#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

Protecting Edges

I’ve been thinking about saltspray roses, rugged and adaptable, clinging to dunes, strengthening coastlines, hardier than their blossoms suggest. I’ve had trouble writing, lately, because I don’t want to expose myself, don’t want to publish anything that I might regret, and yet (for me) writing demands vulnerability. I turn my flaws to the light, hoping that I might be human, and so I’m always risking regret when I write. It’s impossible to stay safe. I risk it, though, because writing carries possibilities of alchemy and growth, of salted flowers in unexpected places. I see writing as an ecotone, a liminal space in which it feels possible for anything to change, all violence and fertility, elemental and charged with flux.

My favourite outcome of alchemy is intimacy. I am motivated by the conversations, the relationships, that build through writing. In isolation, though, connection is intangible, and there’s strength in staying quiet, protecting oneself. I was, when I was younger, guarded and resilient, like a sea wall, made of stone, but I’m trying, now, to be sustainable, integrated, like a saltspray rose, gathering strength through entwining roots with others, leaning into the wind. It takes work to stay tender.

I’ve found other creative activities, though, that soothe me. I’ve been learning about tarot cards, shuffling them so often that my thumb has a small blister. I sleep with a sachet of lavender, wake up clutching amethyst, and write down my dreams. I blow on the stems of my indoor plants so as to simulate the air outside, dye my hair with honey and beetroot. I’ve remembered, like many, that I’m good at cooking. These practices emphasise process and intuition, rather than a finished product, and this feels healthy.

I don’t know, when I list these things, if I’m romanticising domesticity. I am lucky to have the time and space for such activities. It feels heartless to witness personal growth against this backdrop of devastation, but it’s disingenuous, when asked about creativity, not to acknowledge it. I won’t credit it to coronavirus. I was, right before the pandemic’s scope became apparent, finally learning to accept loss and uncertain futures, changing in ways that surprised me. I can’t separate my response to this pandemic from everything that preceded it.

I’m still trying to write on the edge of my own knowledge, to stop sand from slipping into water. I don’t want to soften things with simile, with saltspray roses, and yet we need beauty, or we will. We’re at the beginning, still, and I’m expecting grief, anticipating so much loss that mourning is subsumed, death left unprocessed because it’s quotidian, everywhere, affecting everyone. I don’t feel good. I could write of how the world might change, but trying to smooth the passage into the future can destroy our capacity to cope with the present. I’m struggling to write, but that’s fine—growth is difficult, but saltspray roses manage it, in their wild ecotone, and all I need to do is stay inside.

 

—April 13, 2020

Writing in the Time of Coronavirus

Last night, I dreamt that a campsite I stayed at during a cycle tour was barren, as if there had been a terrible drought. I touched the wall of a house and rubble cascaded down. Then I was walking up a narrow staircase with a man who was escorting me to a job interview with his boss. The staircase wound up and up, getting tighter, until I couldn’t go any further.

A few weeks ago, saturated with anxiety, I could hardly concentrate, and repeatedly broke my rule of not looking at the Internet while writing, to obsessively read the news. After a while, I banned myself from reading news in the mornings until I’d done some writing.

At first, I did feel that writing was unimportant, in view of what’s going on. Then I thought: you were always going to die and so if writing is meaningless now, it always was. Or wasn’t.

Writing is for me a comfort and an affirmation of living, like playing sport or painting or making music, or doing just about anything you enjoy. You’ve got to love it to do it. Or, you do it because you love it. That doesn’t change.

I’ve just finished the final edits for my short story collection and I’ve written a number of stories about ecological collapse. I’m now starting work on a cli-fi novel, which inevitably involves some form of apocalypse, whether slow or sudden.

All of my recent writing has ended up being about what’s happening to us now. The only difference to my previous writing is that I now have the additional immediate perspective of how I feel—I am, like everybody, directly involved. I’ll have to wait and see if this changes how I write.

Writing and being published creates a connection, a communication, with the reader, a telling of your story and everyone’s stories. Stories are about understanding life: about suffering, struggle and new possibilities, and simply about what it’s like to be alive.

In recent weeks, my love for and anger at my fellow humans has grown. Anger as people break social-distancing rules. Rage at the government response. And love for people as I read their particular stories of suffering, or losing somebody they love, or the unfairness of unequal exposure to risk caused by economic inequality.

