when i was young, i had one dream i cherished above all: to be an Egyptologist. i was enchanted by the stories of this ancient civilization that was at once ubiquitous, with its towering pyramids and looming temples, and mysterious, with its unexplained rites, tangled tomb-cities, and cryptic pictographs. from the ages of six to about eleven, i pursued every avenue of Egypt-related knowledge, devouring every relevant book on my local library’s history shelves, first in the children’s section, then in the adult’s. i watched and re-watched National Geographic specials on the subject, taught myself hieroglyphs, wrote “fan fiction” set in the age of Hatshepsut, practiced drawing the Eye of Horus in the corner of all my homework assignments. when the my family got the computer game Pharaoh, i lost myself in its amber-tinted, pixelated world. i dreamed of joining archeological digs one day, of unearthing shards of this enchanting, if subtly frightening, bygone world.
it was one of the most pure obsessions of my life (yes, i’ve had a few — saving the tigers was another).
i wonder, now, what captivated me so completely about ancient Egypt. i think it was the unique sense of what i suppose i’d call the alien-familiar, the way the civilization, like all ancient worlds, both reflect our modern human experience, but also feel radically removed, distant, strange. these people loved, ate, fought — like us, but not like us, either. what did worship or justice or family mean to an ancient Egyptian? like looking into murky, rippling waters, we peer into the past and see our own reflection flicker, disperse, and reappear.
i’ve been feeling something similar, these days, when i walk around my neighborhood and take in the now-dormant monuments to our recent past — shuttered bars, silent churches, empty, locked playgrounds. if i squint i can see the shadows of our last-year selves, crowding countertops, elbows touching, drinks leaving slick, overlapping rings on un-wiped tabletops. it’s “surreal” (if i had a dollar for every time i heard that word. . . ), it’s tragic, it’s darkly fascinating.
the same goes for movies and TV, i noticed — watching characters embrace, or club, or cough, i cringe. i see images of crowded buses or strangers shaking hands, and my skin crawls, i flinch. but i also recognize myself, a life that feels both familiar and forgotten.
funny, i remember wondering, a few weeks into “this,” whether there’d come a day when we’d find ourselves able to have conversations that didn’t center on the subject of COVID-19. back then, friends and i would end up chuckling bitterly when, mid-conversation, we found ourselves once again caught up in the matter, whether swapping our existential fears, speculating on what our summers might look like, or mourning all the little ways of life we never knew we were taking for granted. “i swore i was going to get through this conversation without talking about COVID!” i groaned, more than once, even as i carried on my end of the discussion.
i no longer say this; i no longer think it necessary, or perhaps even possible, to attempt such a sterilized exchange. this virus, and the new world it’s wrought — it is the air we’re breathing (no pun intended), the water in which we swim. as if, all across the country, the world, we’re suddenly living under the same weather, all of us looking out our windows at the same peculiar clouds.
in my visits to Egypt, i was always struck by the way, in Cairo, people lived nonchalantly with the contours of the Great Pyramids always standing on the horizon. does one ever get used to it? i wondered. these monuments once symbolized the power and immortality of Pharaohs whose names are mostly forgotten, whose kingdoms faded and fell.
i know New Yorkers who swore they’d never get used to the city’s skylines without the Twin Towers. now generations live in the city who never knew otherwise. the past is muted, known as an absence or some inaccessible, if mesmerizing, mirage.
when the unthinkable happens, ways of thinking change.
obviously, we’re always living in what will soon become history — but seldom do we feel it so potently, seldom are we so aware of one epoch giving way to another — and never, in most of our lifetimes, has this happened on such an utterly global scale.
in some ways, a comparison to the 2016 election feels apt — at least here, in New York City. in those early days of After, the air hung thick with a shared shock, a collective sense of knowing. making eye contact with strangers, in those days, meant exchanging a furtive sympathy — a quick look, like a salute, as if to say, “i know. i feel it too. what the ___, right?”
as if a dynasty had fallen.
eventually, i suppose, we started to adjust. it was actually something some of us warned against, something some of us swore never to do — i still remember the signs, a few months past that November, shouting in pink and black, “THIS IS NOT NORMAL.”
but somehow, in some ways, it did become normal. we carried on. some of us saved some tears, some rage, for those headlines — separated families, banned countries, healthcare and environmental protections gutted, racial violence pervading, LGBTQ+ rights assaulted, corruption blooming — a few of us even continued to protest, to rally, to get out the vote. but for better or worse, it seems, we Homo Sapiens seek stasis. we have families to feed, or jobs to do, or simply an emotional bandwidth already mostly consumed with the fundamental demands of human living. it’s understandable. life must go on.
