I went for a walk. As I always do. One year and counting into a paralyzed globe peering out fearfully into an unknown future. It’s more than the virus causing fear. It’s also the political and economic repercussions.
I cut through the empty courtyard of a high school, now shuttered and ghostly quiet. Two youth sit shoulder to shoulder on a cement stoop. A sculpture created from mixed media — twigs, dried white babies’ breath flowers, cloth, and metal — had been placed between the crook of two boughs in a young tree, a ritualistic nest, or a funeral pyre. I noticed it last week but see it now lying in the snow on its side, like a corpse no one dares touch to return to its bower. I resist the impulse to return it to its designated place, a more dignified place, then pause. Perhaps it is a zen sculpture. The practice of impermanence. All things are passing. All things existing in time die.
Snow has been piled high but the sun is out and puddles are rapidly forming. I sink into one and laugh. Like a child. Two young women sit on lawn chairs in the snow with twelve feet between them. Except for shuttered stores offering curbside and online shopping, nothing seems out of the ordinary now. Social distancing, mask-wearing all appear normal.
How long will it take after the pandemic has passed for us to join together again in a group, to party, to sit side by side in a cinema or theatre? To feel lips on lips?
My more cynical side conjures a dystopian reality. When we no longer gather in a group the power of our collective voice is diminished. And it’s not that I think our politicians are smart enough to have devised such a scheme as a means of silencing dissention, but authoritarians might see an opportunity to make radical changes to human and environmental rights without the vast majority noticing.
Our every move, every purchase, every message is tracked and stored by AI. Younger people aren’t as suspicious as I am. But then, some are too young to know the many coups and attempted coups that have shaken nations. It was recently attempted by the largely white angry middle-aged American males, encouraged by their despotic President. That act woke many up to the fact that we must not become complacent about democracy. But what will that translate into?
Stricter controls on certain groups despite their right to protest? Pass laws that provide more rights for those traditionally silenced? Tear down the systemic structures that keep governance in rigid hierarchies? Provide a broader more diverse education that fully informs citizens of the multiple sides to history, to current events? How does one avoid creating division, black vs white arguments, good vs evil beliefs that too often lead to violence?
Have we waited too long and now we are scrambling to find solutions before it’s too late?
“Millenials are more trusting of systems than you.” You offer with a smile.
“I know, and so far nothing terrible has happened. The occasional hack and hundreds of thousands of individuals’ personal and economic information stolen. It doesn’t compare to some countries that use that information to arrest and kill citizens criticizing their governments.”
“They’re not terribly interested in history. They’d rather shop.”
“Yes, poor dears. They must be so bored. Their lives must seem so futile.”
“You like to shop,” you say smugly.
“I mean shop as a way of life. Buy cheap and when you are tired of it throw it away and buy another one just as cheap because that sense of newness, sense of change, even when it's only materially is a dopamine rush, and because we’re so depressed we go for the quick high. Press a button. Click. It’s yours and arrives magically at your door and you never have to venture out.”
“Sounds good to me.” You laugh.
“Of course! But what if that goes on too long and we forget there are people involved? Yes, jobs are created, but they are low-paying and part-time with no benefits or sick pay and I bet a lot of the people working in those sectors are well educated. There are few high-paying jobs, except in the financial or tech sector. The global trading of corporations is bullish despite a world recession. So they’re probably all depressed and finding the same dopamine rush in buying the products they pack and ship.”
“What’s wrong with appetite?” You sound defensive. Have I hit a nerve without realizing it?
“I’m sorry,” I say flatly, not for what I said but because I made you feel uncomfortable. You look at me confused. “What’s wrong with appetite?” I repeat your question. “Nothing. It’s a reaction to a lack of discipline. Giving in to indulgence.”
“You don’t have enough fun.” You lean toward me as if you’d tickle my ribs.
I don’t tell you but recall that I used to be indulgent when I was with an old hedonistic lover back in the day. But an indulgent lifestyle always made me ill, though it never did him.
Instead, I let you have your fantasy, that I’m a bit rigid. It makes you feel wild and free by comparison.
“How important freedom is,” I say. I feel like an old crone peering toward a dim horizon reverberating with the past.