But also, I’ve had a new feeling that judgements won’t work. I don’t mean not holding power to account, but rather not blaming people on an individual level for not doing everything they can. Ranting at each other seems less important than trying to listen to each other and think about what really matters. It means changing our doomed consumerist cry from: I deserve it, to: what can I do to fight for everybody?

Good writing is always complicated. Already we are listening more than usual to other people’s stories. I just hope there’ll always be ways to keep writing and people who will want to keep reading.

 

—April 12, 2020

A Rare Hybrid of Dung Beetle and Lion

The only television shows I cannot bear to watch are nature documentaries. I see them and am reminded that the animals in the titular roles are dying, will be dead before I get to travel and behold them. Their Latin names spoken in gravelly voices are almost obituaries by now.

“There goes Panthera leo, stalking its prey. Too bad it’ll be gone by 2050.” The narrator seems to say: “Such a wonderful beast that you’ve never seen and never will! Won’t you miss it?”

Of course, the sad thing is, I will miss it. I’ll probably even cry over the damn thing. Every time an exotic creature takes its last breath, I find myself wishing I was at its deathbed. The day I heard six vultures were poisoned to death just a few hours north of me, making them almost certainly extinct under my country’s skies, I thought of the lions that used to walk the soil under my feet, soil turned to concrete. As a child, when I heard that lions used to wander not so far from my house, I was filled with wonder. Now, I think of how I’ll tell my children there used to be vultures here, too.

There is nature in the city I call home, hidden in between crushed soda cans and drifting plastic wrappers. The river that used to be a liquid graveyard is slowly healing. There are the sparrows and the wagtails, birds to which songs are dedicated, patchworks of what came before the city. One could say: they are the protectors, they were here first, we love them for it. Opposing them is a long, decorous line of creatures, living litter, dropped just as carelessly as soda cans, and equally appreciated. The jellyfish invade the beach once a summer. They aren’t supposed to be there, but nobody told them the Suez Canal is for human use only. The bright green parakeets that fill the skies escaped from the zoo. The angry-eyed mynas that fight them for territory did as well. It isn’t their fault they’re here, and that the vultures up north are nearly gone, but it’s hardly a fair trade.

Walking the city, I look up between the buildings that act as shutters between me and the sky and curse every bright green flash I see. Only now does it occur to me that we may be under custody as much as the parakeets were. The city around me is a quarantine. Homo sapiens in, wildlife out. We keep it so, with poisoned corpses left for birds of prey and tawny skins stretched out for our rugs. If we leak out of the city, as we are prone to do, we will ruin what is around us just as the parakeets and mynas slashed apart the biological web of the recovering river. The invaders flock around us. After all, we brought them here, into the concrete jungle.

I imagine that I want to live in the country, amongst the pristine nature, without our new addendums, or at least, with fewer of them. But then I think of the felled trees for my home and the split habitats for my roads and consign myself to the unforgiving concrete and the towering buildings. We humans deserve being confined in our urban prisons, but that doesn’t mean I don’t spend my days dreaming of escape, dreaming of being not quite human.

I like to imagine myself the subject of a nature documentary, with a grim narrator reporting my plight. Perhaps overpopulation will kill me; maybe climate change will destroy my home. Maybe a photograph of my suffering will win someone a prestigious prize. Maybe there will be a fund in my honor, a picture of my genus on a popular website.

I try not to kid myself. I am not a rare bird or lion. I am not royalty. I don’t have the heart of a Panthera leo, like a certain King of England. I do not fly a crest of arms emblazoned with a vulture. I am far from being the last of a genetic line. I am no Salome, last independent ruler of Judea and last female leopard in that same desert, queens of dwindling hope. If I were an animal, I wouldn’t be shown struggling in the jaws of a polar bear or torn open by a gunshot. I’m not an unwelcome newcomer, either, not a bright green parakeet or angry myna, roosting in places I shouldn’t be. If I were an animal, I would be a dung beetle, strolling along under a scorching sun, uninhibited by the falling birthrate of lions.

