The Secret Miracle

Child, love, stranger – 
Voice in the window, the hall;
This fractal fate, this chance in time
To know and be known.

One of us or any of us,
Any of us or none at all,
Is beginning to end – each second
Comes softly
The secret miracle.

Each instant offers the chance to be a different version of yourself. What might that new self teach you?

Social Distancing

My dear, I can’t stay. 
You have a disease, I’m afraid – 
Income less than 20K
Per year. After bills paid, 
None at all! 
A fatal flaw. 

My dear, cover your mouth!
You shouldn’t shout
Where I can hear – I read about
A plan to route
Your problem – 

My dear, take this mask – 
It pains me to see
Your poverty. 
Kindly cover your need, 
Lest you infect me
With charity.

I’m deeply concerned over the urban society that will emerge once we “re-open.”

Social distancing – while a necessary response to an airborne contagion – has a socioeconomic component as well.

Anyone who can afford to move away from dense population centers, or otherwise stratify their existence, will do so. Anyone who can’t afford to move or avoid public transit or work from home will be – not to put too fine a point on it – screwed.

They’ll be stigmatized for a while, while society’s attention holds. Long-term, they’ll just be neglected and ignored, until the situation becomes so bad it’s declared a “blight” and a “public health crisis” and the whole thing is bulldozed. Literally and metaphorically.

Here, then, is our challenge: to maintain the physical rationale of non-contagion, while understanding that there is no meaningful separation between any of us when faced with mortality.

I would rather base a plea for caring on shared life – but life is easy to ignore. People do it all the time. Death is not so easy to ignore. So she carries the message.

Here is the antidote to apathy and apartness. Let Death, in one of her guises, tap you on the shoulder every now and then. Listen when she says: “The Life of one is the Life of many, the problems of one are the problems of all. My child, my loved one – as I seek you, seek compassion.”

Three Little Words

“But why would they do that to their OWN communities?” 

I have heard this comment a lot lately, mostly from people whose job title (Commentator/Pundit/Expert) should imply they are prepared to think critically rather than churn out filler lines. 

You may suspect I have a problem with linguistic tropes. You would be correct. I love language. It exists as one option in the human portfolio of communication.  Because of how widely it is used – people may say “I can’t draw” but they don’t usually say “I can’t talk!” (Haha. Um, nevermind.) – as I was saying, I have deep respect for language and the ideas for which it acts as vehicle. Language, in its best form, is one of our species’ most powerful tools towards theory of mind

Thus, I have a deep-seated skepticism of any word or group of words which is used reflexively1. The reason this skepticism exists is because these words – though apparently simple – almost always have deep meanings. 

These hidden meanings often escape the people who parrot the words2. And the meanings may be innocuous. “Like”, for instance: although many would-be linguistic purists like to dislike it, I think the word’s most recent evolution has useful functions. More on that another day. For today, I have thoughts regarding the three little words that are used to convey stunned, I-thought-we-were-all-adults-here-but-I-guess-I-was-wrong disbelief at the riots and property destruction (not to be confused with peaceful protests, by the way) taking place in brand-name cities across the U.S. Let’s hear them again:

“Their. Own. Communities.” 

Three problems there. 

First off, “Their.” See, that’s distancing language. 

There are problems facing fellow American citizens; the idea of “citizen” requires that problems facing one are problems facing all. And yet, that appears not to be the case. “Their” implicitly accepts that none of this has anything to do with the speaker, and that confirms that – practically speaking – segregation is still a reality. 

Economically, spatially, and statistically, people who don’t check the box “white” are at risk for a whole bunch of things in this federal republic, including (on top of everything else) a bad ZIP code3. I know, it’s bizarre. Are you sure you want to go on the record acknowledging that? Because that’s going to be a great and truly transformative moment in American culture and I for one am ready to see it. But somehow I don’t think that’s what you meant. Get back to me when you figure it out. 

