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Lockdown Letters

An exchange

Friendship always matters, and during the worst of the 2020 pandemic it began to matter more than ever to millions locked down at home and wondering what lay ahead. Jack Miles and Mark Taylor, whose friendship began at Harvard University in 1968 and continues to this day, had been in the habit for years of exchanging almost daily email messages, often with extensive attachments. Both were widely published writers, but they had never collaborated for publication. When the pandemic erupted, Mark proposed to Jack that now might be the moment for them to attempt something together. Jack countered with the suggestion that they simply expand their existing epistolary habit, exchanging more serious letters at one a day and determining only after the fact what the longer exchange might amount to.

Mark agreed, and between March 15, 2020, and January 6, 2021, they produced an electronic text fully 475,000 words (1,700 pages) in length—the equivalent of several published volumes. A Friendship in Twilight: Lockdown Conversations on Death and Life (Columbia University Press) is a substantial selection from what they wrote, offered as an invitation to enter their friendship as you might enter a private home and listen to the conversation around the dinner table.

The following July 5–6 exchange occurred just after Mark’s daughter, Kirsten, and son-in-law, Jonathan, joined Mark and his wife, Dinny, in the family home outside Williamstown, Massachusetts, bringing along grandson Jackson (6) and granddaughter Taylor (4). Later, Kirsten’s older brother, Aaron, and Aaron’s wife, Frida (born in Sweden), joined them with older granddaughters, Selma and Elsa. This was to be for the middle generation a break from working at home while also schooling at home. It became rather more than that. Jack’s July 6 reply opens with reference to an earlier letter of Mark’s before replying to Mark’s July 5 letter. Kathleen and Brian, mentioned in the letter, are Jack’s daughter and son-in-law. Kitty is his wife.

 

July 5, 2020

Dear Jack:

Three weeks ago today Kirsten, Jonathan, Jackson, and Taylor arrived; one week ago today Aaron, Frida, Selma, and Elsa arrived. This morning both families left to drive back to Potomac (seven hours) and Chicago (fourteen hours). I wonder when, if ever, they will feel that it is safe enough to fly. With childcare responsibilities and Kirsten working in the barn, this is the longest time I’ve been away from my desk in years. [A repurposed barn has been Mark’s office for decades.] With me trying to remain attentive to world events raging out of control and clipping articles as well as jotting notes to try to keep track of what’s going on, keeping up with Jackson and Taylor has been more than a full-time job. No, that’s not right—it was not a job, it was a delight. The opportunity to spend three weeks with Kirsten, Jackson, and Taylor was an unexpected gift of the pandemic. I doubt it will happen ever again. After we visited my parents with Aaron and Kirsten, my mother would always write how unbearably silent the house was without us. This afternoon, I hear that deafening silence.

Play and work combined to transform the past three weeks into something like fieldwork in the world now aborning. During the entire time they were here, Kirsten, Jonathan, Aaron, and Frida all retreated to a different room where they worked all day. They all have very high-powered jobs, which have become even more demanding since the pandemic broke out. Most days they were on their phones or Zoom 75 percent of the time or more. Dinny and I were responsible for entertaining the kids and preventing them from bothering their parents. Dinner-table conversation consisted of reports on their work that day and reflections on the deteriorating situation in the country. As you can imagine, between Alabama and Sweden, there was a broad range of opinions.

What if the pandemic draws people back to the valleys where their ancestors settled and their parents still live?

One of the things I found most surprising is that all four of them said that working remotely is going to be the new normal for them. They do not expect to have to be physically present ever again for more than one or at most two days a week. Even before the pandemic broke out, Kirsten’s organization and Frida’s company had already moved into smaller quarters and had eliminated personal offices and desks. If this represents a general trend, I think it would be a massive transformation with radical social, economic, and political implications. Since we talked about both the personal impact and broader significance of this change, I thought quite a bit about my last letter in which I tried to think through the implications of this trend for the analysis Sonia Shah develops in The Next Great Migration. You will recall that I noted that my parents were the first generation to leave the valley by moving away from the areas of Pennsylvania where the Coopers and Taylors had originally settled. I also argued that modernity and mobility are inseparable. This mobility has been both geographical and social. While countless immigrants left the Old World behind and moved to the United States, others who were already here left the country to move to the city. For both immigrants and emigrants, to be on the make was to be on the move. After the past three weeks, I am beginning to suspect that that important trend is going to change.