After deciding this, I was informed, although not on a nature documentary, that the dung beetle rolls its crap in a line of cosmic significance, following the Milky Way. A dung beetle must roll his ball of dung away from the rest of the dung beetles, in a straight line. He cannot falter, or he risks the ball being stolen by others, and he, a creature smaller than the palm of my hand, can see starlight that I cannot begin to grasp, and he follows it. Perhaps this should not surprise me, for he was once an Egyptian god, rolling the sun across the sky. That was when he was a scarab, incarnate of the sun god Ra, but Ra has long faded away from most of us, and what is left is a dung-rolling creature, travelling through insignificant wastelands. Scarab and lion used to be king and protector. Mighty Sekhmet the lion goddess, guarding the dung beetle’s slow walk across the heavens. She was so powerful her breath created the desert.

The two have separated since the ancient Egyptians. Lions on every coat of arms, in every tale, while their king is burrowed into the obscurity of the desert, and perhaps it is in the best interest of the latter. Richard the Lionheart came to the Holy Land when lions still lived near my apartment, but they left when he did, hunted by the Crusaders. The lions that now roam the desert, the same desert Sekhmet formed with a single breath, are scarce; they no longer have to protect Ra, but rather themselves. I wonder if the dung beetles would be on endangered watch lists if their glory continued after Ra, if killing them was a conquest. Maybe I would be watching them on a nature show as they rolled one last ball in a heavenly line.

Once, as I deplored the state of the world, I thought myself far more puny than majestic. The city can do that to you, but even the mass of buildings doesn’t compare with the news piling up around me. The streets I walk are nothing compared to the data I scroll through each day, weather reports, knowledge crowding up like cars in traffic. The sheer information about nature used to dwarf me. Every percentage about the climate, every new disappearing species, every sign I held and every lecture I listened to hammered in my insignificance. I became sure I was a dung beetle, with only the power to push my own dung as the few lions that walk among us burned my future.

I didn’t know where those lions—oil giants, company owners, billionaires—lived, but I often assumed they must be far out in the country, away from the skyscrapers hemming the rest of us in. I thought that perhaps they did not understand, these predators, what they were doing. One of the stories about Sekhmet tells of her going into a blood frenzy, destroying all in her path. She was calmed only by Ra tricking her into drinking red beer, sending her into a drunken stupor. I did not think anyone was capable of subduing our lions, our world leaders, and was certain we were failed dung beetles, merely insects and not kings. Bloody report after bloody report, I wished the world could fall asleep so we could start afresh.

Only lately, walking down cracked sidewalks, pushing my own ball of shit in front of me, have I started to realize how much bigger I am compared to a dung beetle, and how much smaller compared to a lion, and started to consider that perhaps I am a combination of both. As I read reports about trees being planted, plastics being banned, schools striking, I no longer feel so small. A teenager may be a dung beetle, but a group of them is something entirely different, something that has grown a pair of claws. Dung beetles know to follow the stars, the scarab used to be king, after all, but the lion is the fighter—and fighting we are. My generation, and others, fighting for the vultures and the lions and most importantly, ourselves, and I fight along with them, part lion, part dung beetle.

My inner nature show narrator, studying the hybrid I’ve realized is me, is at peace as he babbles on about eventual extinction. I’m a specimen approaching endangered status, apparently, but I’ve also rolled a ball of shit across the desert, no simple feat. I push my ball of thoughts in front of me as I stalk fallen pieces of litter. I realize there is a strange sort of balance inside me. I am aware of climate change, of ecological breakdown. I know the ramifications: the heat, the cold, that we will have to adapt to later if we don’t change now. But I also choose to hope that no matter the damage we do to our planet, it too will adapt. There will always be life: the jellyfish, the parakeets, the dung beetles. We are murderers, we have killed vultures, lions, but we have invited in the bloodthirsty mynas. The mynas will ruin the current order and create a new one, one in which we, along with many others, may be left behind. It would serve us right. If we, Homo sapiens, had a nature narrator, he would be speaking of the long period we must prepare for. “They can save themselves,” he would say urgently. “But they are too foolish to do so.” Then he would continue to talk about all the other wonderful animals, adapting, evolving, in ways it would be wise for us to do too, as humankind carries on hunting stars.

My imaginary hybrid self, the beetle lion, has come to the conclusion that living things will always remain, even if they’re an awkward sort of compromise between an Egyptian god and the king of the savannah, or a quickly disappearing species and a dung beetle. It’s true that the vultures up north are nearly gone, that the parakeets are biological invaders, the ecological system as we know it is falling apart. It’s true I may never get to see a lion in person, definitely not anywhere near my house, but the jellyfish will keep coming to hunt my bare legs instead. Our world is falling apart, but maybe we’ll be able to put it together again.

