Like an Egyptian

“And Pharaoh’s servants said unto him, How long shall this man be a snare unto us? let the men go, that they may serve the Lord their God: knowest thou not yet that Egypt is destroyed?”  The words are from the Good Book.  Specifically Exodus 10.7.  They’ve been on my mind as the coronavirus is beginning to yield in all developed nations but our own.  Let me set the scene: the Israelites have become slaves in Egypt.  Moses was sent to set them free, but a Trumpian Pharaoh stood in the way.  Plague after plague was sent, but the president, er, I mean Pharaoh, refused to acknowledge what the evidence indicated.  Moses would appear before the senate and declare the coming disaster.  In the mythical world of the Bible, though, the senate actually saw reason.

“Knows thou not yet that Egypt is destroyed?”  Instead of addressing the Covid-19 crisis the White House has decided to turn a blind eye.  Nearly one-fourth of the worldwide cases of the disease are recorded in the United States.  In the past week several record-setting days of new case numbers were set even as the administration was insisting that schools be opened without any plans, or even ideas about how to help.  “Have them make bricks without straw,” you could almost hear echoing around the Oval Office.  Ah, indeed, this is the most biblical of administrations.  Our economy has been tanked for years to come.  The environment has been degraded to the point of disaster.  And yet Moses is ignored.  The real plague was the Pharaoh.

“This is the finger of science!”

Exodus is a story of liberation.  What’s more, according to the Good Book, God himself wanted Israel to be set free.  The Pharaoh, it seems, was not personally afflicted with the plagues until the darkness fell.  Prior to that, if it didn’t affect him personally he simply didn’t care.  Too many self-aggrandizing monuments to be built to his own name.  Ancient Egypt was like that.  Meanwhile plagues brought the mightiest nation of the time to its knees.  Beyond that.  It brought them prone.  Most of us, I expect, are ready to get on with life.  We’ve been self-isolating for over three months and yet the number of cases continues to increase.  We could use a word or two of guidance from a sympathetic leader.  Instead we’re entering hurricane season.  I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve got my Bible all ready.  And right now it’s open to Exodus.  

Skywalker Arises

Maybe, if you’re like me, you find the Star Wars franchise a little hard to keep straight.  Ever since the end of Episode VI the number of characters with strange and oddly short names jumped.  The rate of light saber duals skyrocketed, and the story grew more complex (and not always with any payoff).  I suspect that like many I kept watching the second trilogy of episodes I through III out of a sense of duty, longing for that pathos that stayed with me after leaving the theater (remember theaters?) following episodes IV through VI.  Hope awakened along with the Force in Episode VII under the able hand of J. J. Abrams.  Then the stinker of Episode VIII, which my wife and I watched in a cold theater in Bernardsville, New Jersey, dropped us back into the realm of I through III.  I didn’t even notice when Episode IX, The Rise of Skywalker came out last year.  DisneyPlus, to which many people subscribed just to watch Hamilton, made it possible for us to round out the trilogy of trilogies on the small screen.

While better than The Last Jedi, the story ran into the standard sequel problems of probing relationships between characters that a crisp story tends to leave ambiguous.  But there were, to my religious eye, many themes that seemed quite Christian.  There was buzz when Kylo Ren’s cruciform light saber appeared in The Force Awakens, but the Christian tropes were more obvious as the series wound down.  Rey, for example, finds out about the wayfinder from the first physical book of the series.  It’s old and leather-bound and iconic.  This is a kind of Bible.  Jedis are shown to be increasingly messianic, and I thought having a female messiah was a nice touch.  I was going to write “as the series closed,” but with the money made there’s little doubt that more will come from a galaxy far, far away.

Rey’s impressive Jedi feats look like miracles and her ability to raise the dead (or dying) and to heal in a time of an evil empire (for ancient Christians, Rome) rings familiar to those with Bible radar.  The name Skywalker should’ve been a clue from the beginning (as it was for those of us who crowded the theaters in 1977), and the final shot of Rey on Tatooine where the setting of the binary stars make a halo around her head should eliminate any doubt.  There are many throwbacks to the original trilogy in this final installment, and although the plot was more complex than necessary, it leaves the armchair theologian in a nice place.  But some of us will always think of the holy grail as that found back when the evil in our own empire seemed, if briefly, to be waning.

