My partner Misty is moving up to the Chequamegon Bay. The news here isn’t that we’re getting back together—we never entirely broke up—but that Misty is moving house in the middle of a global pandemic.
It may seem, at first blush, that there are few stupider things Misty could do. But they1 have every reason to get out of their current situation. A place that appeared to be pretty decent with low rent turned out (there’s always a catch, right?) to have an upstairs neighbor who is functionally nocturnal and likes to play bad rap loud, as well as bring home a succession of women who quickly end up hating him. This is a guy who, in a discussion of sex, felt the need to clarify, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. I don’t make love. I fuck.” The bathroom in the basement (where Misty lived) has no functioning door—for privacy you have to pick up the door and sort of lean it in the frame—and it’s recently become clear that the water dripping out of a pipe directly above the toilet is in fact arriving straight from the upstairs shower drain. But the icing on the cake is that their housemate Sergio, whose name is on the lease and who’s apparently an all-around nice and reasonable guy, has tested positive for COVID-19.
Sergio quarantined himself as soon as he suspected he might have it, without waiting for his test result to come back, and when it did, he had been holed up in his room for a good week or so. He’s been good enough about avoiding contact that Misty hasn’t seen hide or hair of him since he went in, and can’t even tell me how he’s feeling, though everyone presumes he’s at least still alive. It’s entirely possible he’ll avoid transmitting it to his housemates. But he does still have to walk down the hallway and use the bathroom.
Besides making that house an excellent place to get away from, though, that leaves Misty in an awkward position. It’s good to get away from someone who has COVID. John Prine caught the virus from his wife, even though she was quarantined on one side of their house. But once you get away, where do you go?
Misty and I will be staying with our friends Katie and Soren in a log cabin on a horse breeding farm a few miles outside of Ashland. The cabin is spacious and well-lit and has a giant porch The porch also connects to a small windowed outbuilding, possibly once used as a room by someone who was a little more hermitic than those in the main house, but now just used for storage. This, we all reckoned, was more or less the ideal situation for quarantining. Misty could stay in the outbuilding for two weeks, reading books, and the rest of us could cook for them, and on warm days we could all sit on rocking chairs on the porch, a prudent six feet apart. Perhaps I would learn how to knit. It would be a rough two weeks, with no hugs allowed, but we could certainly follow all the CDC’s guidelines and still have a passably nice time.
In the last couple days before we were all due to move in together, though, negotiations started breaking down. The owner of the horse farm, a guy I haven’t met yet and who’s been described to me as old and sort of grumpy, was made aware of our plan, and he made it clear that he didn’t feel comfortable with Misty being on the property at all. This seemed to at least marginally make sense to me. After all, it’s hard to trust a quarantine if it’s self-imposed, especially if the person quarantining has to use the same outhouse as other people. And the guy is old—I’m not sure how old, but old enough to be concerned. He wasn’t unreasonable; he had a canvas wall tent that he could lend Misty, and a propane heater. They could pitch it anywhere, as long as it wasn’t on his land.
This all happens just as all four of us—me, Misty, Katie, Soren—are in various states of housing limbo. A few weeks ago I moved out of the little country house I’d been in, and in with my friends Liz and Nathanael. The plan had been that I would housesit for them during their honeymoon trip to Europe, but that trip and that plan were pretty effectively scotched by COVID before they even began. Still, I had already put plans in place to move out of my old house, and Liz and Nathanael have a spare room and welcomed me in. As Misty’s situation unfolded, I raised the idea that perhaps Misty could set up the wall tent somewhere outside L & N’s house. Then, although there would be no big porch where we could sip sweet tea and knit afghans, we could at least talk and take walks. Liz and Nathanael were both unenthusiastic about the idea, though: they have three cats and a dog, and it’s now been found that pets can serve as vectors for the virus too. Just a couple days ago, two tigers at the Bronx Zoo tested positive for COVID. Unwise cats, hanging out with humans too much. Liz works at a factory where older people come in, and Nathanael does caretaking work for a quadriplegic guy who’s convinced the coronavirus will be the end of him in time. Their land would not be the place for Misty.