My reflections on this issue took an unexpected turn a few days ago when I received an email from a young South Korean researcher asking to interview me about a brief essay entitled “How the World Became a Real Fake,” which I published in 2003. In all honesty, I had forgotten about this essay and had to do a Google search to find it. When I reread it, I was struck by its relevance not only for our discussion of migration and much else, but also for our dinner-table conversations about how work and family life are changing. The title of the essay was inspired by a brief chapter in Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols—“How the ‘True World’ Finally Became a Fable: The History of an Error.” In the last aphorism of this parable, Nietzsche writes, “The true world—we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one.” I have already argued that Trump’s fake news, alternative realities, and reality TV are quintessentially postmodern, and are symptoms of a new cultural disease that Nietzsche presciently diagnosed as nihilism. He offers his most concise and explicit formulation of this condition in his posthumously published Will to Power. If Trump and his Republican enablers read or knew anything about the history of philosophy, they could appropriate these lines as their governing manifesto.

Against positivism, which halts at phenomena—“There are only facts and nothing more”—I would say: No, facts is precisely what is not, only interpretations. We cannot establish any fact “in itself”: perhaps it is folly to want to do such a thing…. In so far as the word “knowledge” has any meaning, the world is knowable; but it is interpretable otherwise, it has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings. —“Perspectivism.”

It is our needs that interpret the world; our drives and their For and Against. Every drive is a kind of lust to rule; each one has its perspective that it would like to compel all the other drives to accept as a norm.

 When it’s turtles all the way down and all the way in, nothing remains to check the ego’s voracious desires.

Mark C. Taylor (Photo courtesy of Columbia University Press)

What, you might ask, does all of this have to do with working at home and the next great migration? Well, it turns out, quite a bit. I am writing to you on July 5. Yesterday Trump ignored the advice of medical experts and defied the prescribed policies of his own agencies by holding large rallies on the sacred land of Native Americans in the Black Hills of South Dakota and on the lawn of the People’s House he thinks he owns. Ignorance, incompetence, and defiance have created a toxic mixture that is disrupting every aspect of life. The raging pandemic is reversing the population flow from country to city that created modernity. According to real estate agents, people are fleeing cities for the suburbs and beyond to the small towns that generations of young people have been desperate to escape. As cities become ghost towns, wildlife returns to reclaim territory that had been overtaken by an invasive species. A recent article in the Guardian reports jackals in Tel Aviv, mountain goats in Llandudno (Wales), sheep in Istanbul, deer in Nara (Japan), wild boar in Ajaccio (Corsica), horses in Kashmir, and buffalo in New Delhi. What if the next great migration reverses the centuries-long migration of people from the country to the city? What if the pandemic draws people back to the valleys where their ancestors settled and their parents still live? What if the pandemic revealed a silent disease that has been eroding the soul since the dawn of modernity?

Last week foodie author Deb Perelman published a provocative cri de coeur, “In the Covid-19 Economy, You Can Have a Kid or a Job. You Can’t Have Both.” (New York Times, July 2). She expresses a growing concern that deserves more attention and effectively captures much of what I have observed during the past three weeks.

Let me say the quiet part out loud: In the Covid-19 economy, you’re allowed a kid or a job. Why isn’t anyone talking about this? Why are we not hearing a primal scream so deafening that no plodding policy can be implemented without addressing the people buried by it?... I think it’s because when you’re home schooling all day, and not performing the work you were hired to do until the wee hours of the morning, and do it on repeat for 106 days (not that anyone is counting), you might be a bit too fried to funnel your rage effectively.

This is precisely the problem Kirsten has been working on late into the night for more than three weeks. Her three-hundred-page guide for school systems in all fifty states will be issued tomorrow.

Perelman states explicitly what most people know but no one wants to admit—school and childcare are inseparable. While advanced countries like Sweden, Denmark, and Finland have state-funded childcare beginning with infancy, half a century since the beginning of the feminist movement began, the United States still refuses to provide adequate support for children. With the pandemic, the consequences of this failure are pushing working parents to the breaking point. When young kids are not in school, someone has to take care of them and now must also teach them what they should be learning in school. After the past three weeks, I can personally testify to how demanding this is. Perelman also gives voice to another unspoken assumption. Several generations raised to believe that women do not need to sacrifice having a family to have a career are learning the hard lesson that when push comes to shove, Mom is expected to take care of the kids while Dad is working. The promise of, “You can have it all” has become “You must do it all,” and it’s not working. The pandemic threatens to undo more than fifty years of progress for working women. For anyone who is not in denial, it is obvious that a significant part of K-12 as well as college education is going to be online when school starts in a little more than a month. Most families will not be able to manage this situation for a prolonged time and there is no prospect for public or private support.

