This gutting news came at the end of a four day trip to the Mojave Desert for VICE, where we drove past mountains on fire to see the burn scar of an August wildfire that killed tens of thousands of trees in the largest Joshua Tree forest in the world.
Climate change was in the haze and the heat. Climate change was under our feet, in the scorched earth on which we stood. Reporting this devastation — and efforts to do something about it — is crucial and I’m pleased we got to get the exclusive footage up there in the Mojave National Preserve. I’ll share this visual, heart-breaking story on Monday. Behind-the-scenes, it meant briefly returning to BC — Before COVID, when I took long road trips or hopped on planes all the time for these intense reporting trips.
Everything is changed. Driving out to Joshua Tree, the sound guy and I avoided stopping anywhere. Hotels don’t do cleaning service because COVID. Everyone is fortified with their masks and clear plastic shields. We wore masks in all the interviews, even though they took place outside, because of the optics and for the extra protection.
Flying for the last leg of the reporting made me feel anxious and suspicious. I was scared to sneeze. In the Sacramento airport on my way home (from the one interview we flew into town for), only one restaurant in the food court remained open — the vegetarian one, natch.
But we also found joy and serendipity on this trip. As a VICE team, we ate and drank together outside by the pool after long days, sunburned from the desert and pricked by burrs at our ankles. Producer Sarah got a chance to see her sister, brother-in-law and toddler niece for the first time since Christmas when we did a drive by their balcony in Sacramento. My friend Rachel and her new baby, Simone, are also staying in Sac during COVID and the ladies drove out to our interview location so I could sneak a moment with Baby Simone. My little brother, Roger, had come to LA to help care for the girls while I was away, and we siblings were able to reunite for the first time since December at LAX for a mere moment, as he was headed home to Dallas and I had just landed from Sacramento.
After I got home and got the girls down, David Greene, one of my most reliable drinking buddies and closest friends from NPR West, gathered a few of the regular friend squad for a night out of drinking and revelry like the old times. Only, we were always outside and we hugged with masks on and with our faces turned as far away from one another as possible. We used to go drinking together at least weekly, and we hadn’t since March. Finally we were all together again which felt restorative after a nonstop reporting trip and given the news, a tough, tough day.
I got home just before midnight and the earth shook. At first I thought, oh, maybe I’m drunker than I thought but nope, nope, it was an earthquake. Magnitude 4.8, and no damage or injuries here, but a reminder the ground beneath us is always changing.
If there is one big idea I have really spent the year interrogating and emphasizing through my work this year, whether it’s my book (which is about capitalist-driven definitions of beauty that drive an endless cycle and competition toward unachievable standards), or through my newish social science and parenting podcast, Labor, it’s about the fallacy of emphasizing personal responsibility over systemic fixes.
Whether we’re talking about climate, health and caregiving policies, how we treat poor people or reckon with race, it all boils down to this: The US consistently asks individuals to take both the blame for systemic problems and the responsibility for solving them. This strain is synonymous with neoliberalism, which dominates the globe’s economic systems, and especially so in American society and culture.
The toxicity of this idea is made tragically clear in our largely preventable COVID hellscape this year. Ed Yong writes:
“Pushing for universal health care is harder than shaming an unmasked stranger. Fixing systemic problems is more difficult than spewing moralism, and Americans gravitated toward the latter. News outlets illustrated pandemic articles with (often distorted) photos of beaches, even though open-air spaces offer low-risk ways for people to enjoy themselves. Marcus attributes this tendency to America’s puritanical roots, which conflate pleasure with irresponsibility, and which prize shame over support. “The shaming gets codified into bad policy,” she says.”
I also serendipitously got to reinforce this idea in a TED Talk I introduced this summer, from the journalist George Monbiot.
When we landed back in America in August 2018 and I walked around our Venice neighborhood, what struck me was the astonishing number of homeless folks on sidewalks and in tent encampments. The stark income divide seemed unfathomable — just to rent the Airbnb in that neighborhood cost $10,000 a month.
Los Angeles County counts some 66,000 people living without shelter, whether it’s in tents or in their cars. When COVID19 spread, the many agencies trying to solve the problem worked together to get as many at-risk homeless off the streets and into the hotels fast-emptied of travelers. It worked … kind of. Here’s my piece for Vice News Tonight, produced by the unstoppable Sarah Svoboda.
