Times and Seasons and Vanity upon Vanity

I didn’t know I could stop and trace the roads

of my palm the way my baby does, and tell

myself that moving fast isn’t everything, that other folks had

walked this path, that Earth isn’t mine alone, that am

not as great as I assumed, that it doesn’t pay

to eat with both hands like crabs, that I’m vulnerable.

 

I didn’t know I could live without sports and pop

myths, the lure of sex and the wild, the fantasy

of Hollywood and the charm of yachts. I didn’t know.

Please, tell me again: why do you harm your neighbor

for the glory you met and will leave behind tomorrow?

 

I’m home now—the pandemic struck too fast for me

to shield myself as I always do when others mourn

the loss of the things they love. I’m quarantined from

all the things I bleached the ozone with my chimneys.

 

Reckon, there’s a time for everything: a time for pollution

and a time we’re chained from messing as we pleased,

a time to worship wealth and a time to croak

 

health is greater, a time for folly and a time

for duty, a time to crave the grandeur of greed

 

and a time to love everyone and everything as yourself.

 

—July 5, 2020

In the Flowery Countryside

Where shall we put the bodies, sir,

fifty thousand more today

and that is just at dawn

the cemetery’s gates are chained,

undertaker’s curtains drawn

 

curtains drawn good man? this will just not do

dig another trench, deep and wide;

but do not upset the people,

dig it out of sight

 

dig it out of sight dear sir?

the woods beyond the city are full,

there are few spaces now to hide

perhaps we should head further out,

in the flowery countryside?

 

in the flowery countryside? yes, good man, that might do

there is no time to spare

and do try to be good,

place them down with gentle care

 

place them down with gentle care, of course I want to sir,

but backhoe bucket does not allow

for gentleness in placing down;

perhaps some farmers will lend a hand

 

farmers might lend a hand good man?

indeed, this could save time,

now be sure to bury them deep enough

in the flowery countryside

 

in the flowery countryside is where I’ve been, sir,

and farmer’s time was loaned

we did run out of markers, but

we marked the places with stones

 

marked the places with stones good man,

that was very kind

sadly now, you must stay

away from the flowery countryside

 

the farmers cry, no more! no more!

and leaders claim this problem is not theirs

perhaps the only thing to do now, good man

is load the trucks and head towards the capital city’s front stairs

 

—July 4, 2020

Living in a Metaphor

I worked on my manuscript, yesterday, for the first time in weeks. I feel creatively, existentially frail; it is hard to think through in the same way I have always assumed that fish find the ocean hard to think through. Immersed in the conditions of your own existence, it’s hard to find perspective. The challenge is to learn to see better.

My country, ostensibly a global power, has the highest death rate in Europe. Our leaders never quite invited the public to join in street parties on VE Day, but they sure did switch up their messaging on the subject just in time for Little Englanders everywhere to mass in the streets, in misguided celebration of our glorious, defanged history. Blitz spirit, and all that; keep calm and carry on. I am not immersed because I am alone in my studio flat, shuttling between my desk and my bed, forcing myself through sit-ups on the carpet. I have exactly one window onto the world, and it looks directly onto a garden to which I have no access. The metaphors write themselves, and yet, sitting down to express them, I’m bereft.

I am trying to forgive myself for being unmoored to such an extent. To a point, the pace of the world has slowed to a degree where this is feasible. But I have it on good authority (from the people who pay my wages) that my work still needs to get done. Ultimately, whatever ‘new normal’ we’ve reached has one thing in common with the way we lived before: it’s okay to not be okay, until such time as it interferes with someone else’s bottom line. I am acutely conscious of how inconvenient I am as I struggle to do what needs to be done — professionally first, and then domestically, and (finally, as always) creatively.

Do I think the world will change? I feel just as precarious, just as thinly-stretched as I did before the virus went worldwide. If anything, the national mood here in England has become more jingoistic and hateful, not less. I don’t have a great deal of faith.

But maybe I’m just too deep in the paint. I’ve watched my friends organise protests, build networks of mutual aid, create art that speaks to the possibilities they believe in. My small-c conservative parents have started to question the authority of the police. Immersion in one’s own solitude and exhaustion is still immersion; I can’t discount the possibility that the stagnation I feel is less than half of the story.

