an experiment in belonging.
radical love letters #62
Lately, for understandable reasons, I am thinking a lot about aloneness. For the first time in years, I come home to a quiet home. I turn the key and say hello to my two black cats, and in their way, they say hello back, but there is a stillness still unusual to me. I am past the early, thickest parts of grief – the crying everyday, the near-non-functionality– but I am still generally blue, an octave lower than my usual vibration; lonely. I know it is not a particularly novel thing to reflect on isolation in the time of corona, but as a newly living-alone person, it is an experience with which I am freshly grappling. I keep coming back to the paradox of feeling lonely while experiencing one of the most common (and currently salient) sensations in the world. To paraphrase James Baldwin: “You think [you are alone], but then you read.” I think I am alone and then I scroll Twitter.
And also I read. I’m working through two books right now; one, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our World, Change Our Minds, & Shape Our Futures, I’ve been savoring for months, a few pages before bed at a time. The other is David Wengrow and David Graeber’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. On their surfaces, neither a book about fungi nor a book about pre-state formations would have much to say about loneliness, but I find nuggets of solace in them. Fungi, of course, reminds us that we’re never really alone, because we are multi-organism beings. We’re never alone when more than half our body isn’t human; we’re constantly in the good company of bacteria, fungi, and water molecules! After explaining the way this shakes up our concept of the “individual,” Sheldrake notes:
“Our microbial relationships are about as intimate as any can be. Learning more about these associations changes our experience of our own bodies and the places we inhabit. ‘We’ are ecosystems that span boundaries and transgress categories. Our selves emerge from a complex tangle of relationships only now becoming known.”
Granted, these intimate co-inhabitants may not be able to hold a conversation about their favorite band, or give us a hug while swimming inside our own shoulders, but, dear readers, we are not alone! On good days, this brings me comfort.
Wengrow and Graeber probably had no sense that their radical anthropological approach to history might act as balm to a broken heart, but something they reiterate in the book is that the history of humans is kind of ultimately an experiment in belonging. Or at least it could be and has been one aspect of it; in critiquing dominant myths of history (specifically the notion that history is a linear march forward that either fell apart or got better (depending on who’s writing) with either farming or industrialization), they write:
“...the world of hunter-gatherers as it existed before the coming of agriculture was one of bold social experiments, resembling a carnival parade of political forms, far more than it does the drab abstractions of evolutionary theory.”
I haven’t finished the book, but I do love the idea that if humans are inherently anything, it is experimentative. (This is helpful for me as someone who spiritually thinks all sentient beings are inherently good, while also not wanting to rely on or concretize any kind of bioessentialist (or even spirit-determinist) narratives.) Regardless of whatever is “inherent” to our “nature,” we exist in a world now where people have been all muddied up; and so instead of debating good vs. evil, we can find relief in the fact that we are – if nothing else for certain – dreamers.
Experimentation and dreaming otherwise is the only thing that has and will continue to get us through these ongoing apocalyptic times—drawing on the wisdom of what’s already working, and finding ways to adapt, grow, and apply it throughout our various complicated and distinct communities. And I think we’ve seen how experimentation is also an antidote to loneliness, both during a global pandemic and also historically: zoom happy hours, masked coffee walking dates, sending care packages, writing letters…At some point we came up with these ideas because of our overwhelming need to turn toward rather than away from each other. We can choose this. So often, we do.
When I announced on social media that I had Covid, I was inundated with offers for support. People Venmo’d, dropped off soup without asking (these just doing/not asking acts were especially helpful for me, someone who has trouble accepting help), offered info about testing, and more. I kept thinking, “We’ve gotten so much better at taking care of one another.” Throughout the pandemic, we have found new – or at least more routine, consistent, and effective – ways to show up for each other. We have found ways to help physically isolated bodies feel as though they are not going it alone; to feel that they are accompanied. What a task we’ve taken on; how lovely that we’ve found ways to succeed.
It’s not a coincidence that in this moment of evident state failure – which is to say a failure to care for people, not a failure of its purpose (which is power, not care) – that we are also getting better at caring. I have written before that “poor people are very good at taking care of each other because no one else will do it for us”; by which I mean, poor and marginalized folks know that the state isn’t designed to keep them safe, and so they find other ways, in each other, to stay alive, to find joy, to be. Never since leaving it have I experienced the kind of “community care” I had as a kid in a low-income, white trash neighborhood; the care was woven in without grudge or need to ask. Babysitting, couch-sleeping, food sharing, car fixing, (in short, mutual aid)....it was all a given. I think this scale of collective trauma we are experiencing has forced us, on a mass level, into that kind of near-survival work. The question I always asked before the pandemic was: how do we build these kinds of care networks without having to be pushed into it through state neglect and violence? Today, now that even fewer have eluded state neglect and violence, the better question is: how do we hold onto these networks? How do we not forget?
The lesson of the fungi, and the wisdom of various communities spanning the history of the Earth, is that we keep imagining. We try to find ways to belong and to care, and we fail, and we try again. We turn toward rather than away from one another; and we dream.
When I think of that – this truth that we are all, in some form or another, seeking support, dreaming in big or small ways of how to give and receive it – I am a little sad, but I am not lonely. On the contrary, I can almost feel the mycelium connecting the veins in my feet to yours, I can almost hear the ghosts of our ancestors celebrating, together, the return of the light. If we can let ourselves feel that, I think it will propel us, will keep us going. And if it doesn’t? We’ll try something else.
love & solidarity,