Written on 5-13-2020
Today, it is two months since my last day on the job as a substitute teacher. I left school that day, March 13th, still preparing to open in a play, still expecting to drive people around for money in a LYFT, still not fully grasping what had befallen my country and the world. I still cannot fully grasp it. Is it possible to grasp that America has stopped? That the economy is crashing, businesses gone, tens of thousands dying unexpectedly, folks all over the world transformed to anchorites overnight? The bustle of America, the businesses, the traffic, the airplanes, the pollution, the elections, the construction—all of it, incredibly—has been transformed into what feels like a universal monastic enclosure.
It is no more possible to grasp this new reality than it is possible to grasp anything. If impermanence was ever in doubt for me, that doubt is smashed now. I have felt since I was a teenager that I understand that the inner life is the only real life, but now I think perhaps I understand this even more fully.
Like everybody else who has come of age since the dawn of nuclear power, I have lived always with the sense that when disaster inevitably comes, it would happen in a moment. There would be a big earthquake or the bomb, and we’d move instantaneously from normalcy to dread.
Climate change is just as disastrous but has been moving in slow motion which makes it seem more of an abstraction than reality, not the flash of disaster yet to come in the form of a single extreme event such as the sudden collapse of the internet.
But the disaster has come through the back door. Not as fast as a nuclear bomb, but not in slo-mo like climate change either. Even though I look out the window at the trees still standing. Even though it is quieter than before, and I am well fed, and my house looks the same. Even though my computer and the internet function, and I can watch movies on the TV.
I have casually referred to my home as my “bunker,” with a sort of wry humor, but each day it seems less humorous.
But two months in I think I can pinpoint the moment when this became as real to me as the shoes on my feet. It came with the realization, finally, deep in my gut, that the most powerful man in the world is truly, absolutely, insane, out of touch with reality. Not eccentric, not wrong, not misguided, not stupid, but mad. He stands upon a battlefield, the dead all about him, the economy in ruins, a clown who would be tragic except that with him there has been no falling off, he was always this madman and only this madman, nothing of Lear, but only Ubu, “King Turd”, a practitioner of what the creator of King Ubu, Alfred Jarry, called “pataphysics”, described as “the science of imaginary solutions.” And standing upon the ruins Clown Trump cries “Victory!” and declares himself Big Daddy Emperor. The Emperor has no clothes, but followers he has aplenty, for his madness is contagious and we are suffering now from both the natural virus, SARS-CoV-2, and the unnatural virus which is Trump, who has infected all of America’s institutions and much of her leadership.
What can I do? I turn to the “Little Rule” of St. Romuald, the founder of the Order of Camaldolese Monks, an Order in which I am an oblate (lay associate):
“Sit in your cell as in paradise. Put the world behind you and forget it. Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish.”
I have known since childhood that the inner life is the one that counts. So I’m counting, and trying to watch my thoughts, like a good fisherman watching for fish.