Shore Leave

This begins as a dumb story: a minor injustice among all the big ones. My favorite kitten got rabies. It’s bat season, and these things happen. It turns into a Chad Story™, of course, where my colleagues are all bit and blood is drawn and everyone is spirited off to the capital for boosters, while the parasites ravage on unbowed in their untimely absence. Everyone is fine but I’m far away and informed of all this during the aftermath via untimely WhatsApp notifications. I’ll tell this to you while my eyebrows do that wayward “oh my god” thing and we’ll move on, but I want to keep feeling that these things are unfair.

***

It’s all part of the same thing: when you work all the time, all the time, your life shrinks to the minor beat, and so what would otherwise be trifling expands to fill the gaps. Things that would otherwise fade out at the edges as minor annoyances do, somehow, shatter whole weeks. Tomatoes flower and are immediately wrenched from the earth for no reason, hammocks that were rush-ordered and crammed into a suitcase go missing, there’s no flour at the grocery the one time you’re deadset on wringing a pie out of this place. Bad disasters abound, real ones, but they flit like shadows at the edges of the mind – too big to grapple with in the short spans one has available for a sense of self. Trying to grasp them is necessary, however. In my realm – field epidemiology – integrating these narratives with technical riddles is critical to doing good work. I’m no master at it yet, but from what I figure, it requires distance and deliberation. The Rabies Thing was therefore weird to encounter while attempting to partially re-emerge from all that, dragging me back into the weeds.

Coming up for air is uncanny. A layer of permafrost dredges the brain after a year submerged. Forging one’s spent neurons back into a cohesive soul requires feedback cycles – good ones, if you aim to do it properly. Step one: find people who reinforce the version of yourself you like the most and want to become. Step two: galvanize this, ideally over drinks. Step three: mutually, metallurgically reinforced by electric conversation, pop back into the world a little better-able to take hits, and to remain steady through all the hits already out there. I’m thoroughly lucky and grateful for a gaggle of friends who have been more than obliging. The question remains: what sort of air? Where and what do you adapt back to? Right, that – on va voir. Transience remains a puzzle and a challenge that pleases me, something to be conquered over and over. Tendrils, too, can keep one grounded, if you hold on tight.

Holding on tight means a variety of things, but for me it’s meant becoming earnest in a parlous way. I’m not sure if this is a product of my work on the outskirts of tragedy or the frankly weird times, but I’ve finally (d)evolved somehow into the sort of person who tells everyone directly that I care about them. I scrawl missives to various officials when I depart a country, urging via chordae to keep up the good fight. As something of a stray-like human, I’ve noticed that my ilk tend toward this a bit more than others (see Roxanne, who I don’t know at all but whose writing never ceases to astound, on grief elves). We throw out tethers as though they might hold us all against fragility.

***

It’s all part of the same thing, part two: I mention all this because it all feels timely and interconnected (in the way that only writing through it can uncover and tame, so here we are). The necessity of grappling; the gulfs between seeing and knowing and internalizing and incorporating and acting; the generally unsettled state of the world; the twin challenges besetting the battles against insurgencies and maladies.

Back from afar, plunged into news oversaturation in my mother tongue, I’ve been arrested by language. Two sides of the same coin stand out: the distance and rote regurgitation with which the aforementioned Bad Disasters are described, and the breezy invocation of true violence that has somehow crawled out from the dark underbelly of America. Carol Cohn gets at the former in Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals1, which I don’t totally agree with, but where she aptly distills the puzzle of incongruence: “What is striking about the men themselves is not, as the content of their conversations might suggest, their cold-bloodedness. Rather, it is that they are a group of men unusually endowed with charm, humor, intelligence, concern, and decency. Reader, I liked them. At least, I liked many of them. The attempt to understand how such men could contribute to an endeavor that I see as so fundamentally destructive became a continuing obsession.

The breezy violence – the threats against a free press, the bystander stabbings, the neonazis, you know, all that – jars me a little more. The parallels between infectious disease and extreme ideologies have been noted a billion times over as perils of non-exposure: in other words, good problems to have. It’s difficult to see the need to vaccinate when you’ve never seen someone struck with one of the fevers they guard against. To extend at least theoretical empathy, I suppose it’s also easier to invoke bombings when you’ve never moved your family to the basement just in case, to hang nooses when you’ve never seen feet twitch, to excoriate journalists when you’ve never wrangled with the costs of truth tangled and suppressed. How to put these phantoms to rest? One of the battles is winnable for good, and that’s where I spend my time. The other requires continual, common effort, and probably some creative governance: ideas cannot be killed, kernels will keep popping back. Arriving home(ish) to this from scant, outsider exposure to autocracy, the seeming need for re-litigation is trying.

So I’ve been thumbing this over. It’s still murky. When otherwise occupied, drained, unaccompanied, the primordial instinct to retreat and panic wins out, of course. The big stuff is hard to see clearly, and exposure to the small injustices is overwhelming when you simply don’t have the bandwidth to consider or the capacity to fight the bigger ones.

That’s all dense and heady, but I’m mostly grateful for the army of good people I know finding the leverage points and dedicating our lives to nudging them in the right direction. Two tools, then, to counter fragility: an earnestness capable of coaxing forth the esprit de corps to keep us all trudging on, and persistent, crackling effort.

In the meantime, though, more fusing: adding a little Rio Grande to a Syrian red pepper dip, bridging gaps where I can.

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  1. Also thieved – because if I’m going to be derivative, best own it wholeheartedly.
Shore Leave

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