I planned to call around to some more people and find someone with a more welcoming patch of land, but at the same time, Katie and Soren were talking to Misty, and the three of them figured Misty could just camp on National Forest land. The Bayfield Peninsula is shot through and surrounded with National Forest land, where it’s entirely legal to set up a tent in unreserved areas for two weeks at a time to do some “dispersed camping”, so this plan seemed doable, though a bit isolating for Misty and heavy on car travel.
But up here in the Northwoods, spring is just starting to progress, and everywhere that seemed promising turned out to still be covered in a foot of snow. We found this out after Misty had already arrived and was now in quite urgent need of a place to stay the night. So I started calling anyone I knew of who had land. First choice was a local organic farming couple who also rent a few little cabins, and had at least one vacant, far away from their own house. I caught the guy just as he came in from farm work for the day. Once I finished telling him the story, and asked if Misty could rent the cabin for a couple weeks, his very first reaction was, “Well, then I can’t rent it to anybody else, can I?” Once he’d worked through that train of thought, his next was, “And we have the farming to do, and if either of us gets sick, that puts the kibosh on that.” He offered a few halfhearted suggestions for where to find land, and concluded with, “I guess the best I can tell you is ‘Good luck’.”
That was the conversation that finally began to clarify things for me. This pandemic has become mythologized in real time. We are not dealing, anymore, with a disease that’s somewhat worse than the flu and can be transmitted through contact with droplets. We are dealing, it would seem, with a force of evil, an indiscriminate killer that’s lurking invisibly everywhere we go, even in plain sight, and will surely reach out and claim us all as its share of souls. It must be kept out of our homes with the same measures we would take against a zombie invasion. I got a text from someone I know a couple days ago. “Trying to find a place to park my camper, so I can isolate with all my survival gear and preps,” she wrote.
If we were now dealing not with a disease but with an invisible dark spirit, it made sense now why the guy renting us our cabin, despite having a good 40 acres to his name, never raised the possibility of, say, finding a back corner of the property where he never goes, and letting Misty put up the tent there. It also made sense why the organic farmer told me with complete confidence and little room for nuance that he wouldn’t be able to rent that cabin again for the entire summer if Misty quarantined there. It seems there’s no good scientific consensus yet on how long SARS-nCoV-19 can remain viable outside of a host, but a good guess is six hours; I didn’t press this point with the farmer, because I don’t know him well enough to try to argue with him, but I got the sense that as far as he was concerned, the cabin wouldn’t be safe for at least six months, and perhaps he would have to burn it down.
The mythic understanding of the virus that I began to gather is that once it crosses over your property line, your entire citadel is lost. As well, the virus is ineradicable; once a place has seen an infection, there will forevermore be COVID lurking there in a crevice waiting for the right host to possess. And the only way to stay away from it is to fear everyone, for an indefinite period of time, possibly the rest of our lives. Which may be short indeed if we catch the coronavirus. Of course people don’t believe this with their minds. Consciously we are aware that the virus can only wreak so much harm, and the human species will survive this just as it has survived the Spanish flu, the bubonic plague, and countless other pandemics. But in the collective subconscious, this disease seems to have found embodiment, even apotheosis, as something like a Jungian archetype. It is ready to be its own tarot card. The Unseen, perhaps. Faced with an enemy like that, we wash our hands and might wear masks, but we do it desultorily, with the feeling that these are just superstitious gestures while we wait for the inevitable to accost us, invisible fangs bared.
Normally it takes stories hundreds of years to be distilled into myths. That a wad of RNA originating in a Chinese bat has managed the feat in under five months should make us sit up straight and start asking questions. Sure, there is reason to be alarmed about COVID. But to listen to people on the streets—well, if anyone were on the streets—you’d think Cthulhu had risen from drowned R’lyeh and begun flaying minds.