Despite my newfound hope, of myself and of our planet, I still cannot bear to watch nature documentaries, but when I walk down the street in the shade of the skyscrapers, I know I too have a path of cosmic significance, a fair shot at survival.

Despite both these things, I’ve already started to miss the lions.

A Predicament

Editor’s note: In the submission call for this series, I asked everybody to answer two questions: how has the pandemic affected your creative practice, and how will the world change?

 

The short answer, Michael, is that I will change nothing and I doubt the world will change. The slightly longer answer is that the world has always been unravelling: in our lifetimes, there have been multiple genocides and there hasn’t been a single day without apartheid or war. As I’m fond of saying, the apocalypse is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.

A predicament many writers are suddenly facing, staring into the white eye of pandemic, is this: how can we write something that feels true if what’s true keeps being beaten, burnt up, disappeared, diseased, disintegrated, dissolved, eviscerated—gutted like a fish, pulled away from under us, quarantined, quashed, revealed to have been lies and slander? How can we write something real? How can we put pen to paper to lovingly describe the deck chairs on the Titanic when the ship is sinking and they won’t keep still?



First, reader, if this is the first time you’re feeling this particular feeling of the world being sucked into the drain, vorticing your words away and mixing your metaphors with sewage water and rising bile, and I say this without meaning to be flippant or to dismiss the very real panic, congratulations. Up until now you, somehow, had comparative stability. You were, somehow, not living with the threat of climate change that keeps thrumming the threads of all our lives vibrating right next to your ear. Or a myriad of the other things that threaten to devour us. You were making sandcastles at the top of the hourglass. You may have known about the threat of literal apocalypse, but you didn’t feel it bodily. That’s good, for your life. That’s good.



At some point in the history of literature, the horizon crashed into the International Date Line and all fiction that was being written turned into speculative fiction. I don’t know exactly when that was, because the International Date Line is imaginary, but maybe it was the day after the Berlin Wall was razed. Maybe it was the day before Iceland fined and imprisoned its bankers that had caused the economy to collapse. Maybe it was yesterday, but I doubt it. More to the point, there is no longer such a thing as fiction that is not speculative. 



Normally, in the world you thought you lived in before, speculative fiction was the catch-all term for a specific market of fiction dominated by science fiction and fantasy, but where other genres such as steampunk, horror, alternate history, and the like also resided. In this definition, writing with strong similarities to speculative fiction but which comes from a tradition of more literary or mainstream elements, such as slipstream, magical realism, modern fairy tales and technothrillers, has usually not been included under the umbrella. This division is purely market-based, as all genres are. What defines speculative fiction is a point of departure from our world: a man with giant batwings under his suit, telekinesis, a portal through a mirror to another world, the continents on Earth itself being arranged differently, the year 3001, Napoleon victorious at Waterloo. The points of departure are different in nature, but they are all flipped variables. 0 to 1. In our world, the one you used to live in, the Soviet Union did not put a man on the Moon before America did. In the world you used to inhabit, freak storms did not sink all of Columbus’ fleet. In that world, Neanderthals didn’t evolve parallel to us. But what if they did? And so on. 



Some variables are more influential than others; some changes cascade other changes. What you’re experiencing is whole arrays turned into garbage code, though, and it’s natural to not be able to parse this. Some of you have felt this before, and maybe the only thing that made you able to create art again was manually going down to the fuse box of your life and flipping the variables one by one: not homeless anymore, not in love with that asshole, five thousand kilometres away from family, eleven days without skipping a meal, twelve days without skipping a meal, thirteen days without skipping a meal.

You’re not going to have that much access to that fuse box while the societal web is tearing. But the principle remains the same.

This is not a controversial statement: all fiction is based on points of departure from the world you believed yourself to be a part of, because otherwise it wouldn’t be fiction. So the thing that separated speculative fiction from the other fiction, disregarding the market argument, was the nature of the variable. The point of departure was such that the world felt like a different place, right? And now, when you think back on a working class novel from the 1980s that you’ve read, it uncannily feels like it was written in a different world. But it hasn’t changed. It is merely speculative, and you’re seeing it.

