Is it ironic that last week’s protest challenge would culminate massive uproar in dozens US cities following the slow torturous death of a black man beneath a white policeman’s knee?
Or was it fateful, as true to the time as all the voices who cried out at our forum?
Who knows. But summer comes to the Northern Hemisphere with pandemic’s toil and toll grown wearisome yet hardly done and a heating climate sweltering snarls of greater and worser magnitude.
One thing follows another. In the United States, these are added coils for a pot already aboil with political division and dissent. For all our wealth and clout, my country has shown astonishing weakness in the face of souring events. With a death toll from COVID surpassing 100,000 and finding new strength in places like Wisconsin and Alabama which have reopened prematurely, our leadership has chosen to peeve rather than grieve.
It is a tragic thing to watch and gives me little hope for any speedy and effective remedies.
Here we are however and must look at WHAT COMES NEXT.
* * *
In the state of Florida in the USA where I live, high summer has blossomed in the past week with the advent of the rainy season. One day it was warm and dry and gusty like it had been for much of the spring; then a day came where a crack of thunder transformed the time into soggy surly upwellings of heat and clouds and rain. Each next day it’s more humid than the last, the heat feels more intense and the certainty of storm grows. This pattern will ladder for weeks into a density of heat and moisture whose spiritual consequence is hurricane. By July there will be an eeriness to the height of summer, a constant wet rapture and raptoring for which there is no escape, only enduring into August through September and even October as we await in the next week or the next some greater massing of stormclouds from the horizon.
It’s an archangelic season into which the mind which sustained me all year vanishes. It’s like an altitude, erasing certain depths of thought.
* * *
My wife and I drove out to Wildwood on Friday looking at storage sheds. We’re thinking of tearing down our decrepit garage and rehabbing a new shed into an air-conditioned sewing studio for my wife. For fifteen years she’s worked in crabbed conditions in our house, her linens stuffed in every corner, her sewing equipment occupying the desk space I once worked on. (For an equal length of time I’ve had to move my morning studies to a chair in the living room, hauling out all my books and journals and laptop, setting up camp there for my appointed hour and a half in heaven and then tucking everything back as the day wakes in the windows.) For a considerable amount of new debt, she gets her space and I get mine. We can’t really afford it, but next things are mired where we are. My days as a commuting office drone may be over, and may work the rest of my career from home.
The heat was empyrean that day, a beating brilliance as we drove and talked about the unrest in so many cities, the awful divisions of the time and the horrible leadership we suffer from. The sheds we saw were pregnant with possibility, opening with a creak and vastly empty and hot within with so much brilliance outside. Perhaps a future. We lunched in a restaurant in the middle of The Villages, that arch retirement mecca in Florida where so many come to play golf and party the rest of their living means. Only the serving staff wore masks and the stores around the eatery all seemed packed with eager buyers.
None of this plays much into the darkness of this time—not the commercial animus, the milk-white palette of comfort or the torpid brilliance of the afternoon. Yet you can read it in reverse, as preceding acts of an unfolding tragedy. I could, while reading Teju Cole’s essay “We Can’t Comprehend This Much Sorrow” in the May 24 New York Times Magazine:
Yesterday’s death toll from Covid-19 in New York State was 732 people. I can hardly concentrate in daytime. At night, I read Annie Ernaux’s ‘‘The Years.’’ You can feel the pulse and intelligence of Ernaux’s mind, her technical facility, the range of her assessments over several decades of French history. The book, which mixes history with memoir, is good writing. Eventually, there will be good writing about our moment as well. If journalism is the first rough draft of history, perhaps a journal is the first rough draft of literature. But grief makes me sour. I feel as though I’ve read the same piece of white writing 30 times in the past month.
Much of it is concerned with inconveniences, and some of it is jokey. I understand these collective attempts at lightness, but I quarrel with them, because I know that in the United States there is no ‘‘collective.’’ Levity in the midst of sorrow can be a consolation if the sorrow is shared to begin with. But here, where everything is divided, where the unscathed can’t quite believe the wounded, the levity sounds like anything but solidarity. Covid-19 was initially heralded as a great equalizer, and there was some evidence of this in some countries. But it arrived in America and immediately became American: classist, capitalist, complacent.