Certainly I think there’s a part played by the entertainment industry. In the last few decades, zombies have ascended from an obscure bit of vodun folklore to become such a mainstay of American cinema that zombie movies now form an entire genre. In the translation, they’ve been fitted with a detailed system of rules and lore—how they spawn, how they can be killed, what they’re capable of during their undeath—and the nerds who know and care about all this could stand on a roughly equal footing with an ancient Roman paterfamilias explaining the mythological background needed to properly honor Pluto. Other fiction gives us different ways to understand and mythologize the present: In Pontypool, a 2008 movie, a new disease is transmitted when a host simply makes eye contact with a victim, and before long host and victim are both in a terminal spiral in which they can only speak in free-association word salads, while the disease spreads on. The same avenue of transmission is at play in Nobel Prize–winner José Saramago’s 1995 novel Blindness, but the condition this time is an instantaneous inability to see anything but blank whiteness, “a milky sea”, and the devolution that results isn’t merely bodily but social on a vast scale. And we also have Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, which has a constantly changing pathogen of mysterious properties arrive to Earth by way of a meteor; it’s narrowly stopped from taking over the entire planet only when a scientist sacrifices himself and his entire research complex.
But popular media explains more when you understand it to be built by a people’s psyche, rather than to be the agent building that psyche. After all, stories get popular when they get us down deep, get us right there—they’re something we needed to hear, and by hearing them, we get some kind of deep satisfaction. What kind of thing does that for people has by no means been the same in all times and places. Ancient Greece gives us the term catharsis, and it described the crowning moment of many Greek dramas—the part where the hero, despite being heroic, dies a tragic death. That doesn’t play too well in Hollywood. Nor would John Bunyan’s classic Pilgrim’s Progress—probably the best-selling book in all of English literature, if you measure not by copies sold but by percent of the contemporary reading populace who bought a copy—which now reads like a low-effort, hamhanded allegory about why Christianity will solve all your problems. To say nothing of stories from cultures even farther removed from ours. An old story of the Pacific Northwest’s Tulalip people tells of Boil and Hammer, two sisters who would go picking berries every day. One day while Hammer wasn’t looking, a fir needle fell on Boil, who, being just a boil after all, was lanced and disappeared. All Hammer found was her braids. After mourning Boil for a long time, Hammer felt it was time to get out again and pick more berries. But when she went down to the river to wash her face, she slipped, and, being just a hammerstone after all, rolled on down into the water and sank and drowned.2 We can appreciate that there’s something interesting going on in this story, but it feels to the Euro-American mind more like a weird dream than a story, and the storyteller herself, Vi Hilbert, mentions in concluding that it’s “such a puzzle to most people who hear it.” Even David Lynch would have trouble making it work on the big screen.
So if we want to know why zombie movies are popular, we should look not to the zombies but to ourselves. In so doing, it doesn’t take long to discover that American culture seems to practically hunger for an apocalypse. The U.S. has been waiting for the end times for centuries, possibly since it began. Most recently we can point to 2012 and the ringing in of a new Mayan b’akt’un, which, besides meaning traditional Mayans all had to go down to the office supply store for new calendar stones, was of course a nonevent. Before that we had Y2K, during which all the world’s computers tragically failed to stop. The pattern goes back and back, from the mass suicide of the Jonestown Massacre, to 1844’s Great Disappointment in which the Millerites failed to be raptured, on to various communes that were founded during spates of millenarianism through the 1800s and 1900s. That’s just the mass movements; lone Biblical gematria-hounds and extraterrestrial message-receivers have been convincing themselves for just as long that some entity is about to come along and relieve us all of the bother of paying taxes by ending the world. With COVID we didn’t have much advance warning time to get the wheels of the old apocalypse myth engine turning, but the machine has proven perfectly up to the challenge, and furnished us with an end-of-days narrative in what must be record time.
Not only that, but it’s a story with a distinct advantage over all those other apocalypses: it involves something that’s actually happening. You don’t have to take it on faith or on authority that the coronavirus is coming, because it’s here already, and the scientists were the first to say so. Whether or not the scientists said that it amounts to the end of the world is a secondary matter and may be assumed to be of little importance, since my subconscious clearly indicates that it does in fact amount to the end of the world. And if you needed any further evidence that our days are numbered, look no further than the unprecedented stoppage of basically everything. Nobody can remember anything like it, and it’s a clear signal that we’re entering a metaphysically novel realm.
