If This Changes Everything… We Can Wash a Lot of Bullshit Away as We Wash Our Hands
The other day I watched a press conference given by the chief medical officer in British Columbia. A reporter asked whether officials were going to step in to stop a local Bikram studio from advertising that practicing together in a hot room was both antiseptic and beneficial for the immune system. (Two days later, they did.) The doctor managed to stay polite and professional with an answer that basically said “That’s fucking insane.” I felt for her and wanted to apologize for my industry and so I almost — almost — opened up a blank doc to fire off a punishing hot take. But I didn’t.
I’ve also almost pulled the trigger in response to spiritual people who have enough of a nest egg to not be thinking about eviction or hunger, which means they can dump their Bypassing Benedictions into the social media river: going on about what a great opportunity this is to go within and reconnect — as if those weren’t the same exact platitudes they were using last month to market privilege as if it were wisdom.
Those hot takedowns would have felt good for about five minutes, and would have helped some of my readers blow off steam. (Thank you for your messages, BTW.)
Except for my opening paragraphs here — lol —I’ve refrained from the hot take reflex. Like everyone else I’ve been busy learning how to live in 1918-with-the-internet. Working with my partner and the children to adjust to now having to be almost everything to each other. I’ve been on the phone with creditors, checking in with parents, taking care of the larder, cooking compulsive amounts of dahl, trying to fix up the boys’ bikes so we can ride in the open air, dealing with rats in the compost pile, washing rags and snotty mittens, sanitizing floors and shoes and the basketball we might go out and play with if no one is at the playground and it’s warm enough. So 60% of me is tied up with the stress of getting by and predicting our children’s needs and being worried about their spirits, and trying to stay connected. I’d say another 20% of my brain is obsessed with the news and tallying up the math of infection cases vs. ventilators, abroad, and then here. That leaves 20% for my more familiar public/private mash-up: how to re-orient my content to serve a collapsing market while reorienting my heart to serve a collapsing sense of reality.
“What am I going to do with that 20%?” is an hourly question. For now the answer is It can’t be what I was doing before.
If this is changing everything, to borrow Naomi Klein’s phrase, it’s got to change everything. That includes how I use my brain, obviously, but also how I use digital space, which is becoming even less distinct from the physical world as lockdowns tighten up. We’re sharing homes in new ways that require a harrowing surge of emotional labour and maturity, and I think before long we’ll realize that we have to share virtual house in the same way.
Yes the Bikram studio guy is a delusional shitgibbon, and the privilege ninnies should take a seat on a tack. But they’re not any more dangerous than anyone else ignoring public health for whatever reasons — selfishness, ignorance, institutional trauma.
My point is that if impotent outrage functions as a displacement activity from this point forward, we’ll all pay for it more than we already have.
Also — who is actually surprised? Of course those who have been drafted into the yoga / wellness / lifestyle pyramid precariat will have default modes of self-expression and self-defense. Many are humiliated to learn they didn’t actually provide an essential service. And what else do they know? What other tools have they been given? And of course the cults will continue to cult — even moreso. Is it really surprising to see Kundalini devotees marketing kriyas for the immune system, or a Sivananda Yoga social feed quoting Swami S. himself about the karma of germs and contagion? No it isn’t.
I don’t want to spend calories on being surprised — whether it be at Stepford mindfulness or White House sociopathy — and then let that energy stand in for worry or empathy or grief. I don’t want to obstruct my worry, empathy, or grief.
I also have something approaching faith that COVID-19 is exposing socio-economic viruses that a revolution in common sense will fight to vaccinate against. Folks won’t be able to sell their wellness products or high-demand groups in the same way anymore, with the same empty smile. Who in 2021 is going to give money to the wellness predator, whether they’re selling magical yoga adjustments, yoni eggs, or essential oils? How can Goop not evaporate like a neurotic dream? (The only real question is how lawmakers or hackers can siphon the cash out of the Goop/tech gadget supply chain and redistribute it to people without health care.) Who will be able to remain blind to the fact that this masturbatory economy has parasitized the attention of a culture that needs masks, ICU beds, ventilators and Universal Basic Income?
