Start Where You Are

Photo: Miho Museum

For years we have discussed the Singularity, that point in the future when artificial intelligence will achieve an irreversible explosion and exceed well beyond human capacity. At that juncture, a purely biology-based version of the human race will come to an end. Mathematician and science fiction author Verner Vinge placed that event somewhere before 2030.

In the last few weeks, a different type of singularity has actually arrived. For the first time in recorded history, planetary humans are all sharing a common cause: how to contain and survive the explosive spread of an invisible disease-causing pathogen to which humans have no immunity or existing cures.

There is little that you and I don’t already both know. The rapidity of the spread, the staggering fatalities, the overextended medical facilities. Cities shuttered, social connections cancelled, work and school now bivouacing in your home. Updates from my daughter in Florence, now entering her third week of lock down, sound a lot like the reports from friends in New York, London, Paris, San Francisco, Madrid, Boston. This is a lingua franca moment.

But it is also a time when writing feels difficult. When the local and the global are so closely conjoined, the role of personal witnessing must shift. The question I keep asking myself is this: What can we offer to each other that is meaningful? 

While I want to respect the expressive needs of everyone right now, I am filtering my reading and viewing with more care. I feel impatient when words are squandered in complaints about the inconvenience of life under quarantine. (This is hard. We all know that.) And I find it easier to get through the day when I avoid tirades of fear and anger. 

So what feels useful right now? Well, let’s start with those spontaneous moments when people demonstrate solidarity and commonality. I have been brought to tears by videos of Italians singing to each other from their balconies, residents of a Spanish housing development playing Bingo together via the public address system, Parisians applauding their health care workers. 

And then there are the humor memes. So essential! That posh English sportscaster who turns his silken skills to describing walkers in the parks and pedestrians on the street. The prayer of a woman reminding god that while she is grateful for her many blessings she did not sign up to home school or be the “cafeteria lady.” Comedians broadcasting from their living rooms couches with no audience but still killing it. I am so grateful for the ones who know how to make us laugh.

I am also grateful for the unstoppables, those who will find a way to connect no matter what. They range from the celebrity talkers to contemplatives to pragmatic hackers. Conferences of every stripe are moving onto Zoom and Facebook, thinkers are exploring new forms (the inimitable self help guru Brene Brown released her first podcast from her son’s closet where the acoustics are best) and video tours of art exhibits and museums are popping up everywhere. Some of my friends have joined online meditation and yoga groups, and others gather at 5 to share a digital happy hour (“aperitif, bitches!”) as well as collectivizing the best home schooling activities.

I am neither a humorist nor a self help guru. But like most of us, I am always in search for what speaks to me personally. I have explored a few favorite categories on this platform for nearly 15 years: Visual language, poetry, transcendence, meaning, wisdom. Sometimes inspiration is sourced in unexpected ways. I have followed my nose and never questioned why.

So this message begins a new phase in this ongoing project, Slow Muse. In many ways it is yet another variation on what I have been doing since this began. But the intent and tone of my postings going forward will be tuned to the new conditions of our lives. At the back of my mind—and hopefully yours too—is the idea that we can make space at the other end of this experience for something new to emerge, for us to collectively make different choices. This is a brutal tragedy, but it may also prove to be the reset we have needed to reimagine the future of this planet.

Quite honestly, the idea of sharing the best insights I find with friends and cotravelers feels like a thread bare offering in a landscape of such extreme need. But like the widow’s mite, we give what we can. This is all I’ve got folks, and it is offered with a bowed head and hands extended, out and open to you.

Photo: Barakat Gallery

16 Replies to “Start Where You Are”

  1. Well said Deborah! (Then again you always say things well)

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you so much.

  2. Deborah, Thank you for your inclusive and thoughtful post.

    On a personal level, I feel uplifted as I witness the indomitable nature of the human spirit right now. We are all in the process of allowing something to breakdown so that we will find a way to break through. Philip(my son, an acupuncturist) speaks to me a lot about a concept in Chinese Medicine: “Bien” and “Hua.” They are kinda like yin and yang in the way they help to bring harmony and balance. Bien is building energy and Hua is tearing down energy. Nature uses both of these to create the balance and abundance needed for life. Spring is a time of growth, but if there is too much growth, it’s like a cancer–all growth needs to be balanced and controlled with also breaking down. For instance, in the autumn the trees let go of their leaves so that, through their loss, rich soil is made. Our digestive system uses the “Hua” to break down food to be able to absorb its nutrients.

    Philip and I recently had a conversation about how, we as humans, feel entitled to control all of nature, that we should never suffer cold or heat, starvation or death. Science has lead us to believe that we actually can keep ourselves comfortable and safe100% of the time. But nature, patient and wise as she is, like a unflappable grandmother, moves merrily along with her plans.

    I love how you begin this blog by talking about how we are changed and changing as humans by technology. Surely we are all having to think outside the box in ways we never have had to, which is always exciting and will surely create a different world and the way we are in it. This is good, I think, for the most part. There are skills many of us are being forced to use if we want to survive.

