earthweal weekly challenge: WHAT COMES NEXT

 

Greetings.

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?

— Brendan

 

earthweal weekly challenge: PROTEST IN A TIME OF PANDEMIC

 

by Sherry Marr

I have taken part in many protests in my life: for civil rights, against the Viet Nam war, (Make Love, Not War, Give Peace a Chance), the women’s movement, justice for Aboriginals, the climate crisis. In 1993, I was on the blockades to save the old growth forest in Clayoquot Sound, at that time the greatest act of civil disobedience in Canada.

I have a strong sense of truth and social justice; I have expressed this in my poetry all my life. My spirit rises up against all that is unjust. But I was always hopeful that the transformation of consciousness on the planet would occur before all was lost. So I have been having a hard time since 2016, watching things play out for our neighbours south of the border, watching civil liberties roll back, racism become hostile and overt, civility, dignity, decency being over-powered by hatred and division. Blatant corruption is occurring at top levels, unchallenged; the good guys get fired; the snake-charmers get richer. All the smug grinning smiles of collusion,  the dead eyes, are an affront to my sensibilities.

Where to start: too many things to protest; it is a theatre of the absurd. We are so far down the rabbit hole, it makes me think of that old saying: “Been down so long, it looks like Up to me.” In Canada, newscasters have a hard time hiding their astonishment at the words they are reading on the teleprompters. Yikes.

Add the corona virus to this, and one can be forgiven for growing too discouraged for words. Yet somehow we must rally. (And for certain every person qualified to vote needs to exercise that right in November 2020.) Our job as poets is to reflect the world around us, throw light on difficult topics, bear witness, advocate for change, at the very least leave a historical record of the times we are living through, in case humanity somehow survives, and there are people alive in the future to read our words. At least we can say “we tried.” Future humans will see that, when it became a struggle between dark and light, we poets were the canaries in the cages, singing out.

My heart rose up with the water protectors at Standing Rock, whose peaceful and prayerful protest was met with militarized police, pressure hoses, rubber bullets and arrest.  trump (I will never use a capital T for him, my own small rejection of his political presence) proposed legislation that would brand these peaceful warriors – and other peaceful protesters –  “terrorists”. Yet check this out:

Protestors tried to enter the Michigan House of Representative chamber and were being kept out by the Michigan State Police at the State Capitol in Lansing, on April 30. The group was upset with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s mandatory closure to curtail Covid-19. (Photo: Jeff Kowalky)

 

It was trump who incited these people to “Liberate your state; fight for your great Second Amendment.” He called these “protesters” of social distancing “good people.”

Join me in a moment of speechlessness.

“Give me liberty or give me death”, the placards say, of the directives to wear masks and practise social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus. This might quite literally come true. “Gun up,” people are saying south of the border. Methinks they have found a strange issue to protest.

I worry about the coming election. Will they “gun up” if they don’t like the outcome? I worry about a lot of things. The New York Times has projected the possibility of Ivanka trump as President in 2025, followed by the abolishment of term limits for President. Hopefully this will not happen; hopefully I won’t live to see a further slide from American democracy to power by the potentates.

Brendan suggested, since we can’t meet in the streets to voice our protests (and it probably would be scary, with all those enraged people running around with guns half-cocked), we can do an online protest. That appeals to me.

There is no shortage of things to protest: the armed militants on the state capital steps; the president himself; government corruption; assault weapons; the suffering and abuse of wild and domestic animals; the destruction of wild habitat; what we eat, how it’s treated and where it comes from. The need for social distancing and testing to save lives, the many lives being lost in all the political uproar, in a situation that should be anything but political. (Leaked statistics from the White House estimated covid deaths could reach 3,000 per day in the U.S. by June 1st. And the administration seems unworried about the loss of life). (Source: Business Insider)

Animal rights. Human rights. Immigration. Warming seas. Plastic. The climate crisis. The urgent need for a switch to clean energy.

Take your pick. Unfurl your banner. Tell us about what keeps you awake at night, what worries you most, what you feel needs to change. What is happening in your part of the world that concerns or appalls you? Give us your outrage or, if you can muster it, give us some hope, and a direction to head in.

