Love in the Time of Covid-19

Dear editor,

I am submitting the personal ad below as a letter to the editor in order to save money for any possible coronavirus-related financial hardship I may encounter. Thank you in advance for waiving, in the spirit of the times, the normal fee for classifieds.

 

CNM seeks CNW

 

Coronavirus-negative man seeks coronavirus-negative woman for social distancing, lockdown, self-isolation, quarantine, hospitalization, possible long-term relationship. Let’s avoid each other from the start! Especially interested in meeting compulsive handwashers and/or professional epidemiologists. Please, no asymptomatic super-spreaders. Attractive elbows a definite plus, though physical intimacy will be very limited for an unspecified period, subject to the dictates of government officials. Interested parties should transmit their astrological and vital signs to the CDC and await further instruction.

 

(s)James Treat

Silver City

 

—Originally appeared in the Silver City Daily Press, March 17, 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

Solarpunk Cities: Notes for a Manifesto

Solarpunk activism is an organic blend of traditional practices and high-tech in service of social and environmental justice.

The solarpunk cities we imagine are centers of collective action, governance and sharing of resources rather than of individualistic consumption. They are places where individual sufficiency is ensured and public abundance is available to all. We want to show how present cities can be made sustainable through improvement of existing good practices, restoration of beneficial old ones and introduction of new, sustainable technologies.

How to build a solarpunk city is a problem of design, so even though solarpunk is a highly aesthetic movement, according to the principles of good design, form and function should be interdependent.

The functions of a solarpunk city as we see it should be:

  1. Exploiting the synergy of having people with different backgrounds and skills living together, fostering communication and the circulation of ideas and goods through the urban network.

    The interconnected networks of cities should enable the coalescence of communities to pool resources and stimulate cooperation.

    We imagine blocks of flats sharing communal ovens for bread and ceramic, tool sheds and workspaces for the repair and upcycling of furniture, electronics or other household goods, fibercraft and tailoring equipment for repairing or refurbishing clothes and other fiber goods, as well as gardening equipment and facilities for composting waste and collecting water. We imagine tool libraries in neighbourhood centres.

    We imagine well-funded public libraries organizing study groups for children and adults to improve educational outcomes, language classes to increase the inclusion of new arrivals and broaden the horizons of other residents, book clubs and writing or fibercraft groups to help people make friends and strengthen their social networks.

    We imagine neighbourhood cinemas using the courtyards of blocks of flats to showcase local and global productions.

    We imagine neighbourhood or municipal centres being funded and equipped to enable the citizens to engage in artistic pursuits, allowing people from all backgrounds to participate in the production of culture.

    Additionally, since cities concentrate people, they are perfect sites to implement circular modes of production. The coffee grounds from the local roastery where old-timers congregate for a glass of white and to watch the football match could become compost for the hyperlocal farm producing vegetables for the neighbours, or material for the local laboratory which makes eco-inks or cosmetics. The leftover bread from the bakery could turn into beer at the local brewery. Waste plastics could become raw material for the 3D printing workshop making assistive gadgets for disabled neighbours, and so on.

  2. Implementing granular governance (at the level of block, neighbourhood, municipium, city, etc . . . ) and shared, inclusive decision-making at all levels.

    The nested structure of cities lends itself to creating a sort of fractal network of democratic entities which work together, coordinating with each other on issues of larger relevance and independently on others of more local import.

    Each level would operate through public consultations, focus/working groups and periodic assemblies to take decisions for the benefit of the local community and feed input on policies from sub-constituencies towards the higher levels of decision-making, in order to capture and coordinate the needs of the citizens to prevent duplication and increase the effectiveness of local efforts.

    Neighbourhoods would feed into municipia/boroughs, which would feed into cities, which would feed into regional networks and so on, ensuring representation of local issues at all levels.

  3. Making use of interstitial spaces and “non-places” to create social, cultural and environmental value, and to generate resources such as power and food.

    Thanks to the capitalistic mode of production, privileging private enterprise, cities are rife with “non-places”, intended as places of passage, which do not belong to the citizens. Other spaces remain empty or underutilized because they are overlooked or thought of as useless.

    Solarpunk cities as we imagine them would exist in a post-capitalist, post-growth economy, and would reabsorb non-places, giving them a new meaning within the urban fabric. No space would be “wasted” in a solarpunk city.