Nightmares with Nightmares

Although some staff members are furloughed, Nightmares with the Bible is still going to press.  Unlike many authors, I realize that Covid-19 has had a stifling effect on publishing, starting with bottlenecking books at printing houses.  Printers (along with publishers) were non-essential businesses and since you have to be physically present to run a printing press, the virus literally, well, stopped the presses.  Many publishers could work remotely, so the projects began piling up before printing houses reopened.  All of this is preamble to saying I am gratified that work with Nightmares is continuing.  Yesterday, however, it led to a nightmare of its own.

One of the reasons I don’t fight awaking early is that it is uninterrupted writing time.  Most of the rest of your time zone is asleep at three a.m., so I can write in peace.  Yesterday, however, I had to divide my manuscript into chapter files and resend it to the publisher.  No problem, right?  Technology, however, has made this once simple task a burden.  I use a Mac, and so my word processor is Pages.  Not only that, but the constant systems upgrades require me to empty space on my hard drive—really, the only stuff I keep on here are my writings and those pictures I snap with my phone.  Still, I had to load my external drive to access the final file sent to the publisher two months back.  With Pages you can’t select material from page-to-page in the thumbnails.  No, you must “physically” go to the start of the chapter, click, scroll to the end of the chapter, and shift-click to highlight and then copy it.  Then you have to open a new file, select a template, and paste.  Save and export as a Word document.  The process took about two hours.

 

Now, I get up this early to write and do a little reading.  Yesterday I could do neither.  Instead I was cutting and pasting like a manic kindergartener, trying to get my manuscript printed before the second wave comes and shuts everything down again.  Talk about your nightmares!  Technology has made the industry much swifter, no doubt.  When I first began publishing articles you had to send physical printouts through the postal services and await either a rejection, or acceptance, through the mail.  Book manuscripts required large print jobs and keeping duplicates (at least we didn’t have to use carbon paper!).  All I lost was a morning of writing before the work bell rang.  Still, nightmares come in all sizes, some of them quite small.

Independence Day Wishing

It’s Independence Day and what we most need independence from is our own government.  History is full of ironies.  Federal holidays falling on a Saturday, for instance.  In any case, here we are on the Fourth of July and still stuck under a repressive government that a small portion of people like.  Republican groups supporting Biden are starting to arise, but we can only dream on Independence Day.  Many of us would like to be independent of the coronavirus, and not a few people are acting like we are.  Cases are spiking, so the rest of us are staying indoors.  Fireworks are okay, but I have trouble staying awake until dark these days and more often than not they just keep me awake as I’m starting to doze.

Maybe for Independence Day I’ll take leave of reality.  Maybe I’ll imagine a government that isn’t so utterly corrupt that some people might have some faith in it.  Maybe I’ll dream that black lives matter and that our leaders would believe it.  Maybe I’ll think what it would have been like if caring officials addressed the Covid-19 crisis directly instead of brushing it off, so that like all well-run nations cases would be going down here instead of back up.  There’s so many possibilities and the one thing they all have in common is that they point to independence from the Trump Administration, if that’s what it can be called.  Maybe it’s time to light a sparkler of hope.

Independence Day can be a day of looking forward instead of looking back.  If we can look ahead we might see a country where anyone will be allowed to exist and not be condemned by “Christianity.”  We can come to see that privileging any one “class” or “race” or “sexual orientation” is a form of bigotry from which we can and should be independent.  We can try to think what it must be like to experience life from somebody else’s skin.  We can try to understand instead of standing ready to condemn that which is “different.”  Fact is, everyone is different from everyone else, it’s only a matter of degree.  And difference can unite rather than divide.  The whole idea behind uniting different states was that those who were different could support one another and figure out how to make room for everyone to fit.  It won’t be easy to do, but we might use today to envision a country where we can work together, and figure out that leaders who bring people together are the only hope we have for the future.

