by David Oates
We are entering the aftermath. Two of the most epic and wrenching struggles in American history are finally playing out to their conclusions. At last we see a conclusive democratic rejection of a presidency built on systematic lying and racism. At the same time we look just weeks or months ahead for vaccines that will liberate us from our deadly yearlong pandemic.
Of course the two catastrophes are entwined, most wrenchingly in the excess numbers of Americans who died not just because of the disease, but by the incompetence and malfeasance of the president’s handling of it. According to a summary by the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (October 2020), “If the coronavirus death rate in the United States were similar to that of Australia, it would have had 187,661 fewer COVID-19 deaths . . . and, compared with Canada, it would have had 117,622 fewer deaths.” And another hundred thousand US deaths have accumulated since October. So amplify those numbers accordingly, please, as this president’s personal death-toll on the nation.
Our collective house in disorder, occupied by thugs and dying by the thousands. All coming, at last, to an end! An end to constant alarm and worry. An end to the adrenaline-rush of hyperalertness, the daily fight-or-flight. The four-year emergency. The cavalcade of death. The pageant of ignorance.
Who are we now? we might soon be asking ourselves, as we step out, one by one, from our psychological foxholes and almost-literal bunkers. Can we relax now? Can we pick up normal life again?
Can we? Will we?
The after-blight is beginning. How shall we then live, in the aftermath of so much sustained stress and fear and misery?
* * *
Aftermath – it is a strange word, with no obvious analogues in English.
My Oxford English Dictionary tells me that the “math” part of the word is an erosion from “mowth,” derived from the simple verb “to mow.” In English grassland agriculture, one evidently mowed the crop, which being grass grew quickly and matured early in the summer. After the mowing it would continue growing through the remaining summer, so that a second crop could be achieved – the aftermowth or, eventually, aftermath.
Adding –th to a verb or adjective to make it a noun is a familiar pattern: warm becomes warmth, heal becomes health, long becomes length, strong becomes strength.
Oddly, “Aftermath” is today is a negative word, used only for regrets and consequences. Why has the connotation turned so dark? The OED is a historical dictionary, so my hand-lens is out, and I’m reading the tiniest of tiny print in which the attested usages are listed, with their sources and dates. First a string of straightforward, literal instances from the 1500s and 1600s. But then in 1658 a poet asks, “Rash Lover speak what Pleasure hath Thy Spring in such an Aftermath!” And in 1673 fellow poet Andrew Marvell notes: “The after-math seldom or never equals the first herbage.” Aha.
By the nineteenth century the sense of diminished possibility, of second-best, shows clearly. The briefly-famous poet Southey says in 1834, “No aftermath has the fragrance and the sweetness of the first crop.” And the exquisitely-named Coventry Patmore finishes a line (1866) “…among the bloomless aftermath.” And there we are.
A mowed-over field, stripped and bare. It gathers grows again as the summer progresses, but only to become a shadow of itself, bloomless and dull. The aftermath.
As we, too, shall perhaps live, after our double cataclysm of collective political indecency and death. In a saddened, diminished reality, a democracy which has thrown away too many lives and turned its back on too many values.
Yet I must add this oddly delicious note: An alternative to aftermath was to call it the aftergrass.
Which sounds like a place you actually could live.
* * *
The state of hypervigilance that accompanies trauma and disaster is, in its way, quite compelling. The alertness! The clarity of mission! Fight! Flee! Hide! Oppose! The evidence show that, once you’ve gone there, it’s not so easy to come back.
There’s already been research into the psychological effects of living through this pandemic. As the Psychiatric Times sums up, “The coronavirus has already led to diverse mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other trauma and stress-related disorders.” Researchers see higher rates of literal post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as of its milder version PTSS (post-traumatic stress symptoms). It’s no exaggeration to say we’ve all been stressed, battered by all-too-realistic fears, pushed into a defensive crouch. We’re going to have to get over that, past it. Somehow.
And on the political front, much the same. What we’ve just gone through has been four years of heightened stress that has pulled a majority of us out of ordinary life and into a state of continual near-panic. One of the world’s leading experts on PTSD, Dr. Seth Norrholm, has made the analogy quite directly.
