Troubling Calm

Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

Days before everything turned inside out, when I still had access to the full stretch of my old world, I attended an opera based on science fiction author Octavia E. Butler’s prescient novel “Parable of the Sower.” Fittingly, the story is set in a 21st century dystopian Los Angeles — a city ravaged by long-term drought and upturned by grim social disorder. Butler, who was born and raised minutes from where I now live, shrugged out of the label “seer.” Rather, she often spoke about how one can read the future just by being attentive to what’s outside the window. “Learn from the past,” she warned. But, too: “Count on surprises.”

Learn to read the cycles, Butler knew.

Of late, Los Angeles has been at its most impossibly lush: The mountains and their contours aren’t hidden by a scrim of haze. The sunsets bloom paint-box vivid — ribbons of lilac and blush pink. The air offers a perfume of new blooms — jasmine, citrus, sharp lavender. And now, with so much at a standstill — no conversations in the street, no rush-hour car horns blasting — nature is at the forefront.

This beauty, in other instances, would be comforting, but each day the world outside the door feels more threatening. How can these spring days be so dazzling, and yet they don’t quiet the sense of unease? They underscore it.

Since early March, with the arrival of the novel coronavirus, the sense of unease and sadness that I, and so many others, have been swimming through is as novel as the pathogen itself. Its slow approach is something we can neither hide nor run from. It’s a force we can’t even see.

Silence has become a shelter. I’ve begun telling people I know and love that language has not caught up with the expanse of my emotions; my feelings are too new and seem to occupy some unexplored territory of both place and self.

I am a journalist, so it is often difficult for me to take a break from the news. In these weeks of sheltering, I cook to radio analysis. Over coffee, I keep scrolling, absorbing stats, reading charts, hitting share buttons to disseminate best-practices advice. But the more information I have the more it feeds anxiety — the “what ifs” and “if onlys …”

As a reporter, I’ve often had to shore up my emotions then leap into uncertainty — between before and after. Los Angeles has endured waves of disasters, bitter conflicts and landscape-altering upheavals.I clocked in hours of street reporting during the chaos of the L.A. unrest of 1992, later in the days following the Northridge earthquake in 1994, the sidewalks beneath me still shuddering. Years later, on 9/11, after watching live television coverage of a second plane slashing through the World Trade Center’s second tower, I showered and dressed, then drove downtown. I watched a flood of pedestrians filing out of office buildings — workers deemed “nonessential.” An unnamable turbulence pushed through me as I walked against the flow. Though we Los Angelenos were thousands of miles away, empathy was great; it linked us. At my desk, sitting with my grief, I focused on the duty before me: The privilege of asking open-ended questions, gathering and disseminating information that might help to explain the inexplicable.

This moment occupies another realm. Yet, it is in that latter disaster I discern a similarity — that knowing and yet not-knowing, a heavy sense of waiting, And ultimately, after this still-to-be understood virus passes through — what that Los Angeles might be if we lose hundreds, or perhaps thousands of lives? What will that mean collectively? Who will we be?

Listening to the nation’s mayors and governors only underscores that major crises like this reveal the stark inequalities that are part of the very structure of this nation. As I hourly scan my social media feeds and see sheltering-in-place families, bake bread and Zoom with colleagues and friends, or source at-home workouts, I am also acutely aware of others struggling with childcare now that schools are closed, or who don’t have basic supplies due to  rampant hoarding, or my friends who are part of the essential workforce and don’t have the luxury to work from home and are, every day, hoping to come up on the upside of the odds.

Just as Angelenos buzzed about how Mother Nature was gifting us with flawless days, a sinister side of human nature crashed through. Several Asian American friends described being targeted with verbal or physical violence, spurred by reckless national leaders, sowing hate, who labeled the coronavirus — and by extension the respiratory disease COVID-19, caused by the virus — not by its formal designation but by Chinese nationality.

With all this still swirling, the city shuttered. Grim-faced, Eric Garcetti, L.A.’s mayor, announced a Safer at Home order: We can save lives if we stay calm, care for one another. …” I noted his words on the back of a napkin, considering: “Is this what history’s curve feels like?”

The first post-order, pandemic images of L.A. that beamed out to the world featured ghost-town streets and empty freeways. But soon, news segments shifted to people flouting rules: filling the hiking trails, crowding recreation areas and even a rebel surfer who refused to come ashore. These locations that often serve to most define the region were the next to be shut down. Evidently, people didn’t want to give up everything, not the elements that most defined them, their sense of place. But this was not the time to shout our independence.

Who are we Angelenos without our routines? Our calendared-in structure. In the first weeks of Safer at Home, I noted a mad sprint to try to replicate the “busy” of our former lives, to be super-achievers: A meme that moved through many of my social media timelines turned on this trope: “Shakespare wrote King Lear during a plague.” The challenge to all — in the land ofthe 80-hour work week — was unstated but clear: “Andso, what will you produce?”

I was taken instead by a text block that generated reflective discussion on my Instagram feed, one that rallied for a different approach. In a time of a pandemic: “What if we became curious …?”

What will L.A. be on the other side of this? Grasping at some understanding will mean going inside — not just our shelters, but ourselves. I’m not clairvoyant, but I listen to nature, and elders, and the cycles that move life forward.

I ache considering the human loss and what it will be like to live in a city — and world — of mourning. How will we support what’s left of the vibrancy — the idiosyncratic, the self-made, the things that make L.A. LA. We need to ask open-ended questions, be curious: How will we care for our neighbors, our homeless, our underemployed, our elderly, our vulnerable — not just in crisis but in the long term. How do we narrow the distance?

On my neighborhood solo walks, I catch glimpses of what’s possible, silent bridges connecting us: crates of freshly picked lemons, oranges and avocados left in boxes on the sidewalk, canned goods and grains arranged next to storybooks in the Little Free Library. One gesture in particular lingers: Tacked to the trunk of a sycamore tree, which shades a chalked sidewalk rainbow and heart, a paper sign in a child’s hand offers succor: “I know your [sic] worried. But everything will be alright.”

It’s not clairvoyance — as Butler suggested — that will carry us; it’s forbearance. It’s being present. If we could refrain from filling our days with a blur of tasks — the caffeinated “busy” that shapes our days — maybe we will hear what we really need to know, need to do: Not try to replicate what we were, but consider what we might become.

Lynell George is an L.A.-based journalist and essayist and a frequent contributor to LMU Magazine. Her recent book is “After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the frame.” George won a Grammy Award in 2018 for her liner notes that accompanied the six-CD set “Otis Redding Live At the Whisky A Go Go: The Complete Recordings.” A former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly, she is a contributor at KPCC | The Frame. Her new book, “A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World That Made Octavia E. Butler,” will be published in fall 2020. George’s award-winning essay for LMU Magazine (Summer 2018), “Sweet Hope,” can be found here, and her interview about being a Los Angeles writer for LMU Magazine’s Off Press podcast is here. Follow her @LynellGeorge.