X-Files Redux

So, after writing a post about The X-Files, I finished season three, forgetting up until then that the last episode was “Talitha Cumi.”  Apart from being part of the alien mythology arc, the biblically literate recognize the title as the words Jesus said to Jairus’ daughter as he raised her from the dead.  Appropriately enough, the episode features an alien-human hybrid that is able to raise the dead and to shape-shift.  This particular episode also has an intriguing dialogue between the Smoking Man and Jeremiah Smith (the hybrid) where they discuss whether the alien agenda for people, or that of the shadowy cabal, is better.  With a theology drawn from the Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamazov (according to Wikipedia, and which I have no reason to doubt), they argue from different perspectives.  The Smoking Man explains that they have given people science instead of God and miracles will only confuse the issue.

While not exactly Fyodor Dostoyevsky, this scene raises some very real questions.  Are people happier not believing?  Not only that, but the cynicism of the Smoking Man matches rather precisely the modus operandi of our government some two decades later.  There’s a reason we keep coming back to the classics.  The X-Files mythology is, like the Cthulhu Mythos, woven throughout a larger tapestry whose warp and weft both seem to be religion.  It ran far longer than Sleepy Hollow ever did, and it would take considerable effort to tease all of the Bible, let alone religion, out of it.  They make the story far more believable.

This particular episode also displays the staying power of the classics.  Long, ponderous books like The Brothers Karamazov require concerted effort to read in these soundbite days of internet hegemony.  That Grand Inquisitor chapter, however, has been enormously influential.  (I recall during my most recent rereading of the novel that I hit that wonderful chapter and then realized I still had hundreds of pages to go.)  We often have trouble telling God from the Devil.  Just look at today’s political scene and try to disagree.  In the X-Files diegesis there is a shadowy, high-powered group that got to the extraterrestrials first.  They keep the secrets to themselves while the masses play out their insignificant lives that enrich those in charge.  Democracy, it seems, used to be about elected representatives seeing to the will of the people.  It perhaps assumes a greater educational base than we’ve been able to retain.  But still, with chapters like “Talitha Cumi” we see that there may be some glimmer of hope after all.

Slimy Veggies

This wasn’t the work of ghosts, but it sure looked like it.  I snapped on the kitchen lights at 3:00 a.m. to find one of the counters dripping with slime.  It looked like the basement of the New York Public Library.  As I grabbed a damp rag and a roll of paper towels, I thought about Ghostbusters and fresh produce.  The slime, you see, came from a burst freezer pack.  During the pandemic we’ve been using Misfits, a service that delivers fresh fruits and vegetables to your door.  Early on, back in March and April, it looked like various shortages, apart from toilet paper, were here to stay.   Every couple of weeks we’d get a Misfits box, so we’d at least have that.

Since fruits and vegetables are perishable, and since there is a time lag involved, they are packed with freezer bags.  These cold-pack bags are reusable and we began sticking them in our ice-box.  We have no free-standing freezer, so the unit atop our fridge was getting full.  The last week’s pack had begun to leak in transit, and, being too busy, I’d set it aside until I could figure out how to dispose of it in the most environmentally friendly way.  We don’t generate a huge amount of trash.  We compost our food scraps, and being vegan we don’t have smelly animal byproducts to toss.  And we recycle all that we can.  I guess just “throwing it out” has become a kind of last resort.  In the dark, the freezer bag made the decision for me and so I found myself mopping in the middle of the night.

It’s a small price to pay, really, to try to help save the environment.  The past four years have contributed unconscionably to global warming.  We tend not to care because those who’ll bear the brunt of it in the short-term are the poor.  Industrialists can afford vacation homes in the mountains.  Our lifestyles have an impact everywhere.  We need to learn to think differently about things.  Of course, that leaky freezer pack did cause quite a mess.  The gooey slime was everywhere, but it was everywhere with a conscience.  I have to wonder what happens to the world when leaders lack conscience.  Unfortunately I don’t have to wonder long since I have the headlines to read.  No, this wasn’t the work of ghosts, but unless we change our ways it could well be.  And when those treating you like enemies are your leaders, who you gonna call?

Letterbox

It’s kind of scary.  I mean, I know that Google Maps has everything recorded.  Some family members recounted, a few years back, how they were shown raking the leaves in their yard on street level photographs.  I guess everything’s part of your permanent record now.  What was scary to me was receiving a letter with a picture of my house on the envelope.  Yes, it was from an insurance agency, and insurance thrives on the feeling of vague threat that rattles around our primate brains most of the time.  Is something  or someone out to get me?  Oh no!  They know where I live!  Maybe it was supposed to be friendly, like a good neighbor.  It just didn’t come across that way.  Smile, you’re on Candid Camera.

