By DOUGLAS JOHN IMBROGNO | march21.2020 | thestoryisthething.com
It is hard to know what comes next. Watching Chris Hayes on MSNBC last night, the news is all bad. CoVID-19 cases have leapt to more than 5,000 and fatalities are approaching 500 in America. An epidemiologist says to expect those numbers to grow exponentially in the days, weeks and months ahead. A few days from now “they will seem like the good old days.”
Any middling student of history knows that “the good old days” were anything but. As part of research for a sci-fi “space opera” I started decades ago, I’ve been reading deeply into the history of the Roman Empire; World War II; Mussolini’s “apostle of violence” rise in Italy; and the gobsmacking tale of how an illiterate horseman named Genghis Khan created a horseback empire far larger than anything the Romans ever achieved.
History, when seen from a certain angle, can seem like one long laundry list of blood, decay and the death of empires. It is hard to know at the moment if, because of this pandemic, we are seeing the demise of multiple empires: America; the post-World War II international order of you-scratch-my-back–I’ll-send you oil hegemonies; the Amazon Age of instant delivery.
All that seems certain—judging by the 600-plus deaths from the coronavirus just yesterday in Italy—is that a whole lot of grief and suffering is whacking the world upside the head. With much more to come.
But in the midst of the depredations of Roman legions, someone was building the Pantheon. In the most dire days of Napoleonic hubris, Notre Dame stood. In successions of murderous regimes, Buddhism thrived and grew across border after border.
And when we human beings self-selected out of the hazardous lottery of which hominid strain would rule the world (there were lots of contenders), we won out in no small part—or probably because—we knew how to band together collectively as supportive small tribes.
Tribalism gets a bad rap, and deservedly so. Donald Trump’s entire pathological governing philosophy is to build a slavish, argument-free tribal following based on grievance and a sense of being at odds with all others outside the tribal agreement.
But small units of human beings have ever kept our forward motion going. Us, in roving, self-supportive survival bands of 15 to 30 people ages ago. Monks in scriptoriums, keeping Western Culture alive through the dark ages. The small bands of WW2 soldiers and support men and women who really won the war. The bards, griots, singers, poets and artists who kept hope alive when hope was just a little mewling thing after all the furies left screaming from Pandora’s Box…
I do not intend to be Pollyanna as a dark age and pandemic sweeps thousands, maybe millions away. Maybe me. Maybe people deeply close to me. Maybe you and yours.
But there are choices other than despair and the hateful kind of tribalism.
Rebecca Solnit talked about this in an interview with Krista Tippet’s “On Being” interview program. In her book A Paradise Built in Hell, Solnit gathers together a lesser-told narrative about the great disasters of human history.
“There’s a way a disaster throws people into the present and gives them this supersaturated immediacy that also includes a deep sense of connection. It’s as though, in some violent gift, you’ve been given a kind of spiritual awakening where you’re close to mortality in a way that makes you feel more alive,” she says in her 2016 On Being conversation. “You’re deeply in the present and can let go of past and future and your personal narrative, in some ways. You have shared an experience with everyone around you, and you often find very direct but also metaphysical senses of connection to the people you suddenly have something in common with.”https://onbeing.org/programs/rebecca-solnit-falling-together/#transcript
I encourage you to read the full extent of her comments from that 2016 interview that “On Being” wisely has surfaced again at a moment of need. The “On Being” email newsletter, “The Pause,” (subscribe here) took note of some ways average people are responding to the pandemic:
“We’re already seeing uplifting examples of this across the world: An abundance of mutual aid initiatives have sprouted up to offer civilian support, supplies, and money to those most vulnerable to this pandemic. … MN CovidSitters is a group of University of Minnesota students providing childcare and running errands for healthcare workers now on call around the clock… Musang Community Kitch is a Seattle-based Filipino restaurant providing meals to students and those experiencing job loss as a result of the pandemic. And all the music: Artists like Yo-Yo Ma and John Legend are performing online as offerings of comfort, and neighbors in Italy and elsewhere are singing together from their balconies.
MORE SONGS of COMFORT, SONGS of HOME:
1. “Wild Mountain Thyme”
2. “A West Virginia Medley”
4. “Minor Glory (draft ‘a cappela’ version)
3. “Two Guitars, One Heart”
I also don’t know whether spending the better part of a day crafting a music video from an old performance is the height of absurdity and uselessness as a tsunami of global suffering bears down upon the human race.
I have reached out—and continue to reach out—to loved ones and loners. I have more to learn about what to do to be of help.
But one of the things I do is create stuff that has a little harmony in it and then attach imagery to it. I offer up this cobbled together music video for the cause of getting through this.
At its heart is the deep soulfulness of West Virginia native singer-songwriter Hazel Dickens and her great song “West Virginia, My Home.” I believe it should be the national anthem of the state.
May we all find ourselves home again. And being there— see it with clear and thankful eyes all over again.
Be well—or as well you can be.