The leaves blanketing the ground are worn skeletally thin like small lace shrouds. This layer of decomposed matter that insulated plant and microbial life throughout the winter has begun to thaw and sweat, releasing a heady stench in the forest and fields where baby nettles, wintercress, and young dandelions now sprout. Indoors, ladybugs and paper wasps seem to generate spontaneously from the windowpanes and die just as quickly as they came. It’s funny how much early spring in the country can look and smell like death.
The virus isn’t on the mountain, yet. But there’s a feeling of inevitability as this region of Upstate New York becomes a hotspot. Two people in this small town work at the hospital in nearby Pittsfield, and though they try their best to decontaminate and quarantine between shifts, both assume they’ll eventually get sick. And everyone is apprehensive about what happens once the virus arrives here, in this tight-knit rural community with its many seniors and numerous collective households, where most residents live along a single central road.
Neighbors are also mobilizing. The farm my friends run at the base of the road has implemented stringent safety measures and continues to to sell the produce many have come to rely on. Meanwhile, the herbalists have made a potent immunity tincture they are distributing to the elderly and immunocompromised. One of the medical workers has organized an impressive horizontal mask-making network of cutters, sewers, and runners that recently delivered four hundred masks to a homeless shelter in Troy. People are coordinating bulk orders and pooling shopping lists to minimize risky excursions, and have been on numerous collective calls to discuss the best protocols for quarantining and care in the eventuality that someone here does become ill. There’s even been some talk of throwing money from our government stimulus checks into a pooled fund for future projects.
I feel fortunate to be part of a community with people who’ve been working for years to cultivate different kinds of material autonomy and develop robust networks of care.
Unlike the rich New Yorkers who fled the city in droves, when my roommates and I left our small apartment in mid-March, we weren’t absconding to our private second homes. Instead, we took up temporary residence with our friends, the farmers, on this old Shaker land near the Massachusetts border where the spirit of communalism—even utopianism—still lives. And while I worry about my friends and family who remain in the city, I feel lucky to be at a remove from the sirens and the sidewalk morgues, immersed in the extra-human rhythms of the seeds, the moon, the peepers. More so, I feel fortunate to be part of a community with people who’ve been working for years to cultivate different kinds of material autonomy and develop robust networks of care.
Of course, projects of mutual aid and community self-sufficiency aren’t exclusive to the country; as I write this, friends in our Queens neighborhood are running a large pop-up pantry and delivering large quantities of food to those in need. But at a time when supply chains are in doubt and the workers harvesting our crops, processing our meat, and delivering our packages are getting sick because the corporations we’ve come to rely on are treating them as expendable, it feels prudent to be near the life-giving force of the farm, the goats who give milk and meat, the neighbor who keeps bees, and the medicinal herb garden that supplies the home apothecary. Though I’d been resisting it, sitting near the wood stove now eating venison barbacoa tacos with deer my friends shot and tortillas they made from blue corn they grew, nixtamalized, and ground themselves, never before has their way of life seemed to make more sense.
I’ve had the same word stuck in my head for weeks. Catalyst. Catalytic. In Adrian Piper’s Catalysis series (1970-73), the artist went around New York City with a large towel spilling out from her bulging cheeks. She soaked her clothes in milk, vinegar, and cod liver oil then wore them on the train during rush hour, and took books out of the library while carrying a concealed tape recorder playing sounds of herself belching. In documentary photographs, the furtive glances, sheepish smirks, and concerted efforts not to look from passing pedestrians only betray their attention and discomfort—how much Piper has forced them into an awareness of their own public visibility, their adherence to the unspoken social codes which her experiments have pushed awkwardly to the fore. Strange, abject, defying polite bodily conventions, her presence asserts itself like a stink bomb, something you want to ignore but can’t, something activating everything around it.
The rich and famous are calling the virus a great equalizer. Of course, they’re right from a strictly biological standpoint, but wrong in every other sense. The pandemic is wedging wider the already mighty gulfs between white and black and brown, the documented and the undocumented, the insured and the uninsured, the rich and the poor, and the young and the elderly.
The question is what we do in the face of this bald-facedness. And many are laying out the stakes in fittingly stark terms. What kind of world will we inhabit when all this is over? Will the virus’s uneven ravages compel us toward a more equitable society? Might the unprecedented stoppage of the economy finally help us make the much-needed transition to a culture of diminished work? Will the halt in travel and production that’s been clearing smogged skies and returning wildlife to urban areas inoculate us to the pains of a less carbon-dependent world? Some are pointing to the epidemic’s silver lining, hailing the global shutdown as an opening, an opportunity. As Arundhati Roy put it in a recent op-ed entitled “The Pandemic is a Portal,” the virus has brought “the engine of capitalism to a juddering halt. Temporarily perhaps, but at least long enough for us to examine its parts, make an assessment and decide whether we want to help fix it, or look for a better engine.”
I’m old enough to know how powerful the forces of inertia are, how much fear makes people double down on old ways, how stubbornly we’re inclined to hold on to our sunken investments. Of course, some change is assured beyond the new normal of covered faces, spaced-out seating, and ubiquitous antibody tests and temperature checks we’ll emerge to when lockdowns ease. The post-epidemic years could see continued federal support for companies and individuals, more socialized forms of government and perhaps something like a universal basic income, conditioned debt relief for poor countries—maybe even a limited reconsideration of mass incarceration. But if these measures remain mere stopgaps—life support to stave off market collapse, a bare minimum of expedience to prevent gross carnage—rather than sweeping and systemic commitments, they won’t fundamentally touch our reigning capitalist and carceral ideologies, and won’t last after the foot is lifted immediately off our necks. With scores of millions unemployed and at risk of sinking deeper into debt while the wealthy score tax breaks and opportunistically snap up cheap equities from their Hamptons breakfast nooks, it’s not hard to imagine a post-epidemic scenario in which everything changes but everything stays the same.