Second: “Own.” Hmm. So, you think people should feel a sense of pride in a place that, historically speaking, was basically the unwanted leftovers? And they only retain, currently, because no one has a) declared imminent domain or b) decided to “improve” – “revitalize” – “gentrify” them right out of it? 

It was never their own community, except as a space to which they were relegated. If someone put you in a cage you’d hate it too. You’d destroy it too. Look up “redlining” and the history of the Federal Housing Administration.

Finally – “Community.” You mean a wealth-desert filled with well-intentioned projects, dysfunctional schools, franchises, illegal microeconomies, and not much else? (Oh, and every four years a politician or two, because it might be a close vote.) Statistically and generally speaking – that is what the places inhabited by the “they” implied by “their” (see above) means. 

Additionally – most of the people who use the above phrase aren’t talking about this mess because they’re actually surprised “they” are destroying “their” “own” “communities.” These pundits mean: “I am worried ‘you people’ will mess with MY community, MY safe space, MY stuff, MY wealth, and MY sense of comfort.” I hazard a more accurate translation is: “I want this to stop, because it’s bloody threatening.” 

“They” could just say it. 

Words, people. Think before you say them. For as we speak, so shall we think and act. If we actually want our society to emerge from all of this, we must start talking like it. 

1 Lest you think me unfair, I try to apply this policy most rigorously to my own voice. If I find myself using a phrase a lot, it’s put into “quarantine” until I can piece it apart and figure out what I actually mean.

 2 Actual parrots, by the way, are very intelligent.

3 Why? Because in a truly wretched example of institutionalized racism known as “redlining, “people of color” were herded into neighborhoods the Feds considered “low value,” and the neighborhoods were picked as “low value” based on items like: do they contain a single foreigner or “person of color”? Under this criteria, even economically thriving communities in places like Chicago were relegated to perpetual poverty. If you want more information, a great place to start is this book-length article by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It’s worth reading in installments. 

“Statistically” – yea, I know. I used it a lot and didn’t include a single statistic. Here is my “Works Consulted” section. I apologize for the lack of quality citations. Please let me know if you have a specific question on any of the points.

In Spirit Of An Experiment

In the spirit of an experiment – shall we try a small test?

Nothing rigorous, nothing legally binding – just a little discourse; a small act of mapping some spaces, some boundaries, some questions and some things that need to be questioned.  Let us seek truth. 

What does it mean to say – “violence isn’t the answer”? 

There’s also this other trope – “violence never solved anything;” I realize it isn’t quite the same thing, but I hear both quite a lot, more lately than ever. Could someone help me figure out what they mean?

The counterargument to the second is obvious. It’s as close as the nearest history text, conveniently re-purposed as a door stop. A close reading of that text will reveal that, in fact, violence has a demonstrable history of solving many things. 

I know, it’s earth shattering. I’m considering publishing my research findings, so please don’t go around talking about it. 

Back to the history text – oh, look. The majority of philosophers, political figures, religious authorities, and cultural commentators throughout human history have given the use of violence a specific or implicit green light. 

In fact, it’s a panacea; they wish they’d thought it up themselves. It solves nearby boundaries which may be inconvenient to trade; it solves far-away resources which may be inconvenient not to own. It solves half-siblings, bastard offspring, ex-spouses, and other trying familial associations. You get the picture. Violence is the stuff of solutions. So that one is taken care of. 

Now, the first one – “violence isn’t the answer” – oh, dear. It inhabits trickier semantic ground. If we set up the question just right, Jeopardy-style – “What is a cessation of conflict?” – sure, experts all agree: violence is not the answer. 

Spiritually speaking, most people would agree that violence isn’t the answer, at least not for them. Damnation and other potential eternal repercussions look best on other people’s conscience. 

But practically – because around here, we are practical adults who inhabit the real world – well. Sometimes the muscle becomes the meat, as it were. Sometimes the frying pan meets the fire. Sometimes the – 

Well. You know what they say about things hitting fans, no one comes out clean. But I digress. The point is, people play semantics but what they typically mean is: Violence has one purpose, and that purpose is whatever I find convenient. What does this mean in practical terms? “I am fine with violence when I’m confident the person committing it is on my side.”