Expanding out from that: who will not be nauseated by the new car commercial in 2021, or the headline about a pro athlete’s new contract? How will any venal priorities remain intact? I have this fantasy every time I wash my hands: I’m washing alongside comrades shedding whole loads of bullshit in a very narrow window of time.
As an act of faith, I’m going to imagine that the excesses of neoliberalism are now openly consuming themselves, and that engaging with, mocking, or cheering on that self-destruction is a waste of resources. I think this may free me up to be more clear and responsive. I can’t be thinking of the doTerra yoga goofball when I need (in this moment for there is no other) to connect with the growing confusion and sorrow of my seven year-old realizing in his body what is happening.
I’m not planning on dropping the content, but I have to soften the edges. I continue to believe it will be crucial to take what we’ve learned from studying the dishonesty and cultishness of modern yoga and Buddhism with us as we imagine new ways of living. Data on abusers and cult dynamics is as useful as knowing how long a virus lives on stainless steel. I believe preserving the voices of abuse survivors will provide us with our root texts going forward. I believe cult analysis will prove to be another type of vaccine, needed because charisma will always be with us, and it will burn hotter in times of despair, and we have to learn to organize so that it’s distributed like any other resource, and doesn’t accumulate like capital. This knowledge is in the vault already. It doesn’t need daily exercise on FB.
Dahr Jamail spent three years travelling the world to document the collapse of ecosystems. After he published The End of Ice, he realized that the only thing he could continue to do with his reporting would be to revise the numbers upwards, while basically nobody with real power listened. More species going extinct. More ice shelves collapsing. More carbon PPM. He told me that the power of journalism is rooted in the possibility that knowledge can motivate social change. With our ecosystem, we haven’t seen that happen. It’s totally demoralizing. And so he decided that he was giving up on reporting: it had all been reported, and it’s all there for anyone who wants to read it. He gave an interview in which he said that he wanted to just be with the world now, in the same way he sat by the bedside of his dying friend. He said “Everything is about kindness now, about how we treat each other. Everything else is just a pile of horseshit.”
Observation can be a form of kindness, I think, as well as being a sanitizing form of writing: to be open and notice, doctor-like, especially the little-noticed. To listen and hold.
So I’ll try to turn that 20% in that direction:
Listening to how neighbours talk about their children. Listening through the parenting codes that cover the exhaustion.
Thanking the garbage guy and every cashier and grocery stocker. The bike mechanic who worried that recreational cycling was going to be shut down but got the gears working on the 7 year-old’s bike even though he was overloaded with other jobs. Thanking our day care provider for keeping in touch about whether she’ll cash the April cheque, based on whether the feds will help us and her both.
Seeing folks post sewing patterns for face masks.
Feeling sick about what will happen to folks with substance use issues, to folks in homeless shelters, to sex workers, or how many more people will be vulnerable to domestic violence. Knowing that people’s mental health will be cratering. Reading about how landlords are abandoning tenants in high-rises — not mopping or vacuuming, or collecting quarters from the washing machines. And how we’re talking about the simplicity of hand-washing while many First Nations people have no fresh water. Feeling so strange about my relative security and wondering what I can actually give, and how it measures up against how I want to see myself.
Listening to my partner explain to the almost-4-year-old that he can’t physically share his fire truck with his little buddy through FaceTime.
Wondering about the new ways my partner and I will get closer, but also give each other space.
Telling the boys that now I have time to do little piano lessons with them. It took my mom to remind me about this. And that we can plant the romaine and kale soon.
Keeping the worst news from the older one, like about Italian doctors choosing who will live or die, or how some African countries have 1 doctor per 10K population, where we have 40 or 50 times that. But holding that news nonetheless. Taking all the news that makes me feel helpless and letting it invert into the drive to spend more time and attention on him and his brother.
To hold those with whom you are distancing, and let them be the world you cannot touch.
To avoid the low-hanging fruit on the social media tree. It was rotting anyway.
To let the deluded be confronted by reality. It doesn’t matter whether they wake up or not. For all I know, when push comes to shove, I might have to care for them in their time of need. And of course I would. So why not start now?
Best thing I’ve read on this nightmare to date. Good to see you again Matt.
Go gently, and thank you, again, for your writing.