I want to believe it’s a story I will write one day. I want to believe that I’ll learn to see it clearly enough to tell it as it deserves to be told. I may not have confidence that the world at large will discover a better, braver way to be, in the grip of the kind of collective trauma that will shape us all in time — but I do believe that we will survive, and that when we tell the stories of how we survived, there will be a point. Call it cautious optimism. It’s about the best I can do.

 

—June 26, 2020

Dynamic Equilibrium

Looking at a fluid-filled conical flask,

the reactants colourless,

you’d think nothing of note was happening.

 

It’s been the same of life in lockdown:

we go nowhere, see no one, touch nothing.

 

And yet, my son has taken up jogging and cooking,

my daughter, YouTube yoga, art.

My lecturer husband has been finding new ways

to connect with his students.

 

Me, I’ve been filling my own flask with words,

pouring myself into stories that one day I’ll share.

 

We’ve all been planting seeds and learning of the gifts

of nature; this unhurried way of life,

the dynamic quality of patience.

 

There is nothing static about this;

the very molecules of our being

are rearranging themselves.

 

—May 31, 2020

Looking Out, Looking In

These days, I am unable to hold on to my days. They are like runaway horses. And the reins are no longer in my control. Strange now, when my life is even more cloistered. I withdrew from the rambunctious world outside when my children grew old enough to be independent. So I could write.

These days I rarely leave my 18th floor apartment. Not even to walk on the lawns and parks of our gated community, a microcosm, self-sufficient and barricaded against the rough and tumble of the world outside. Covid 19 may be my official reason. But I know better. I don’t belong. I can’t relate to problems arising from dealing with housework and office, because of the absence of an entourage of help—cook, nanny, char-woman or maid, chauffeur and elderly care help for those who have senior citizens living with them. The hysteria that arises because their expensive cars—BMWs, Audis, Mercedes, Jaguars etc. etc.—need to run or else the batteries will die. And the excitement of queuing up, re-usable shopping bags and masks in place, for the various food trucks selling mangoes and other fruits, chicken and mutton and even varieties of Indian desserts. Because well-off Indians need their shopping fix, and if it is only food for sale, well then so be it.

I am a crow living among birds of paradise.

The world has stopped travelling. But Indians have not. They are travelling hundreds of miles, by the hundreds. These are the migrant workers, those nameless, faceless, union-less men and women and sometimes even children, who work for long hours for disgraceful remuneration, and who are now bereft of even that meagre earning.

This is the other face of India. A face that has wiped out my self-centered sorrows at losing my quiet days of uninterrupted routine, because my spouse is working from home, and he naturally gets priority—that is how we were raised, to put ourselves last, and I am a feminist only in theory. That is not the entire truth, though. I have also stopped writing because it suddenly seems like a frivolous activity. But I can’t stop writing in my head. As I cook and clean and repeat the chores again and again, the writing continues and disappears, because the words are never ‘put down.’ I have to look at my cell phone to determine my days. I cannot tell a Sunday from a Monday any more.

Be thankful, be thankful, we tell each other, and our children when we video chat with them.

Sixteen workers were cut up like butcher’s meat beneath the wheels of a goods train during the early hours of the night of the flower moon. They were walking home from one end of India to another, thinking they were taking a straight and safe path, because trains were not running during the lockdown. They didn’t know about goods trains. Another day, a young man, traveling on the roof of a bus, after shelling out what would have been a fortune for him, collapsed and died in his friend’s arms. The day temperatures often rise to 42 degrees Celsius and more. He was not Covid positive. He died of dehydration. There are so many tragic stories being played out. The media catches the dramatic ones and housebound ghouls lap them up.

What should I be thankful for? For myself and my family? We wrap ourselves up in the comfort of our self-centeredness. Life is less complicated. Or would have been if my mind was differently configured.

Looking down from my balcony, at the street dogs chasing each other and the occasional car, the delivery trucks and Swiggy bikes, I watch workers without any kind of protective gear laying underground cables and repairing roads. Across the road, and beyond the boundaries of a posh villa community opposite our own, cranes turn slowly over a high-rise complex, gradually adding to its height.

The ministers say they are helping the economy and also providing jobs for the migrant workers, encouraging them to stay back in the cities. The government has announced financial aid and safe transport for the migrants who are returning home, because they feel it is better to die there among their families than in the cities. The exodus continues. Aided or unaided. Even as the government prepares to lift lockdown and ‘normal life’ begins to trickle back.