Valerie Kaur has said this time can be viewed “not as the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb”; that we can emerge from this time of transition transformed, and begin to live on Mother Earth as one part of creation, rather than the unthinking, dominant species we have been. We live in hope.

Your challenge: Bring us your protest poem.  Let’s join our voices in this forum to speak of all that is wrong or, conversely, all that we can make right.

I look forward to reading your words.

— Sherry

earthweal open link weekend #21

Welcome to earthweal’s twenty-first open link weekend. Share a poem of your own preference – new or old, rosy or blue. Open links taken through Sunday; be sure to visit other linkers and comment.

—Brendan

 

 

 

In a recent PBS Frontline report on the height of the coronavirus pandemic in Italy, we follow a doctor going through her rounds in a hospital overwhelmed with the viral dying and dead.

It is not easy viewing but utterly necessary to understand the long shadow of pandemic. It should be required viewing for those too eager and careless about resuming their pre-COVID existence.

In one scene, the doctor comes home after a futile day of not saving very many and watching many of her co-workers succumb.  After rigorously cleaning up, she asks her teenaged children what they had done for homework and they reply they are writing about the virus.

The exhausted doctor—happy to be home but terrified she will infect her family, does not have an encouraging response. “Let’s say that the only positive thing about this pandemic is that there’s no pollution,” she says. “Only that, the rest is tragedy.”

It occurs to me that the world I live in is so hellbent to get back to its old life because it hasn’t paid adequate witness to that tragedy.  It happens afar—in quarantined rooms and hospitals on restricted access, in nursing homes of other people’s mothers and in distant countries.

The world so in haste to open back up is more captivated by what it gave than any concern about saving lives. Perhaps failing to acknowledge that tragedy makes it blind to its own tragedy, that there’s no going back now. The pre-COVID era is still so close by – only a few months —it’s hard to recognize that it’s already dead.

Another great look into the COVID pandemic was on CBS 60 Minutes last Sunday. Titled “What Will Be The Long Term Effects of the Coronavirus Pandemic?”, Jon Wertheim tied it closely to climate crisis. 2020 started out with a wildfire’s continental roar (that surely seemed bad enough moodiness from Mother Nature) and then completely emptied out from a pandemic caused by trespass too deep in the wild.

How big was that second event? Greater than I have been able to properly conceive.

“We might speak achingly of our pre-COVID existences,” Wertheim said. “But life has changed—abruptly, profoundly and irretrievably. We will instead go hurtling into a new era.”

And what will that hurtling new era be for us? The question is resonant at earthweal: Will we listen to the Earth and those who study it closely and change our ways? Or do we continue to our blind mad dash into an even surlier, more destructive future?

The Indian novelist Arundhati Roy was interviewed in the segment following a piece she published in The Financial Times, “The Pandemic Is A Portal.” She said that the pandemic has placed us in a waiting room between the past and future, and we should think a moment about how we should stitch those two back together. This, from her essay:

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

Strange but perhaps magic opportunity: A fresh start.

Bill McKibben was also interviewed for the segment, and he also said the pandemic presents us with a chance to re-start things on a different foot. If we do, he said, in 60 years the world might thank us rather than curse us. The choice is collectively ours.

We have abruptly departed from one accustomed world and a vastly different one is shifting into view. And I have said before, it is for the namers—us poets, I mean—to discover the inner substance of that.

It’s not an easy task. Granted, naming never is; we write and revise and write again, rubbing away the detritus and leftover and used up and redundant. Getting to the inside of the inside, edging closer to the heart of truth.

There have been some wonderful poems here recently to that effect. Recently you have helped chart a strange new world … upturned the trope of hero’s challenge to suit that voice for women, animals, Earth … and woven vast particulars into the fabric of time. This is how a new earthly weal is bonded, I think. Poem by poem.

We are fortunate to have some new voices—Lindi from South Africa and Suzanne from Australia, Kerfe from New York City and others. So happy you have found us and chosen to add your far-flung voice to the global choir. We are so much richer in sound and texture for it.

There are multiple ways to enjoin this work. Sometimes we grieve, for much of the moment is broken-hearted. However, there is so much too to celebrate; a full and grateful heart radiates hope for all.  And sometimes we must rage, refusing to be ordained by broken orders and systems no longer life-affirming.

