a conversation on the possibilities of this moment, with Aja Taylor *
Aja: DC, MD and VA have now all declared states of emergency. Italy’s death toll has officially surged past 1,000. COVID-19 has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, and yet – I am on the edge of my seat with barely-contained wonderment. My 3rd grade self – obsessed both with epidemics and dystopian fiction – is positively mystified by what we are seeing across the globe.
It isn’t the spread of the disease that mystifies me, but rather the opportunities and truths being unearthed in this very moment.
amb: i am on a plane from italy to the u.s. via paris, having canceled a beautifully planned two-month journey through europe. i was in tuscany for the last two weeks, during which the word ‘quarantine’ became a new undercurrent rhythm in my ears, a heartbeat. i’m on sabbatical, which will show in my unspooled writing voice (Aja will be more direct so feel free to skip me, she says it all). i’ve been trying to intentionally avoid the news, the triggering, election year ughs. my friends and family have gently screamed questions at me while waving digital newspapers and, of course, supporting my boundaries and my agency. (love smirking)
and when i turned to face it, COVID-19, i felt ashamed because i’d delayed so long, and because my speculative mind activated instantly, my emergent mind, my apocalypse dreamer self, feeling the familiarity of a moment i’d never lived, but prepared for. ashamed because during any thought of possibility, just north of me, grandparents were dying in hospital hallways.
i don’t believe in justified collateral damage, and while i love the vulcan quote “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one,” i actually don’t believe it, because i can’t say that many and one are different things…i highly and publicly suspect we are part of one creature, one system. we just don’t know the scale: are we a cell in the earth body? is earth the cell in a universe body? are we all the light beams of a god body?
nor do i think we can argue that any life is less miraculous than others, though we overlook some of the most important ones. twyla tharp says something like ‘destiny is a function of persistent parenting’, and i would add grandparenting, eldering, teaching, community-ing. think about the future inventors, storytellers, organizers, alien’s life partners, who fundamentally needed the encouragement of a certain elder or immune compromised teacher, lost because people didn’t know in time that they’d been weaponized with an efficient killer, couldn’t stay safe.
i offer this because the conversation we are about to have doesn’t presume that the lives of those who survive are more precious, worth more, than the lives of those who don’t survive this, or who suffer greatly in this. they aren’t giving their lives for us – we have to hold the complexity of senseless loss and undeniable possibility.
because this? this is already apocalypse.
Aja: This could be the very apocalypse we’ve been waiting for.
Apocalypse. Rooted in the Greek words “apo,” meaning “un,” and “kaluptein,” meaning “to cover,” apocalypse is generally regarded as something terrifying and negative. A life ending event. But as my Emergent Strategy “Creating New Possibilities” group explored this past summer in the Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute, what if apocalypse was indeed an ending – but to all of the things we actually needed to end in order to sustain life on this planet?
amb: i’ve been saying ‘things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered’. it’s the age of COVID-19, already bigger than the intimate reach of 9/11, the Titanic, and many man made and natural disasters we’ve defined eras by. we are in history, in an apocalypse moment in history.
Aja: At its etymological core, apocalypse means to uncover – and COVID-19 has uncovered so damn much, hasn’t it?
amb: so much, including for a lot of people just how privileged and/or precarious we have been. those already struggling in this system are often shamed into hiding our financial, physical, mental and emotional challenges. we didn’t know how bad our healthcare system was cause we were good, or we were so overwhelmed by navigating it that we couldn’t look up and notice the patterns.
we didn’t realize how quickly borders can change, and standards for who is allowed to move and who isn’t, especially if our parents were born here. now more of us see that we can all end up on the wrong side, classified as a threat overnight.
and we’ve been too ashamed to show the precarity of our own bank accounts. we didn’t realize how many people in the richest nation in the world are living check to check. people are getting sick because many of us are more terrified of the proximity of losing income than risking our health and that of our families, communities and clients (i was so disappointed to land in the u.s. and, in addition to zero screening or questions about my health anywhere, to see all the airport restaurants open, all those exposed workers with no protection).
it’s a lot to take in. but it’s all about what we do in this unveiling. i’ve been dreaming that we ‘hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil’. see both the wild wrongness in so many of our current structures, and the wild possibilities if we apply our visioning, organizing, earthling selves to the conversation and pattern seeking.
the first pattern shift i noticed was the dropping emissions as industry in key production areas slows, stops. the organizers i serve have been pushing for corporate emission reduction, and getting “no no no, impossible, maybe ? of that in twice the time, no even if we’ll all be dead it’s more important that 1% of us experience excess right now.”