Not that being recorded doesn’t have its advantages.  We live in an older house, and like most older houses it has had some additions over the decades.  That means the roof is complex.  That complex roof turned out to be leaky also.  When the roofer was trying to explain why he couldn’t do just the one part where the water was getting in (we have been re-roofing on an installment plan), I had trouble imagining it.  You see, when you’ve got neighbors all around it’s pretty tough to get the right angle to examine your own roof.  I googled our address and shifted to satellite mode.  I zoomed in and found the layout of the roof.  Screenshot and save.  Otherwise I don’t think I’d ever have understood how complicated rain deterrence can really be.

But getting a letter in the mail with your own house on it—this seems to cross some kind of line.  Yes, I like our place.  I feel comfortable here.  It’s got space for lots of books.  It isn’t fancy, though.  It still needs quite a lot of work both inside and out.  And I like to spend my scant free time reading.  It’s cheaper than buying all the lumber and tools I need to do things the way they should be done.  Maybe if my job were driving around filming other peoples’ houses I’d make enough to have some contractor come in and fix things up.  But the insurance agent knows where I live now.  Covid-19 probably stops him from knocking at my door, but I do value my privacy.  Like most things, being recorded is a mixed bag.  Who couldn’t use a little extra anxiety once in a while?

Sticks and Stones

So much has been happening that I have trouble keeping up.  This past month a border skirmish erupted between the planet’s two most populous nations, China and India.  The skirmish took place in the Himalayas, around a disputed border line.  About twenty died in a scuffle that the New York Times reported as involving clubs and stones.  This image stuck with me.  As kids we used to chant “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me.”  Quite apart from the incorrect message in this saying, it struck me how childish border skirmishes are.  Like race, national boundaries are mere human constructs.  We’re obsessed with ownership.  Territoriality.  This land belongs to me, not you.  If you disagree we can club and stone each other to death to prove it.  

I mailed a package to someone in Canada recently.  Not only did I have to fill out a customs form, I also had to fork over quite a hefty sum, amounting to half the price of the item sent.  The reason for the high cost was that this was international mail.  Now, I can understand Canada wanting to distance itself from its southern neighbor, but why do we feel that we need to have strict borders?  We’ve been peaceful for centuries.  Being who I am, my thoughts tend toward the breaking down of religious ideals of unity.  Believe me, I know these are only ideals that we never realized in practice, but the concept haa been there from the beginning.  Religion tends to divide rather than to bring people together, no matter what the founders of various traditions taught.  Now even that is breaking down.

As the New York Times points out, both India and China are nuclear powers.  During this time of social distancing I had secretly hoped national aggressions might fade.  With some eight million people infected worldwide, you might think we could all work together, put down our sticks and stones, and see the human face before us.  We wear masks, I guess, for more than one reason.  The primitive nature of that skirmish bothers me.  People beating one another to death with rocks and clubs over a location difficult to reach just so both sides can lay claim to it.  In my mind’s eye I envision a gray-black monolith appearing in their midst.  A message of progress being beamed into their heads.  We’re two decades beyond that benchmark, and we still don’t get the message.

A better use for sticks and stones

Too Much Light?

The summer solstice comes whether we want it to or not.  Today is the longest day in the northern hemisphere although, as I write this the sun has not yet risen.  It was a sleepless night, making this day seem even longer than it already is.  Over on Horror Homeroom, where they understand sleepless nights, my piece on the movie Midsommar will appear.  I won’t say here what I say there, or you might not go and read it.  I will say that for a horror film Midsommar boldly sets itself in a sun-bathed atmosphere, making it all the more unsettling.  To see more you’ll need to visit the Homeroom.

There are implications for the longest day.  One of the most obvious is that from here on out days will be getting shorter.  That’s the thing about anticipation—we crave the light when it’s in such short supply in December and January.  This year of Covid, the spring blended into a long stretch of social distancing and isolation, even as the days were growing longer and the weather warmer.  It was like some spokes were missing from the wheel of the year.  Now that summer’s here many people are acting as if the need for caution is gone.  Midsommar may help with that, since it shows that the daylight sometimes shows us what we don’t really wish to see.