“I believe that the time of Trump’s presidency will be understood as one where many Americans were traumatized in the sense of having a daily sense of anxiety, dread and concern. . . . The stress and anxiety of the pandemic is added on top of the stress and anxiety of Trump’s presidency.”
But Norrholm cautions that it might not so easy to give up the learned behaviors of long-term stress.
Learning to live normally again turns out to be an essential human skill. Personally. And culturally. It’s the thing that is always to be worked on. How to go on. How to live on and live in, as deep and rooted as possible.
No matter what.
It’s a kind of magic, a strange transforming talent that says – in this moment to be content. In this slow pace. In this string of sunny and rainy days. To settle in, dig deep, make music, make love, make dinner. No matter what bloody, jangling terrors I’ve//we’ve??// been through.
It’s a magic I’m calling normalmancing.
* * *
At this point, however, the historian in me pulls up hard on the reins. What foolishness is this, to imagine our discomforts to be exceptional! Compare for instance our plague with its hundred-year twin, the Spanish Flu, the death-numbers of which dwarf ours. Globally, perhaps forty million. . . piled on top of the bodies already stacked in World War One’s fields of slaughter. Unimaginable.
And for our recent anti-democratic orgy of wealth-worship and naked racism. . . well, our history is almost too full of that to bear listing. It would be hard indeed to out-do the decades of government-by-plutocracy after the Civil War. And its invention of Jim Crow, southern and northern versions.
My frequent plea, to a-historical hand-wringers who bemoan our (supposedly) unprecedented calamities: Pick a decade – any decade. See if it does not present equal corruption and suffering! All the decades I’ve lived through (starting with the fifties) certainly qualify. Unchecked abuse of blacks and other minorities, women, and homosexuals? Of course. Threat of global incineration? Check. Ten years of murder in faraway jungles – for literally no strategic gain? Double-check.
Pick your century, your decade. Look carefully. You’ll see.
One is therefore driven to conclude: Every time in which humans live. . . is an aftermath. It follows some great suffering, some great loss. It makes its home in a despoiled Eden of one sort or another. And yet somehow… somehow!… freshness and love and beauty are found there. Every time.
Test case: do we mourn the loss of, say, Paleolithic megafauna – the great beasts encountered by our North American forebears, as the glaciers retreated twelve thousand years ago? Are our hearts broken by never seeing great mastodons lumbering across a green plain, followed by gigantic dire wolves and six-hundred-pound saber-toothed tigers? Of course not. We don’t mourn the dinosaurs either.
Every aftermath is someone else’s new day. The world keeps getting younger, rising from pillage as fresh as a virgin.
* * *
The paradox of ordinariness is that it is the very stuff of life, and at the same time crushingly unheroic. Getting a good night’s sleep. Loving someone in daily closeness (and occasional abrasion). Doing good work – which means paying patient attention to detail. Cooking something nice. Enjoying it. Going on a purposeless walk, step by step, flower by flower, breath by breath.
Compared with flame-throwing the fascists, or saving your family from intubation and death – how can such simple pleasures and duties compete?!
It’s not an easy question.
Historian Barbara Tuchman’s book on the “calamitous fourteenth century” includes an extended look at what happens to warriors once the wars are over. European kings and princelings mobilized thousands of peasants and serfs and ordinary workers, gave them weapons and enlisted them on adventures that began as soon as the roads dried from spring rains. Upon victory – or defeat – most of them were simply released. To return to what? A muddy field, an apprenticeship with an insulting master, a dull routine. No surprise that many instead mobilized into bands of “brigandage” and simply roamed the countryside taking what they wanted.
An English statute of 1362 refers to “all those who have been plunderers and robbers beyond the seas and are now returned to wandering and will not work as they were used to do.” A man who has been taught to kill with the sword – or with the machine gun – and take whatever he needs by force – might begin to think fiddling with plows and crops, or clerking or, in the modern era, punching a clock are a bit beneath his newly heroic, jacked-up self. He (and in the history books of course it’s usually he, though not always anymore) has been, in some way, disqualified from normalness.
