Not all at once – although the bullets that breed in poverty will do that. Poverty kills slowly. It grinds and grinds and grinds. Until it reduces whatever hope you had to a dusty smudge of resentment, befouls whatever innocence you had with the daily excrement of your reality, erases completely whatever childhood you had and replaces it with a ten-hour-a-day-ten-dollar-a-day job in a Mexican greasy spoon.
Poverty snatches children from their dreams and sells them to the demons of despair and depression.
Poverty forces adults to decide to choose between their children and their own dignity.
Think about all that, then add in Covid. Schools closed. Studying on cheap cell phones. No socializing. Alone at home with your poverty, watching it suffocate your youth. Two years of this. In a country where public school education is already atrocious, and there is nowhere to go but down.
You know what happens. Kids fail. Kids drop out. Kids stop being kids and take their seat on the merry-go-round of poverty. Spin that wheel. Watch the viciousness of the whirling circle.
A number: After two years of closed schools “71 percent of (Latin American) lower secondary education students may not be able to understand a text of moderate length,” says a new World Bank study.
More numbers: A 13-year-old girl enters middle school with second-highest grade in her class: 9.7 out of 10. Three years later, during the pandemic, she scrapes her way into high school with an average of 7.2.
Last number: One. That is how many high-school semesters she will finish before dropping out. One. In a few weeks, the former brightest girl on the block becomes just another Oaxacan teenage dropout wearing an apron and serving up slop for a buck an hour.
Unless there’s a miracle. I’m not a believer, though.
All last year, through the masks and the Zooms and the under-cut hair and the over-thought solitude and sheet-pan recipes and the books that were read and the so much that was unsaid, I told anyone who asked that I was fine. I’m good, I’d say. I’m reading books, I’m writing, I getting some work done. Then I’d apologize for my being so well while so many others were suffering.
Now, a half year gone in the second year of the pandemic, I realize I am not fine. Something happened during all those weeks in the house, all those hours in front of a screen, all that time alone with my various selves. A tether unwound. A knot slipped. A cleat gave way. I find myself afloat, unanchored,. The shore that defined me is receding into a time that appears to be ending.
What comes next? The current is so subtle, nothing more than a ripple lacking definition and direction, that I cannot imagine my destination. I am adrift on still water.
There is, though, a sense of retreat, of a falling back, of moving away instead of toward, of disengagement from a long campaign. We all battle, we all wage war against our lesser selves. I wonder if being set loose means I ceded victory to those demons that have tried to claim me for so long. While hunkered in the bunker, did I inadvertently surrender?
Is this a lament? Where is the line between truthful recognition and plaintive lamentation? What separates self-honesty from self-pity? I don’t know. I have no answers for those questions, nor for many others. I was raised to live by faith in what cannot be understood and to view doubt as weakness. Such a foolish masculine stance: To believe we must be sure of everything, to be taught we have all the answers. So damaging, as well. When men fear their insecurities, they unleash their fearful chromosomes on others, on women first, of course, then on anyone who seems to undermine the place on the hierarchical throne they’ve been taught belongs to them but which they know they don’t deserve. A trepidatious king is a dangerous one. After all these years, I still cannot separate what I’ve been taught from what I’ve learned on my own. The blur of the past clouds the vision of the present.
Most of you don’t know me well, or at all. This is the nature of the public square, digital though it may be. Those who stand both prominent and anonymous at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park, revealing the meanderings of their minds to anyone who chooses to listen, and even to those who unavoidably in passing hear snatches of argument, belief or outright loonyness, are no different than those, like me, who cut and paste our scribbled sentences onto pixelated platforms.
There are a few of you, though, who have traveled longer, if not always more pleasant, paths with me. At a newspaper, in a bar, or south in Mexico. You’ve seen the ugly as well as the good, and I’ll leave it to you to weigh the two. I think you will understand what I mean when I say that for someone whose life has consisted of moving on, of always leaning toward the next, it is disorienting to come to know – not suddenly, but in a slow, persistent unfolding, the conversion of winter buds into spring flowers — that all this movement led to the discomfiting stillness than wraps me now.
This time it was not me who moved on; it was everything else. Kids got older, boys dropped out of school, girls got pregnant, friends died. I live with the absence of what was, and it is not going to return. So, yes, there is loss. Spaces unfilled. Things that have been misplaced, but not the car keys or the cell phone. Instead whole parts of my life. And, no, I don’t think I am fine. I don’t know what I am, but is it not that.
I wish honesty was enough, but it doesn’t seem to be. It does not sate the hunger of an empty heart because a heart feeds on hopes and dreams and desires. It needs meals of bountiful possibility and gluttonous imagination. Truth and reality are poor substitutes. They might sustain, but they do not satisfy. The ache a heart feels in the deep of the night is the yearning for a serving of indulgence.
These are the swirls of the current that carries me as I emerge from the chrysalis of Covid. Where to? What next? It could be anywhere. It could be right here.
The air is clearer this morning, but still infused with enough particulate to qualify as unhealthy on the air-quality index. Someone quipped last night on social media how perverse it felt to celebrate the improvement of the air from very unhealthy to simply unhealthy.
These are our times. It is not the End Time or the End of Days, the apocalyptic doomsday foreseen by many religions, but it is the end of an epoch for humankind, the last steps of a long march across the planet during which we Homo sapiens appropriated all the planet offered for own comfort and aggrandizement and left in our wake a swath of vanished species, wastelands of depleted resources, and teeming warrens where millions of our fellow humans live in scarcity, poverty and oppression because the most powerful among us care next to nothing for the least of us.
This is our legacy – a ravaged planet, species-cide, and obdurate indifference.
