes and see what 25 percent unemployment looks like,” she said, “we may also see what collective rage looks like.”

Imagine this moment as the beginning of a quest for humanity. A curtain lowered and then raised to a very different world. Has our world become a wasteland of former occupations and expectations? What is it that humanity needs so for its great wound—a vaccine or a Green New Deal? Guaranteed income or global health policy? A resurgent economy or a slowly rebuilt one? What’s the prize beyond measure, the treasure hard to attain? Be mythic or hard boiled. And what map takes us there?

Today is my brother Timm’s birthday. He would be 58 had he not died twelve years ago. If there was a letter I could write to him in oblivion, I wonder how much differently the world today I would describe to him—in the midst of this pandemic and peeling at the edges from a heating climate— would look from the day he departed on April 18, 2008. What do I tell him about his beloved Obama, who was then running for president? How could I describe the apotheosis of social media and the tyranny of Donald Trump, the rising tides and engulfing wildfires, the whirling maleficence of storm? Or the witchy stillness of this global pandemic …

Questions for oblivion. But what of the living? While we were slugging away planting a legion of blue daze on Saturday afternoon, my wife and I were distracted by the sound of car horns getting louder from some blocks away. Were protestors headed for City Hall in their gas-guzzling cars, assault rifles poking out of windows, drivers pointing a belligerent middle finger to quaintness and doing the right thing and being so muckety-muck mindful? (Another parallel between pandemic and climate change: Both outrage the libertarian sensibilities of the incorrect.)

But the horns veered off the main drag and headed up our street, and soon we discovered their source: A line of sensible Toyotas and Hyundais and Fords decked out with school colors and soaped windows proclaiming the Super Senior Class of ’20! and the like, fifteen or twenty cars with kids at the wheel pumping the horns and hollering with sprung joy. This is our new normal, and here were the carriers of the hero’s journey into the world.

We leaned on hoe and rake and wearily tried to wave at each car, giving these kids something while schools remained closed. The procession came and then went, headed, we could hear, from the locked high school toward downtown. So far so good, I thought; but then we are only in the early innings of a long game with this virus. A few more plantings, then black mulch to pour out from five large bags, then watering and cleanup and we could finally head back inside to salve our victorious wounds.

Domino the stray cat lay in the shade, fretting at fleas and sniffing the soft wind. Waiting of course for dinner but for something else also to come—love, a fresh pact, something.

My dreams have been tortures of late—lost in huge buildings late a night trying to find a class or a job seminar

Maybe we have a world—or a We—awakening to something greater than spring.

And maybe humanity is the wound and pandemic the knight errant who saves the world.

What’s your take? Challenge open till 4 PM Friday when we open the doors for weekend open links.


11 thoughts on “earthweal weekly challenge: MODERNITY’S HERO QUEST

  1. The scary thing about this virus is that it shres some of the effects of the ebola: the forming ofblood clots in its victims, and other horrors that terrify me. Not the death I would like to experience, were I allowed to choose. I have not feared death till now, but now I fear the virus. I am happy you and your wife are using this time to accomplish things. I am not, it is too easy, with all this time, to keep putting off things, some of them important, that I will regret not having addressed at some point, I am sure. A great essay, Brendan. I think your brother would be so sad – as I am sad – today. I cried with joy when Obama was elected. He imbued us with such hope. Then the repubs refused to work with him. Even so, he did so much good, comported himself with such dignity and grace – and now this buffoon is screwing everything up, undoing all that Obama did, and is the very epitome of everything that is NOT dignity and grace. Sigh. It has been a hard fgour years for me, and it has changed me. I used to be the most optimistic person alive. I am discouraged. I love the idea of the hero’s journey and the new world I would love to see us enter on the other side of this. That possibility is very limited at this point, and hopeless if trump is re-elected. I admired Bernie’s platform and his passion and think, because Americans are so terrified by the word “socialism”, the Dems backed the wrong person again. Sigh. And, on the right, the assault weapons and misdirected rage are a bit much. This was a great read, my friend. I will see what heroic words I can muster. Something to be said for Endurance and not going mad while I watch the increasingly incredible news. LOL.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Sherry — As poets we like to think that much work is accomplished through our individual quests in the woods of the word. Maybe we do, though there seems some larger collective journey we all participate in, like thimbles of sea water in an ocean’s journey. “Hero” may not even be appropriate for that collective task, and it may not be a conscious one anyway, or extra-conscious. On such a collective quest all of the present moment plays a part, and maybe we are or can be harmoniums of that. We’ll see.


  2. A provocative prompt. It is the journey my soul, like yours (but unlike yours), is undergoing now. I have a sense that the journey is inward, but inward in a way that is not isolationist. I’m not sure what that means yet, but we are thrust out of Eden for sure. Gardening may be the way back in, I suppose–but perhaps not the resultant garden. Rather it may be the process itself, the time spent understanding how we are part of the earth, how the earth is and plants are and colors and everything. And maybe it’s the same BEING HERE NOW within the human body that is the cure (or the virus). The question may be a Ram Das question after all–or Steven Levine: We have to heal whether the healing is toward life or death. How to get that into a poem?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Excellent question Susan, you got me. But certainly can try to write of healing, of heading back into the garden and getting to work. The “we” part of that (“we thrust ourselves out of the garden”) is essential, since cure has to work on the wound with similar fire. I don’t know what collective gardening looks like but it is surely something we are now about.


  3. I’m working with intermittent WiFi here at the moment, but hope to write something for this prompt ad link up before the weekend. I agree with Sherry and Susan. This virus is terrifying. Saying that, I’ve just got over shingles, which is very painful. Mine was the kind with no rash, which can attack internal organs such as lungs and heart, so I was naturally scared. However, the doctor prescribed an anti-virus drug which seems to be working. Medical science knows about viruses, but they are tricky and sometimes unpredictable. I’m not sure that programs and apps to track and monitor coronavirus will be effective, as people are unpredictable too.. I don’t want to get ‘back to normal’, not if it means a world full of greedy, inconsiderate humans raping the planet.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Kim — COVID has nasty complications, but it is also witchy silence — the carrier wings of the asymptomatic. How is it that something so terrible for some is so nonexistent for others that they carry it so unknowingly? I don’t think COVID for most is anything close to shingles – how horrible. Wrapping our heads around the present moment is so difficult — I read today that the UK’s COVID death toll has surpassed Italy’s, albeit a distant second to the USA’s grim toll. We Americans pay it the slightest heed and suffer it the worst. This lesson will be difficult indeed.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Yay, how wonderful to find a discussion going in here. We need the mutual support of people who understand. I worry a lot about the USA. Hard to stay safe under those conditions. Be really careful, friends. I love the idea of more gardens. Working in the earth, feeling and being part of that connection with the land is wonderful on so many levels.


  5. I come to your blog by way of Kim of “Writing in North Norfolk”. What a treat it is to read such an indepth analysis of the current situtation and to read such finally crafted writing. Your challenge has inspired me though I will think deeply before writing my response.


  6. Suzanne, your poem is WONDERFUL, and inspiring. So glad you stopped by Brendan’s wonderful site. I hope you keep coming back.


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