Ancient peoples kept an eye on the seasonal changes long before they learned to write.  Etched into the landscape markers like Stonehenge and Avebury and countless others were oriented toward celestial points on the solstices.  Equinoxes were also observed, as well as the half-way points between.  This altering of the earth to commemorate the progressing of the year took great effort, so we must assume it had great importance.  You don’t move boulders unless you feel strongly compelled to do so.  Such compulsion strikes us all as religious.

So it’s the longest day of the year.  What will we do with it?  When we look back at it, will we see what we wished we might have done with all that light on our side?  Will we treat it just like any other day?  The beauty of holidays (of which capitalism recognizes far too few) is that they teach us to stop and reflect for a few moments on the messages our planet sends us.  Our longest day is also a message.  What we do with that information is up to us.

Juneteenth

Education is important.  For example, I never really knew what Juneteenth was, although I’d heard the name a few times.  Perhaps because of the “teenth” part I had it in my head that this was something to do with young people.  The amazing thing I’ve been learning over the past several weeks is just how deliberate the “white male” narrative has been in perpetuating the racist mechanism in the employment of capitalism.  Years ago I learned that race is a human construct—it has no basis in science or biology.  It has served various entrepreneurs throughout history, beginning in 1619 and has been perpetuated ever since in order to ring the last possible copper from the coffers.  Now we see what that looks like when a standing president holds these “truths” to be self-evident.

Juneteenth was proclaimed in Texas in 1865.  Even in the extreme and conservative Lone Star State it was recognized over a century ago that all people have the right to be free.  Of course we don’t celebrate it as a national holiday.  Give people too much time off and they might get to thinking.  If, perchance that thinking turns toward the heartless machine of capitalism it might be realized that there are better ways to ensure people are treated fairly, regardless of their skin color.  This year, for the first time I have seen, many organizations—some of them corporations, even—are closing in honor of Juneteenth.  Black lives do matter.  We should be able to see that, but it takes innocent deaths to make the obvious appear.

Yesterday I listened to three Pulitzer Prize winners discussing racial equality.  All three of them had written on the African-American experience.  All three knew the evils of racism.  Research has been done that indicates much of what stands behind white evangelical support of the Republican Party is racism.  Many of the movement’s leaders still buy into myths about race and believe it is something God built into the human soft machine rather than something we made up ourselves.  For political purposes.  We need Juneteenth.  We need reminders that the evil we’ve constructed can be dismantled.  People should not die because of a false human construct.  It wasn’t lack of curiosity that prevented me from learning about Juneteenth when I first heard of it.  No, it was being overwhelmed with the problems Washington was spewing out (and continues to), that I had to divide my energies depleted by the capitalist Moloch.  Now I realize, because by their fruits we shall know them.  Floyd George was murdered on camera and we need to expose the thinking that allowed that crime to happen.

Long Ranger

The summer solstice is nearly here (on which more anon).  The coronavirus outbreak reached crisis level in the United States just before the vernal equinox, so we’ve been living with this now for over a quarter of the year.  The World Health Organization has been warning that the greatest danger now is complacency.  I’ve been seeing troubling signs of it.  Many people equate the partial opening up as a license to ditch the masks and start having parties again.  I go jogging around 5 a.m. these days because, well, the solstice.  It’s light enough and I’ve already been awake a couple of hours by then.  Parks and playgrounds around here are officially closed still, but the other day just after first light I jogged by a group of guys playing basketball before sunrise.  The days are longer and it feels like nothing can harm us in summer.

Like most other people I worry about the economy.  You’d think books would be big business during a lockdown and in fact many kinds are doing quite well.  The academic kind less so.  Still, I haven’t given up my hope that the pandemic will prove transformative.  We should emerge from this better than we were going into it.  Granted, the Republican Party has put the bar really, really low, but people are, I hope, starting to realize we’re better than our government.  We know that black lives matter.  We know that science is real.  We know that people matter more than money.  Nevertheless it’s difficult to keep wearing masks when we’ve shed the winter clothes and donned short sleeves.  Disease, like Republicanism, doesn’t respect human desires.  We need to keep the masks on.