Clearly, I am not feeling great today. If you indulge me a moment of complaint, I will tell you of the foul, gray, chalky air that encompasses my cabin on the hill and how my body bemoans the necessity to inhale this sludge 15 times a minute. The eyes water and itch. The nose fills. The head aches behind the eyes.
I recognize the weakness of these grievances. Annoyances, really, compared to the afflictions and sufferings of so many others. My house stands, not reduced to ash, as hundreds have been up and down the coast. The Covid has not claimed me, as it has 200,000 of my countrymen. There is food on the table, and more in the freezer. I have resources that many other don’t. Yet, my whinges are also warnings, flags flying ahead of the coming storm. I said the other day that what is happening in California (and now Oregon) is a harbinger. Listen to the canaries in our coal mine. What do you hear?
Another era is ending as well – my own. The state of affairs in which I find myself is evidence we are not the drivers of our own destinies. The times choose us, not the reverse. Life is random. At best we hold the reins as the years gallop onward, guiding the steeds in one direction or another but never managing to break their stride. Some of us are born in war and poverty, others into peace and prosperity. The circumstances of our birth contribute almost everything to the consequences of our lives.
The same is true of the end game. How and when we leave the planet is as arbitrary as how and when we arrived. Chance is the great master of fate. An unfortunate few drop dead early, victims of genetics, violence or simply actuarial realities. The rest of us ride own, falling off at increasing rates to tumors, expired organs, overworked hearts, underworked muscles and, more and more, worn out brains.
I’ve reached an age where my past throws a long shadow. I am well and I am as fit as a man of my decades could be, yet I am dying – as I have been since Day 1. Our first breath is also the initial step toward the last. The infernal pandemic and the California infernos raise my awareness of the tick-tock of the biological clock. It is the tinnitus of our time, the sound of the passing of days whose primary purpose is to get through them.
Someone commented on one of these scribblings that I don’t seem like myself, and she urged me in so many words to break free of the funk she saw me in and find the version of myself she thought I’ve lost. She misread what I said. I am neither sad nor depressed. I am chastened. Six months mostly in the house, a month of lightning, fire, and smoke. A rearrangement by chance, by random interference of circumstances and consequences, of everything I spent a lifetime arranging. No, I am not sad or angry or disillusioned – at least for myself. I have not gone missing. In fact, in the last six months I have found more of myself than I knew I had.
Before yesterday, I’d been out of the house only twice in 41 days. Both times I drove my wife to do an errand and never got out of the car. Because I torqued a knee on my last trip to Mexico in March, I couldn’t walk much at all, much less do any of the shopping. The knee is healing, slowly, but it felt strong yesterday so I decided to drive to a farmer’s market that assembles once a week in the parking lot of a nearby drug store.
With my wife’s guidance, who now has a Mad Max-ian wardrobe for shopping, I geared up: My new mask bought by email from a women’s boutique that has turned its talents to face-ware, a neck gaiter that could double as another layer of facial protection, two pairs of rubber gloves, two antiseptic wipes (placed in a plastic baggie to keep them moist) and a small bottle of hand sanitizer. Oh, and cash, something I haven’t needed for six weeks.
My first surprise was the number of people at the market, at least 40, which seemed like a lot for a guy who had not been in the company of another person other than his spouse for a month and a half. Everyone wore a mask, some hand-made like mine, some of the blue surgical type, and a few N95s, and gloves covered most everyone’s hands. The market is small, about 10 stands, and there were several lines of people. The longest of those queued in front of a woman selling bouquets of flowers, which I took as a symbol of people needed something bright in their homes. I placed myself in the vegetable line. They wait was short, but long enough for me to identify three types of people in the market:
· The good neighbors, those aware of their personal space and their hygiene. They kept their distance from others, didn’t touch the food with their hands (as requested) and maintained a cheery air about them, as forced as it might be.
· The clueless, who unfortunately were all older (meaning my age and northward). They meandered, either from physical ailment or distress caused by the disruption of normal, closing the gap between them others, and occasionally bumping into someone. They picked up the food with their hands, examining the head of lettuce or the bag of onions. In the big booth of veggies where the line snaked from the left to the right, two of them entered via the exit.
· The assholes, of which, gladly, there were few. One was a guy who, frustrated by the tortoise-like movements of a member of the clueless in front him, approached her from behind and reached over her back to snag a bag of arugula. As he moved toward me, I called to duty my East Coast upbringing to add an edge to my voice and said. Hey, buddy, there’s a line. Really, was the response I got. Really, I said, and it begins back there. I pointed to the parking lot. He retreated, but later I saw him tailgating another shopper.
I was out of the market in 30 minutes, driving off with a fat bag of lettuce, carrots, the aforementioned arugula, a glistening bunch of rainbow chard, Pink Lady apples and mandarins. The long loaves of fresh sourdough bread cooked in a local bakery tempted me, but not enough. The quarantine is changing my diet, and bread is falling off the menu.
Aside from the mask, the gloves and the pervasive wariness all of us had about one another, it was a normal experience, and for that I was grateful. I am enjoying, if that’s the right word — yes, I think it is — my time in the house and on the deck with my wife, my books and my photographs, but I miss the routine mundanities, the chores, the shopping, the conversations with shopkeepers and barbers and neighbors passed on pathways we all took for granted. We all do.
Getting back to normal will mean more than being able to order salami slices at the deli or get a haircut or grab a beer at the corner saloon during a Giants game. It’s going to require a regeneration of social trust, which we have forcefully uprooted. We must replant and cultivate it once again. For months as we stepped out of our homes and into public spaces we’ve wondered if the person next to me could kill us. We as a society are wounded. We will heal, but it will take time.