so we build over the ruins, alongside them; they become part of the landscape. through conditions not of our choosing, we are forced to adapt. the Nile floods or changes directions — a drought comes or a fascist is elected. we protest, or make offerings to the gods, but then we must go on living. to spend all our time in grief or rage is untenable (in ancient Egypt, you might have starved, too). and the easiest thing to do is to “return” to “normal,” as best as we’re able.
of course, 2019 is not 3000 BC. we’re not going to find ourselves as distant from the pre-COVID world as we are from the era of Tutankhamun. some things will come back. church pews will be filled again one day; we’ll drink draft beer or fresh-steamed cappuccinos again, and perhaps even fly in planes. i hope i give many hugs, and not too long from now, either.
but in this time of Inbetween, as the shaking is still going on, as we find ourselves locked out of our past life, i wonder what we can learn on this side of the museum-rope. i have been spending a lot of time touring my own assumptions, examining the artifacts of what once seemed indispensable.
do i dare tell you, it has been a kind of gift, this peculiar sense of distance? surely it is profane to say that there is something in the midst of this tragedy that feels beneficial, even like a breath of relief. yet i must speak this, too.
it’s taken a long time, of course, and it has come at a heavy price. as is often the case, it’s something i’ve discovered on the flip side of my fears, on the underside of what i’d first labeled as intolerable, as negative.
stripped of all familiar structures, denied the soothing, ego-bolstering rhythms of work, socializing, productivity, i’ve been forced into an uncomfortable level of awareness of my own, particular days. without the buffering (numbing?) effect of routine, the days are raw, vivid, intimidating in their open-endedness. no decisions are automatic, now. nothing can be taken for granted. i am conscious of every action i take — or, frequently, how frozen i feel by doubt.
it’s as if the sudden impact of the crisis spread a layer of sand over the contours of my life, and the past two months have been an excavation. i dig through the sediment, dust away grime, and pull out each assumption, each habit, each clung-to belief about myself, my work, my worth.
and i’m finding, after weeks of muddling through without them, many of these artifacts appear obsolete, primitive, even cruel. the relentless drive to extract every ounce of productivity from the day? the near-manic schedule of obligations, activities, and undertakings? the constant sense of exhaustion i accepted, even gloated over, as a sign of my “success” and work ethic?
is this really how people lived back then?
what would it mean if we took a historian’s gaze to our recent past? with a dispassionate perspective, what might appear suddenly strange, arbitrary, dispensable? in the midst of this surreality, as the shaking is ongoing and all things are called into question, could we find liberation in the sudden sense of the alien-familiar?
for me, it has been freeing — agonizing, frightening, confusing, yes, but also freeing. because the flip-side of chaos is possibility, potential.
no, i’m not telling you this is the time to launch a start-up or build a pyramid. almost the opposite, really. i’m simply asking you if there are any forms of bondage, any personal oppressions, tied to the Old Way of being, which you might be poised to release, to leave behind. i’m saying that perhaps his plague, for all its brutality, could also herald an Exodus.
as much as i miss the precious and exuberant memories of the pre-COVID days, many of us were living in unsustainable, even exploitative ways. we were trading too much of our bodies and souls to serve old gods of achievement or performance or fear. for many of us, life had gotten a little too fast, too full, too taxing. we felt trapped, overstretched, but unable or unwilling to extract ourselves from the web, despite the sickening feeling that the sum of it all was smothering us.
even if that was not the case for you personally, we know, indelibly, that the Old Kingdom was full of inequity, that it was abusive to the planet and to so many disenfranchised communities. we were ignoring the signs — the signs of planetary distress, of socioeconomic disaster — and even those of us who tried to “opt out” found little space to do so — the empire carried on.
so in this moment of suspension — which will not last forever — how deeply can we question, soul-search, reimagine?
when the unthinkable happens, ways of thinking change.
as much as i hope and pray for this tragedy to pass quickly, i am coming to believe that it would a different kind of tragedy, too, if we were to emerge from this without a few lessons learned, a few assumptions questioned, a few Brave, New Ways to attempt.
i believe there are some things from our past that belong in the dust, that should remain in the ground.
what might yours be?
i’d love to hear from you, if you’d like ears.
may you go bravely and gently into the next, unknown moment.