    The term “virus” is used for both human and machine technology to describe both negative and positive effects. You don’t want your computer to get a virus, but you would love to go viral on You Tube and Instagram. Another virus I am exploring is the “virus” of in the mind. The virus of the mind can be pernicious when unchecked and allowed to run wild. The human spirit is constantly doing battle with the virus of the mind– the dragon within. I think for many of us, we have never had to use so many tools and superpowers to combat this dragon, than we are right now. I have my own inner dragons and then I have to deal with the collective dragons. The good news and bad news is: only I can defeat the virus of in my mind, as there is no vaccine, no medicinal cure for the it. I have to be the one to cure it, strengthen my immunity to those negative thoughts, and raise my vibration to something stronger than fear, hate, and panic. No easy job, but no one can do it but me. An easy cure I have found is to unplug for longer periods of time and stop watching so much news. To go outside and notice that nature has not gotten the memo. The suns is shining. The birds are mating. The air actually smells nicer!

    Hope has never been more important than it is now. Positivity and gratitude is the key. Thank you, Deborah, for teaching us and reminding us all what is truly important. I know I have said a lot here, but I wanted to respond soulfully to what I believe you are calling us all do to. To raise our standards of responsibility, open our hearts to deeper connections, and open our souls to more faith in ourselves and in each other.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you for this thoughtful and rich response Cindy. Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts here.

  3. My dearest Deborah, as ever wisdom and clarity, prioritizing emotions and what inspires us to ‘be more’.

    In these challenging times a friend shared a letter that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote during his own quarantine in the south of France 100 years ago during the Spanish Influenza pandemic (I am quarantined in SW France, two hours outside of Bordeaux). It seems fitting to share it with you and your readers given the timbre of your piece.

    With much love, light and protection to you and David and all of your family. On the ‘other side’ we walk in museums together again and sit in cafes drinking thick hot chocolate and talk for hours. OXs, Te.


    Dearest Rosemary,

    It was a limpid dreary day, hung as in a basket from a single dull star. I thank you for your letter. Outside, I perceive what may be a collection of fallen leaves tussling against a trash can. It rings like jazz to my ears.

    The streets are that empty. It seems as though the bulk of the city has retreated to their quarters, rightfully so. At this time, it seems very poignant to avoid all public spaces. Even the bars, as I told Hemingway, but to that he punched me in the stomach, to which I asked if he had washed his hands. He hadn’t. He is much the denier, that one. Why, he considers the virus to be just influenza. I’m curious of his sources.

    The officials have alerted us to ensure we have a month’s worth of necessities. Zelda and I have stocked up on red wine, whiskey, rum, vermouth, absinthe, white wine, sherry, gin, and lord, if we need it, brandy. Please pray for us.

    You should see the square, oh, it is terrible. I weep for the damned eventualities this future brings. The long afternoons rolling forward slowly on the ever-slick bottomless highball. Z. says it’s no excuse to drink, but I just can’t seem to steady my hand. In the distance, from my brooding perch, the shoreline is cloaked in a dull haze where I can discern an unremitting penance that has been heading this way for a long, long while. And yet, amongst the cracked cloudline of an evening’s cast, I focus on a single strain of light, calling me forth to believe in a better morrow.

    Faithfully yours,
    F. Scott Fitzgerald

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Yes, that is a beautiful Fitzgerald epistle. Thank you for sharing it here TA. And for your kind words. Love to you!

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful post. At a time when just about everything we see or read is in bullet points, this touches deeper into the heart of our unprecedented situation. Stay well!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you for those words Dara. I think of you and the circumstances of our last meeting. Gay has a very different perch from which to view this event than we do. All the best to you.

  5. a poem i wrote… today or yesterday, can’t remember now…

    how many
    I wonder
    are trying
    to turn

    their hands to
    something new
    some new
    thing they’ve never

    thought of before or
    always wanted to
    imagined themselves

    only spring


    the work

    as ever

    from my hands

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Ah….this brings me a sense of peace. Thank you for posting your words here. I am honored.

  6. Diana Johnson Johnson says:

    If the Italians singing from their balconies was the last image I viewed it would be enough. Thank you Deb for this heartfelt post. XXX

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you my wise and good friend.

  7. Thank you, Deborah. I look forward to reading about where this turn in our lives leads you.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thanks Michael. In it together.

  8. Namaste! I might have hoped to have lived during less interesting times, but I didn’t get the chance to choose (that I know of…). I so appreciate your suggestion “that we can make space at the other end of this experience for something new to emerge, for us to collectively make different choices.”

    The way you put it is much more actionable, and more believable, than the terrible phrase I have come to detest: “everything happens for a reason.” No. Let’s make different choices.

    No doubt, though, some painful and beautiful art will emerge from this tragedy (as happened with the AIDS epidemic and so many other shocking experiences). What choices our artists make, however, will say much about who it is we decide to become in future.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      I am so with you in thinking about these things differently. I have so many ideas about what we can be. Thank you for checking in, I always love your point of view Ann.

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