The words Samuel Beckett wrote to his friend Alan Schneider in 1963 feel like a lifeline: ‘‘I offer you only my deeply affectionate and compassionate thoughts and wish for you only that the strange thing may never fail you, whatever it is, that gives us the strength to live on and on with our wounds.’’
White writing: The memory of a Reuben sandwich slowly fading from my hands as my wife and I talked her father’s care and the help she’s not getting from her sister, and this next project in our house. No table next to us had patrons sitting at it but the room was still full and calmly devouring Jewish deli and muttering beneath an ambience of boomer hits on the sound system—Beach Boys, Candlebox, Duran Duran.
All that rings whitely and tritely against the curse of this American moment. As I write this afternoon Florida is convulsed by confrontations in Tampa and Orlando and Miami. Someone has driven a red pickup truck into a crowed of protestors in Jacksonville and the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee has been surrounded. Preparations are underway to call in the military in Minneapolis tonight. Protestors face off with the Secret Service in front of the White House.
A heat is already out of control.
Must we get to the grief this way? Is there no other?
* * *
The other day I found out that my favorite living jazz pianist has been dead for several months. Lyle Mays found fame as a member of Pat Metheny’s ensemble, co-writing much of the work. (He was also apparently a great pool player and even better mathematician.). Mays released a few solo efforts in the years since but retired from professional music in 2003 to work as a computer consultant. On Feb. 10, it was announced that Mays had passed at the age of 66 “after a long illness” of which I’ve never found further explanation. (My guess is that he committed suicide after years of depression.)
Lyle Mays had a lyricism unparalleled by any other jazz pianist other than Bill Evans, whom Mays revered and co-write with Metheny an utterly inspired elegy in “September Fifteenth.” (Evans died on that day in 1980.) His gifts were archly classical–in later life he composed deep responses to Stravinsky and Debussy—but his touch was gentler than any other musical artist. Angels were summoned in the infinitesimal arpeggios he glanced whisperingly from the keys. Spirits drifting. Soaring.
The beauty of Mays’ music is almost unbearable. That surely helps explain his early departure. Lyle Mays lived longer than Bill Evans, who died at age 51 after what a girlfriend called “the longest suicide in history.” How could it be otherwise for the two, mounting a musical cross of yearning, emotional truth and heart-breaking gorgeousness?
I first heard “September Fifteenth” in 1981 when I was 24, a year into my new life in Florida and recently shattered from a breakup. That song touched depths in my broken heart that I didn’t know existed. Soon after that my younger brother was nearly killed in a car accident. He survived a massive head injury, but his musical ambitions were destroyed (he’d lost hearing in one ear) and he since suffered disorientation and double-vision. In 2008 he died of a heart attack; he was 44. My grief of him was deeper than anything I had experienced. I collected his ashes, his laptop and photographs and returned to Florida.
What a surprise to discover that the last song he played on his laptop iTunes the day he died was “September Fifteenth.”
It’s been a few days since I found out about Mays’s death and I’m still grieving hard. I know his music will always be there. (I didn’t find out there was a Bill Evans until after he died.) I know too that the music we love resounds much deeper than the personal. Yet I can’t help feel a grief that is wrapped up in so many losses, the woman I lost long ago, my brother, my mother and father, Lyle Mays, my youth. What else? My pre-pandemic life. My humanity. My Earth. All going, soon gone.
We say there are chains of events. Men walk on the moon. The last white rhino vanishes. Victoria’s Secret models drink Ipecac and walk flawlessly in thongs with wings. Rising waters threaten Arctic tribes. There are riots in Ferguson Missouri. A Republican president breaks the spine of decades of environmental regulation. Orangutans fade further away. Australia burns. A pangolin gives up a COVID ghost. Dairy farmers close to bankruptcy wonder if anyone is really sick of the disease. The world swelters. Rich people get wealthier in the stock market. Police fan out with batons and pepper spray. Elon Musk shakes hands with Donald Trump as a Falcon 9 rocket lifts into the sweet hot blue Florida sky. Thunder rolls in where hope has vanished, replacing it with the drum of things unfolding.