Gulped down my vitamins with vodka
Wiped my own snot onto my shirt sleeve
Wore Sunday Funday shirt on Tuesdays, and Thursdays, but who knows which day it was, ever
Accidentally showed up a day early for someone’s surprise birthday parade
Finally hung that one framed picture
Organized little plastic baggies of toiletries plus money for the homeless
Went to a bunch of drive-thrus, masked
Yelled a lot at my kids, sorry
Got yelled at by my kids, they’re not sorry Wrote fifty letters to strangers
Received so many thoughtful, personal responses from my new pen pals
Helped connect doctors and frontline workers with the tech industry so they could get their own Slack to share information
Let toddler go topless all the time
Read a book that said, without irony, “Have you asked your spirit guides for help?”
Considered dying my hair with Kool-aid, just to try it
Started a food scrap garden experiment
COVID life has lingered long enough now that I can’t remember The Before, or BC (before COVID). School let out for the “summer” but what does that mean, when school let out in March, really? And what is a summer without vacations or camps or any summertime rituals we’re used to?
The girls didn’t join in any of the BLM protests but Eva has gotten a lot more woke about the mistreatment of Blacks in American society and wants to read about slavery and is constantly aghast about the lack of humanity in the practice. She learned yesterday that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington kept slaves and this shocked her. I explained that while people can do good things, they also do terrible things, and that’s the complexity of life and human beings.
LA County is still seeing climbing numbers, but climbing steadily and not exponentially (like some places, cough Texas cough). Cooped up too long, I’ve relaxed some of my more vigilant anti-COVID practices and have let the girls have outdoor playdates with the siblings Brandon and Emma, with whom we carpooled. The kids sprung to life when they could all be together again, I was delighted for them and sad at the same time, knowing how much socializing they’ve missed.
My friend squads are getting together for socially distanced hangs in the pool or out in courtyards or at parks. Last weekend a bunch of us from NPR hung out together to gossip and complain (as journalists are wont to do) and it felt great. Well, at least until I overheated. I showed up in my “Merry Merry Merry” Christmas sweatshirt so I lasted for about 45 minutes out there in the blazing sun before having to bounce.
There’s no end to this in sight. School probably won’t start in the fall. Uncertainty and just living in the moment is the way forward, as it’s the only option.
On the first day, I wrote to folks in Santa Ana CA, Austin, St. Louis, Flushing NY, Spokane Valley and Tucson. On the next day I wrote to an 11-year old who was born in Plano, where I grew up. I wrote to a USPS letter carrier from Minnesota who requested a letter for himself. By the time I was finished writing letters to any random social media follower of mine requested one, I wrote fifty letters to people I’d never met, addressed to recipients in almost every US state, excepting Alaska and the Dakotas.
When they requested letters, people mentioned little bits about themselves: That they live in my old stomping grounds (Austin, or St. Louis). They mentioned their cats, or kids, or dogs. They mentioned listening to me when I broadcasted from Seoul. They mostly asked if it was too late to request a letter.
It surprised me how many people wanted a random letter from a stranger, but they were clearly as eager to connect as I was, during this disorienting global pandemic and what’s amounted to a national state of emergency. At least three of the letter requesters were my longtime friends. They can call me anytime, but wanted a letter all the same.
Our lives are upended and uncontrollable, yet contained by the walls of our homes. So when I wrote, I asked how they were doing in isolation. Were they scared and uncertain, like me? How did they fill their days? Find joy? I asked many people what they learned about themselves during this difficult period.
I am someone who is “very online,” so it’s much easier to bang out a tweet that reaches far more than one person at a time. Or I could have simply sent personalized emails to everyone who asked. But sitting down to compose a letter by hand, address an envelope and stamp it came with extra intention. It felt like a way to show an old-fashioned kind of caring, without costing more than a stamp.
Ultimately we’re stripped to our most primal longings to survive these days, and survival for humans means connection and communion where we can find it. Especially when my generation is the loneliest — a quarter of millennials said in a YouGov survey that they have no acquaintances, 22 percent reported having no close friends. And that was before this crisis hit.