So, you don’t know which variables do what in the web you’re seeing unravelling. You’re standing in your indoor sandals in the basement, flipping light switches and trying to get the floor to stop yawning open. If you’re a speculative writer already, you might have an advantage here, because you already know how to scout for the variables. If there’s no ink when you try to type, you probably need to imagine the world you’re writing in first. You don’t have to write what you know, you can take one variable at a time. (It’s always like that in trying to make the world better than it is, which is what you should be trying to do.) Speculate. Rinse, repeat. Depart.

 

April 5, 2020

On And About

The messages are urgent—create more art now, document your experiences in these times, don’t sweat over if what you’re creating makes sense, the world needs it, you need it. I create art, mostly short fiction, and I have to do it while battling with depression and anxiety. No, I cannot write through my depressive and anxiety episodes. I wait patiently for those rare moments of mental clarity to create art. These moments of mental clarity have become even rarer during this pandemic with my Twitter feed choked with news about yet another confirmed case of the Covid-19 virus or how testing is still inaccessible for most people or how health workers are on the frontline with limited personal protective equipments. So any attempt to write funnels into hours of staring at a blank word document until I exit the window with a What am I doing? Does the world really need this?

Away from my crushing anxiety, the world outside my window is in sharp contrast with the one inside my head. It is bubbly and almost detached from the present. This is the world I’ve grown to find solace in during these times. As part of the strategy to contain the virus, the Lagos State Government shut down schools. So, the schoolchildren in the block of apartment I live in have devised a means to keep themselves busy.  Just before noon, they gather in the quadrangle and take turns teaching themselves literature, mathematics, and science. There are breaks in between and assignments. Their laughter and arguments over who got the multiplication problem wrong wake me from my afternoon nap.  In the evenings, the once-busy street is filled with kids playing football. Neighbors who could go weeks without seeing each other because of their busy jobs sit in front of shops drinking beer and eating street food. It is an infectious atmosphere (no pun intended). There is a growing sense of community and a growing interest in other people’s well-being. This is something people normally do not have time for in this rise-hustle-and-grind city. 

Not creating fiction of my own has also given me more time to do what I love; discovering and rediscovering the beauty of other people’s works through reading. I have tripled my reading, from published works to solicited drafts from friends. There is a comfort that comes with the assurance that someone else is writing and documenting about/through this epoch when you can’t. I am also thinking about if and how this period will leave a mark on my craft? How lasting will this mark be? Will it be me doing too much? Will it be me doing too little? And when these questions begin to overwhelm me, I look at the world outside my window and find the calmness I seek. 

 

—April 5, 2020

The Pandemic Residency

Nearly a year and a half ago, I applied for a residency. Massey University, paired with the Square Edge Community Arts Centre, has a writer-in-residence every year. I only applied to practice applying for things. I didn’t expect to get it—and I didn’t. The 2019 residency was given to another writer . . . but would I be interested in coming in 2020? Yes, I said, I would.

This residency has never been given to a speculative writer before. I think they gave it to me because New Zealand is hosting WorldCon this year, and having a science fiction writer would be thematic.

WorldCon is a virtual convention now. Pandemic put paid to that. It has put paid to a lot of things.

I arrived less than a week before the entirety of New Zealand went into lockdown. Even then, contagion was changing the expectations of residency. My library reading got postponed. So did the workshop. Then the library closed entirely. The welcome event at the university was scaled down, and then cancelled. I have an office, apparently, in the department of English and Media Studies. Somewhere to be creative.

I’ve never seen it. The university is shut down as well.

Both Square Edge and Massey asked if I wanted to go home. They were very kind; it would be understandable. I chose not to go. I can self-isolate just as easily here as there . . . and there is something very present about a residency that is so very divorced from expectation. We are all of us, up and down the country, forced to live in the moment.

We are also, I think, forced—speculative writers particularly—to examine our expectations, and how they have turned to prejudice. Many of us have engaged with apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic writing at some point. It’s a literature of desolation, and mine has been no different. The experience of emergency, however, has shown our narrative bias in a clear light. People are being kinder, mostly. Across the country, they are putting teddies in windows so that kids, out on their lonely daily exercise, can have a bear hunt. This is not the stuff from which dystopia is made. We’re better than we think we are.

As artists, our creations should reflect that.

I’m struck, particularly, by two of my own post-apocalyptic, post-plague stories, written a couple of years apart. The first was published in Reckoning. “The Feather Wall” was about a conservationist, stuck on an off-shore island with an endangered species of bird. Alone. Unhappy. The second, which has just received a tentative acceptance from another publisher, tells of community recovery. People coming together, learning to write about—to talk about—the effects of apocalypse in diverse and inclusive ways. It is a far kinder story.

