This after being enticed by a tattoo that sat then (as I’m sure it does now) on the upper back of a woman I had just met. As our small workshop of wanna-be food historians rolled through the cotton fields of Mississippi, eating and writing our way through the Delta, I would catch glimpses of it under a strap of summer clothing, offering itself in snippets.
Eventually, when we had built enough of a rapport, I asked the woman about it. She obliged, peeling back her tank top to reveal the black ink against her humid skin, my lips reciting that echo of a verse hanging off the end of T.S. Eliot’s Hollow Men…
Published in 1925 as Eliot contemplated a post-World War I society, Hollow Men is a poem about despair, where hope seems to be the preferred medicine. Nearly a century later, the world feels like it’s ending again, or at least some version of it. What would Eliot think of this moment?
As students of history, we know that this moment of crisis is temporary, but this does little to dull its blow or blunt its toll. Which explains why I have found myself latching onto the notion of impermanence lately. Turning the roundness of its letters in my mouth, feeling its soft edges soothe me. It is one of few words I can think of to make sense of the precariousness of what it means to be alive in the time of COVID-19, edging against the precipice of what we are told will be the greatest recession of our lifetimes. What a strange thing to be both living and history. A thing both present and past.
Already, tens of thousands have died, and more will die. For a society in which stability is a placeholder for success, this unravelling of the delicate trellises that hold our social orders and ideologies in place, creating a semblance of continuity, must then necessitate the contemplation of failure.
The effects of COVID-19 have exposed the fault lines in our understanding of what and who is essential to our modern way of life. This global health pandemic has also made glaringly obvious our failures at providing adequately for all of humanity.
For those outside those margins of privilege, the feelings that accompany this state of impermanence are nothing new. Millions across the globe are faced (again) with dire economic realities in response to an economic downturn far outside their sphere of influence. In places like Kenya, where I find myself now, the question of which will claim the higher toll; COVID-19, or hunger and violence against the desperately poor as lockdowns take effect, remains unanswered.
This global moment of uncertainty is an open-handed invitation to consider what it means to live in a heightened state of ephemerality; suspended from the norm and grappling with a near-constant disquietude. I’m learning how to sit with gnawing concern in my stomach day-after-day, threatening to leave me with little else to think of but, how did we get here? And more importantly, when do we get out? In this impermanent moment, I have been tasked with becoming an empath who can survive a world crumbling around me in startling numbers, and still find something beautiful and hopeful in it.
Such that, whether teetering over the edge of a continent contemplating a leap across the Mediterranean Sea in a shoddy boat, or sitting in your home ruminating the collapse of a health care system that was never built for everyone, there is a sliver of a comfort in an impermanent moment. Its reassuring caress that this too shall pass.
Karī’s story is part of Pollen’s “Are You OK?” initiative, a collection of stories, art, and virtual gatherings that documents how our collective community is processing and healing during the this global health and financial crisis. Check the collection regularly to hear from our creative community as we keep up with the changes and challenges before us.
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