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.