Lately, you’ll notice the pleas for non-violence are coming mostly from people who are not at all confident the people committing violence are on their side. 

It’s a clever response. It doesn’t name names. It neatly removes the specific question of cause and effect from the picture – “They’re rioting why? Oh it doesn’t matter; violence is never the answer.” 

In the hard-boiled wonderland of American party politics, it also distances them from whatever the specifics of “who started it” turn out to entail. Extremist fomenters of any vein are rhetoricalized away. Poof, it’s almost like it was never a problem. Oh, right. It was never taken seriously as a problem… 

One more little thing: don’t be a hypocrite. Look at that history textbook. Look at the obituaries of people for whom “violence” was listed as the cause of death. 

Maybe you genuinely inhabit a world where you believe violence isn’t an answer, and it doesn’t solve anything. If so, good for you. 

You realize, of course, that means completely giving it up – not farming it out. 

That means not benefiting from others’ acts of violence. That means not benefiting, specifically or implicitly, from the presence of a military or a police force or any other type of armed presence – no sins of omission or commission. I guess oil and petroleum products are out of your life, huh?

Anyways, I’m sure you’re busy extinguishing all inadvertent instances of profiting from violence from your life. So I won’t take up your time any longer, except for this one tiny observation: instead of trotting out the tried-and-true tropes, you might consider a new, more honest, set of slogans. In the spirit of an experiment – repeat after me:

“Ignoring injustice isn’t the answer. Ignoring injustice doesn’t solve anything.”

Peace out, friends. 

Super important ethical footnote: As it turns out, I actually have strong logical and faith-based objections to acts of violence. It comes from being angry all the time. I am arguing against the perverse faux-innocence of vacuous chestnuts like the above, specifically when they are used to further conflict by deliberately devaluing the terms of conflict. If you want my opinion on an effective beginning of a response, here you go.

In America, Quarantine Isn’t New

Note: This piece was written last Tuesday, before our persistent failure to admit and amend racial injustice became a topic of national discussion…again. Had I written it a week later, it would have been written differently. However, the historical record would remain the same. Therefore I have let the piece stand, unedited.

When the world restarts – what will we see?

Very likely what we’ve always seen: exactly what we want to. Which is to say: a great deal less than is actually there. The fact is, we’ve always been quarantined from each other. As communities and as individuals, we were in lockdown long prior to the shelter-in-place orders issued in response to covid-19.

Every single one of us goes through our lives sheltering from the inconvenient reality of some other group of people, some other experience of life. We are terrified of breathing in Other, becoming infected by contact; we are terrified of understanding what life looks like from some other angle. 

It is safe to say that this pandemic has affected everyone in some way. Even those normally inured to crisis have experienced some interruption of their normal activity. Pandemics are pervasive. But the reassuring platitude – “We’re all in this together” – masks the harder truth that some of us are in over our heads. Do not confuse “pervasive” with “equally affected by.” 

In the U.S., people who are considered “minorities” are disproportionately affected by covid-19 (The Lancet, May 8, 2020: Evidence Mounts on the Disproportionate Affect of Covid-19 on Ethnic Minorities). Despite the standard “more studies are needed” conclusions, sources ranging from the CDC to The Economist observe that people who check off any census box other than “Non-Hispanic White” have higher rates of hospitalization and higher rates of mortality from the virus (Yale News, May 19, 2020: New Analysis Quantifies Risk of Covid-19 to Racial, Ethnic Minorities). Cumulatively, they also experience higher rates of adverse economic impact through job loss or furlough, and have fewer economic resources to fall back on during economic downturn. 

Crises tend to most adversely affect the most vulnerable members of a society. Crises unmask vulnerabilities that exist as blind spots during better (read: “normal”) times. To clarify, what this means is that these vulnerabilities are not new. They are simply more visible because crisis has made them (temporarily) impossible to ignore. This particular crisis has revealed social, cultural, and economic stratification. Few things reveal a tenuous place in society quite so effectively as “shelter in place.” 