Too stressed. Too adrenalized. Accustomed to instantaneous reaction. Every moment a potential question of survival.
So the practical question is, how to help each other recover normalness? Our brothers and sisters in arms. And those in hospitals. Or even those just having saved their lives in lonely apartments, looking out at unpeopled streets for a year of solitude. No bands of roaming brigand-doctors, of course! But they all may be facing the same dilemma: normal pace and ordinary life may be hard to inhabit.
* * *
The question has a surprisingly personal connection for me – one that has only come to light in the last month, as I’ve mulled and assembled this essay. Though I and my brothers escaped military service in Vietnam, I have learned that the military cataclysms of the twentieth century have not left us untouched. Unexpectedly I received a copy of a personal letter dated from Bordeaux, France, January 27, 1919 – from my mother’s father, addressed to someone at home in Cincinnati. By a long-delayed route, a copy of it has reached our west-coast branch of the family.
This grandfather would die a short ten years later when my mother was just a six-year-old. So neither of us really knew him. This letter is the first glimpse I’ve ever had into his life, his work, his service in France in World War I. And in it I learn of his intimate connection with the psychological destructiveness of soldiering.
Capt. James A. Belyea was a medical doctor and “neuropsychiatrist” on active duty in the war. Though he writes jauntily of having been “all over France” and “to Paris three times,” he also recounts:
“Was on the front 2 months. Was at Verdun during the real scrap – lived in direct shell fire – listened to barrage, night after night, all day shells hurtling around and planes fighting above…”
Then it gets interesting.
“Was with Evacuation Hosp. #15, then transferred to Base Hosp. 117 a special neuro shock hospital. . . and now with Base Hosp #208. Here at BH 208 was Chief of the Neuropsychiatric service – 100 beds – [with] an assistant, and was consultant for the base – I have made good. Over here I have seen at least 10,000 cases and it has been almost a continuous clinic in my specialty. And I have learned lots.”
Reader, this is nearly everything I know about him! Except for the wedding picture with his young wife (my grandma whom I loved plenty) still displayed on my mother’s dresser. I relate the story because of the questions it opens up. He was a specialist in PTSD, many decades before it was so named. They called it “shell shock” in those days.
No one in our family has ever ventured to tell why this young man died after just ten years back home. Ill health from the trenches? His own psychological overhang from military service? It’s tempting to speculate that he may have been suffering PTSD himself. Ironically. But that is mere guesswork, so I’ll just say: my mother certainly suffered trauma from losing her father so young. By ill fortune, she also lost her younger brother in a household accident, around the same time. Hard to fathom. A string of traumas.
I do wonder at this mother. She’s still effervescent at the age of 97, always ready for verbal play and a laugh. But also – something of a closed box. One searches in vain for a way in past the surface she has maintained all these years. As if she herself did not wish to go there. Is it idle to wonder if trauma communicated itself through the war’s aftermath, in Capt. Belyea’s subsequent life and early death? Communicated to my mother and, yes, why not, to me. There are stubbornesses and defenses in me I’ve never really figured out. Yes, they’re mine, I own them. But I do wonder sometimes at this lineage. I wonder at my mother’s silences and evasions. The fervent, yet formulaic, quasi-fundamentalism. The secret alcohol and even drug use, the chipper exteriors with, seemingly, nothing at all underneath.
Everyone is survivor of some kind of trauma, immediate or second-hand. Or third-hand. (Or all three.)
And everyone needs to try to make a life of it, anyway. Nevertheless. Despite. It’s the human condition.
* * *
To dare to become unheroic, to live in the shadow only of the great sun itself – to grow ourselves patiently into the slow pleasures, the human ones that don’t need a sword or an Uzi but only time, and time again: these are the tests we face now. The normalmancing we are always needing to call forth. A radical faith in the presentness of the present.
Loss of confidence in the present has been experienced before. Of course the greatest insult to the spirit of humanity was the Nazi Holocaust, embedded in the general destruction of the world war. So shocking to the conscience and to the spirit that the philosopher Theodor Adorno famously declared, “after Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric.” A standing rebuke to all of creative life, it seems. As if the aftermath was to be a dead zone forevermore.