A strange kind of giddiness comes upon us during these long days.  There’s so much light!  Those who can sleep past 4 a.m. are finding the sky already glowing when they awake.  At this latitude it stays light until almost 9 p.m., or so I’m told.  Thinking back to our primal ancestors, we were only really active during daylight hours.  Sluggish and sleepy in the winter, we’re now stimulated with so many photons we don’t know what to do with them all.  I sincerely hope that Covid-19 has had enough of the human race and is ready to leave us alone.  In the light of the day, however, the evidence isn’t there to bear that out.  We can still celebrate the longest day of the year with masks on, knowing that six months from now things will be very different.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Apart from being Shakespearen click-bait, the title of this post reflects a present-day fear.  We live on the edge of rural Pennsylvania.  If you’re not familiar with the state, let me assure you, there are tons of woodlands and rural communities.  You can drive for hours in a straight line and seldom leave the forest.  When my wife sent me a warning email—I go to bed early and can’t seem to sleep late—I paid heed.  A bear has been ambling through our town.  My usual morning jog is along a trail at the edge of the woods.  Bears are crepuscular.  I watch horror movies.  Put it all together and a Shakespearean level of anxiety quickly builds.  It wouldn’t be so bad, but the photos show the bear romping through backyards and one of the reasons I jog the way I do is to avoid other people.

I see wildlife on my jogs.  I see deer frequently, along with feral cats, rabbits, and, in season, ducks.  I’ve seen raccoons, foxes, groundhogs, and even snapping turtles and salamanders.  It’s not much of a stretch to think a bear could be lurking there.  So instead I took to jogging the human streets.  The danger out here, of course, is the human-borne kind.  Covid-19 lurks, and even though I jog at 5 a.m. there are other elderly out and about.  I hear a cough and wonder whether my chances might be better with the bear.  The broken sidewalk’s a problem too.  I have tripped before in the half light, but without Superman’s knack for flying.  Or at least landing gracefully.

Thinking back, I wonder what has happened.  As I child I lived in truly rural Pennsylvania.  My brothers and I used to sleep on our open porch in the summers, even though we could occasionally hear bears going through the trashcans around the side of the house.  Our place was hard up on the woods, right at the edge of town.  I didn’t worry about the bears back then, though.  We’ve perhaps become more afraid of nature because we know we’ve not been good to it.  The episode of the X-Files we watched before bed last night had Scully saying that nature’s always out to get us.  Perhaps we’ve drawn too solid a line between ourselves and brother or sister bear.  We’re not above nature; we are nature.  But still, I’d rather not be pursued, or eaten by a bear, no matter how much I like Shakespeare.  So I’ll jog in town for awhile, taking my chances with the dangers of my own kind.

Photo credit: Manitoba Provincial Archives, via Wikimedia Commons

Weather Gods

It’s funny how old fascinations have the power to reemerge with the slightest provocation.  I guess writing a book will do that to you.  I just finished Peter J. Thuesen’s Tornado God: American Religion and Violent Weather.  There’s a certain kinship among those of us enamored of this relationship.  Thuesen finds himself in Indiana, and I was in Wisconsin during my research and writing of Weathering the Psalms.  I still haven’t reconciled myself with tornadoes, which were far too likely during my years in the Midwest.  As Thuesen explains, there’s just something about them.  Neither scientist nor theologian can fully explain them and the feeling of awe spans both disciplines.  The book covers a wide range that includes early Protestant settlers and their ideas of providence as well as modern understandings of atmospheric dynamics.  Still, the tornadoes…

Randomness also lies behind both tornadoes and science.  The eerie function of quantum mechanics makes it seem if there’s a kind of willfulness to even particle physics.  Too quick to join in are those among the evangelical camp that want to raise the flag of intelligent design.  Thuesen interrogates their theology as he asks questions about both theodicy and global warming.  Tornadoes are notorious for killing one person and leaving another right next door completely unscathed.  Literally tearing families apart.  Some of those we meet in these pages have turned to black-and-white religion for answers.  Others tend to see things more in shades of gray.  Does God send storms or merely allow them?  Are victims singled out or simply unfortunate to be in the wrong place at the right time?  America’s armchair theologians have their ready answers, but the weather remains unpredictable.