    Spaces dedicated to advertisement billboards could be reused for energetic and cultural purposes through the installation of solar artworks. Likewise, large glass surfaces could be turned into solar “stained glass” windows made of perovskites or solar concentrators.

    Figure 1: Integrated food production in the urban environment: a proposal for the retrofitting of offices buildings in South Street, Reading, with glasshouses on the roof to spread the production of food throughout the urban fabric. The William Morris-inspired motif is painted on thermally efficient hemp fiber plaster with a special paint that can “eat” air pollution coming from the nearby ring road.

    Urban farms (Fig. 1) powered by collected rainwater and food waste would occupy not just rooftops and yards, but also basements and tunnels to grow mushrooms, or even vegetables, thanks to optic fibers bringing sunlight to the subsoil or low-power LED banks driven by PV installations.

    Figure 2: Integrated, distributed production of energy through community projects: the reconstruction of the Reading Abbey Mill would become a new community property shared among the citizens.

    A variety of renewable sources of energy would be built into environmentally retrofitted housing and commercial spaces. Mini- and micro- wind and hydroelectric power plants would be dotted around the urban fabric (Fig.2).

    Old commercial centres could be turned into community centres or incubators for small artisan workshops and local producers (Fig.3).

    Self-reliance would be implemented at every level in food and energy production. This would also help in dealing with adverse weather events and other natural catastrophes such as earthquakes.

  4. Eliminating food deserts and making quality food accessible through self- and community production and fair agreements with rural areas in the city’s vicinity.

    Solarpunk cities blur the distinction between urban and rural environments. The integration of food production into the daily life of solarpunk cities would increase the amount of hyperlocal, sustainable, quality food available to citizens and communities across all income brackets and demographics.

    Figure 3: Energetic retrofitting of existing buildings: the Heelas shopping center in central Reading, UK. We have imagined it with solar panels on the roof: they can be either the rigid or flexible models. The iris fresco on the walls is inspired by a William Morris pattern and is manufactured with insulating cork paint over a layer of hemp plaster.

    Aquaponic farms, insect farms and communal chicken, pigeon and fowl coops would allow local production of sustainable, quality protein for the citizens.

    Solarpunk cities would also have a thriving community of food-producing artisans such as bakers, confectioners, brewers, distillers and producers of conserves of various kinds. Local markets, farmers markets and bulk shops for dry goods or liquids (complete with bring your own bottle/refill schemes/bottle deposit schemes) would allow the citizens to acquire local goods without unnecessary processing or packaging.

    Communal production of other goods (e.g. communities establishing a rota among neighbours to make bread/soap/beer/etc in batches for the whole block), predicated on the existence of communal facilities, would be encouraged and facilitated by the increase in free time guaranteed by a universal basic income paired with a reduction in working hours.

    In order to ensure that the reduced environmental footprint of the city is not offset by increased exploitation of rural areas, solarpunk cities would establish protocols of co-operation with their hinterland and with other cities in the regional network, ensuring that production of goods for their use follows strict ethical and environmental guidelines and that routes of distribution are planned sensibly, using decentralized networks that rely on low-carbon, public transport wherever possible.

  5. Establishing public transport as central and accessible to everybody, regardless of physical abilities or medical conditions.

    We imagine that cargo trams/buses/suburban rail trains would be used for the transport of goods.

    For personal vehicles, solarpunk cities would move from an ownership model to a usership model, implementing sharing schemes for electric cars and electric bikes as well as handbikes, mobility scooters or power attachments for wheelchairs. Cargo bike rental schemes integrated with the public transport network would facilitate shopping and other high-load activities.

    These schemes would be integrated in a metropolitan public transport subscription, which would be free for the lowest income brackets and costed based on income for everybody else, ensuring a fair allocation of resources.

    All these measures would result in reduced pollution and noise levels, which in turn would bring significant improvements to health outcomes, especially among the lowest income brackets and marginalized groups.

  6. Providing adequate, energetically efficient homes to every citizen.

    Solarpunk cities would drastically cut down on their heating/cooling carbon footprint and on fuel poverty by investing in environmental retrofitting of old buildings (Fig.3), starting with social housing. New housing would be built to an exacting passive-or-better environmental standard and to equally stringent earthquake safety standards. Social housing would be distributed throughout the city, without segregating low-income families in the least appealing areas.