That’s all well and good, but there’s something missing. The apocalypse myth accounts for a good chunk of how we’re understanding the news lately, but it’s not the whole thing. What’s the proper reaction to an apocalypse? To repent, make your peace with your maker, and then lie down and wait until the death ray reaches you. But that’s not what people are doing. They’re holing up, of course, but still acting as though tomorrow exists, even if they’re not entirely convinced on that score. Even deep down it seems like not many people quite believe that COVID is going to kill all humans like that meteor in Armageddon almost did, or (apocalypse lite) send us back to a Hobbesian state of nature. Which tells me we’ve got some other stories we’re trying to fit events into.
At least one of these has been noted widely, most perspicaciously by Charles Eisenstein:3 we’re treating this as a war. Of course there is very little similarity between fighting an army of humans and stemming the spread of a virus, but waging wars against abstract concepts and other such non-warring entities has been an American standby for quite a while now—the war on Communism, the war on drugs, the war on crime, the war on terror—so it’s not much of a stretch for us. (The fact that we won exactly zero of the wars I’ve just cited is not considered terribly relevant to those working with this myth, because we’ve never lost a war against humans—in Vietnam we merely failed to win—so we’re still undefeated and will surely remain so.)
Acting as though we’re at war, of course, does have its uses: some legal provisions meant for wartime use are being dusted off to get factories to convert their production over from consumer crap to newfound necessities. A factory in Michigan has stopped making cars and started making ventilators, for example, although they did it not at the behest of the government but at the demand of the workers.4 The war analogy also leads to harm and nonsense, though, like the expanded powers police have been given in some jurisdictions to arrest people for violating orders to stay at home and socially distance5—which would be iffy even if we could trust the police with extra power, because arresting someone involves getting rather socially proximate, but of course I and a lot of people with skin darker than mine don’t have enough faith to issue every officer even an extra Roman candle. For better or for worse, though, memories of Victory Gardens, ration stamps, and Rosie the Riveter are starting to resurface, along with less helpful ones, like Agent Orange, fear of strangers (spies? disease-carriers?), and internment facilities.
War and apocalypse make for an awkward mix of myths. It’s an unwise soldier indeed who levels an AR-15 at one of the Four Horsemen. But we have yet a third framework for making sense of 2020, less of a story and more of an archetype, perhaps even a biological instinct: the distinction between the clean and the impure. In the absence of the germ theory of disease, this subconscious binary has, for a couple hundred thousand years or so, given humans a good way to keep from contracting any more communicable diseases than they strictly have to: people in cultures around the world know that if you touch poop, or mud, you have to clean your hand before you eat with it. There’s decent evidence that this is a heuristic we’re born with. Imagine two little cups are given to you. One is filled with bright blue dish soap, and the other is filled with dish soap that’s been dyed dingy brown instead. Are you equally willing to stick your hand in both of these? Experimenters have found that people everywhere give the same answer you just did.6 On the darker side, though, the same binary has helped fuel thousands, perhaps dozens of thousands, of years of superstition, intolerance, and fear of the Other.
So the situation today is that we have at least three different myths, or perhaps two myths and an archetype, and we don’t know which is the proper one to frame our understanding with. The simple answer is that none of them is. Though stories are useful and help us feel more oriented in the world—though, in fact, we can’t make any sense of the world without them—we must remember that the world is yet under no obligation to conform to them. If some event doesn’t fit into one of our stories, it’s not the event that has to change, because in all likelihood we have no power to change it. Our story has to change, or we have to build a new one. Luckily, since we’re humans and have language, we don’t have to create new behaviors (new stories) the way other species do, by painstakingly evolving them over generations. But even so, it takes time for a new story to set in, so it’s no wonder we’re all defaulting right now to old ones. It’s only been well-known for about 150 years that microorganisms cause diseases, and we don’t have much mythology ready for a situation like this yet. Perhaps some will develop as we push through this. Equally, it’s no wonder that so many of us feel scared and confused, since none of our stories are working quite right and information keeps coming in and we have nothing coherent to do with it. That is, it’s probably not misinformation that’s the problem here, nor is it overinformation or underinformation. It’s that we’re having a really hard time finding any way to convert that information into knowledge, still less into wisdom of the sort we could use to act with self-assurance while this virus takes its path through the eight billion or so of our species and a few unlucky tigers here and there.