Back to Cole:
Yesterday’s death toll from Covid-19 in New York State was 804 people. There’s consolation in the falling numbers, sure, but I mostly think about how, with better leadership, far fewer people would be bereaved right now. But leaders are nothing without their followers, and many Americans have decided to inhabit an alternate reality. What is newly shocking is realizing that their fanciful reality is impervious to everything, even a horrifying daily death toll.
… I want to weep. I can’t weep; I can’t write either. Is shock necessarily naïve? Can’t it also be evidence of taking in, and being affected by, new information?
I’m still thinking about ‘‘Zoom funerals.’’ There’s good reason the earliest surviving traces of many civilizations have to do with the burial of the dead: tombs, barrows, tumuli. In Sophocles’ ‘‘Antigone,’’ King Creon denies funeral rites to Polynices. Polynices is dead anyway and won’t know in what manner his body is disposed of — but Antigone knows, and we know, and it is what the living know that matters. Our need for proper ritual will never subside.
We are eager to find out what an old text can say to our new situation. But ‘‘Antigone’’ won’t tell you what to do in the time of Covid-19. The play is about individual conscience against the state, loyalty to family, funerary customs, the clash between two varieties of self-contradiction and, above all, the workings of tragedy. Tragedy is not simply that something bad happens; it’s that one thing leads to another: if this, then that, and if that, then the other thing. In Seamus Heaney’s version of ‘‘Antigone,’’ ‘‘The Burial at Thebes,’’ he has the chorus declare: ‘‘It starts like an undulation underwater,/A surge that hauls black sand up off the bottom,/Then turns itself into a tidal current. . . .’’
One thing leads to another. Polynices dies in battle, and Antigone, for defying the directive to leave him unburied, is sentenced to death. She hangs herself. Haemon, to whom she was engaged, kills himself with a sword. Eurydice, grieving her son, also commits suicide. Hubris, cruelty, and next thing you know, an entire generation is brought to grief. We can see the tidal current and the wreckage in its wake; but why has it happened? All we know is that different choices would have led to a different outcome.
We thought we still had time to respond to the climate emergency. But then pandemic happened, a global event almost no one saw coming. Now we are here. It is even hard to apprehend the Earth any more; the news is choked with protest and anger. Racial injustice has pre-empted the space we need to feel Earth injustice. Even fresh outbreaks of the virus (rampant now in India and Honduras) are just a murmur.
This afternoon a rocket pointed at heaven. It only will make it as far as the International Space Station, but it’s a milestone of sorts, the first time US astronauts have lifted off from US soil in 9 years. My father-in-law who suffers from advanced dementia had worked for years representing various manufacturers to NASA from the late ‘50s to the early ‘80s. Ten years ago he and I toured the Kennedy Space Center, with him struggling to remember and me marveling at the immensity of the technology and the worlds we might find out there. We walked through the vast Vehicular Assembly Building and beneath the length of a Saturn V rocket, like a massive whale mounted in the sky. Those thrusters like city-sized flukes, capable of swimming to the darkest depths of the night sky.
On Saturday a Space X rocket soared toward that infinity, leaving this vale behind. Leaving us here to witness what comes next.
Thunder coming closer. One of the last Amur Leopards tracks the vanishing snow of the Russian Far East. In Brazil, COVID infections hurl a dizzy spiral out of a president’s silent mouth. These events are synchronized in a broken sort of time, no more the result of hundreds of generations of relations between living things. Knots of time unfraying, releasing the conditions of functional extinction which precede the actual.
If time is breaking apart, how are we to read what comes next? What is sequence in an asynchronous time?
Consider, reflect, write. What do you see ahead? Protest? Love? Grief?