These strata exist because – generally speaking – social distancing has always been part of the fabric of American society. 

It’s a laundry list of boundaries. Economic and cultural isolation of minorities leading to entrenched poverty; the rapacity of slavery and Jim Crow laws; the awkward historical agendas of the Monroe Doctrine, the Trail of Tears, and the various literal and structural massacres of Native societies – these atrocities occupy a sort of dead space in the narrative of “We the People”. They are the sections everyone skips; they have been edited out “for clarity”. 

The coronavirus has thrown their cause-and-effect descendants into stark clarity. 

We have constructed our histories, our policies, and our communities to quarantine against those who are inconvenient – those who don’t fit the average of “assimilated.” 

The standards for “assimilation” are established by those who are above average – a state maintained by excluding or exploiting or ignoring anyone who exists outside the manipulated safe space of “normal”. 

In short, we relish a good “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps” story, but ignore the underlying truth that such stories either rely on miraculous thinking or having access to a shoe store to begin with. 

African-American, Hispanic, and Native communities bear the ongoing brunt of this sort of direct and indirect lockdown, so it is not surprising that they also bear the brunt of worst-possible-scenario outcomes during the coronavirus pandemic. 

What remains to be seen is if we will see things differently once the pandemic is over – whether the end of quarantine will actually bring about the unrealized promise of “we’re all in this together.”

Origins: A Break In Our Regular Programming

According to Darwin, this Skeleton shouldn’t survive. 

I am told people love a good origin story. What’s not to like about a promising start? It has rich narrative potential: good omens, a few occurrences of occult significance, symbolism, some prophecies – or at least a silver spoon (somewhere). Just try writing an epic fantasy without it. 

That being said – today I opt for honesty. The disturbing truth of the matter is this blog has a dreadful family tree. I have a history of starting blogs and then abandoning them. 

The poor young things never have a chance. Each and every one of my back pages arose out of turmoil, phoenix-like: they were intended to channel the promising energies of whatever my latest project was, into something which would (certainly) prove my fame and fortune. At least three of them haunt my WordPress “My Sites” tab; they are starved but not dead, not gone but mostly forgotten. I wish I could report I have nightmares of them smothering me, but nothing so Twilight Zone – mostly I just look at them and think “…lesson learned.” (You’re welcome to imagine it in Rod Serling’s voice.)

Sometimes you can’t force what isn’t there. Sometimes you can’t trick yourself into love. Sometimes – whatever is needed – you just don’t have it yet. I’d like to say otherwise, but that wouldn’t be honest. 

So in terms of “survival of the fittest,” this Skeleton does not have a promising pedigree. It’s like finding out a canary survived the meteor that took out T-Rex. Chirp, chirp. 

Maybe the canary learned something. Maybe adaptability is a better lesson than appearance of expertise. 

Maybe the canary finally learned to quit overcrowding its schedule, quit doing things just to maintain the appearance of “young professional,” quit forcing an interest in things that weren’t worth spending a life on. Oh, and learned to just sit down and write. 

This post is somewhat more personal than the usual, ah, high-quality in-depth reading material you have (hopefully) come to expect. 

I mention all of this because just passed 200 “follows.” And though I try very hard not to pay attention to the numbers – it means a very great deal to me that each of you give a portion of your lifetime towards reading my thoughts and learning experiences. It keeps me writing, each and every day.

My world has been challenged and expanded by your comments and by your own blog posts and work. I am very fortunate that each of you share your unique voices in this community. I consider each of you to be friends, and I hope my work contributes something useful to your day. 

Maybe it’s not always “survival of the fittest;” sometimes, it’s “survival of the best community.” 

Thank you.

Whatever Future Is Out There

I guess I didn’t really experience the world prior to the pandemic. 

Most of my life has been lived in some sort of isolation. It wasn’t always voluntary (or at least, anything that a conscious choice could change) – but it became a defining habit; impossible to break. 