    Self-builds or community builds would be encouraged by implementing easy-to-understand building codes based on communal standards and structured choices, as explained for example in Making Massive Small Change by Kelvin Campbell, allowing for diversification in look, feel, and use while adhering to agreed-upon standards which include the space for green areas, services and transportation.

    Cities would contain sprawl and limit land consumption by building up density through town blocks with proper services and shops, communal areas and public transport connections, not formless suburbia. They would expand into brownfield areas, such as former industrial or commercial complexes, and would leave greenfield and rural areas intact.

  7. Improving the urban environment in terms of extension of green spaces and biodiversity.

    Just as they blur the distinction between urban and rural, solarpunk cities would also blur the distinction between urban and wilderness.

    The reduced reliance on cars would allow unnecessarily paved areas, such as parking lots, to be depaved. Riverbanks and urban parks and other green areas would be rewilded using native species, making sure to accommodate urban wildlife and pollinators.

    Trees would be used to mitigate heat island effect, improve the quality of urban soils and reduce the amount of runoff making it into the sewage system, and can be selected among food-bearing species (walnuts, chestnuts, beeches and fruit trees) to provide an additional food source for the community.

    Reforestation projects are already underway in several large cities (for example Milano in Italy has a project to plant 3,200,000 new urban trees by 2030), but solarpunk cities wouldn’t stop at lining avenues with trees. They would also integrate trees into the architecture. Buildings like the Bosco Verticale in Milano or the Waldspirale in Darmstadt wouldn’t be exceptions, but pioneers of a whole new brand of architecture.

    We imagine a city where every park and garden and condo block can become a food forest.

  8. Providing effective healthcare to the citizens, taking into account that many disabilities are such only because society does not accommodate certain needs.

Solarpunk cities would be built on the basis of public health and social care for all, regardless of income or health status.

A network of medical centres spread through neighbourhoods would provide basic and community care, while hospitals well connected with the public transport network would provide emergency and specialist care.

Additionally, progress in sensor and communications technology would allow the widespread use of telemedicine, especially to monitor people with chronic conditions that might need urgent medical intervention at short notice. This would enable these patients to spend less time in hospitals and healthcare centers and live less stressful lives, while ensuring quality care.

Solarpunk medicine should also be about prevention and vaccination, and would benefit from reduced length or abolition of patents, so that life-saving drugs are available at affordable prices or for free through the public health service.

The biotechnological revolution has made the production of therapeutic molecules affordable and feasible even for small-scale biohackers. We can imagine therefore that the production of many medicines will be done on a local scale, commensurate with the necessities of the community.

Paired with a revival of herbal/traditional medicine in the cases where this is effective, with a wide availability of mental healthcare and with a capillary diffusion of health education and income support to healthy lifestyles, these measures would result in a healthier, happier citizenship.

Solarpunk cities would also provide social care to their citizens, in the form of services to the very young, very old or vulnerable and also in the form of enhanced support and community networks.

Solarpunk cities are intergenerational and would re-create the support present in old clan or extended family structures without the resulting social pressures, including the elderly in community life and valuing their input and experience. We imagine younger neighbours helping the elders in labour-intensive tasks or in moving, and elder neighbours looking after the children of the younger ones and perhaps passing down traditions and recipes. We imagine periodic communal meals and gatherings, forming stable communities in every corner of the city and eradicating the current loneliness epidemic.

 

While unified in the struggle to respond to these universal needs, Solarpunk cities would be a product of the communities that live in them rather than of top-down master plans. They would retain and adapt their historic buildings, rather than tearing everything down and building it anew.

The form of the solarpunk city would follow local traditions, uses and aesthetic and the input of the community, serve the needs of its citizens and adopt constructive techniques and technological adaptations that depend on the local climate, vegetation and fauna.

Solarpunk Nairobi would by necessity be different from Solarpunk Oslo, and even cities in the same country, like Milano, in the middle of a well-watered plain, and Matera, perched on a rocky, arid plateau, would follow different transition trajectories and come up with different solutions to deal with their local needs.

We feel that this inbuilt plurality and divergence of expression is a very positive feature. We say no to a top-down “universal” solarpunk style with cookie-cutter glass-and steel skyscrapers plonked in the middle of an idealized, cookie-cutter rural environment; “international solarpunk” or “top-down solarpunk” are imperialist oxymorons.

