Monday, May 11, 2020

Even When It's Right There in Front of You

It must have been the city of Seattle that advised closed retailers, restaurants, and bars to board up their windows. It wasn't until they boarded up the brand new Sephora store that I knew things were going to get worse before they got better.

You can click on any of these photos to see them full sized

It's a bad look for cities. I spent several years in Detroit during the late 80's. It was a dangerous, dying city, grim, the setting for the dystopian movie Robocop, even though it was too grim for the actual movie, so they shot it in Chicago instead. Seattle is the opposite sort of city. I've lived here off and on since 1984 and there are few places more alive. But now the windows are boarded up.

I've been struggling with my emotions these past couple of months. I'm pissed off . . . At a virus, I suppose, but I keep wanting there to be someone to blame. There's no one to blame. We can point our fingers at politicians, and indeed there have been, and continue to be, failures. We can point our fingers at our neighbors, and indeed some of them have had the audacity to do things I didn't think they ought to do.

We can point our fingers, but the only place we can really point is at a virus, not even a form of life, but a kind of bio-machine that tricks our living cells into reproducing itself. People tell me that anger is a secondary emotion, that there is always either fear or sadness underneath it. And in my reflective moments I find in myself some of both.

I'm not afraid of contracting the virus, but I am afraid of what our responses are doing to us, and especially children. I'm particularly worried that children will learn that their friends are to be feared. What a crippling thing that would be. And I'm definitely sad, already mourning things we've lost, both big and small, worried we might not ever get them back.

I'm not worried that I won't get to hug people again. That's a prospect too catastrophic for my imagination, but I am sad about the lucite barriers that have sprung up in my local supermarket and drug stores, separating me from the cashiers. I suspect they are permanent. I'm sad about the local, family-owned businesses that will not re-open. I'm sad about the graduating seniors who will miss those traditional memories. I'm sad about the dying and the fear and the way that this has become yet another political fault line.

One of the ways I've been coping is to take long walks. Mostly I've been trying to go places where I can temporarily forget about the plague and that means avoiding downtown, where the windows are boarded up, sticking to residential areas, parks, and places from which I can get lost in a spectacular view of water, mountains, and the bluest skies you've ever seen. But this weekend I guess I felt like wallowing as I toured the boarded up windows. From the grim and empty downtown, I ascended Capitol Hill to Seattle's historic gay neighborhood.

I was prepared for melancholy. This neighborhood is meant to be lively and while the sidewalks were more populated than the ones downtown, the windows were still boarded up -- ugly, end-of-the-world sheets of plywood where there once were windows that looked in upon people engaged in fellowship. I spied a young couple, however, making the most of a bad thing, working together, paint brushes in hand, turning a series of three sheets of blank wood into art. I stood watching them for a time. They told me from six feet away that the business owner had made this accidental canvas free to them.

It wasn't until that moment that I noticed that the streets were lined with artwork. I'd been so blinded by my sadness that I'd not seen the emerging beauty around me.

Human beings are always in search of understanding. We turn to science. We turn to religion. We turn to philosophy. We turn to one another. And we turn to art. Art is how we strive to understand reality from within ourselves and here I was surrounded by this striving to understand a reality that is new to every one of us. Much of it reflected hope, which struck me in this moment as a radical sentiment. Some of it seemed to predict change for the better. There were pieces that were overtly political, while others struck me as personal. There was an underlying theme of springlike rebirth.

All of it is deepened by their sad canvases which, when blank, reflect not our own images, but rather a kind of utilitarian despair. I was taken back to other hopeful resurgences I've witnessed, like the shipping container shopping malls and restaurants that sprang up in downtown Christchurch, New Zealand in the aftermath of the earthquakes that decimated buildings and lives.

When tragedy strikes, when people suffer, when times are bad, I'd forgotten that we can always, if nothing else, look forward to the art. Is any of this great art? I don't know, but it doesn't matter, does it?

I've been fiercely reluctant to look at the bright side, not wanting to give this virus the satisfaction, I suppose. But the air is cleaner. I can hear the birds like never before. I'm entertaining myself with books, conversation, walks, and cooking instead of with shops and restaurants and venues. I don't want those new things to go away when this is over. There is a lot of pain and suffering ahead, that much is clear. There will be more to be sad about, more to fear, more anger, but that has always been true, just as these paintings on boarded up windows have always been true.

The future won't be better or worse, but rather a remixing of both. There are few things that depress me more than the advent of plywood over windows. There are few things that give me more hope than the messages of re-birth found in these plywood paintings. And then, sooner or later, these paintings will be gone and I'll miss them, just as I now miss the windows that used to be there. It's all good luck and bad luck mixed up with one another. This time it's a virus. Next time, who knows? And while we humans will never know quite what to do, we will continue to seek truth through our science, our prayers, our stories, and our art. It's here where it always is, amidst the sadness and fear. Sometimes you have to look for it, even when it's right there in front of you.


My new book, Teacher Tom's Second Bookis at the printers! We're offering a pre-publication discount through May 18. I'm incredibly proud of it. And while you're on the site, you can also find my first book, Teacher Tom's First Book, at a discount as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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