IN A DREAM YOU SAW A WAY TO SURVIVE

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Jenny Holzer – In a Dream You Saw a Way to Survive and You Were Full of Joy, 1994, photo by Ed Jansen

Today I had a horrible thought: this is going to be easy.

When I say this, I mean the hand-wavey, by-the-minute fear of life in the pandemic era. By this I mean the social distancing, the quarantines, the stockpiling, the press conferences, the graphs, the videos of people dying in Italian hospitals, the Facebook posts by your once-levelheaded friends going full Infowars and wondering what the National Guard is really for, the feeling of wishing you had gold to bury and a backyard to bury it in. The pandemic itself will cost catastrophically in money, resources, and human life. The coping, however, will be easy.

I recently learned that there are two versions of the word chutzpah. The first, the Americanized Yiddish chutzpah with the stress on the first syllable, is the one we know to mean pluckiness, bravery with a touch of foolishness. The mental image is always dirt-smeared, smack-talking children in 1930s Brooklyn. The second version, chutzpah with the stress on the second syllable, found its slang usage in modern Hebrew and means brazenness to the point of shamefulness; a complete overstepping of social boundaries, causing you and everyone around you to lose face. It would seem to me that this thought is obvious second-syllable chutzpah; it takes some nerve to declare that you’ll be fine in a society that is absolutely falling apart at the seams after one week of half-mustered emergency response. You say this and your friends who haven’t put on pants in five days and have dramatically bleached their hair while crying in the bathroom hate you immediately. What makes you so special, asshole?

There’s a sequence in Twin Peaks season one in which hapless deputy Andy Brennan reads the phrase j’ai une ame solitaire – I have a lonely soul – in local agoraphobe Harold Smith’s suicide note and begins to cry uncontrollably in the diner (something he does often, which gets used for comedic effect that is self-aware in its cruelty). Andy possesses one of the few unblemished hearts of the series, and is often a stand-in for the innocent, confused viewer. Andy had a purely empathic reaction, which makes him more human than most of the other characters that interacted with the phrase over the course of the show.

The phrase “I have a lonely soul” hits me like a pair of boots dropped to the floor. A dead thump, no poetry, no sentimentality. It’s not emotional, it’s just a fact. I was one of those kids that didn’t learn how to be human until they were practically an adult. Loneliness was never really a problem, it was just something I did, and I did it for days on end, wrapped up in my books and my toys and my inscrutable silent games. I was content with this until I realized that people were inevitable and all of them would think I was defective, and at that point I grew indignant and learned to mask my asocial tendencies. So, “stay inside?” I’m good with staying inside. I have many things to do inside. Outside causes ideological noise, making apparent the chasm between who I am and how I am perceived; inside is pure. My lifestyle has barely changed in the time of quarantine, to be honest.

I started Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb about a week before the COVID-19 panic set in. Convenient to be partway through a book the size of a kettlebell when it is declared you can no longer go outside. One passage has been sticking with me in particular (although I failed to bookmark it, so forgive my paraphrasing): in the 1920s of 1930s, a home journal published an innocently misguided anthropological inquiry that asked “what is a physicist, this new profession we’ve been hearing so much about?” The answer was a faithful retread of the prevailing psychological theories of the era: physicists tended to have been children from well-off European homes, with distant or absent parents; they were known to be quiet and spent a lot of time in solitude. They were not, to be frank, very functional. Trapped in their heads, detached from the flesh, detached from the earth. Oh look, I thought. My archetype.

Honestly, the thing I worry about most is being too good at being isolated. I worry that it makes me, like my upbringing and my temperament and my oddball behavior, inhuman. I am watching my peers wring their hands, shave their heads, and practically move in with people they barely know, and this is week one. I am leaning into the wind with brutish indifference. I take in the news like a prisoner eating gruel; I don’t love it, but it’s not like I get a choice. Meanwhile, all of my friends are losing their damn minds. They are reeling from the understanding that everything they knew to be normal is fundamentally changed. In this time of desperation, they are doing new and interesting things to connect with each other. I am not, because I haven’t needed it, because for me everything seems fundamentally the same as it was before. I have a looming feeling that it will be impossible to date once we’re allowed to roam freely again; I’ll have missed out on some fundamental evolution in human communication while I was busy learning how to read qin scores or painstakingly crafting the magical system for a novel I’ll never write. I’ll be some relic, the lone tyrannosaurus bellowing at a world it does not understand. But I’ll have made it, and with negligible psychic damage.

There are tangible concerns that I could have if I felt the need to participate in the panic just to feel alive, but it’s not worth it to have them yet. The supply chain breaking down could be a thing, but we don’t know that so there is no way to prepare. Food shortages could be a thing, but we don’t know that either. Money is a thing I should probably worry about, but what money signifies or what it is actually worth will fluctuate wildly in the coming months, so the only reasonable thing to do is secure as much of it as possible and wait to see if you can actually use it. Now might be a useful time to get into zen.

So, in sum, I’m going to survive this. That’s a brave and worthy thing to say right now, so repeat it back if you need it. I may not survive this as a human would. I may experience divergent evolution from the comfort of my bedroom. But survival is not something that gave me a choice, it’s simply something I do, and I’m going to do it.