Apocalypse Cabaret Diary, March 31
Sometimes, when you scream into the void, the void screams back, asking for help.
The last 24 hours have seen a small cluster of people reach out to me, needing someplace to confess their fears and acknowledge their anguish. At a time when 3/4ths of the country is supposed to be on lockdown the soul’s suffering is breaking its shackles and running free.
3/4ths of our country is supposed to be on lockdown. Imagine. It’s unprecedented. None of us has ever seen anything like it. And while the President says “until the end of April,” schools around the nation are not re-opening until the fall, and experts warn of long months ahead. Of course we’re confused. Of course we don’t know what to do.
Everyone I talk to in New York City is depressed and desperate. They all have friends or colleagues who have been diagnosed, they all know that they have been exposed, and the news of hospitalization and death is starting to trickle in. The news came yesterday that I am now only two degrees of separation from someone across the country who died of Covid-19. He was 49.
But everyone says the same thing: they’re not afraid of contracting the disease, they’re afraid of spreading it. And they’re far, far, less afraid of dying than they are of having to live like this.
I started my acute suffering the moment I realized: “this could go on a long time.” That same realization seems to be nesting in more people now.
The greatest suffering — at least of those not yet in mourning — is from people who had spent the last few years building something only now to see it in ruins; it is from those who have spent the past few years exorcising their demons, only now to see them clawing back in. It is those of us who only just sacrificed everything for a new future, only for the future to be cancelled and our old lives to be put on rerun while we sit alone. And it wasn’t our fault. And we didn’t do anything wrong. And yet here we are, the world falling down around us in exactly the way, deep down, we always knew it would.
At some point in every conversation comes an acknowledgement that whatever anyone needs to do to get through psychological suffering like this is okay. No matter how unhealthy, unwise … so long as it isn’t cruel or damaging to the safety of others …. it’s okay. While this is a compassionate sentiment, and sincerely meant, I don’t think it comes from a place of compassion so much as a place of horror. Everyone is looking at their own coping mechanisms, seeing how self-destructive they could be (or already are), and is moved to confess it before it can be pointed out. “But this is what I need to do!” they say. And in that acknowledgement, compassion for others emerges.
We want to be seen in our suffering, and other people to be seen in theirs. What else is there to share, right now?
A friend told me about how someone in her complex had needed to break quarantine because he was doing a lot of ketamine to cope, and his dealer had just told him some of it might have come from a source that had laced it with fentanyl. He’d taken some anyway, and now he needed someone to look after him to make sure he didn’t die while he was under the influence.
“So that’s what I did for a few hours,” she said.
“I’m weirdly jealous of that experience,” I told her.
“I understand! Yeah, he’s got a problem, but it was a highlight of my day, for sure.”
Every artist I’ve spoken to is paralyzed in their craft. Or perhaps languid about it is sometimes a better description. We all should be spending this time creating masterpieces for the world to come, or at least to commemorate the world that we see dying behind us. But … we’re not. We sit around, and do other things. Our life’s work is so far not rising to the occasion. It turns out, to a degree we never understood, the ability to produce art is contingent on the ability to imagine a future.
Not all art, but far, far, more than we ever knew. I write these diaries because that is what I do when my back is to the wall, but aside from this, my writing too is mostly in hibernation, waiting for evidence that something matters. Artistic passion needs a direction, and right now we do not have one.
Instead of making art, I listen to the suffering of others. And it is not an imposition. On the contrary, it is another form of connection. Not the only kind I want, but one that right now I am glad to have.
I have never regretted it, but this, too, is harder than it ought to be. On two occasions I have ended a conversation and realized at that moment that I have overextended myself, and slipped into exhaustion. This is a new limit. I can still walk in the deep darkness of others, but the air is heavy now and so I get winded.
Everyone who is quarantining has a story now of people who are not. Of students on spring break, or relatives who say “I can’t believe you’re taking this so seriously!” It would not surprise me at all if, in a year, the distinction between those who quarantined early and those who didn’t becomes a significant social distinction, a mark of something lasting. There are so many fresh ways for our society to fracture appearing in the newly cleaner air.
I am sometimes surprised at the people who reach out, and the ways they do it. And I am occasionally surprised by the people who don’t. These, too, may become lasting distinctions.
I spent a long time trying to build a better emotional life, and now there is nothing to do but sit in its ruins and cook rations over a bonfire. And see who joins me.
Our souls, in all their nakedness and wounds, are running free. But they don’t know where else to go.