There are other tragedies happening, non Corovid ones. These are putting their weight against Corovid’s devastation. Cyclone Amphan flattened homes and livelihoods in my home state, Bengal. Swarms of locusts have eaten acres and acres of standing crops in Rajasthan and neighboring states. And they are still feasting as I write.

The gloom and doom are lighter in places though. Good Samaritans, ordinary citizens, and even news reporters interviewing the migrants are stepping in to give what help they can. Even if it means only slippers for their feet and bottles of water. These people are not necessarily the rich. Many are financially needy themselves. Then there are our pharmaceutical companies who are going all out to produce vaccines and medicines. I didn’t know before this pandemic that India produces around 70% of the world’s vaccines.

My heart remains restless. Suddenly writing to be published seems a frivolous desire. Mending a hole in a T-shirt seems a superior activity. Nevertheless, a week or so ago, I made a conscious effort to sit down at my computer and write, random paragraphs. Those exercises have helped. I am somewhat relieved, because I had written nothing the whole of April.

Sometimes the writing is automatic. As if a creature from my innermost depths has risen to express herself. And it is possibly she who has put this thought to me: what does it matter if nobody ever reads me? If my fiction, poetry, essays etc. never get to see the light of day? How does my writing change anything in the world, anyway? There are thousands of unread books. If I were to choose between one and the other, what would I rather be, the reader or the writer?

My reading life has returned, quietly but firmly. As a child, adolescent, and then as a single adult I used to devour books every day. I felt insecure if I didn’t have a book in my bag, even when I went grocery shopping for my mom. Juggling office and children changed all of that. I read to my children when they were small, but had stopped reading for myself. My spouse isn’t an avid book reader; he would choose television over a book. None of our acquaintances, personal friends and relatives are. None of them write either, but they have strong opinions about books and writers and the artistic world in general. For many years my reading had been reduced to a trickle, as I tried to straddle my inner and my exterior worlds. A handful of books in a year, instead of the three or four I used to consume in a week. For the past few weeks, I have not sat with my spouse to watch a movie or even the news. I’ve been reading in between my chores and before going to bed.

I feel I have begun a new journey, albeit a private one. I will not stop writing. But I am now conscious that it is the act of writing that brings me happiness, not seeing it in print. Material success or the lack of it is, well, immaterial. This does not mean I won’t send out work anymore. I will, but there is neither hurry nor anxiety now.

The world has changed. I see it as molting into something new, and perhaps terrifying, but definitely different. We don’t know who will survive and who won’t, who will be able to adapt and who won’t. As for me, my place in the world may be less than a dust-mote, but let it be a happy mote of dust. Because that is humanity’s triumph against strangeness, against adversity, against calamity. Because humanity knows how to rise again and again. And I am part of it, tiny, insignificant, but a part nevertheless. Stay blessed.

 

—May 27, 2020

Art Installation in the Time of COVID-19

Collaborators:

 

Wind, sunshine, water,

clouds, fruit, rocks

 

Text:

 

my son asks if I have an idea

of what happens when we die

 

I tell him I don’t know but yes

I’ve ideas, words, approximations

 

of concepts outsized by my

grasp—eternal, ephemeral,

 

what is essential work

in these days when luck

 

unluck has gone viral

and we cannot hold

 

hands to pluck hope, ripe

fruit needs to be washed

 

with sunshine, love, will

to create, postponing

 

questions past our certainty—

who are the gardeners,

 

what is the garden, I

ask him, what is essential

 

for creation, for life

growing, blooming, seeding,

 

he smiles. The wind uplifts

and we are cirrus high

 

where we marvel at how

much we see and don’t know,

 

hear and cannot understand,

hope and do not know how to

 

hold.

 

Music:

 

rocksplash of rapids,

your unswerving heart

 

—May 17, 2020

Interview: D. A. Xiaolin Spires

Michael: How do you think the world will change?

D.A. Xiaolin Spires: I was listening to The World Ahead podcast on “Viral acceleration: Tech in the time of coronavirus” and I remember they said something to the likes of (and I’m paraphrasing here): in economic upswings, technology is created and in recessions, technology is adopted. I haven’t delved into the research that would support this adage, but it does seem that we have implemented some technology for these exceptional times (perhaps slowly becoming “the next normal” times?) that would have otherwise remained somewhat fringe or at least less prevalent.