When I took on the idea of Skeleton for this blog – when the idea showed up one day and refused to go away – I came to realize it was no accident. The childhood Halloween figures of skeletons and ghosts have always had a place in my affections; they’re forever separate from the world around them, and they’re forever just a bit out of step with time. They can’t really join others, and they can’t really move on. In a certain inalterable sense, they’re alone. 

Of course, this all sounds terribly emo. It’s funny and ridiculous, and I really need to do something about my bangs. But it’s the closest I can come to expressing the reality of the matter, putting some sort of rhyme or reason to the business. 

Most of the things They say won’t come back are things I always thought I had yet to experience. 

Crowds, travel, conferences, collaboration, concerts, clubbing, or whatever else people do with each other on busy Friday nights. Wander through New York City; explore Shanghai or Tokyo or the rest of the world’s cities, big beautiful creatures of light and dark and constant change. 

Very few things in life actually disappear, but most things change beyond understanding. Quite a few things have changed beyond my understanding, in a matter of months. The fact that I didn’t understand them to begin with does not lessen my sense of loss. 

I’d like to shrug all of this off. I’d like to hide it under my coffee cup as I get up to go about my day. But loss is as important a thing as happiness, reassurance, creation. It must be acknowledged. Without it, I can’t honestly go about rebuilding my life or the world we share. 

Our world has lost things. It has lost people. Families have lost loved ones; loved ones have lost the chance to say goodbye. Students have lost futures they dreamed of; parents have lost jobs and economic security. Communities have lost cohesion. Trust, respect, and a sense of shared values have fallen victim to political grandstanding and the darker side of (selective) social distancing. 

We had tools to prevent this. 

We didn’t. Things broke down. Things usually do. 

Do we have tools to rebuild? 

Sometimes you have to lose expectations. If it comes down to it, I’ll give up the things I always thought I’d do, someday. Because now it’s today, and I’m not ready to lose whatever future is out there. 

Life-Changing Magic of Navigating Books

I must admit to a bad habit. I love to read – but separate from this, I also love to horde library books. Not all books; just specific books during specific times. They seem to be a sort of talisman. Perhaps I will read them – perhaps not. Maybe I will only skim through, taking a word here, a sentence there, acknowledgements or bibliography. Sometimes it is enough just to have a particular title or cover design on my shelf. When their purpose is served, back to the library they go.  

Since late November I have continually renewed The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo. I have read it every which way, forwards and backwards and piecemeal, multiple times. I find it extremely comforting. It appears to toute the hypnotic magic of order, but that is only superficial. Conceptually the book is driven by the process of acknowledging, examining and making peace between your past and present. 

My very favorite part – the part I look forward to every read through; the climax of the action, if you will – occurs at the beginning of Chapter 4. Ms. Kondo narrates how she comes home. 

She talks about unlocking her door, saying hello to her house that has been waiting for her. She puts on water for tea, changes clothes, returns the contents of her purse and tools of her day to their respective places. By this time the water has boiled; she makes tea, and sips while reading through her mail. 

It is a very simple progression of actions. She does not directly describe her space any more than necessary to explain, in precise terms, where each item comes from or returns to. 

Yet, based on her description, I have an extremely vivid sense of being invited into that space. I am able to map it, conceptually and emotionally. It’s the idea of home as a sort of labyrinth – a space which, as we navigate its physical boundaries, also helps us understand and navigate our internal boundaries and constraints. 

Fortunately, my own home – though small – is already a highly effective labyrinth. The library is closed, so my stacks of library books have acquired semi-permanent status. 

They form islands in the midst of the floor, and towers in the middle of tables. Some of them function as trays, laptop rests; some of them sprawl invitingly open around my chair. To move through my apartment is to enter into a physical interaction with these books, every bit as intense as the mental interaction of reading them. They now, literally as well as figuratively, shape my world. 

And they have indeed guided me towards new understanding. From now on, I’m only checking out e-books.