I am reading a beautiful book: Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. I picked it up after judging it extremely favorably by the cover, pictured above.
So far, under the covers of those starlit tents, a troupe of gypsy-performers wander through the deserted landscape of a world collapsed after an eerily credible flu pandemic sweeps through and decimates the global population, rendering human life on Earth Third World/Medieval in a matter of weeks. These gypsies act out Shakespeare and play classical music in the shanty towns of other survivors.
Mandel’s wasteland is a thorough and believable—most of the population is gone, the internet is gone, plumbing is gone, electricity is gone, gas is gone. People come to a hands-on, survivalist, practical way of being in the world that I find more refreshing than frightening. The modern infrastructure we rely on without thinking is impossible. Bandits wander around in horse-drawn cars, candles and fire are the only light, new communities spring up, some with strange beliefs bred of fear and desperation and post-traumatic relief at surviving, some with good governance and productive order, and some, the marauding actor-musician types, with the powerful, Star Trek infused belief that “survival is insufficient.”
I’m drawn, as ever, to the creative and passionate people outside the margins.
Because we need more of us out there—pulling back from the brink, waking up and rethinking how the world operates. The status quo is unacceptable.
A friend and I were talking the other day about Hurricane Katrina. She was reading Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial, about the ethical and bureaucratic horror that was New Orleans’ Memorial Medical Center during the storm. Doctors and nurses had their hands tied by legalities as they tried to save what lives they could in conditions that no one, ever, should need to be prepared for. My friend explodes with fury that the state of the medical complex is such in our country that, at the worse of times, good and trained medical professionals are impotent to act on their skills and instincts.
We were talking on the same day that the House of Representatives was voting on the Keystone XL Pipeline. One of my high school students had come to the library to talk to me about that vote, saying how she had just done a research project on the election in Louisiana this year, and how the Keystone Pipeline played a huge role, because of the jobs that such a project might bring to the region. Without saying so explicitly—as I am supposed to demonstrate appropriate vocabulary with teenagers, even when it seems nothing but the profane will suffice—we agreed that this was a truly fucked up state of affairs.
This pattern of life is killing us. We are the ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail. We all know this.
Almost everywhere I seem to look, the culturally entrenched patterns and infrastructure are destructive and crumbling, yet we continue to live within their frameworks and priorities. Scratch surface of the economy, the environment, the educational system, the emotional well-being of the population, politics, and a whole lot of rotten jerry-rigged systems, full of Catch-22s and evil contradictions emerge. A storm is coming, and doctors mix euthanasia cocktails for patients, because this is—in the moment and with the protocols on hand—some iteration of “best practices.” In this same state, ravaged by a carbon emissions exacerbated hurricane almost a decade ago and flooded with oil from a leak in an off shore well five years ago, elected officials—who, I believe have a mandated responsibility to protect and advocate for the safety of their constituents—invite, woo and welcome the same beast in again in order to create jobs. Jobs that will allow, demand, to continue participation in the same culture, the same system, the same economy built on debt, of the carrot always being just out of the horse’s reach, so that we become depressed, live within the toxic thought that we are neither—nor will we ever have or be—enough.
Is it any wonder that I adore gypsies who rise up as society collapses?
Though, as I think about why, it is not the freedom of the road that draws me to them. For all my wandering, I crave a home-place and roots far too much to join a pioneer caravan or circus train. I am lit on fire, though, by the idea of being part of a fluid community that lives outside the bounds of expectation. Perhaps it is all smoke and mirrors and fortune-teller lies, but living with a hint more imagination of what could be makes the reality of what is more expansive.
I can think of nothing better than being united with others who act and believe in this mode of being, roaming together through the world, sprinkling bits of magic and imagination in our wake, bucking trends of normal and living out the reality that something else is possible.
We need more and louder and happier gypsies, I think. People who simply refuse to drink the poisonous Kool-Aid of normal.
And, we’re around, hiding in plain view as mild-mannered librarians, for example.
It would be easier, sweeter, if we were all within sight of each other. If we traveled literally together, if we caravanned by day, set up our tents at night together, performed magic and plays and told fortunes together in the same towns. I love the thought of waking up every day and going to sleep every night in the camp and company of people who share a common allergy for normal and a common delight for imagination and possibility, of being a rooted in a place with a gypsy heartbeat.
It would be lovely, and it is magical when you stumble across a lost or new member of the tribe we do have. Mostly, though, we are scattered, each laboring solo in the hope that someone else is out there, doing the complimentary work necessary to keep the rebel troupe’s spirit alive, well, and fomenting.
They are. I am. You are. We are. Remembering that, repeating it like a mantra, a magic spell helps cut the loneliness, the doubt, the sneaking suspicion that we are each the only one trying to do this, the great beautiful thing of magic and hope and labor and love that we are doing.
What we’re doing—all the wonderful artists and teachers and builders and growers and doers and explorers and poets and assorted rebels who I count among my tribe of gypsies—is all part of the same great magic trick we are struggling to make real, and it would be a lot easier and a lot more reassuring if we could hold hands over the rough patches more often. We are trying to save the world—from any and all of the myriad of ways in which it is, at present, totally fucked up.
This is a tall order. By the metrics of normal, it seems impossible, statistically unlikely, and politically/economically disadvantageous that we can do this, all or any of it.
But, on the other hand, what is easily possible, statistically likely, and good for politics and the economy is precisely what is constantly threatening to destroy everything I hold dear and ethically sensible.
In that light, joining the intangible tribe of imaginative and practical gypsies makes more sense than anything else I can fathom.