...the old is dying and the new cannot be born
Antonio Gramsci, circa 1930
Emerging from the latest round of Covid-19 lockdown feels like exiting a dark basement. It’s been safe but suffocating. Now I’m taking hesitant steps around my scarred neighbourhood. Which shops are still standing? Who’s been destroyed by the catastrophe? Where’s the street energy? I’m blinking in an uncertain light, wondering what’s next, relieved my favourite Italian restaurant is still there.
The world feels wobbly, tentative. The virus is tamed (for some of us in privileged countries). But it will lurk, hidden and potent. Other bacterial disasters will occur. And we will get used to living with them. As we are used to living with climate catastrophe. Taking in only what we must (I should recycle my plastic) and denying the huge reality of the earth approaching its melting point. I have new routines when going out: Wallet, check. Keys, check. Mask, check. With the world heating up, I will need to add: Water, check. Protective clothing: check. Body heat monitor, check. Avoiding acres blackened by fire, check.
I review the crises I’ve experienced in my lifetime, considering what can be learned from events I’ve already endured. The Coronavirus is not a personal threat. It’s a generalized destruction of a sense of well being. I’ve been here before. What’s different is that I’m an elder now, and my own sense of mortality is hard to separate from the latest assault. When I was younger, there were infinite openings. Not so now. I can’t go about my own affairs so quickly, putting behind me a set of fears. I wonder if this particular impersonal assault will be the one to catch up with me.
My first recollection of global catastrophe was when Mrs. Packard, my second grade teacher, explained to us seven-year-olds what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. We should go under our school desks and cover our heads. Just so, she demonstrated, crossing pale arms across her kindly face. We should huddle there until the all-clear sounded, and follow the instructions given by our school principal, Mr. Watts. Under no circumstances should we panic nor cry out for our parents. They would arrive when they could. I nodded, fearful and not reassured, hoping my dog Cappy would be okay.
The nuclear attack didn’t come, though the Cold War with Russia continued. As it still does, with cyber weapons as potent now as uranium enriched ones. Amazing how solid long-standing enmities are, flourishing unabated over changed times and circumstances. Rooted in Moscow and Washington, DC, blooming still, even as other hatreds arise which equal them in destructive rage.
The fears I felt as a young girl about dying in a nuclear attack faded. The residue is there, though hard to pinpoint except as I consider how little prepared I can be for exterior events. This sense of futility was reinforced during two US wars: the one in Vietnam and the other in Iraq. Both of these conflicts tore America apart. Their impacts continue to fuel hardcore assumptions about what the mighty United States of America has the ‘right’ to do. And they demonstrate how groupthink can pull others into a sinkhole. Vietnam intensified the culture wars that now rage in infinitely more destructive form. Those of us on the Left were horrified to discover that our distress at the catastrophic destruction in another country, a country the US government insisted we had the right to invade, wasn’t shared by all citizens.
For many of our fellow Americans, Vietnam was a just war, keeping the commies at bay and protecting our god given rights.
When the Twin Towers were bombed on 9/11, I was on an airplane travelling solo from London to San Francisco. Watching the flight indicator on the seat back in front of me, I was confused. Even someone as map-challenged as myself could see we were heading in the wrong direction. Soon four uniformed flight attendants appeared, arms akimbo. The pilot’s voice came on, announcing: ‘I have grave news. There’s been an emergency. We’ll be landing in Edmonton, Alberta.’ He told us of the New York City attack along with the bombing in Washington. Passengers were calm, a number of British travellers commiserating with me as an American. One woman screamed out, her cries filling the 727. Her daughter worked in the Towers. Permitted to phone, she learned her family had not been killed. Landing, we were greeted by the Canadian Red Cross, making sure we knew where to go and giving us donuts and coffee. Like refugees everywhere, relying on the kindness of strangers.
That catastrophe was somehow easier to face as I was in transit, neither here nor there. It became more real back home in Berkeley. I travelled over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco twice weekly for work. Due in at 7 pm, I left my house at 2 pm so as not to be on the bridge during peak drive time. ‘They won’t blow up the bridge, I reassured myself, when there are so few of us on it. They’ll do it during rush hours. This crazy magical thinking continued for months, the general atmosphere in the fourth largest American urban area tinged with unease. In public spaces, I sometimes heard an eerie announcement: today’s threat level is yellow (not so bad); red (not so good). And the US President, George Bush, definitely not so good, dumbly leading us into another global mess, the war in Iraq.
I went to protests, wearily carrying my banner. I knew the struggle to stop the invasion was doomed. The powers-that-be had decided upon their course, lying about weapons of mass destruction. Even the British endorsed the Iraq war, their prime minister sucked in by an insane camaraderie with Bush. The Iraq War would happen, as had the Vietnam conflict, until massive and sustained outrage finally cut it off, until the profiteers had what they needed.
Most difficult living through this latest global teeter-totter is the sure and certain knowledge of powerlessness. It’s a struggle to remember that this sense of limited control is true and limiting. But it must not be paralyzing. When I was younger, I felt certain my resolve could alter events. Along with like-minded people, I could shift the direction of the world, definitely help move it in another direction. Living now in a time of profound shifts to the Right, with demagogues and destroyers from the US Republican Party to the UK’s Tories, leaders as corrupt as Boris Johnson and Vladimir Putin, corporations as godlike as British Petroleum and Amazon, I’m flummoxed. I don’t give up my shrieks of protest. But I have to ignore the tinniness of the sound. I’ve always told my young friends that futility is not an option. Now I get to see if I can put my efforts where my mouth is and not be overwhelmed by despair.
I don’t want the Coronavirus, the unimaginable dangers of climate catastrophe, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the venality and corruption of world leaders to pull me under. Living with ambiguity and doing the right thing is what counts, right until the last syllables of my recorded time.
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