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1. I’m not entirely sure when everything splintered into fragments. One night I warmed my hands by a fire as a full moon rose above the woods, and then a breeze rustled through palm trees as sand and sweat stuck to my skin, and then a UPS truck kicked up a flurry of blaze orange leaves, and then, a few hours later, those leaves were blanketed in snow. Slivers of days were captured through a lens, pixelated and distilled down into an image on a screen, and distributed via small squares onto handheld devices. …

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photo: Chelsea Batten

Chelsea Batten lives on the Upper Peninsula with her husband and son, only (only!) five hours north of my adopted hometown of Eau Claire, WI. For someone who grew up twenty-five minutes from the border of Maine and forty minutes from the border of Massachusetts, five hours seems like another planet. Heck, it was only four hours to Canada! (I realize it’s now only five hours to Canada.) But both because of Chelsea’s proximity and relative remoteness, I like to use her as a kind of gauge. We have similar sensibilities and overlapping tastes in literature. I love her writing more than anyone else’s, and there’s no one I trust more with mine, because she possesses the fine balance of being both far enough removed from culture to see it clearly, and somehow also intimately entwined with it. …

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In a recent interview, Hanif Abdurraqib said he found himself returning to albums that felt familiar, because “the familiarity gives me comfort. It’s been hard for me to listen to unfamiliar things in unfamiliar times.”

The author and poet’s 2017 collection of essays They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us moved beyond music criticism and appreciation into an illustration of how music intimately influences lives. His 2019 book Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest looks back on mid-1980s and early ’90s hip-hop with a mixture of music history and personal essay.

“When I say I’m returning to familiar albums,” he said to Pillars Fund co-founder Kashif Shaikh, “it’s because I like to know where I’m going to land. You know? It feels like, as I mentioned earlier, we’re constantly falling very slowly through several folding clouds of grief, with no end in sight, and so I like a song that I remember. I like a song that I know. I like knowing where I’m going to land. I like knowing that if I put the needle down […] anywhere on that record, after a few seconds I’ll be able to find my way to an entry point. There’s comfort in that for me always, but there’s comfort for me in that particularly now, when I feel like it’s hard for me to predict what’s around the corner.” …

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Seven years before I turned seventeen, I was a devoted subscriber of Seventeen magazine. Every month, I cracked open the latest issue and spread it out on the kitchen table. I held it up to my nose on the couch, inhaling the perfume samples, and read it before I fell asleep at night. Most of the publication’s advice was far too mature for my pre-teen brain, and absolutely inapplicable to a life set in the woods of New Hampshire. I wore a uniform to school and never learned how to properly apply makeup. …

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‘We Are the Weather’ by Jonathan Safran Foer (FSG 2019)

In October I wrote a review of Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest book We Are the Weather, which had been released at the end of August. Since the publishing industry moves at a glacial pace, the review wasn’t posted for another six months, at which point I’d moved on to other books.

The lives lived in the gaps between writing and publishing sometimes feel as though no time has passed, and other times it feels like an eternity.

I know I’m not alone in saying the last six months — if not the last six days — have felt like an eternity. We Are the Weather became a distant memory, even though I closed the book determined to shift my daily habits, to tread more lightly on the planet. Then life happened, which is precisely the premise of the book: how to act on what we know, and interrogating why we don’t act when we do know.

Lately, I lie in bed at night and imagine the knock-on effects of the pandemic. It’s like counting sheep, except it doesn’t put me to sleep very quickly, and when it does, it prompts turbulent dreams. The other night I dreamt I went to a bar with my older brother and it was almost empty. We weren’t sure where to sit. I felt guilty for even being there. The dream was interrupted by my dog barking.

Wide awake in the middle of the night, Foer’s book floated to the forefront of my mind.

In the second chapter, Foer writes, Americans in cities along the East Coast turned off their lights at dusk during World War II. The cities weren’t in danger of being bombed, but the effort was to prevent German U-boats from using urban backlighting to spot and destroy ships exiting harbor.

As the war progressed, blackouts were practiced in cities across the country, even those far from the coast, to immerse civilians in a conflict whose horrors were out of sight but whose victory would require collective action. On the home front, Americans needed a reminder that life as they knew it could be destroyed, and darkness was one way to illuminate the threat. (Foer)

When the coronavirus was escalated to a pandemic, I started to see social media posts stating, Our elders were called to war to save lives. We are being called to sit on the couch to save theirs. This presumes that only the lives of elders are impacted by the pandemic, when other populations and communities are also vulnerable. But yes, some of our elders were called to war, and those who weren’t contributed in other ways.

Foer writes, World War II would not have been won without home-front actions that had both psychological and tangible impacts: ordinary people joining together to support the greater cause. Manufacturing companies shifted production to military goods, citizens planted victory gardens, Hollywood and Disney films supported the war efforts, and widespread rationing and reuse of resources occurred.

In April of 1942, President Roosevelt said, Here at home everyone will have the privilege of making whatever self-denial is necessary […]. This will require, of course, the abandonment not only of luxuries, but of many other creature comforts.