It is, perhaps, also the more realistic, because it is the kinder story.

Pandemic is a terrible thing, it’s true. But it is not the only thing, and it does not define us.

 

—April 2, 2020

We Exist Together

As the devastation of the pandemic over the coming months pulls into focus, that the deaths from this virus will in a best-case scenario outweigh the total lives lost in the Vietnam War, I am brought into contact with my personal experiences of grief: my father’s death, friends with chronic illnesses, romantic relationships ending, and my feelings of insignificance in impacting global catastrophes: systemic violence, discrimination, land theft, factory farming, environmental pollution. How do you exist in a world where pain and loss exist on such incomprehensible scales? How do you create art? Is it selfish to?

As a strong believer in maintaining a morning routine not only as a spiritual practice, but as a way to intentionally move into my day with clarity, this is where I’ve found my grounding. Wake early, free write and sketch, meditate, bring my dog outside or better yet for a long walk, take my coffee to my desk and write until my alarm goes off, which signals the start of my work day. Knowing there’s an alarm set to bring me into awareness of my responsibilities allows my mind to roam freely.

Then I sit and reply to emails from my stream of freelance clients, switching between tasks, checking off to-do lists as I make a smoothie, walk the dog in a proximity of my home that feels safe and not a selfish risk. After working, I move towards possibilities for community within our new, shared reality. I assist with virtual screenings from my local film society’s archives. I have a Zoom happy hour with old friends. My sister-in-law sends me dance videos. I exchange yoga sequences and recipes with a friend in Colorado. I attend virtual sessions with my acting coach. I edit a short film. I attend virtual writing groups. I commit to providing myself with evidence that there are endless possibilities to create, that I am enduring. I commit to joy.

Also apparent in my routine is that I am not dealing with illness myself, nor that of anyone in my immediate circle. Though I’ve lost thousands of dollars in work and will likely lose more, I am able to live temporarily with my family while I regain my financial independence. I have food. I am safe. These are necessary gratitudes.

But safety is only one metric to track. Though I am staying connected, in service, active, laughing — in my own words written over and over when colleagues and friends check in, “I’m doing well,” there are moments when I am not. After a recent two-hour trip to the drive-thru pharmacy to refill medication for my grandmother, I found myself pulling over to scream. I stopped the car a block away from my house and hollered, banging my fists against the wheel. It felt like I was only now aware of weeks of fear and anger I’d pressed deep into my body with all of my doing, all of the habits keeping me afloat. Humans are resilient, adaptive, and flexible. The challenge of thriving under these conditions has obvious parallels to the climate crisis and any international tragedy. As with the climate crisis, I wonder how much optimistic visioning is warranted, and possible, under such conditions. How much creative imagining is necessary in order not merely to survive but for a solution to emerge? How many hours before our daily alarm do we need to wake in order to keep ourselves moving forward, and who are the ones doing the waking?

Global, shared grief and (for the most part) shared, large-scale community response reveal a great potentiality within us. This experience also reveals the enormity of bureaucratic and political delays that produce such long held-in screams of why the hell did it take so long to do something? Because I see myself as an artist, and am fortunate to be connected to and engaged with other artists, such as those at Reckoning, who refuse to let our time under any horrid condition result in total silence, I hope for now what I would hope for during any enormous loss: renewal, rebirth. To begin again. To believe in the simultaneity of loss and hope.

 

—April 1, 2020

COVID19

I’m in Tasmania, and here, it’s starting to look like we’re beating the virus. Every day, the numbers fall. Yesterday, there were zero new infections.

We closed our borders hard and early. We sent people home; we made rules. We’re in total lockdown – that’s why we’re winning.

The streets are so quiet and empty I feel as though I’ve been transported back to my childhood in the 1980s, to a world only half as crowded as the one we inhabit now. There’s no more struggling out of bed on too little sleep to sit in the car among too much traffic on a commute that runs too long. No constant hum of engines outside. No takeout meals. No rushing from work to university to side gigs to home. My schedule filled every second of my life, before. Now I can suddenly breathe again, and it’s shocking. We lived in a world that guaranteed – that required – constant growth: more work, more money, more efficiency, more fitness, more possessions, more, more, more. When constant growth occurs in the body, we call it cancer but when it happens in society, in industry, we call that normal.