It made personalizing these letters important to me. I wanted to be explicit in signaling the letters came from a real human, not a bot. When I ran out of my personal stationery, I found my four-year-old daughter Isa’s doodles in a notebook and wrote my letters on those pages.
I didn’t share quotes or poems or parables, as I sometimes do when I send cards or letters to friends. Instead I wrote about the rhythms and happenings of my days. I wrote about Isa singing full-throated the entire time she was on the back of a tandem bike with her dad. I wrote about how happy my neighbors are to see each other and how we delight in shouted conversations from across the street. I wrote about how lonely I feel, even though I’m quarantined in a house full of the loudness of small children.
I never expected replies. The satisfaction for me was in writing to people and knowing they’d receive something weird and rare. But the replies ended up being the best part. When the recipients got them in the mail, some of them didn’t wait to write back by hand. They sent me direct messages on social media with photos of themselves and the letters now in their possession.
Oscar in Santa Ana said, “Handwritten anything is so special these days.” Robert in Austin quipped, “I got your note today in the mail and my wife was like, ‘Someone named Elise wrote you from California 🤨’ and I was like ‘Oh [expletive], do I have a secret lover I don’t know about?'”
He went on to tell me how he and his wife were three days out from the arrival of their baby, and that they were on their way to pick up Texas BBQ-Asian fusion takeout.
In the following weeks, Howard sent a letter by mail with a photo of the new baby and a personalized koozie with his phone number on it. He said he read a book once in which the author asked, “What if we really loved our neighbor as ourselves?” The author put his phone number in the back of the book. Howard was inspired and emulated the move with his number on the koozie to “make myself available to people and the world feel smaller.”
In addition to the tweeted and texted photos, I received dozens of handwritten replies. They came from Eldersburg, Md. And Kirkland, Wash. Tucson. Flushing, N.Y. Kearney, Mo. Fort Collins, Colo.
People wrote me about leaning into their hobbies and how they’re spending their time — starting gardens, going on daily walks and sewing masks to donate to hospitals. Some of the replies were typed and printed out, with a Post-it note appended: “I ended up having so much to say, I typed it.”
I got dozens of handwritten replies. Some of them were typed and printed out, with a post-it appended: “I ended up having so much to say, I typed it.” One couple from Arizona sent me, along with their letter, two national park brochures of the parks they live near, to help with my homeschooling of my children. A high school freshman wrote me back, sharing her love of playing guitar, singing and acting, but admitting no one at school even knows because “high school is hard. There’s so much pressure to have a high social status.”
A lot of letters included wishes for what comes out of this crisis. The one consistent hope was that the slower pace, deeper intention and attention we’re paying to each other can continue in the next phase of our living history.
So many of the feelings my pen pals shared with me mirrored my own. I wrote to them originally to process my fears and anxieties during this time. In the end, the respondents helped me remember the clarifying thing about this pandemic — that we’re all part of one community of humans. For the duration of this crucible, and beyond, we should celebrate that which makes us most human: perspective, surprise and connection. Letters to strangers — and from strangers — can satisfy all three.
North Korean state media showed images of leader Kim Jong Un appearing at a fertilizer factory ribbon-cutting today, 20 days after he was last seen in public. During his “disappearance” we learned he was maybe in “grave condition” (CNN), possibly “braindead” (Weibo chats and MSNBC) or fully dead, and/or maybe just avoiding COVID19 by holing up in Wonsan, his resort town. The night the news spread about his “grave condition,” I was putting the kids down for the night and both spouse and I sprung into action to try and figure out what was up, instinctively. Neither of us had any responsibility over North Korea coverage anymore but raced to figure things out as if we had an audience to satisfy. Chasing down KJU rumors — what a weird thing one’s mind and body learns to do automatically.
Now he’s apparently back or resurrected. Suddenly April 2020 is behind us.
I read today an idea about the passage of time that really resonated, from Ann Friedman:
“Apparently when everyone’s routine disappears and gets remade at the same time, weird things happen to our collective sense of momentum. Novel experiences slow down our perception of time (aka March), while repetition speeds it up (ahem, April).”
