I was frozen in some fragmented reality,
fearful, frayed, and in flight when Dylan
reassured me that after the first death,
there would be no other.
we knew that others would die,
but mercifully each only once,
only one agony to go around,
and that’s how it always is
when the sun stops shining, light breaks and thighs warmed by
candles thrust toward new beginnings,
new horizons, even as skin drops
from bone, even as hope sizzles
on hot pavement.
But there’s pleasure
yet in the death spiral, the free fall
into summer, or spring, or winter
where we are always surprised
by the break of light, the answer
from the dark, and my boy Dylan
grinning under the shroud of
some, well, maybe it is just a
Maybe this time
a halted dawn is literal,
and we will only limp
to the last break of light.
Since this pandemic got rolling, it seems everyone wants to talk about bioethics “trolley problem” quandaries like how to decide which of three dying patients gets the one ventilator on hand or whether it is okay to lock up healthy people to prevent the spread of a deadly virus. All the boring stuff suddenly got real and real fast, but maybe it’s not that interesting.
You should give the ventilators to the people with the best chance of surviving, right? I think that is how triage works. And, oh, was it all right to tell people to turn off their lights when bombers were flying overhead in the middle of the night? Sometimes even the rugged individualists have to work as a group. The problem is that some of our rugged individualists have never really been put in a position to make tough decisions, so they aren’t prepared.
And that gets us to the real ethical issues here. It is really unethical to be unprepared for emergencies. Experts in many fields have been warning of coming pandemics for at least 15 years. Even George. W. Bush, bless his tiny heart, knew he had to prepare for pandemics, and he at least took at stab at it. And the ever financially minded Barack Obama prepared for pandemics and even dealt with one on his watch. His didn’t get quite so out of hand, of course, and no one should have to tell you why.
So, the important ethical decisions were made years ago, and many of them had to do with the most attention-starved principle of bioethics, justice. The failure to prepare for a public health emergency affects everyone, as we now see, but too many people have always seen efforts to protect public health as efforts to protect “people not like me.” This isn’t always a sign of racism; sometimes it is just pure classism. Some people just don’t hate based on skin color, religion, sexuality, or any of that stuff. They hate poor people of all types.
This is also not a matter of choosing between the “economy” and the needs of working people. Preparing for a pandemic would have meant having mechanisms in place for extensive testing, tracing, and isolation that would have prevented the need to shut down almost all business activities. With proper preparation, the world would have suffered but could continue functioning.
And I guess a lot of Americans really were satisfied with their employer-provided health insurance that they are now losing, because it turns out their employers really never valued them as much as they assumed. It would seem that intelligent and hard working people should always be able to get healthcare, and that’s what we’ve been trying to tell you. You can be hardworking and intelligent and also poor, and maybe it is good that more people are learning this rather difficult lesson right now. Maybe it will help in the future.
But public health isn’t all about health insurance, though turning infected people away from a hospital because they can’t pay is certainly not a good way to protect the public from a pandemic. No, protecting the public health, which is really protecting national security (and global security) is about being able to deal with emergencies, which would require not selling off all the equipment you might need. Most homeowners have never used a fire extinguisher, but the ones who used them successfully were pretty happy they had invested in buying one and taken the time to learn how to use it.
So, yes, more than a decade ago, epidemiologists, virologists, climate scientists, public health experts, public health ethicists, and environmentalists were warning that the world was becoming much more hostile. How do we prepare to ensure our own long-term survival isn’t really as much fun as debating who gets the last ventilator, maybe, but it can save many more lives.
And maybe you’re saying there’s no point in going on about this now as it’s too late. What’s done is done, you’re saying, but this ain’t over, folks. One way or the other, COVID19 will be resolved, but other pandemics will follow along with drought, flooding, mass migrations, and a host of other public health crises that aren’t that hard to imagine if you only try. You may think I’m crazy, but I’m not the only one. Plenty of experts in relevant fields are already imagining the worst and best case scenarios. Maybe it’s time to listen to them.
“But can you imagine a worse fate for your declining years than being read aloud to by Simone de Beauvoir?” ~Elizabeth Bishop
Other people were Sartre’s idea of Hell,
but Elizabeth Bishop’s idea of Hell was Simone de Beauvoir.
And somehow these three, brimming with radical freedom
and unconventional relationships, illuminated my way
to my own path of mediocrity and obscurity punctuated
by poor, if unconventional, choices in lifestyle and relationships.
From their inspiration, I was driven to write sporadically,
love without enthusiasm, and live quietly on the fringes
of a friendly but disinterested community surrounded
by an interested but hostile society of blame and recrimination.
In some unjustified fantasy, I sometimes imagine that Sartre would
approve of me or that Beauvoir might wish me greater freedom.
Elizabeth Bishop might mourn my dim light but not think it a disaster.
But still, I imagine myself in their shoes, standing on a balcony
overlooking the Montparnasse Cemetery before writing in a cafe
on the ground floor. And here I am, just like them!, sitting with my lover,
writing in a notebook, drinking Beaujolais, and munching quietly on a fresh galette.
The words neither flow nor drip but must be pried out, singly, and with great effort.
But still, you can feel the energy, can’t you?, where fertile minds spawned the
great works, and I have spawned faint evidence of mental effort, in their shadow.
She didn’t witness black and white wings dropping in the tree.
No, she didn’t see the magpie, but gave a prophylactic salute.
Her superstition never fell into complacency.
She didn’t witness black and white wings dropping in the tree,
but she was alert to danger in every contingency,
and her intuition was always alert and astute.
No, she didn’t see black and white wings dropping in the tree,
but even without seeing a magpie, she’d give a prophylactic salute.
The lotus blossom represents enlightenment,
but most people take it as a symbol of relaxation,
an icon of a religion of indifference,
but Buddha told us to let go of desire,
not to be pacific in the face of suffering.
Loving kindness and limitless compassion
motivate us to relieve suffering as we
recognise that all suffering is our responsibility.
Desire is destructive and separates us from others
while compassion joins us to all life.
Mindfulness is shilled as a tool for corporate success,
but such success is only an element of ego
and can never be a byproduct of mindfulness.
To be mindful is to be aware of suffering,
and to suffer is to be filled with desire.
Buddha didn’t want us to be free from distraction,
he wanted us to be focused on suffering.
To imagine a universe free from suffering
is only to imagine a universe free of life,
and desire is nothing less than a life source.
Late one afternoon, I sat and watched a beautiful
wave crash against the rocks on the beach.
Finding such beauty on earth, of course I wanted
to find it again, to relive my joy and enlightenment.
I followed the wave out to sea, only to be consumed by water.