A friend in Canada messaged and asked how my “lockdown” was going, and I replied that it was not much different than my usual day to day — which is at once eerie and privileged. Six months ago, I intentionally scaled back social engagements and commitments to spend more time alone. After my spouse and I amicably split and he moved back to the East Coast, and after a brief interlude into the dating pool that collapsed more spectacularly than an above ground swimming pool, I retreated into solitude: no social engagements, no social media, no distractions, and no television for three weeks.

One friend chastised me, said it was the opposite of what I should be doing, but I disagreed. At first it felt uncomfortable — at times I simply sat and stared at the wall — but soon I became obsessed with solitude: a subject often written about and glorified by men, whereas women who choose to be alone are crazy spinsters. I’m not interested in extreme retreats like Vipassana or removals from society as much as I am interested in how to weave solitude into day-to-day life; I’m interested in the texture and shape of it — what it looks and feels like to be alone in an age of interconnection. I even began writing a book on the topic, but when I started leaning into solitude, I couldn’t have imagined entire nations would be locked indoors for weeks at a time, if not months. Suddenly my chosen solitude, which I’d begun to take for granted, was thrown into sharp relief.

I live alone with my dog. My apartment is a block from a park, where we sometimes walk for an hour without seeing another human being, even though it’s within city limits. I work part-time in an office, where I am the sole employee, answering emails and phone calls. The rest of the time I work as a freelancer, and though I’ve already experienced a loss in income, it pales in comparison to those who can’t go to work at all. I own a car and a bicycle and don’t rely on public transit. The only modern conveniences my apartment lacks are a microwave and a washer-dryer. My closest family members live over 200 miles away, and most are on the East Coast. I am thoroughly alone almost all the time.

I personally love solitude, and yet, despite or perhaps because of all this, the sudden enforced solitude makes me want to go out, to rebel. In Anthony Storr’s 1988 book on the subject, the psychiatrist and author notes how enforced solitude is very different from chosen solitude. In 2011, a UN expert said solitary confinement could be cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and should be banned.

Enforced solitude makes me want to leave my cocoon, and yet I’m usually quite content to stay home and read. It’s as though I know what needs to be done to stave off the spread of a pandemic, but I don’t want to do it.

There isn’t widespread testing, and there’s only been a few confirmed cases in the county in which I reside in Wisconsin. I could choose to ignore it, or brush aside the severity of the situation, thinking it exists over there and not here. But I’d rather be safe and wrong than unsafe and wrong. It isn’t a huge sacrifice for me to abstain from going to a coffee shop or out to dinner, though I’ll miss my latest luxury: weekly dinners with my friend at a restaurant equidistant from our respective apartments.

On the phone instead, we remarked at how uncomfortable this all feels, and how it’s uncertain when and if life will go back to the way it once was, pre-pandemic. The same could be said for the climate crisis, and yet we continue on with our lives in relative comfort, forgetting or forgoing the uncomfortable truths about the state of the earth. We pretend or ignore it until we can’t any longer, until we’re forced to act, to drastically reroute our daily routines.

Foer mentions a friend who is a passionate environmentalist but refuses to read Eating Animals, his book on factory farming, because, He told me he’s afraid to read the book because he knows that it will require him to make a change he can’t make.

Which is the entire premise of We Are the Weather: Instead of marking himself as an expert on climate change and extolling the precise steps one needs to take to save the planet, the author and narrator admits how, though they know what needs to be done, they still can’t seem to do it. …

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In 1518, the dancing plague struck Strausbourg. A woman took to the streets and danced until she collapsed from exhaustion, then rested and returned to dancing. Before long, she was joined by dozens of others. The number swelled to 400, all afflicted by the same mysterious urge to dance “long past the point of injury,” according to the encyclopedia. There was no music, just people silently shaking and shimmying, so the town brought in a band, thinking the plague would run its course. It went on for months, and people reportedly died from strokes and heart attacks.

At the time, people blamed demonic possession, cults, curses, and a failure to propitiate the patron saint of dancers. Historians have since hypothesized that citizens had ingested toxic mold, causing convulsions. The Encyclopedia Britannica noted that such outbreaks often “take place under circumstances of extreme stress.” That year the residents were struck with famine, smallpox, and syphilis. …

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Dotters Books in Eau Claire, WI, photograph: Elizabeth de Cleyre

In the dead of winter, I relocated from Portland, Oregon to Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Donald Trump had just been elected president of the United States, sending shockwaves through the liberal bubble of PDX, as the once-blue state of Wisconsin blushed red. I didn’t have any close friends or family in Wisconsin. I didn’t move there for a job. As a writer and editor, I could theoretically live anywhere in the world with an internet connection. I chose what some might view as an unlikely location: Wisconsin, a flyover state that is not necessarily synonymous with literary, cultured, or creative. …


Elizabeth de Cleyre

writer, editor, & bookstore co-founder —

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