To that end, I want to propose something that might get us closer to a story we can actually use. Most stories are contained within some other story, and one of the most overarching that currently holds the world in thrall is this: that there is a linear direction to history. History begins in the caves and has been proceeding for many thousands of years toward its eventual endpoint, whether that be in space or in a nuclear fireball or in immortal robot bodies. The evidence presented by our culture seems to make it obvious that there’s a linear trajectory being followed here. But then again… wouldn’t it just? Since that history-is-a-line narrative forms one of the backbones of modern industrialized culture (such as it is), you can’t expect to get much confirming evidence for other frameworks unless you look at things a little askew or have learned other ways of looking at the world from some other culture that knows the world differently.
By far the more satisfying narrative to me, then, is that history moves in cycles. And though this pandemic may look like the Great Pandemic, the Globe-Cleanser, in fact it’s just one more pandemic. We’ve enjoyed a pretty good hiatus from widespread disease thanks to some clever inventions and some good luck, but sooner or later microbiology always figures out a new trick, and our bag of counterspells is getting pretty light as more diseases become resistant to antibiotics. We’re getting off pretty easy, all things considered. COVID has no higher than maybe a 3.5% death rate (and probably closer to 1%), much better than the Spanish flu, to say nothing of the Black Plague. It can be killed with soapy water, and be thankful for that, because a wildlife biologist recently explained to me that the prion that causes chronic wasting disease in deer can’t be destroyed by boiling, or even in an autoclave, but must be burned, and has been found to persist in soil for at least 13 years (until that particular experiment ended). Even bedbugs are harder to get rid of than COVID.
And if it seems a lot has changed already this time around history’s wheel, while the world shook off the Spanish flu with comparative ease, here’s another story you can try out: the virus isn’t the ultimate cause of all this disruption, only the proximate cause. The real reason the stock market has gone into freefall isn’t that stores are closed for a little while, it’s that stocks were inflated to irresponsibly, impossibly, unconscionably high levels through an unholy pantheon of financial gimmicking and conjuring. It only took one nudge to set the whole thing tumbling. Or in a different metaphor, Eisenstein wrote, “For years, normality has been stretched nearly to its breaking point, a rope pulled tighter and tighter, waiting for a nip of the black swan’s beak to snap it in two.”7 In 1918 they still had a few years left of bubble-inflating to enjoy before the Great Crash. For us it’s possible the epidemic arrived just in time to trigger our new Depression.
I’m not saying, here, that there’s no cause for vigilance in day-to-day life. There certainly is, and we should all wash our hands and all the rest. I’m just saying that there’s cause for perspective. COVID is bad, possibly worse than any disease in the last century has been. But malaria is bad too, and so is AIDS, and so is malnutrition. We’re used to living in a world where all those exist. We’ll get used to living in a world with COVID too. Keep your distance from people, so we can slow the initial spread as humanity’s collective immune system gets used to this newcomer. But for goodness’ sake, don’t act as though COVID is going to attack you from across a field, or show up in your dreams with a rusty blade like Freddy Krueger.
We eventually found a bit of land for Misty to camp on. Funnily enough, it’s at the house I just moved out of. That’s where we found someone with perspective. Misty is keeping their distance from my recent landlady, and so far enjoying life in a fancy canvas tent, though I imagine after two weeks it will have gotten quite old. Misty will be fine, or might turn out to have the disease and (being 32) very likely recover, and afterwards if all went well, we’ll move in together. A certain number of people will have died from COVID, just as a certain number of people died from the common flu last year (80,000 in the U.S.). And summer will arrive, as it always does, and I’ll explore the creek behind the house with Misty, Katie, and Soren. And after this whole thing has done what it’s going to do, we’ll all get a story out of it.
And for those just joining my blog, if such there be, they refers to Misty alone, gender-neutrally. ↩
Domonoske, Camila. “Ford To Build 50,000 Ventilators At Michigan Auto Parts Plant”. NPR, Mar., 2020. ↩
Speri, Alice. “NYPD’s Aggressive Policing Risks Spreading The Coronavirus”, Apr. 3, 2020. The Intercept. ↩
I can’t find the study just now, though. You’ll have to be satisfied with the thought experiment until I can track it down. ↩
Op. cit. ↩