THAT EXPLAINS IT!
To catch up: I spent a lot of the month writing letters and then receiving letters, from strangers who only knew me from Twitter and DM-ed me their addresses. I can’t wait to blog about that nourishing, connective experience. It filled my tank when I needed it the most.
What else can I say? Everything feels fraught and chaotic. I feel lonely and despairing a lot, despite the small children shouting and jumping on me all the time. I binge-watched Normal People the TV series (based on a book I devoured last year) and cried every episode. Last night I zoned out in the frozen food aisle, breathing faintly into my mask and staring at taquitos for too long. I’m trying to remember compassion, compassion, compassion, including for myself.
As for family, we are all grateful and privileged and so lucky to be living well enough to enjoy the sunshine of Southern California, to have each other to dine with and feel with and fight with and push against. We are all, collectively, in our cocoons, in the midst of a grand metamorphosis. I don’t know what world we’ll emerge into, but we’ll be wholly changed. We certainly won’t be caterpillars anymore.
The writer Cheryl Strayed has a new podcast with The New York Times, Sugar Calling. It debuted maybe a week ago, but who knows, because I can’t feel time anymore. Anyway, today I listened to an episode featuring her mentor, the prolific and talented writer George Saunders. His collection, Tenth of December, is one of my all-time favorite books, and I like to re-read his commencement speech, “Congratulations By The Way,” for a pick me up.
In the podcast episode, he shares a letter he wrote to his graduate students at Syracuse during this terrifying time. It felt so affirming and nourishing to hear it, just as I’ve been really hitting the wall with this kind of contained lifestyle. Here it is, but not in its entirety.
“Dear S.U. writers —
Geez, what a hard and depressing and scary time, so much suffering and anxiety everywhere. I saw this bee happily buzzing around a flower yesterday and felt like, “Moron! If you only knew.”
But it also occurs to me that this is when the world needs our eyes and ears and minds. This has never happened before here — at least not since 1918. We are, and especially you are, the generation that is going to have to help us make sense of this and recover afterwards. What new forms might you invent to fictionalize an event like this, where all of the drama is happening in private, essentially? Are you keeping records of the emails and texts you’re getting, the thoughts you’re having, the way your hearts and minds are reacting to this strange new way of living? It’s all important.
Fifty years from now, people the age you are now won’t believe this ever happened or will do the sort of eye roll we all do when someone tells us about something crazy that happened in 1960. What will convince that future kid is what you are able to write about this. And what you’re able to write about it will depend on how much sharp attention you’re paying now and what records you keep, also, I think with how open you can keep your heart. I’m trying to practice feeling something like, ah, so this is happening now. Or hmm, so this, too, is part of life on Earth — did not know that, universe. Thanks so much, stinker. And then I real quick tried to pretend I didn’t just call the universe a stinker.
I did a piece once where I went to live incognito in a homeless camp in Fresno for a week. Very intense, but the best thing I heard in there was from this older guy from Guatemala, who was always saying, “Everything is always keep changing.” Truer words were never spoken. It’s only when we expect solidity, non-change, that we get taken by surprise. And we always expect solidity, no matter how well we know better.
Well, this is all sounding a little preachy, and let me confess that I’m not taking my own advice — at all. It’s all happening so fast. Paula has what we are hoping is just a bad cold, and I’m doing a lot of inept caregiving. Our dogs can feel that something weird is going on — no walk? Again?
But I guess what I’m trying to say is that the world is like a sleeping tiger, and we tend to live our lives there on its back. We’re much smaller than the tiger, obviously. We’re like Barbies and Kens on the back of a tiger. Now and then, that tiger wakes up, and that is terrifying. Sometimes it wakes up when someone we love dies or someone breaks our heart or there’s a pandemic. But this is far from the first time that tiger has come awake. He she has been doing it since the beginning of time and will never stop doing it. And always, there have been writers to observe it and later make some sort of sense of it — or at least bear witness to it.
It’s good for the world for a writer to bear witness, and it’s good for the writer too, especially if she can bear witness with love and humor and, despite it all, some fondness for the world, just as it is manifesting — warts and all.
All of this to say, there’s still work to be done, and now more than ever. “