Education is key to building a true solarpunk community, to political and social engagement and to making informed choices. Education should build a social consciousness and give each citizen the ability to engage in continuous education throughout their life and to adapt to technological changes in the workplace.

Solarpunk education would be free, public and inclusive, not only of different perspectives though decolonisation and intersectionality, but also of different learning styles and cognitive preferences, and should aim to develop the talents of each individual, valuing and nurturing academic skills and creative or craft talents equally. We also imagine a school system rooted in the urban tissue, with special classes taking place in different parts of the neighbourhood, taking advantage of local expertise and traditions, valuing the contributions of the older residents.

Higher learning (colleges and universities) should likewise be free, or affordable and costed based on family income.

Since state-funded research has been the basis of the major technological transformations from the end of WWII until today, in a Solarpunk future, academic research would be adequately funded in order to develop the technologies and protocols which would help us move away from dependence on fossil fuels and on the growth spiral and reduce our environmental footprint.

Traditional knowledge and skills, however, would be equally important. Solarpunk futures would value both.

Finally, Solarpunk futures would run on a different economic model from the one currently in vogue. Solarpunk economics would not be concerned with growth and profit, but rather with balancing production output with social and environmental constraints and with redistributing wealth to create social justice.

Solarpunk cities are not just an idea; they are being built right now by a million different hands, across the world, most of whom haven’t even heard of solarpunk.

From community architecture projects to participatory budgeting efforts, from the Transition Towns Network to the Food not Lawns project, from surplus food redistribution to tool libraries and second-hand swaps, from city-wide macro to building-size micro, more and more people are realizing that cities could and should be better, not places where people exist as atomized, isolated individuals who eat, sleep, work, repeat, but communities of people who live together, struggle together, and create new culture and ideas together.

Solarpunk cities are coming, and the solarpunk community can speed the process by making such cities imaginable, desirable, almost tangible, by prototyping them in fiction and art, and, most importantly, by lending its narrative and artistic instruments to the citizens so that they can play with the idea and optimize it to their needs.

As Commando Jugendstil we have started along this road with a sustainability project financed by Fondazione Punto.Sud, Fondazione Cariplo and Fondazione per il Sud, with co-funding from the European Union and delivered in collaboration with social enterprise Coop A.ME.LIN.C ONLUS and a network of local partners in the area of Milano.

Our project “Milano Cartoline da un Futuro Possibile” aims to help citizens of selected neighbourhoods in Milano redesign their surroundings to improve living standards, social inclusion and cohesion and to tackle the challenges of the climate crisis, connecting local conflicts in the management of the commons and local issues with wider processes.

A series of (in)formative sessions, focus groups and workshops, delivered in collaboration with local schools, will allow citizens to take an active role in a collective, democratic process to redesign the local environment.

Citizens will be encouraged not only to find practical short- and medium-term solutions to increase the sustainability and livability of the neighbourhood, but also to make use of narrative and artistic tools to illustrate their vision of a post-transition neighbourhood, identifying long-term projects to realize it.

The chief outputs of the project will be local ecological transition plans for 2020-2030 and an interactive IT tool that collects useful information of the present and local visions for the future, increasing awareness of local sustainability solutions.

This might seem a small step, but little by little solarpunk cities will become reality, and we will be there when it happens.

Further Reading and Inspiration

  • Kelvin Campbell, Making Massive Small Change, Ideas, Tools, Tactics: Building the Urban Society We Want, Chelsea Green Publishing, London, 2018
  • Energy Task Force, No Heat No Rent: An Urban Solar & Energy Conservation Manual, Energy Task Force, New York City, 1977
  • Energy Task Force, Windmill Power for City People: A Documentation of the First Urban Wind Energy System, Energy Task Force, New York City, 1977
  • Ezio Manzini and Anna Meroni, Creative Communities, Edizioni POLI.design, Milano 2007
  • Richard Sennet, The Craftsman, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2008
  • Paul Auerbach, Socialist Optimism: An Alternative Political Economy for the 21st Century, Palgrave Macmillan UK, London, 2016
  • Rob Hopkins, The Transition Handbook, From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience, Transition Books, Dartington, 2008

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

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

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