It’s all stopped – paused, anyway. And I feel guilty, because though what’s happening to the world is a disaster like nothing in living memory, on a personal level I am free. My creative practice has the space it always needed and never had. My day job has us working from home, giving back all the time I previously lost on commutes. My country has brought in financial safety nets to keep the newly unemployed afloat. Many laid-off casual workers are making more money now than they did before. A surprising number of landlords are easing up on rent and reaching out to their tenants as human beings. The AirBnB owners who sucked all the properties out of the market and left local people fighting for rentals are suddenly, desperately looking for tenants, and we have our choice of homes at reasonable prices for the first time in years. The crushingly overpriced property market is about to crack, giving millenials the long-lost opportunity to own their own homes. We are finally helping the people who need help. The rich have always been able to help themselves.

If we are determined that nobody should have to pay for a cure for COVID-19, why do we accept people paying for cancer treatment? For heart surgery? For insulin? What makes those deaths acceptable over these deaths? Wouldn’t it be better to build a protective society geared towards resilience, so that when things go wrong the ground doesn’t collapse underneath us?

I’m not celebrating what’s happening. I’m saying we need to examine the sweeping changes we’re making, and ask ourselves: was the way we lived before necessary? Was it kind? Was it working? If so, why did we have to change it so drastically when the virus came?

The system had already failed so many of us. It just took the horror of COVID-19 to show us how. Defaulting back to ‘business as usual’ would be a mistake. COVID-19 is the first pandemic of this severity we’ve seen in living memory, but it may not be the last. We have an opportunity to remake ourselves – to grow stronger, and kinder, and better at taking care of each other.

 

—April 1, 2020

Pandemic life.

Pandemic life.

Resting on my bed dayindayout typingmousingtyping frantic to meet these deadlines—Irish immersion, rushing by like the Shannon in flood—tá mé go maith, cad é an t-am é, dé luain dé máirt dé luain dé máirt dé luain dé máirt dé ceadoin—and meanwhile this mad massive dive into all things wild boarwhere did you come from, fine piggy, fine sow? How did you grow so great? And the spear that took you down, and your bristles that crown the helmets of fine Celtic warriors, and all those piglets swinging from your teats.

Till my neck hardens, head pounds, back screams but—ah!—the luxury of unbroken days to work and eat and feed the birds and stretch these aching bits. No appointments. Few interruptions. Ahhh.

But no walks. No visits. Except online, on phone and online; who knew (I knew!) the things that we could do if only we decided. But why did it take catastrophe to bring us here?

Waiting for the words. Who will die?

Here’s a surprise. My sister, never one to look these things straight on if she can avoid it, suddenly and silently working out her will, and who will take her daughter, and who will take her sons, if she should fall?

Saddens me. Unthinkable. One father down. The mother must remain.

We are all afraid. But we are stretching in ways we never thought to stretch. My brother with one lung as of days ago, and all of us scattered across the globe reaching him through telephones and chat forums and webcams. Letting him know, baby brother, we are here.

One friend tells me stayathome! and brings me food. Another puts her scanner outside my door, touches palm to my palm through the glass, picks up the duct tape left there, retreats. One more brings a table and a chair so I can sit outside and be somewhere else but in-here.

There is joy in this calculated loving. There is joy in having time to read and think and write what we must write. A language is trickling into me. A beautiful vision of an enigmatic beast and how another species came to see it, reflect it, live on it, deify it, strive to embody it steadily grows with every paper I consume, every tale I review, every voice that speaks to me of the great and bristled boar. It will coalesce, I know it. Chants will come of it. Dreams will come of it. Looking in and seeing who and what we can be and are—all of this will come of it, and soon. Deadlines, recall.

While on my feeder a red-lined cloak flares and folds: the flicker male with his stabbing beak. Finches settle. chickadees quarrel. Sparrows hophophop.

It is a beautiful thing. There is death and life together in this moment as never before. My brother soon to leave us. My sister fearing for her life—with reason, I should say. And me, alone yet not alone, in pain and relative safety, drinking in the sight of juncoes on my step, the sound of small birds muttering, the cool air settling toward night. And the Irish washes in. The boar rouses my blood and makes me seek. And the kindnesses abounding among friends and strangers carries me away.

 

—March 30, 2020