Amid the Horrors

The derecho hit on a Monday afternoon. I didn’t know what a “derecho” was, aside from human rights in Spanish, until suddenly I did. A hundreds-of-miles-long storm of hurricane winds tearing across the midwestern plains. Here: two hours of darkness, and winds, and rain, and trees falling across the city, onto cars and houses, blocking streets. A tornado touching down just north of my home–in the city that doesn’t really see tornadoes. Our street was blocked by a felled tree for days. 

It would have been the biggest story in Chicago. The clean up is still ongoing it seems, and trees are still falling now, a month later, in gusts from damage they sustained during the storm.

But it wasn’t the biggest story. The morning had seen looting in the Mag Mile. The weekend had seen another police involved shooting and consequent anti-racism protests. This, in a summer of protests against police brutality, met with more police brutality, where friends have been hit with batons and tear gassed. 

This is, of course, alongside the death and illness, the increasing poverty and hunger and homelessness, and the apparent fragile expendability of lives in general–the pandemic.

Then September: fires across the West Coast. Friends sending pictures of smoke- and ash-filled skies, bright orange from the blaze. 

I read a piece this morning about our ‘habituation to horror.’ And yes, it feels like just that. I am waking up every morning, having my coffee and breakfast, meditating, going to work at my grandfather’s desk by a window with a tree, and somehow finding a calm acceptance amid the calamity. Not exactly the horror film’s constant tension.

Perhaps I should not be calm. Often I am not–often enraged, often appalled, often sad. Yet here we are, all going through this with as much calm as we can collectively muster, interspersed with rage and sadness and fear.

Our personal actions have, possibly, helped keep our small bubbles of friends safe. Our actions also acclimatize us to the horror. 

Our city? Our wider communities? I can’t protect them. Most friends are safe. My family is safe. But the fires burn our air. The tornadoes whip us. The virus kills and maims. The police (as dispersed as they are) seem to refuse to stop killing people. Instead, they respond to protests by shooting rubber bullets, unleashing gas on sitting protesters, during a pandemic of a respiratory disease. 

What can slow this horror? We have these massive global crises: pandemic, climate catastrophe, racist violence. But you cannot solve them through personal responsibility. Individuals together, changing systems, might be able to start making them better. You can do some things to keep yourself safe–maybe, if you have the resources and don’t happen to live near a wildfire, for instance.

We have an election, that is something. Perhaps then it will be better, with someone who doesn’t refuse to act, with someone who might acknowledge the problems and address them instead of exacerbating them. Someone who doesn’t encourage racist violence, someone who at least has a modicum of respect for women and people of color, for global responsibility and social care. Perhaps. 

But then you see people ignore this anyway. People who you thought would reject the racism, the cavalier devaluing of people’s lives, the recklessness and disregard for human decency. The people who prefer to see a worsening climate, pandemic, racist terrorism, on the bizarre hope of making make abortion illegal thereby adding more maternal mortality to the set of horrors.

So that too is a horror. The people who protest the anti-racism protests. The people who say the pandemic is a lie. The people who ignore the causes of the fires–real and metaphorical. The people who make it all worse.

Your small community of friends and family–your friends who are safe–they are not a horror. They are the thing that is hopeful. The thing that will make it through this horror together. A group of nerds, trying to play board games over video chat, going through a societal horror flick. 

Don’t go into the basement–everyone knows in the movies. But what is the basement here? The grocery store where someone refuses to wear a mask? The movie theater itself? A friend’s dining table that has seen other faces? Is it the psychological space of the news? 

So here we are in an apocalypse of sorts. Wandering through the empty streets, orange smoke-filled skies, as we warily avoid contact with passers by. The end of something. 

Perhaps the beginning of something else.

That’s the side of the apocalypse we don’t often talk about. The new beginning. We read and watch the stories of people wandering wastelands, surviving in small communities against the entire world of dangers. In many of these sci-fi apocalypse stories there’s just the one or few small communities that survive, not much to go on.

But here, now, there are more than just small communities. And the other side of apocalypse is what we make of it. 

There is a growing knowledge that yes, it really is that bad for some (and possibly for you), and that yes, you must do something about it. And some people (possibly you!) are working together to create a better normal on the other side of the horrors. Organizers creating movements that demand meaningful change. This, maybe, is the thing that slows the horror, that shifts the winds. The masses of people who are connecting their personal actions–being nice–to work to change harmful systems.

After the derecho we, and others on the block, helped a neighbor clear tree debris from their yard. They were surprised so many people came to help. But it’s very hard to move a felled tree (real and metaphorical) alone. So we do what we can.

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