To that third end, Sherry Marr takes back over the pulpit for next week’s earthweal challenge. “Protest in a Time of Pandemic” is planned as an open space for an all-comers rally, a chance to speak out against oppressors and users and abusers. (Lord knows, so many of them are coming out of the woodworks these days.) We hope that you will show up and help the earthweal sky become a-flutter with protest banners of every stripe.

The poet’s art is ever one of picking a course through the labyrinth: this way, not that; turn here; dig there. And we are ever reminded that choices are fateful, as Robert Frost told us in poem written as the United States was just entering into the previous century.  What choices he saw then remain for us today, freighted with the consequence of earlier choices.

What then, shall we choose?

—B.

THE ROAD NOT TAKEN

Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

 

earthweal weekly challenge: VAST PARTICULARS

Distant wings of Tropical Storm Arthur ruffle over the lake I walk by daily, May 16, 2020.

 

Stay with me folks, it will take a while to approach what might be called a grasp of the challenge …

Today (I began drafting this weekly challenge on Saturday) it’s warm toward hot as you’d expect late-spring in Florida, blustery as Invest 90 foments into Tropical Storm Arthur off the eastern coast. Not much effect from it here a hundred miles to the west—as the storm was frothing up, it raked south Florida with storms. But if there’s a truer, balder herald of summer in the Hot Years to Come, it’s not the arrival of the rainy season (due in a few weeks) but these early and earlier big and bigger storms. The oceans are heating faster than the land, and our annual columnar proof comes swirling, vast, and fraught with increasing peril.

Facts of life in the Change: Already tired from gardening efforts the day before, I did my weekly mowing small beneath that slowly heaving, more muscular sky, feeling mortal, diminished and vulnerable. It reminded me that my part of the collective story is just a tiny sensor or beacon upswirling into a vast dark mass.

So much for business as usual in a heating world turbocharging its lessons these days with pandemic. Or would it be more appropriate to say the pandemic is fast recalibrating what we call business as usual?

You could say this pandemic is a gas pedal flooring us faster into

the surging realities of a mastered world careening out of control. It has taken the focus off the greater change in the Earth’s climate, yet speeds in one of those weird timescales we explored here some time ago, the rapid unfoldment of the pandemic replicating a spike in months what the saturation of carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere will uptick over decades.  It’s an apt lens for humans to understand how fast all this is coming at us, how little time there is to prepare, and the vast particularities of that which we can explore in our poems.

Climate change has only faded in the news, filtering through more randomly during this pandemic and its primarily human shock. But it surfaces and echoes with fearsome volume. There’s record heat up in the Arctic for this early in the year, with scientists wondering if this will be the year the Arctic Ocean goes ice-free this summer and how much melt will accelerate in Greenland. In the Antarctic summer just passed there was record heat as well. Ninety percent of the Earth’s stable glacial ice is located there, which means that melting and calving of the ice steppes there means glub glub everywhere, a pandemic of rising waters.

Wildfires have started up in Florida’s panhandle and in the state’s southwest, fanned by high-pressure hot winds still thronged with ghosts from earlier great fires in New South Wales and Jakarta, the Amazon rainforest and California.  They came and they’re coming again, infected with the prior stain and rising degrees. One doesn’t have to wait for long for a new disaster to begin, much for less concurrent disasters to flare and rage.

And yet, this: Despite the ferocity of evidence now piling in—a rising tide of dire proof that action is desperately needed—the human response is weirdly less engaged and empathetic. It’s as if there is a secret corollary between ever-more dramatic spikes and duller, slower, more fiercely denialist inaction.

The pandemic could be blamed for this—who gives a shit about rising tides in Southeast Asia, when in the USA (for example) 40 percent of those making less than $40,000 a year are now unemployed? But again, our human response to the latter is a weird duplicate of the former: The greater the infection and death curve, the louder the hysterics about everything the pandemic is not, from Chinese military lab shenanagans to bleach cures to armed rightwing militias parading outside state capitals chanting Open ‘Er Up, a minor variation on the good ole Lock Her Up intonations at legacy Trump rallies.

