I would call my friends on other devices;

They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.

I was one of those teenagers who’d say things like “if you have no expectations you can’t be disappointed” and who was very into zen kōans and who spent a lot of time thinking about the difference between nihilism and acedia. Add to this a steady diet of Machiavelli (yes, even Discourses on Livy) and Wilde and RATM and Tool and you have someone absolutely insufferable (as my English teachers and principal would especially readily attest).

It’s been a while since I was sixteen, and I’ve spent a couple decades trying to be less of a pain (though my belief that authority figures do not automatically know what they are doing has, in truth, gotten more pronounced with time.) But I have retained the tendency to cope with unusual amounts of uncertainty by throwing myself into music or books. There are worse things, in these times.

I do not know when I will see my family again. Or my friends. I do not know when I will meet most of the people I now work with, people with whom I spend hours per day on various chat programs and video calls. I do not know, just as I have not been able to know for years and years, when the folks with the power to make the call will decide there’s no room here for green card holders with last names like mine.

I do not know if everyone I love will survive this. I do not know if I will.

How can we know?

This is life now, and it is worse for many people than it is for me. I am safe and I am well and I still have a job and it is the kind of job that I can do while at home surrounded by an increasing number of plants.

What a wild thing, to be going about one’s business during a pandemic. What a wild thing, to be able to do any ordinary thing at all.

For a time, there was a phrase popular among people with “#resist” in their bios: “this is not normal”. Bonus points if it was accompanied by “let that sink in”. An interesting element of this conversation was the shock and disbelief expressed by people unused to having the status quo not work in their favour; the horror and rage of discovering that the infrastructure that had historically supported you could just as easily be used against you; the dismay at the impropriety of explicit displays of power and the disregard for genteel norms.

Hundreds of thousands of people have died around the world and yet relatively few of those people so upset by the new normal know any of the victims of this pandemic. That is both a statistical truth and a fact of relative privilege. Death may be the great equalizer, but who dies and how and where and when is always a function of the inequality of our lives.

We can’t hashtag our way out of this, but we can start to grapple with what we are in for.

Somewhere between the sourdough starters and banana bread and the judgements about masks and social distancing, between the Zoom happy hours and the stress meltdowns, between the yoga classes streaming live on IGTV and the endless parade of press conferences, somewhere in between is the space to acknowledge that every day people are dying. That what we mean when we discuss the costs and benefits of “reopening the economy” is “how many people, and what kinds of people, are we willing to let suffer and die?”

Whose lives count, and for what? And to who? And to you?

Attribution:

I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.

—from Poem (I lived in the first century of world wars by Muriel Rukeyser

Even what was beyond us / was recast in our image;

we gave the country a heart, / the storm an eye,

What does it mean, for tens and hundreds of thousands of people to die? Friends, colleagues, children, grandparents, strangers. What does it mean for their deaths to be dismissed, ignored, questioned, explained away, designated as necessary for progress. What does it mean for the ones left behind to grieve? What does it mean to grieve when you cannot, dare not gather?

Viruses do not discriminate but society does.

Who we police and who we coddle and who we condemn and who we praise and who we see and who we render invisible—those are decisions.

Society is us. Decisions don’t make themselves.

Attribution:

Even what was beyond us
was recast in our image;
we gave the country a heart,
the storm an eye,
the cave a mouth
so we could pass into safety.

— from Things by Lisel Mueller

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