REVELATIONS OF A PLAGUE YEAR
Or, Dreaming the Apocalypse
James Ishmael Ford
One might suspect we’re in the end times when the panic rush to the market is for toilet paper.
And, well, here we are. Toilet paper. Who would have thought? Beyond that many public services have been canceled and we’re being asked to avoid unnecessary contact with others. There is a certain sadness to this. And, me, I can’t help but think of those who simply cannot “self-quarantine.” Among those, people live, sometimes desperately paycheck to paycheck. People earning minimum wage and those caught up in the gig economy. People who are in danger of not paying rent, or, not buying food.
These are hard times and extremely precarious for many among us.
So, it can feel like some sort of apocalypse. Some sort of end time. And with that I find my thoughts turning to that word apocalypse. Literally, apocalypse doesn’t mean the end of it all. Rather apocalypse means “to reveal.” I am quite taken with that small, shall we say, revelation.
What might be revealed here?
I hope you’ll forgive me a few minutes to explore and uncover some of the possibilities for our lives, yours and mine, through a reflection on end times. And with that some consideration of that which might follow our end times. Feels worthy enough. Particularly as there is always something after every end time. At least so far.
In my lifetime there’ve been any number of moments, where it all changed, and, indeed, things were revealed. The assassinations of President Kennedy and Dr Martin Luther King Jr, the AIDs epidemic, several earthquakes, and 9/11 each felt like end times. Some a bit more so than others.
We are now twenty years into the third millennium. Some may recall the apocalyptic fears of Y2K. Compared to some things we’ve weathered since, Y2K was a very small secular apocalypse. On the one hand it pictured a sad end, simply the collapse of economic infrastructure. Although in the run up to the moment, it did feature thoughts of airplanes falling out of the sky. Still. Ultimately. Really, not very much to it, this crashing of computers as an end time.
But then maybe a particularly appropriate thing. After all we tend to live in an era bereft of imagination, where our dreams are force fed through evening riffing through those hundreds of channels of television. And what’s there is mostly copycat sitcoms and reality television. These are the stuff out of which we weave too many of our dreams.
At the turn of the millennium where were the Four Horsemen? Where was the great Beast? In that small secular apocalypse where were the terrifying dreams of St. John? No wonder, T.S. Eliot who described in The Hollow Men, his song of anxiety and loss and spiritual death the banality of our contemporary imaginings. In our current mess with the loss of toilet paper. “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.”
Such are our times, and the dreams of our end times. Although at least the coronavirus raises images of spit and blood. A bit of spice to our current apocalypse.
Still. Here is what we have. Today, for many, stockpiling food and, yes, toilet paper is a small act of defiance against the great unknowing, against a world that cannot be controlled. And, in that sense these things, silly and sad as they might be are fundamentally human acts. And, in that sense, they is worth considering. Even toilet paper. Because, I believe, this dream of the end, this dream of an apocalypse speaks to something deep within us.
I recall my first apocalyptic vision. It happened in October 1962. I was fourteen years old. President Kennedy learned that the Russians had installed tactical nuclear missiles in Cuba that could reach southern and eastern cities in the U.S. The president announced a naval blockade of all incoming Soviet ships, which were carrying missile components. But those ships continued to sail toward Cuba. The world hovered at the edge of nuclear holocaust. A pretty straightforward and quite real apocalypse.
And I was terrified. I was just waking from the slumber of childhood and followed the news on television and in newspapers. I remember asking my mother what it was we could do? Could we please leave the city and go to the countryside until the crisis passed? “No,” she said. She couldn’t give up her work. She needed her job. Food and rent. And, she said, what would happen, would just have to happen.
I wept. I shook with fear. What will happen will happen. I was certain what would happen would be the end, with all the body knowing of an adolescent who had been conditioned to duck and cover for his whole short life. I had nightmares for those horrible two weeks before the crisis resolved. Actually, once in a while they return.
The Soviet ships did turn back and were quickly followed with an announcement of the withdrawal of missiles from Cuban soil. In these events I came to understand how helpless we all were. And this is something I’ve never forgotten.
Fear. Fear of the end. And. Fear and endings are very much a part of our human condition. Talking about this with some friends, a couple have offered how while in past ages people feared the apocalypse, the end of the world, we are the first generation who can actually do it. Somehow, I felt, as they said this, they were also implying we were the first people to know in our bodies this could be the end, and in fact, sooner or later the end was very likely.