I’ll get off purely USA difficulties in a minute, but the worst-case scenario for handling a major pandemic is in ample evidence in my native country. We ignored the news, didn’t prepare, didn’t isolate, don’t test, don’t contract trace, waited too long to lock down and open back up way too early. How could such wealthy and self-aggrandizing nation fuck up so miserably? It’s easy (and probably fit) to blame our current President and the will of his administration to gut the workings of government, but there’s a collective will behind his ways, and its main directive seems to be arm up, hunker down and blame something else.

A vastly bad particular: in our state of Wisconsin, the partisan Republican Supreme Court sided with the Republican legislature against the stay-in-place orders of Democratic governor Tony Evers. The court’s order threw communities into chaos, with bars opening en masse in some while other locales still struggled to contain the virus. Who knew that something so apolitical as a virus would become such a partisan wedge?

Most Western democracies are suffering the same to varying degree; it’s as if the 21st century consciousness they embody is woefully unprepared for the greatest challenges a civilization could face—a global human pandemic and the greater extinction of life on the planet due to human-induced climate change. Our mastery has been outstripped by primitive impulses of greed and fear; does one invoke the other?

Who knows. But today the wind is blowing, heaving the live oaks outside my living room window in a way that smirks at my air-conditioned, suburban stasis. Just like the teeny tiny COVID 19 virus, those big winds don’t care one whit about what I believe or think. Poke the Earth too hard and you get an angry mama bear of a future; sweep the virus under the rug and it glows and glowers all night, whispering our names, our loved one’s names, so many names we can never absorb the total from our solitary vantage.

Like climate change, this pandemic is a global phenomenon with myriad local and personal inflections. Some countries have their collective act in decent enough shape to be beneficial for most of its residents; South Korea has only suffered some 260 fatalities from the virus. Other countries are a mess—USA, 89,000 fatalities, a number which would be higher if state authorities weren’t locking down the count. Bangladesh is too poor and populous to do more than suffer COVID’s spread; New Zealand sits at the other end of that spectrum, and returns a wise normalcy having taken decisive, right and affordable action right from the start. Despots in Russia and Brazil and the Phillipines prevaricate and hide the truth of pandemic in their ruined worlds. In Moscow, several COVID wards have burned due to ventilators catching fire, and health care workers who have been forced to work and have few protections have been reported jumping from hospital windows in suicide attempts. But health care workers in the most well-furnished ERs in New York City are suffering into a mid-game with the pandemic, initial spike soothing, adrenaline fading, leaving a daily grind and toll which cannot be relieved in a hospital system going broke.

Very few have passed the time unaffected—scientists working in the Antarctic, astronauts in the International Space Station, a lone sea traveler who just came to shore after three months. So few that it shocks the awareness how globally unprepared and vulnerable the human population of Earth is in the age of COVID.

Two more lines work in opposite directions: an upwardly spike of deaths, the downward precipice of economies. In between, the casualties are too many and varied to properly count. Clothing factories at a standstill, daily workers starving, the tide of hunger rising. Locusts swarm in Africa, murder hornets behead bees in Washington State. Upwards to 40 million unemployed Americans face hunger and rent payments without healthcare, many in states which have lagged horribly in getting unemployment benefits out to them. State and local governments struggle to keep firemen and police officers on the payroll.

The vast particulars are local. A neighbor’s wife who had gone to visit her sick mother in Germany has been stuck there on lockdown for three months. Local mothers whose work and family lives have collapsed into each other walk their kids late in the day with distant eyes. I wonder how the black community in my town is faring, normally off the white radar and now even more impoverished and remote. Who knows what it’s like for undocumented workers cut off from work and government benefits. My wife is desperate to get her father into memory care at a nursing facility but the virus reaper treads heavily there. I attend Zoom AA meetings and worry about all the AAs I don’t see there, how many may have relapsed trapped in diminishing spaces. Who knows what it’s like for opioid addicts whose thread of sobriety is far more perilous, or compulsive hand-washers and schizophrenics cut off from supportive human contact. What new victims madness will claim, through nightmares, insecurity, lost connection, too much time. What a terrifying cavern the lonely human self, in this most indulged age of the individual …

The suburban everyday fabric is slow to dissolve, but this summer I fear there will be food riots in Miami which will spread here in the form of masked store employees getting beat up or shot by the outraged and unmaskable. Teeth grinding this way result in a long low simmering headache and botched dreams, like the one the other night where someone pounded dead animals—a giraffe, a dog, an alligator—against the pavement in a grotesque comedy routine I could feel the world cheering for.

