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I've spent my entire life near various forms of Christian fundamentalism, and I cannot pretend I understand any of it. Talia Lavin's "The Devil in D.C." grapples with a phenomenon that's been invisible to me until it hasn't. People I've known won't talk about demons and exorcisms because they know I'll be skeptical, even if I say nothing. But once they're with the company they're comfortable with, that becomes the whole talk. Here's Lavin on the D.C. anti-vaccination rally:
All over the country, believers cast Satan as literal, potent, and omnipresent, with his dark minions, incarnate and ethereal, influencing every action in public and private life. Those who beseech God on behalf of the sick describe themselves as “prayer warriors”; memes encourage believers to abandon the fleeting earthly protection of masks and vaccines and “suit up with the whole armor of God,” a reference to Ephesians.
I confess I've never thought of myself as a "prayer warrior." When I was more religious, I craved ritual, but I didn't think I was purifying myself. I just wanted to know I was doing anything right. I guess I can say this: I have noticed that for many believers, it's not about morality but aesthetics. Don't curse, listen exclusively to this music, demonstrate these manners, stan this preacher, etc. I can believe that if you must purge demonic influences from the spaces around you, that has less to do with actual moral reasoning and more to do with how one's life looks to oneself. If I'm right, I can't say that's a good thing. Real moral reasoning starts with how messy and dirty life is.
Another essay of interest is Adam Johnson's screed against those personifying COVID in order to use martial rhetoric so as to "own the libs." "Covid isn't a human being, it doesn't care what you think about it" destroys the rhetorical notion that COVID policy is complicated and requires especial sensitivity to groups who are beholden to layer-upon-layer of conspiracy theory. Here's one passage that hits like a truck. Johnson asks what exactly the people arguing for no masks and fully open schools are thinking:
Presumably the force we’re standing up against is not the virus, but oppressive and overly paranoid protection measures. But again, one is compelled to ask: How the fuck are these measures overcorrecting, or fear-based, when the U.S. is set to hit 1 million deaths in April—or, 264 per 100,000 people as of today—while China, a country with four times the population, has recorded under 6,000 deaths, or 0.35 per 100,000? Even if one accepts the extremely dubious Economist guess of 700,000+ Chinese deaths, it’s still 1/5th ours per capita. Vietnam’s death per 100,000 is 38. Taiwan’s is 3.6. Cuba’s is 73. Germany’s is half the U.S. How can anyone look at America’s Covid rules and determine we did too much. It defies common sense
Some statistics are too large to argue with, and Johnson's essay is important for seeing the moral clarity they can provide.
Below, I've written on a marvelous poem of Jane Hirshfield, one which asks for reflection on the meaning of difficult periods in life. If you like what I write, please subscribe if you haven't already, and please spread the word about this newsletter.
Jane Hirshfield, "All the Difficult Hours and Minutes"
Hirshfield's poem brings us to a number of pains and frustrations. They are "difficult hours and minutes," "like salted plums in a jar." Eventually, despite much more wrangling, they can be useful—even eaten with rice. For myself, there's a limit to "difficult hours and minutes" conceived this way. To take one example, I wouldn't include grief among them. There is learning in immense loss, sure, but true losses don't disappear. They shouldn't. Life, not just our lives, simply isn't the same.
All the Difficult Hours and Minutes (from Poetry) Jane Hirshfield All the difficult hours and minutes are like salted plums in a jar. Wrinkled, turn steeply into themselves, they mutter something the color of sharkfins to the glass. Just so, calamity turns toward calmness. First the jar holds the umeboshi, then the rice does.
"Difficult hours and minutes" being like "salted plums in a jar" raises a question. Who put them there? Who collects such moments and preserves them? The answer is obviously "us," but when I first encountered this poem, I made a mistake. I was too quick to say we consciously dwell and make dwellings for our frustrations. Hirshfield's wording shows more restraint. "The difficult hours and minutes" are only that. Maybe they are unconsciously held, maybe they are shared experiences.
What is peculiar is their life. "Wrinkled, turn steeply into themselves, / they mutter something the color of sharkfins to the glass." The "difficult hours and minutes," then, call to mind an image of bitter, elderly people. They must "turn steeply into themselves," as their lives are not just meaningful to them, but are the knowledge they need to persevere. And none of us would deny that many elderly, especially those trapped in isolation, have every right to be bitter. They can mutter whatever they like. I readily confess I've missed out on much wisdom because of how it was said.
The "salted plums," the "difficult hours and minutes," have the truth. But what does the truth have to do with "something the color of sharkfins?" I'm not sure, but I believe the juxtaposition of danger ("sharkfins") with imprisonment ("glass") to be relevant. Something about the truth of life is dangerous and is typically contained. When I think about my own difficulties, I'm amazed I've done anything at all. It's not that I'm not privileged—I certainly am—but being privileged doesn't mean neglect, disrespect, or people trying to break you aren't real problems. I felt unease about these things when I couldn't precisely identify what was wrong. But I can see my life being so much worse if I obsessed over them, knowing too much what they were, and letting bitterness consume me. When I read about people who've been wrongly imprisoned, who somehow maintain themselves with grace, I'm just in awe. I have no idea if this poem can speak to their experiences, if anything or anyone can speak their heroism.
There are mutterings and a change of color. "Just so, calamity turns toward calmness." No specific explanation is given for why calamity becomes calmness other than the preservation of salted plums. I hold that "the difficult hours and minutes" are muted by time. They cannot always be the center of our attention, but out of focus, they prove a boon. They allow us to speak about what's real. They give us credibility, leaning toward the appreciation of problems as opposed to quick attempts at solutions. Hirshfield concludes by giving the "salted plums" a name. "First the jar holds the umeboshi, then the rice does." Difficulties receive another name from us when we've learned to use them, not unlike name changes in the Bible.