Yesterday was a good day overall in my little world, though in a way analogous to how a terminal patient has “good days and bad days,” and you learn to accept the good days with existential gratitude. Last night just before bed I melted down because there were some problems with my electric toothbrush. I slept reasonably well – seven hours, with a couple brief interruptions – but woke at five a.m. feeling exhausted. That might have had something to do with having learned, glancing at the news just before bed – never a good idea; I should know better – that a protester had been shot in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood by someone trying to ram a car through a crowd. That event naturally led this morning’s Seattle Times reporting, but it also made both the Guardian and the Washington Post, which somehow hits harder. Anyway, I made coffee and sat down on the couch, only to hear something behind me over my shoulder and turn to see one of our cats – the one we call “the good one,” i.e. usually not as naughty as her sister – not only digging up a house plant, but urinating in the pot. Cleaning up after that was a lot of fun, first thing this morning.
My emotional state is the least of anyone’s worries right now, I know. But I’m writing this unplanned diary entry to try to punch my way out of a funk, a tactic that’s been moderately effective once or twice before. I feel only dread at the mooted prospect of Trump “addressing the nation” about “race and racism” or however that trial balloon is being formulated. I endorse what Jay Inslee said a very long week ago: “I think the most helpful thing the president can do at this point is to enjoy silence.”
Also this morning, lots of smart people back east are offering takes on whether it’s feasible and/or desirable to disband the Minneapolis Police Department, as nine out of twelve city council members have voted to do. It’s hard to imagine consensus ever being achieved, on that or on anything else, because what’s really at stake is not this or that particular policy or institution, but the very nature and purposes of human society and questions like who exists to serve whom and to what ends. I fear a lot of the moderate and reasonable commentary will soon be swamped by the momentum of events, if it hasn’t been already. I feel obligated to read quite a bit of the daily flood of commentary, though just the act of triaging it is exhausting and distracting. Something Dennis said to me on our recent hike keeps coming back to mind: “There’s way too many people spouting off about the big picture.”
I also think of Edwidge Danticat’s impulse after the Haitian earthquake: “It was too soon to even try to write. … So I did what I always do when my own words fail me. I read.” But even that is easier said than done. Reading books should be both a refuge and a source of sustenance in the form of accrued wisdom, but I’m not finding it comforting to be reminded that we’ve been here before. (Or have we?) And it takes a lot of effort, both intellectual and emotional, to wrest my attention away from the present crisis into a past or imaginary world.
For what it’s worth, there are several books I’m trying to read at the moment. I’m 37 pages from the end of Living in the Long Emergency: Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward by James Howard Kunstler, which with astoundingly good timing was published in March of this year. I’m slowly making my way through Horizon by Barry Lopez – and slowly is the right way to read that deeply important book – but it’s hard, right now, to slow down my attention span. I really want to sink my teeth into Seeds of Fiction: Graham Greene’s Adventures in Haiti and Central America 1954-1983 by the legendary Bernard Diederich, because I revere Greene and relish the romance. But, again, I can’t sit still or stay offline long enough.
A good novel can be a world to get lost in, and the other day I told Jenny I needed one. I looked on my own shelves, but a lot of what’s there is heavy. For example, I’ve been wanting to reread Nostromo, but Conrad always cuts close to the bone, sometimes too close for comfort. I’d like to read something by Philip K. Dick, but of course that’s always a paranoid head trip. And I don’t have any Grishams or Hillermans at the moment, and in any case I’ve read most of both. Jenny recommended and offered her copy of To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis, and I have hopes for it, but the problem there is that “a chaotic world in which the shortest distance between two points is never a straight line” – to quote its flap copy – sounds too much like the world I’m living in. I picked up Cloudsplitter, Russell Banks’s biographical novel about John Brown, thinking it would be hefty and engrossing, as I’m sure it will be. But all too soon I came upon this paragraph – the narrator is Brown’s son Owen, writing in old age:
The truth is, for us, the so-called Civil War was merely an aftermath. Or, rather, it was part of a continuum. Just another protracted battle. Ours was very much a minority view, however. It still is. But from the day it began, to Northerner and Southerner alike, the Civil War was a concussive trauma that erased all memory of what life had been like before it. On both sides, white Americans woke to war and forgot altogether the preceding nightmare, which had wakened them in the first place. Or they made it a pastoral dream. Even the abolitionists forgot. But for those few of us whose lives had been most thrillingly lived in the decade preceding the War, one thing has led obviously and with sad predictability to another, with no break or permanent ending point between the early years of the slave uprisings in Haiti and Virginia and the Underground Railroad in Ohio and New York and the Kansas battles and Harpers Ferry and the firing on Fort Sumter and Shiloh and Gettysburg and Vicksburg and Appomattox Courthouse and the killing of Abraham Lincoln and the savage, dark, murderous days that have followed, even to today, at century’s end. They are like beads on a string to us, bubbles of blood on a barbed steel strand that stretches from the day the first enslaved African was brought ashore in Virginia to today, and we have not reached the end of it yet.
Part of what I value in reading, but also now part of what’s making it harder for me to read, is that I’ve always treated the act of reading as an ongoing hunt for clues to a cosmic puzzle or riddle whose solution is at once obvious and obscure. So it’s never easy for me to read casually. Something else I’m trying to reread is Vaclav Havel’s long essay “The Power of the Powerless,” written for a Czechoslovak and Polish readership in 1978, because I get a feeling that our crisis here and now might soon call for the writing and circulation of similar samizdat documents. The first paragraph brought me up short:
A specter is haunting Eastern Europe: the specter of what in the West is called “dissent.” This specter has not appeared out of thin air. It is a natural and inevitable consequence of the present historical phase of the system it is haunting. It was born at a time when this system, for a thousand reasons, can no longer base itself on the unadulterated, brutal, and arbitrary application of power, eliminating all expressions of nonconformity. What is more, the system has become so ossified politically that there is practically no way for such nonconformity to be implemented within its official structures.