I was taking my morning walk through the neighborhood, looking at the newly posted signs strewn about. Houses are going up for sale like mad here in Arlington Heights, an expensive neighborhood with startling property taxes. Fort Worth is one of the fastest growing cities in America, and the resultant boom, coupled with economic disaster and a global pandemic (that seems to be intensifying) has people wiping the sides of their mouth and considering the countryside.
There are even garage sales.
I noticed one on my walk. The pieces of furniture and the objects (aka junk) available for purchase were embedded in the garage itself, not like this image where fine displays are out. Perhaps they took all the things out later after I passed by, I don’t know. But on a piece of plywood, spray painted forebodingly, was the message:
“Everything must go.”
I thought about the message quite a bit in my walk. I was listening to Paradise Lost, book three, where God predicts Satan’s tempting of Adam and Eve. He announces to heaven that justice must be done to atone for the wrongs done by man’s vain attempt to be like the deity. Heaven is silent. The angels sit in sublime acquiescence. God’s son Jesus announces he will take up the mantle, thus setting in motion his descent to Earth in corporeal form. Fascinating to behold how, just as paradise was created, God made plans that vindicated his creation. At least as told by Milton. Instead of rebuking, God instead chose to save.
It had rained last night for the first time in perhaps a month. The ground was wet, and as such there were no sprinklers out. It made for a nice walk, the calmest breeze shaking water down onto the firmament, the droplets prisms in miniature.
On my walk I thought about the Soviet Union. In the wildly popular miniseries Chernobyl on HBO, they eventually must evacuate the surrounding villages due to fears of radiation poisoning. One old woman says that she will not leave. “It’s time to go,” the officer asks as she milks a cow’s utters. She does not stop. She talks about the many historical moments where powers were overthrown, rebellions waged, forces captured and maintained, while at other times retreated. “When I was 12 the revolution came.” She has been there the whole time, and she had no intention of leaving now. The officer takes the pail and pours out the milk, likely irradiated. When he returns the bucket, she grabs it and continues milking. The officer pulls out a pistol. We believe he intends to shoot the woman. Instead, he shoots the cow. “It’s time to go,” he says again. The camera pulls back, and it is unclear whether the woman leaves or not.
There is no indication, really, when an emergency starts, what our reaction will be. In the 1950s, with the threat of nuclear war, with New York a likely target, Frank O’Hara wrote his poetry on the beauty of the city, its unfolding promise.
Instead no bombs came.
65 years later an invisible virus, dangerous not because of its capacity to kill, but because of our unwillingness to reason, desecrated the city and laid it to bare. Schools remained opened for fear of starvation, and with the combination of gatherings and public transportation came a flood. Hospitals based on expedience rather than mass care were unable to account for all the dead. Ships had to be docked, and freezer trucks had to be driven in. A great exodus out of New York occurred. And for those who planned on visiting, they quickly changed their mind.
At any moment, life may give you this spray painted sign. A civil war in Syria, perhaps, or being laid off from a job. Even people in Syria have chosen to stay, despite the constant fear of death. What is the concept of home in a 21st century world? Is it the wealth you gather with you, or is the body you have on hand? And what a paltry sum it is either way.
“Everything must go.”
It may be interesting to contemplate just what agency we have in deciding what parts of us can stay and what can go. What would be the deciding factor for me to move out of my house, to leave my marriage, to change jobs?
And even supposing you were forced to make those decisions, how could you tell if they were good ones?
I read Higginbotham’s book Midnight in Chernobyl in two days. I found it so gripping, the tale of those historical moments that Gorbachev called the signal of the end of the Soviet Union so harrowing, that to me it ushered in a new way of thinking about systems. The older I get, the more I am inclined to see as John Updike does, that all men are simply boys in disguise, and there simply is no getting over the limitations we bring to decisions of great import. Chernobyl’s biggest scare is that they got out of it through luck, as the radioactive waste solidified on its own before it reached the rivers. The nature of the disaster was the most un-Soviet, as it was information that simply could not be hidden, could not be covered up. Laboratories in European countries like Sweden and Germany reported radiation spikes, schools were closed and had to be quarantined. More than ever we realized that we are part of a global ecosystem, where one great act sends ripples throughout the globe that have little but significant changes.
We are at another such moment right now. The WHO is fearing a new threshold for coronavirus. The domestic stock market fluctuates up and down like a panicked school girl involved in a love triangle. Do I risk the heady bad boy or stick, securely, with the unromantic jock?
What should I do?
“Everything must go.”
The first decision to make is to clear one’s head. Understand that much of the plans our mind makes has little in the realm of sanity or reason. The Russians had to respond to invisibility, we must too. It is not that we have to understand just what exactly each marker is of a choice before we make it. What must go is the prospect that our lives are stories. The entire concept of “arc” or “acts” in a story does not apply here. What must be done is a great surgery of our preconceptions of narrative.
What is a home but a composition of matter?
What is a person but a consciousness built of desires?
At first, this can be an alarming premise. I too felt this way when I started mindfulness meditation over a month ago. But what is ironic about taking these ideas seriously is that you develop not less empathy, but more. You realize that what plagues you and your sense of self is no different than what you see when you look into the eyes of your family and friends. It is the same fear as looking on a nuclear reaction plant, seeing the waste rising up into the sky. It is the same desperate plea for meaning in the age of coronavirus.
On a long enough timeline, everything really does go. Understanding that from the outset can build up the patience and fortitude to get on with it.