Food delivery services (UberEats) and meal kit services (Hello Fresh, Sun Basket, etc.) have become more widespread. While meal kits have been criticized for greater plastic waste, one study has shown that they save on greenhouse gas emissions and have a smaller carbon footprint than grocery store purchases. While I think it’s hard to project so far into the future about the greater adoption of meal kit services, we can imagine a future where capacities of grocery shopping are limited to what you need that day and no further—efficiencies to limit food waste at the consumer level. No more throwing out five avocados that have all gone bad!

Personally, I still enjoy strolling down market aisles, encountering new food products you otherwise wouldn’t know about—and the social and leisurely aspect of it all, even as friends have confided in me, “Going to the supermarket feels like a war zone.” I do think new practices of food distribution may continue to crop up even as the pandemic settles down. It might feel less like a war zone, but some people might still want to hunker down in their bunkers.

As we hole up in quarantine, I personally have been in Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting, applauding, giving thumbs up and raising hands with a click of a button. Our relationship with screens has grown even stronger. Almost everyone I see is mediated by these pixels and the laptop has really been my social portal, transporting me, acting as a salon in which friends and I connect, drinking mismatched drinks from nonmatching glasses. This does mean less carbon emissions from driving to restaurants and pubs. But, I’m not sure how long this will last beyond the pandemic’s duration. If you assume that there will be a pandemic like this year after year, then maybe such camera-based tête-à-tête’s will come to stay. We can clink our glasses against the frame of our laptops, smiling as we say, “Cheers!”

But, I really do think the pull to meet in person is strong. It’s not just about sharing a drink and the moment, but sometimes it really is about the atmosphere, the din of a dark bar, the balancing on a stool as you sip a cocktail next to an old friend. The passing of napkins and olives. Patting a buddy on the back and hugging.

I think the world will change, but I think some institutions have a lot of traction and are very human.

 

—April 28, 2020

Coronavirus and the Digital Divide

Going into the gradual UK lockdown, two weeks ago, we expected to feel scared, worried for our relatives scattered across the world, and, after a few days of forced inactivity, bored out of our wits. We knew that there was not a lot we could do about the first two, but thankfully our core members had the luck and privilege to be well stocked of craft supplies, books and videogames. However we hardly had a chance to touch any of that.

In fact, most of us in the core team have the privilege to be able to work from home for most of our regular work activities and we have found that without a clear break between work and reproductive labour, the two blend in seamlessly in a continuum of tasks to complete, leaving hardly any interstice to sneak in an hour or so of creativity. This has been the source of a large amount of frustration among our members and we still haven’t found a way to build a new work-life balance. Perhaps time will tell, but we’re open to suggestions.

Like for most people, our social life has moved to the web. We’ve been using various video calls to contact family, meet with colleagues and organise with fellow activists and solarpunk creators. Physical distances have been simultaneously made impassable and immaterial. If all places are equally impossible or impractical to reach, there is no reason why collaborating with someone across the ocean would be any harder than doing the same with someone only a few miles away. Endless possibilities are open before us who have a good connection to the web: we can give seminars to faraway universities and collectives, attend lectures from esteemed colleagues five time zones away, reconnect with relatives we’ve not seen in a decade.

This is all well and good, however this crisis has highlighted how much of a privilege this is. For the people caught on the other side of the digital divide, the shift of all social life, education and services to the web is inevitably another source of stress as it becomes completely inaccessible to them.

When politicians and activists call for net neutrality or even for free internet connection for everyone, they are not trying to “pander to the millennial demographic”, but recognising that the internet has become an extension of the public sphere and an essential tool for daily life, and as such it should be treated like a common good with no access barriers.

Between this and the huge surveillance and data ownership issues raised by the recent controversies regarding most social platforms, there has never been a better moment to discuss and design a better way of building and managing the internet, one that centres people’s digital rights and privacy instead or profits and is built around democratic self-organisation, free open-source software and cooperativism.

Our hope for the future is that we will collectively learn from this stressful, exceptional experience and build a new, better digital normality.

 

—April 24, 2020

One Month

1,000,000. Number of Covid-19 deaths in the U.S. predicted in a statistical model published March 13th that assumed no social distancing measures.