COVID-19 comes and emissions are down 25%, and that’s just the beginning?
Aja: Everyone deserves a place to live, regardless of their ability to pay. Evicting someone because they cannot afford to pay is inhumane. And yet, capitalist forces have persuaded us that in order for society to function, people must pay or be put out. COVID-19 comes and suddenly, the inhumanity of evictions becomes politically expedient, and more people now know that if they wanted to, the government could absolutely step in and halt evictions.
amb: behavior shift can actually happen very quickly once we collectively decide to do it. relearning en masse how to wash our hands. i was part of a group in the rome airport who learned what one meter felt like, the social distance encouraged everywhere now. it was taught directly, impersonally – “not that, this. too close! good.” boundaries held collectively immediately relaxed my shoulders. it was so much harder landing in france and the u.s. where very few people seemed aware of personal space. i want that mindful level of collective boundary norming and consent for all bodies all the time, against street harassment and racism, for recycling and dogpoopscooping and helping each other.
Aja: Protecting workers makes sense. Making sure workers have adequate paid time off is good for people, good for a thriving workforce and good for our communal health. “We can’t afford that!” the business community lined up to testify. COVID-19 comes and suddenly across the country we are seeing lawmakers and businesses get creative to make sure that people can work from home, and even that hourly workers and folks who can’t telework have ways to have the time off and still recover wages.
amb: i am most fascinated by how much small personal bravery is emerging. my group text threads are full of people sharing the bold initiating moves they’ve been making in their workplaces, with their parents, at their gyms, kids’ schools, with friends.
we are either vectors of doom or safety in this.
it’s also brave when people who ignored or ridiculed the response to COVID-19 for a while finally let themselves be moved by new data and start helping with containment and slowing it down.
and at least in movement spaces it looks like we’re starting to listen to people who have been trying to teach us collective pathways for a while.
it’s also time for organic redistribution – those who have more than enough are going to need to move funds to help artists, freelancers, chronically ill, immigrant, jobless, houseless and other economically vulnerable communities. i am excited by how quickly needs and pivots are being understood and activated, how many people i know who are thinking collectively.
Aja: Making sure people with disabilities can have equitable access to convenings and workplaces makes sense. But our disabled siblings hear time and time again how “teleconferencing technology is so expensive!” and “it’s too hard to figure out—we’ll think about it for next year.” COVID-19 comes, and now more people know that yes, companies and organizations can indeed make spaces accessible, and choose to prioritize cost over cause.
amb: i know there is tragedy here, unfolding, the scale of which we cannot, will never, measure in terms of heartache. but i’m also aware of us moving towards things we have needed to move towards. how do we widen the space within us for the grief and wonder? fear and vision? the surrender, and the creativity, the relief, the humor, the possibility?
this is an opportunity to stop trying to ‘cling to the shore,’ as the hopi elder prophesied. say the shore is our crisis level individualism, and the river is interdependence. we don’t really know what intentional post-capitalist interdependence looks like at our current national, much less global, scale. it’s still time to push off, go forward, into that unknown, holding each other, in pairs, in circles.
now is a time to learn about relinquishing boredom. this is a time for generating life by rooting where we are. and learning intimacy as a survival tool, because we need to be able to communicate our realities, needs and wants – a level of communication that previously often happened only through proximity, pheromones and subtle facial shifts.
the overlay of all of this is deepening connection towards a right relationship to the earth.
i’m also excited to start using the vulcan “live long and prosper” hand greeting in place of hugs or fist bumps.
Aja: As an organizer, this uncovering – this apocalypse – is one I feel like running toward. It pushes us to be sharper, to contemplate organizing our folks through chaos and disorganization, and presents so many opportunities to politicize and contextualize for our folks. The things we fight for are not just right, but POSSIBLE. And I don’t know about y’all, but this election cycle especially had me feeling so depleted. So impossible. So hopeless.
amb: demoralized! dejected! apoplectic! watching us divide, forget what matters and divide.
Aja: And then COVID-19 came, and reminded me that the world we are fighting for is nigh. Now is not the time to pump the brakes or abandon hope. The world we are fighting for is just on the other side of apocalypse.
amb: asé and hallelujah
* Aja Taylor is a community organizer, fiction-loving facilitator of mischief and meetings. She enjoys good food, analyzing birth charts, octopuses and thinking about how sexy consent is. She is also Director of Advocacy and Organizing at Bread for the City and one of the co-founders of Two Brown Girls Consulting Cooperative, both based in DC.