But, of course, that’s not true. Those leaders of Thirteenth century China, who witnessed the hordes of Genghis Khan advance with flame and sword destroying everything before them, knew in their bones what an apocalypse was. Personal death and the demise of their civilizations beat in their hearts and stuck in their throats like the dust of the roads upon which they fled. Real stuff. Horrors.
This was an end time as terrible for them as our own possible nuclear nightmares, our own worst case scenarios of climate change can ever be. Humans knew they would die. Humans knew all they loved would pass away in blood and terror.
And here we are.
In 1842 Heinrich Heine wrote, “Wild, dark times are rumbling toward us, and the prophet who wishes to write a new apocalypse will have to invent entirely new beasts, and beasts so terrible that the ancient animal symbols of Saint John will seem like cooing doves and cupids in comparison.”
Of course, the truth is we always are tottering at the end, at the edge of history. The great Beast, whether from a vision of Mongol hordes, or from copycat sit coms, or from the nightmares of St John, or even of scientists explaining how we can make the air of this planet unbreathable for creatures like, well like us all speak to our reality. Whether the image is sophisticated and the stuff for artists and poets, or the collapse of a silicon chip with two slots for dates instead of four, or, or a virus that cannot be contained, or, the rage of a planet recoiling at what we humans have done, this all really is speaking about our end.
We’re really talking about death. Death: one of the fundamental things. And so here as we come upon death, we are treading mythic ground. Myths, those stories that tell us about ourselves touch upon these most fundamental things: Birth, life, death, and what might lie beyond.
We are caught up in an archetypal dream. And, variations on the stories continue, relentless in their assertions about how we are born, how we live, and, how we die. But, then, they tend to suggest, something else also happens. There is that question of what is beyond, what is next.
Of the great religious traditions of the world, the only one I can think of right off that has the apocalypse just plain end things is among the Scandinavians. The end of Ragnarok is the end of humanity and the gods, where only the winter of winters remains. But, even among the ancient Scandinavians there are occasional variations on the story suggesting a reseeding of humanity and a blessed time to follow–eventually.
In our few minutes left I want to reflect briefly on that something that follows death. In the stories of St John, following the terrible destruction of our world there is the creation of a New World, heaven on earth. In religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism that don’t follow strict linear times from beginning to end, and instead embrace a vision of cycles, even they have new periods of hope following times of destruction.
As a child who received his first education from popular science fiction, I find my own body longings articulated in a book and a movie. The book is George Stewart’s 1962, Earth Abides, where destruction of the world follows a plague. Lots of those around. A more recent book that many of my friends have found touching the same themes with perhaps more literary merit is Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven.
But in my forming consciousness it was Earth Abides. In it, Stewart’s protagonist walking the ruins of my native San Francisco Bay Area, gradually surrenders his hope for the saving of libraries and instead finds satisfaction in making sure everyone knows how to make fires and to construct bows and arrows.
The movie that most captured my imagination about what might follow was the 1951, When Worlds Collide. Here, I find myself vividly recalling the first dawn on that new planet. There, hope itself was grander than mere survival. There, hope encompassed beauty and exploration and creative possibility.
These all are as natural for us as human beings as breathing.
And, so let me ask. For us, what might the day after an end time be? When this current plague ends or another. Is it bows and arrows? Or, is it something more? And, if it is more, what might that be? What will it look like? What, in our deepest dreams, do we hope for out of the loss of all that we know? What lies, for us, for you and me, on the farther shore of death?
What is revealed? For today, what is revealed?
I frequently look for guidance among the poets. And, maybe so do we all. Out on the interwebs one poem has taken life over these past few weeks. Interestingly it is from the pen of the Unitarian Universalist poet Lynn Ungar.
I’m an enormous fan of Lynn’s. Most UU clergy write poetry. I suspect most clergy write poetry. We do reach for the heaven’s after all. And. It is often bad. Largely prose arranged on a page as if it were a poem. And not even especially elegant prose.
But Lynn is a real poet. And we need real poets right now.
In her poem Pandemic she sings it all to us.
Our current plague. Our current apocalypse.
What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.
That’s it. Those are the words from the dream time sung to us at an end time. Here the authentic is revealed. It has horror around the edges. No doubt. And we always have the possibility of wrong choices in our hands. The bitter fruit of our always having a choice. But, at the heart of it all, we are invited back into intimacy. And with that intimacy, a new world.
Go into the small places. Go into the songs that can only be heard if we are still.
Stop. Notice. Listen.
Listen to the poets singing. Listen to your heart beating. Stop. Notice. Listen. There we find the songs of angels heralding a new world. A world waiting for those who listen.
And then, soon, soon, (it will come) from that listening, step out, and find a new dawn.