 

154. Number of minutes on March 15th that I spent reading news media on my iPhone.

 

0. Number of states with “stay at home” orders on March 16th.

 

On March 17th I woke up at 2 a.m. I checked our bank account balances and mortgage. I estimated our average monthly budget. I calculated a budget for us without my husband’s in-come. I calculated a budget for us without my income. I filled a notepad with numbers.

 

349,000,000,000. Number of dollars the US government allocated on March 27th to a Forgivable Loan Program for small businesses.

 

100,000. Number of Covid-19 deaths in the U.S. predicted by U.S. officials on March 31st as a “best case scenario.”

 

6. Distance measured in feet to maintain between yourself and any non-household member.

 

On March 29th I woke up at 4 a.m. I read The New York Times. The Guardian. FiveThirtyEight. My local newspaper. The Washington Post. Vox.
I needed more. More facts. More graphs and charts. More ways to control the uncontrollable.

 

6,650,000. Number of Americans who filed a new claim for unemployment benefits during the fourth week of March.

 

5. Number of times I used hand sanitizer during a trip to the grocery store on April 3rd.

 

55. Number of diagnosed Covid-19 cases in my county as of April 3rd.

 

On April 4th I woke up at 2 a.m. to read the news. I read for hours. And hours.

 

6. Number of minutes within a timekeeping increment for my law firm.

 

70. Number of professional increments I need each day within a schedule that has become po-rous, overlapping math tutorials and skinned knees with PowerPoint slides and client consulta-tions.

 

13. Number of increments I spent on April 7th attending to my professional obligations.

 

17. Number of increments I spent on April 7th walking through the woods with my children.

 

During the night of April 8th I slept 9 hours and 40 minutes. I woke tired and slow. After breakfast I put the milk in the pantry instead of the fridge. I stared at my computer screen.

 

12,621. Number of deaths in the US attributed to Coronavirus as of April 8th.

 

21,919. Number of deaths in the US attributed to Coronavirus as of April 13th.

 

28,280. Number of deaths in the US attributed to Coronavirus as of April 16th.

 

I dream of a corps of poets, deployed to every news conference, stepping forward to the microphones. Come to save us from a world turned inside out. Giving us words to crawl beneath the facts. Words to hold our souls. Words to take root in the places where our stories live. Because those who habitually see the world inside out may be the only ones who can restore our equilibrium in the present moment.

#SayNiceThingsAboutDetroit

There’s a certain look people get on their faces when I answer the question of where I’m from. I go to great lengths to assure them I’m not the survivor of apocalypse they expect me to be. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more cities will start having to reckon with the torn social safety nets that failed to catch the people of Detroit.

I recently stumbled across the hashtag: #SayNiceThingsAboutDetroit. “We’re practically begging at this point,” I thought. A few years ago, the city announced they were closing seventy-two parks. The playgrounds and parks where I took my first steps are now paved over or overtaken by wild grasses. The people I loved with their beautiful copper and blue faces have since fled like refugees from their own homes. There are houses on the edge of the city that the land has reclaimed, vines and branches shattering windows, weeds, and cattails overgrowing the lawns. This is where the people who stayed began what the locals call “urban farming” when all the national grocery store chains left. This is subsistence farming. Survival farming. Only once we have our own land can we be free. The land may not be valuable, but the people of Detroit are free.

When I imagine moving back home, I’m afraid the city I knew will have been wiped away completely by the time I return. Before the pandemic, I dreamt that the house I grew up in was overtaken by vines, spilling from windows and shattering the glass. They grew, gripping the indentations between the bricks and down onto the street, filling the cracks in the sidewalks. The buildings began to topple under their weight, first crumbling, then sinking into the earth. In the back of my mind I thanked God that no one was inside, and with that thought, I looked around to find that there was nothing but silence and everyone was gone. No one skating in the park, no one buying hot dogs from the usual vendors, no one loitering on the steps of the library. Not even the police were parked in their usual spot at the intersection corner.

What happens when a city goes bankrupt? City services are cut down. Fewer trash cans, fewer cops, fewer schools and no one to put out the fires when people would rather burn down their homes and collect the insurance money than make another payment on a home that is falling apart above their heads. The government has given up on our recovery.

The Detroit of the future will be made up of the people who stuck it out, who defended their homes amid disaster. The people of Detroit are survivors of the failed experiment of the American dream, and they are the most beautiful people I have ever known. I know that someday after the world has its reckoning, I will return, and it will not be long before people have something nice to say about Detroit.

 

—April 14, 2020