Social distance could bring us closer than ever
Finding the beauty in our inescapable interconnectedness
America is an oligarchy organized by the hierarchy of the white supremacist patriarchy. Pancake Brain is a (free) Friday newsletter dedicated to replacing the status quo with equitable public power, and a community dedicated to building the discipline of democracy that equity requires. We move through the world committed to a daily practice of activism and critical thinking. We reject limitations and embrace the possibilities of social imagination, certain that the queer future is better than anything we’ve yet dreamed up. We insist on our right and duty to the political conversation, and empower others to join us. Out of love for ourselves and the collective, we are engaged in a sustainable practice of freedom, endlessly un-fucking our brains.
Dearest Pancake Brains,
I hope the fact that you’re reading this newsletter means that you’re safe and healthy. Seeing as we all have far too much time on our rigorously-washed hands, I thought I’d get our virtual book club up and running. Our first pick is Their Eyes Were Watching God, suggested by my very good friend Aditi Juneja. I’ll send out a newsletter with my thoughts and a few questions for discussion on Friday, April 3rd. Try to read (or listen to) the book before then, if you haven’t already, and please invite any friends who you think might make a good addition to our little community.
How are you all holding up? What kind of rituals have helped you make it through the long days indoors? What have you been watching and reading?
I’ve been maintaining a discipline of spiritual practices that have become essential to my sanity. I’ve found that it is critical to do the constant, active work of finding optimism even in the most painful circumstances. Through our daily rollercoaster of uncertainty and dread, I keep coming back to the beauty of interconnectedness.
Earlier this week, my partner and I packed up our New York apartment, and left for my parents’ house in New Jersey. Stuck inside in the city, it seemed as if the chaos of this scary new world was right outside our window. Things are calmer in the suburbs. At least there is a backyard here, and parks that we can visit without wantonly violating the sacred law of social distance.
On Wednesday, we decided to rent a car, so that we could at least visit the park without begging for a ride. At the rental shop, it hit me, yet again, how quickly everything is changing.
The woman behind the counter was visibly shaken when we walked inside. No one had been in all day. As she showed us to our red Hyundai Elantra, she complimented my mess of curls, and then launched into her own hair story. She’d gone to get her hair colored for her sister’s wedding, and something went wrong with the dye. The concoction started smoking on her head, frying her follicles into an irreparable disaster that left the salon owner and colorist in tears. She had to cut off 12 inches of blonde hair, now growing out into tiny orange spirals. She was still getting used to the forced transformation.
The details poured out of her, as if she couldn’t help but share, as if she was desperate for any human interaction at all. I’ve been blessed to be holed up with my partner and parents, but still felt a rush of gratitude for this brief exchange. I knew I would miss seeing my friends, but it hadn’t occurred to me how much I would miss strangers.
It was cold outside, but the sun was shining, so we took our first trip to the park. We a sheet down in an open field, watching families, in groups of two and three, take advantage of the fresh air and sunlight. There were a few kids skateboarding on the blacktop path, an old man with a gray beard throwing a giant pink beach ball that was bigger than the little girl who must have been his granddaughter, and, later, another couple, who set up their own food-less picnic more than 50 feet away from us. As they sat down, we raised our fists in solidarity.
I doubt I would have noticed any of these people before. I certainly wouldn’t have greeted them. Now, I feel a deep sense of connection to every soul I pass, certain that they have spent the past few days worrying for their safety, finding solace in their loved ones, and trying their best to remember to breathe. The selfishness of the ego simply can’t survive the coronavirus. The victimhood perspective of “poor me” thinking has been obliterated by the inescapable fact that this crisis impacts everyone. When I feel sorry for myself over being trapped inside, I’m immediately humbled by the unimaginable privilege of getting bored at all.
I wonder if this shared experience will change how we think about civic duty. Self-quarantining is critical to contain the pandemic, and our shared effort to #FlattenTheCurve makes for a clarified look at the ethics of citizenship. We self-isolate to protect both ourselves and each other, and that ought to be the mode through which we operate in and out of crisis. The ubiquitous threat of covid-19 casts our interdependence in sharp relief, though, of course, it’s as old as time. We can’t truly be healthy, unless the collective is healthy. We can’t truly be safe or free, until we achieve global liberation and a sustainable Earth.
Back in February, before I’d heard of any coronavirus cases in the United States, I read a piece in the Times about the way the government’s handling of the sickness had undermined Chinese citizens’ trust in the authoritarian state they thought would protect them. “The government was slow to disclose the threat of the coronavirus and worked to suppress the voices of those who tried to warn the country,” wrote reporter Li Yuan. “In doing so, it undermined its implicit deal with its people, in which they trade away their individual rights for the promise of security.”
It seems quaint now, to have pondered the coronavirus as some intellectual abstraction. I thought of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and imagined how the impact of the disease might push mainland China to join in the battle for liberty since their overlords had so obviously abandoned their end of the bargain. Now, I wonder if the same might be true for Americans, as the virus sweeps through our lives, further exposing the gross inequities that have been there all along.
In this forced stillness, we all must ponder ourselves in relationship to government, the environment, and each other. I am struck by the closeness I feel to any given human being, more compelled than ever to fight for the sustainably equitable future we all deserve. Perhaps, when we get through this crisis, the idea of civic duty will be hardwired into brains, not unlike the perpetual need to wash our hands.
When I’m spiraling, I bring myself back to the dream of how we might survive this and all the rest of our global injustices. The social distance will bring us closer than ever, if we can apply the same compassion we have for ourselves to each other, if we can finally understand that we are bound to one another, and keep choosing to see every stranger as a friend.
With all my love,