And yet, I believe change is possible. Not harm-reducing half-measures either, but the real change that the final bursting of your cruel optimisms compels—the kind of deep, soul-upheaving transformation that you don’t recognize yourself at the end of, the sort of change that necessarily looks and feels like a form of death.
I first came up here for a July 4 party three years ago, shortly after dropping out of a prestigious Art History PhD program. Nothing particularly dramatic happened to make me leave, just the slow wane of my belief in what I was doing, its increasing implausibility, at least to me. I feared the precarious adjunct life that faced me if I tanked in the preposterously competitive job market. I’d also been disillusioned by the administration’s repeated undermining and flat-out busting of our spirited graduate student union, as well as a host of other decisions that made the university’s neoliberal commitments achingly clear. As I watched these values push the university to reward caginess and mediocrity, I felt I needed out, even as I wasn’t exactly sure what else I would do.
My whole adult life has been characterized by this kind of jittering—an ambitious start out of the gate but then an ultimate failure to launch. This has been both personal and structural. I graduated college into a newly post-recession world in which the government bailed out banks while my friends reeled from crushing debt and tenuous employment, and I myself repeatedly failed to secure a stable job in the industries I was interested in (most of which ran on chronically un- and underpaid labor anyway). It was a world of Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and Standing Rock—a world of Sandy and Maria—one in which American promises of opportunity and upward mobility had been emptied for ever wider swaths of the populace, longstanding inequities felt exacerbated to the point of breaking, and climate disaster loomed. It was a landscape of radically truncated horizons, where the future needed to be qualified, marked with an asterisk.
All this complicated the task of conceiving of what kind of life I might want for myself. On the one hand, I was deeply ambitious and desired success according to the terms as I’d found them. I envisioned myself with $150 dollar haircut and a good modernist’s wardrobe filled with black, asymmetrical Yohji Yamamoto, jetting off to give keynote lectures and sign books at international conferences. But I wasn’t sure this was a fantasy in which I could invest in good faith. What was coming felt too blinkered, the old institutions both too anachronistic and too cynically contemporary to adapt to it. I remember leaving Zuccotti Park to take my GREs, not wanting to get arrested at a climate march because I had to present a chapter of my dissertation at my fossil fuel-investing school the next day. It was a reality of disconcerting paradoxes. I vacillated between wanting everything to work out and being horrified at that thought.
Maybe it can function as a catalyst to reconsider desire outside the myopic straits of my own individual plans, to conceive of new and more brazen forms of supporting each other.
After that summer I kept coming back to the farm as often as I could. I was happy away from my numerous freelance gigs in the city and the pressures I was still putting on myself to succeed, which the city’s eternal rat race exacerbated—felt better where I could hike and help and eat bountiful, freshly harvested greens. But I was afraid to leave NYC, afraid it would be a concession of defeat, proof of my terminal failure to attain the cultural capital I sought. I came up with a host of defensive dismissals: I wasn’t one of them—not my homesteading friends per se, but the creatives who were buying trucks and flooding upstate in pursuit of some idea of country life. This was not my genre! So the mountain remained an aberration, a place I would flit to for a few days to get some soil under my fingernails before returning to my urban hustles, and to the compulsory openings, talks, and parties I’d mostly ceased to enjoy.
Now I feel a new freedom being here, a lack of encumbrance on my daily walks, an absence of distraction as I help prepare communal dinners for our house. Who knows how long I’ll stay, whether it will be weeks, months, or years. But there’s a feeling of long-elusive self-equivalence in this uncertainty, this unboundedness.
By shutting everything down, throwing the old rules and institutions radically into doubt and sloughing the degree to which things were not okay more nakedly to the surface, the virus has come along and reconciled some of my external contradictions. Who can care about the old forms of achievement now?
I know it’s an extreme luxury and possibly cruel to feel this way. I’m trying to square this sense of ease with the daily horror digest—the unfathomable trauma unfolding in hospitals and nursing homes and migrant camps and immigrant neighborhoods and everywhere around the world, and I can’t, really. Nor can I reconcile it with my own simultaneous anxiety, my unemployment, the damaging of so much that I have loved. But the irreverence also feels powerful, perhaps more powerful than the crippling dread. Maybe it can function as a catalyst to reconsider desire outside the myopic straits of my own individual plans, to conceive of new and more brazen forms of supporting each other.
In his paper, “Surrender, Masochism and the Creative Process” (1990), psychoanalyst Emmanuel Ghent makes a distinction between submission and surrender. Submission entails resigning self-protectively to the will of the other, whereas surrender is a letting go, being rather than doing, relinquishing the need to control everything without contracting defensively in fear.
Will we submit to the virus that’s upending our world, or will we surrender to it? Will we give up our harmful attachments, or will we cynically try to claw ourselves back to the status quo, nervously enforcing it with even more autocratic forms of power, with more policed and militarized barriers between those who benefit from it and those who it destroys?
Over the course of the few days I’ve been writing this, spring has arrived. Change often seems to happen slowly, almost imperceptibly, then all at once. On the overgrown trail up the mountain, I’m reminded of a Paul Celan poem:
above the grayblack wastes.
grasps the light-tone: there are
still songs to sing beyond
It’s morbid—apocalyptic even—but also hopeful. Someone remains to do the singing. But who?