Readers will find interesting connections throughout.  The celestial orientation of religion is pretty obvious as well.  Even though modern believers don’t accept a heaven directly overhead, the orientation is still there.  Their maddening obtuseness when it comes to global warming is more than just a little naive.  Either that or they’re secretly gunning for armageddon.  Whichever it is, Thuesen treats all comers with respect.  Storms are awe-inspiring events.  I recall standing on the edge of a farm field in Illinois and staring up at a lightning display in clouds towering thousands of feet above me.  Looking out the south window one night as a cloud continuously lit by lightning made its slow way from west to east just south of where I stood.  It was a religious experience.  How could it not be?  If any of this resonates with you, this is a book you ought to read.

Rainbow of Reading

Reading in a time of plague is more than just a pastime.  It’s an opportunity to learn.  I keep fervently hoping that an occupation might be made out of reading, but those I’ve tried always have many long strings attached, most of them tied to capitalism.  Early on in the social distancing phase, a group in my town began posting children’s stories on lawn signs in the park.  Each sign stands six feet from the last one, and if you linger a few minutes you can take in a children’s book, presumably for the benefit of your child.  Such signs have cropped up in a couple of the parks here in town.  I’m pleased to see the attempts at literacy education continuing.  If anything’s going to get us out of this crisis, it’s going to be reading.

The local library, again early on, began giving away books that normally make up part of the book sale.  Libraries, which have proven their worth over and over, have been doing what they can to get people through the difficult times of loneliness, and in some cases, joblessness.  Those of us who cottoned onto reading at a young age realize just how much problem-solving you can glean from reading a novel.  Instead of encouraging writers, however, the capitalistic system makes agents and publishers interested only in those writers who are deemed to have commercial value.  All the rest, who often find a core audience after their deaths, are left to obscurity since money makes the world go round, right MC?  And yet where would we be without our formative fiction.

I’ve quite often admitted that Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is my favorite novel.  I’d always assumed that it was a success but I recently learned that it too was a flop.  At first.  There was little interest in what has become the prototypical great American novel.  Its draw is in the lessons it teaches.  A bit too long to put on signs in the park, it explores what drives some people.  Indeed, for the owners of the Pequod it is money.  But there are more important things.  As the weather has been improving, it makes me glad to see the signs of summer.  The signs posted with books.  While I have no small children to take to the park, I am made happy by the efforts of those who take the initiative to show young people the way out of any crisis.  You must read your way through.

Under the Plague

Some events transform a society.  While we keep waiting for things “to get back to normal,” many of us have already come to realize that there is no normal to which we can get back.  That’s my main impression after reading Albert Camus’ The Plague.  The story is set in 1940s Algeria where the Bubonic Plague breaks out in a single town that has to isolate itself from the rest of the world.  As the months and realizations of long duration develop, the emotions the characters go through are very much in line with what seems to be happening with Covid-19.  Indeed, that’s why the novel seems to be going through a surge of popularity right now.  I’ve always associated Camus with the great existentialist writers, but that slipped to the back of my mind while reading this poignant story.

Existentialism is all about making one’s own meaning in a meaningless universe.  This is precisely what Dr. Rieux does in Oran as his former life becomes one long ward call of service to the town.  He befriends characters who represent the best and the worst of human nature as they respond to the pressures of isolation and boredom.  Camus pointedly notes that despite the equalizing forces of death and hardship, the rich manage to make sure they have it better than the poor although they all end up in the same common grave.  There are morals to this story, and it’s clear that “leaders” in Washington have never read it.  Literature quite often teaches important lessons, but to get at them you have to read.

Rieux befriends Tarrou and it seems to me that Tarrou’s lengthy monologue on why he has volunteered to stay in Oran and help those who are suffering is the main message of the book.  Tarrou understands the lessening of suffering, the attempt to bring peace, as the main purpose of human beings.  He says at one point that it’s like becoming a saint.  Despite the ways saints are often worshipped these days, that is at the heart of their canonization.  Care for others.  Rieux points out that Tarrou doesn’t believe in God, and yet, as the story winds down it is clear that he has become a kind of savior figure.  The novel is disturbing in its simplicity and in its timeliness.  It would seem that if we’re to get anything at all out of being under the cloud of a modern plague that we need to take the view that others matter, despite what Washington says, perhaps even more than ourselves.