This forum was founded in the hope of a collective forum for a changing medium—some number of local inputs on a global phenomenon. We are still about that work. We learn late and slowly that pandemic is one of that changing world’s apocalyptic horsemen, rare in that it preys mainly on the perpetrator where other events—rising seas, water scarcity, oppressive heat, wildfire—wage even harder war upon the victims, our companion animals and plants and their intermingled ecologies. A strange comeuppance in one view, humans leveled by the viral; in another, shifting the time’s focus in ways that both help and hinder the Earth.

On those thoughts, this weekly challenge of VAST PARTICULARS:

  • Illustrate the changing tenor of the time with a snapshot or observation or tale which is both vast and particular.
  • Do vast particulars – global yet local, earth-sensitive yet human-driven, pandemically reeling a decades-long unfolding—document the news of the moment?
  • What new tensions are revealing themselves? Stripped of our daily routines, shriven from assurance of a well-meaning (at least, promised) future and encroached by shadows of collapse, just who stares back in the mirror of this moment?
  • If pandemic is the astringent which is fast clearing away the niceties and collective givens we call human, what vast particulars reveal homo sapiens behind its peeling mask?

The mythic cycles we’ve employed – hero’s quest, perilous chapel—have been traversed and leave us (gifted or cursed) with this new world, one whose outlines are vaguely, slowly revealing themselves. Who are we now? What do we do with enforced solitude, which changing social norms and the omnipresent specter of a crusading disease? Who do we wear the mask for? We have sacrificed our own security in the name of collective good; what is the payoff?

Maybe it seems like pretty wide reconnaissance (my wife correctly accuses me of Big Picturism), but reportage of the moment requires vast particulars. That’s an odd phrase, but it contains the tension between two curves moving in opposite directions.

For example, this poem I read in the May 18 New Yorker offers such a vantage:

OUR DAYS

Rae Armantraut

1

In Chuck’s dream, a strange woman
is smoking in our kitchen.

She’s doing her best, she says,
exhaling into the oven.

Then three military men
burst in without knocking.

They say they’ve come
to establish order,

but their uniforms are strange.
Chuck suspects they’re really salesmen.

Their leader stands too close
as he begins his pitch—

close enough to spread a virus.

2

I take a photo of a house
painted half blue, half pink.

Why am I drawn
to things that make no sense?

Or is their sense excessive?

You need to decontextualize
an object
in order to see it,

I once said.

Last sloth
in a pocket of rain forest;

exquisite scent
of hyacinth

wafted
on the wingless breeze.

What particulars—daily iota of evolving knowns, raw data becoming the softest sursurration of changing weather—are vast with the news of what we really are and/or can be no more?

Weeks before the official start of the hurricane season, Tropical Storm Arthur looks to brush the coast of North Carolina before spiraling out into the colder waters of the mid-Atlantic. Good news for the East Coast of the USA, but another storm, Cyclone Vongfong, barreled last Friday straight into Luzon, the most populous island of the Philippines. The evacuation of a hundred thousand residents was complicated by efforts to maintain social distancing during the nation’s lockdown. Facing off with the West Pacific’s first named storm of the season, shelters were only allowed to fill halfway and evacuees expected to wear masks.

I went out to water the impatiens and gardenias we planted out back—slow curve of slight water from a hose, feeding what we have chosen to flourish—while the sky bucked and rolled and heaved—gently enough—with the distant swelling of Tropical Storm Arthur.  I don’t have a job, what else am I gonna do? Stay home and keep safe. I looked down at those pretty, tiny, frail blossoms weaving in the same wind and whispered the same to them before heading back inside to the air-conditioned shelter of this post.

Who wins, I wonder. Who knows.

—Brendan