For counterpoint I have turned to a literary hero of mine, the admired poet Adrienne Rich. “Surely the Holocaust itself. . . demands a renewed vision of what art – poetry in this instance – stands for and stands against.” Adorno’s “drastic statement” cannot stand:
If taken at face value, it would mean a further desolation even than we have already had to face. Adorno, a German Jew who lived for many years as a refugee in the United States, may have forgotten the ancient role of poetry in keeping memory and spiritual community alive.
Systematic official inhumanity has the power to seemingly reduce all things to its own meager dimensions. Pettiness as atmosphere, anxious and inescapable. Surely it is our job as humans – and even more surely as creative humans – to rebuke this diminishment. To breathe deep and sing out. To think about something else.
* * *
It is fitting that Rich offers poetry as the stand-in for all the human arts of presentness. The making of music and story and beautiful objects (or curious ones). All to help us be – or become – human. Poetry as means and mirror of becoming.
So to conclude I turn to the strange and prophetic artist-poet William Blake, in a passage which I have taken to heart for many decades now. A reminder that every day starts anew, as at creation. . . if we choose to allow it to. Blake writes of finding the golden moment, seeking it out, and inhabiting it as the moment containing everything. The moment free of hurry and fear. The present. The grain of sand, in all its eternity.
There is a Moment in each Day that Satan cannot find
Nor can his Watch Fiends find it, but the Industrious find
This moment and it multiply. & when it once is found
It renovates every Moment of the Day if rightly placed.
Just in this Moment when the morning odours rise abroad
And first from the Wild Thyme, stands a fountain. . .
Just at the place to where the Lark mounts. . .
When on the highest lift of his light pinions he arrives
At that bright Gate, another Lark meets him & back to back
They touch their pinions tip tip: and each descend
To their respective Earths & there all night consult with Angels
Blake is bizarrely original, visionary. Yet also profoundly grounded. Of course great Nature will always be the primal source of renewal. Of course it has healed us – healed me – every time we have asked it to. It goes on and goes on, beautiful and indifferent and fruitful, despite our woes and tragedies and politics.
Embedded in Blake’s morning vision is the truth of every human day: It must find the still point, the place of simplicity. The unhurried – unhurryable – patience of mere being. And from that, build out.
It’s a magic that we find, as much as a magic that we make.
Our normalmancing is grounded in the simple decision to be still with the day and the hour that is given us. And there, to find the acts, the crafts and gifts and generosities, by which we can bring something good into the world.
Find the music. Feed people. Make something. Learn how, and then learn more, yearslong, until it is beautiful and right.
There is no hurry. All time is our aftergrass.
Special thanks to Judith Wilding for her help in shaping and editing this essay.
SOURCES AND REFERENCES (in order of appearance):
Covid-19 death rates in US and elsewhere: Mary Van Beusekom, “US leads 19 nations in COVID-19, all-cause death rates.” CIDRAP News (Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy) 12 October 2020.
Stress effects of pandemic: Phebe Tucker, MD, Christopher S. Czapla, MD, “Post-COVID Stress Disorder: Another Emerging Consequence of the Global Pandemic,” Psychiatric Times, 5 October 2020.
Stress effects of Trump presidency: Chauncey DeVega, “PTSD expert Seth Norrholm: To heal from Trump’s abuse, we must end ‘catastrophic thinking,’” salon.com, 18 November 2020. Norrholm is “currently the scientific director at the Neuroscience Center for Anxiety, Stress, and Trauma (NeuroCAST) in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at the Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit.”
Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (NY: Ballantine, 1978): “brigandage” (p. 163); “English statute of 1362” (pp. 195-96). I can’t help adding Tuchman’s reminder of the consequences of training large numbers of citizens in violence: “The habituating of armed men to cruelty and destruction as accepted practice poisoned the 14th century” (p. 139).
Theodor Adorno: Adrienne Rich, “History Stops for No One,” in What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (NY: Norton, 1993) (p. 141).
William Blake, Milton, Book II, plates 35, 36. In The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman (NY: Doubleday/Anchor, 1970) (p. 135).