Williamstown is a small town (seven thousand people) located in what is affectionately called the Purple Valley. Other than working at Williams College, there are few professional opportunities in the area. When Aaron and Kirsten were growing up, we not only assumed that they would leave the valley, but actively encouraged them to do so. College, graduate school, law school, and their chosen professions have taken them far from the Purple Valley. As the years have passed, Dinny and I have become ambivalent about our advice and their success. When she took over as the head of Information Technology at Williams College, one of her colleagues gave her advice she never forgot: If you want to have a stable staff, find a well-qualified person whose mother lives in North Adams. She followed that advice and hired many such people. What most impressed her about these colleagues is the extraordinary networks of support they have—parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins. People whose pursuit of education and career lead them to leave the valley don’t have these networks. In the past when Kirsten and Aaron have found themselves in a jam, Dinny has flown to D.C. or Chicago to help cover for them for a few days or weeks. But her time is always limited and now such short visits are no longer possible.

What if the increasing virtualization of work creates new possibilities? When you work remotely, you can be anywhere. Perhaps the next great migration will be back to the future. Families in search of support neither the government nor the private sector is willing to provide might reverse demographic trajectories and return to the valley. But the valley to which they return will not be the same as the valley they left behind—both the world and they will have changed. Wired valleys are undeniably connected so people know what’s on the other side of the mountain. If a new migration is beginning, it will be axiological as well as geographical and social. Paradoxically, the virtualization of reality in which place no longer matters, might well lead to the recovery of the values and virtues of place. Social networks that once seemed confining might now appear to be liberating. It seems people are discovering that fetishizing disruption, mobility, and nomadism unsettle more than they settle. Perhaps modern disenchantment will be reversed through the re-enchantment of the natural and the local. Urban emigrants returning to places they once fled might hear new messages from gods who once seemed silent.       

The best time of the day for me is early morning. For the past three weeks, I have shared these quiet hours with Jackson and Taylor; this morning Taylor came up first. When she came and crawled up on my lap, she was crying, “I don’t want to go home and leave Selma and Elsa. I want everybody to stay here.” A few hours later with both cars packed, Taylor and Jackson were crying, tears running down their faces, and everyone else was sobbing quietly. As both families pulled out the driveway, Dinny welled up and said, “I wish they didn’t live so far away.” So do I.

Mark

 

July 6, 2020

Dear Mark:

As corporate owners raise rents, renters are driven into smaller and smaller accommodations, with more and more people crowded in and, of course, at the bottom thousands are pushed out onto the street.

Where to begin? How to begin? Let me start with housing—with the apartment your son bought last week and the house my daughter did not buy. Aaron and Frida had been reluctant but finally yielded to real estate force majeure and made a purchase for $885,000 or so (I don’t remember exactly). On Tuesday of last week, Kathleen and Brian made a bid on a house but then, after a visit, backed out. Kathleen virtually lives at her computer, and so finding a place with a suitable home office has been housing priority #1 for her. This house had only a depressing, closet-like space for an office, and at $1 million+, just wouldn’t do. They are so very ready to leave their cramped apartment in a congested, down-market neighborhood that relief, once they pulled out, was blended with sadness. She phoned me with the news, facing up darkly to the reality that though she is a fiendishly hard worker and a relentless saver, she just could not get there.

Kathleen is as tuned in to what is going on in real estate both locally and globally as anybody I know. “Before these latest troubles, she had sent me this link to an article in Noēma that, like every other article in that fat journal, she had edited, “Catering to a Contracting Middle Class.” I read it, found it challenging, and said that I probably needed to read it more than once to really get it, but two factors I thought could well have been included were: 1) the place of foreign capital in the death of the prior market of private sellers and private buyers; 2) the goal of domestic as well as foreign capital to replace the erstwhile population of homeowners with a successor population of home-renters renting from big-time owners—owners with the capital necessary to buy en masse and functionally monopolize the housing market. There has been some coverage of this in the press but not as much as the subject deserves.

One reason it deserves more is that the arrival of venture capital in the real-estate market is among several factors that have led to a very short supply of houses coming available for private purchase and those few at exorbitant prices. Typically, a successful bidder bids over the asking price, and sales sometimes become like auctions. So, while still short of completion, this process is already driving thousands, probably millions, of would-be owners into the category of renters and taking countless houses permanently out of the homeowner-to-homeowner market. Meanwhile, as corporate owners raise rents, renters are driven into smaller and smaller accommodations, with more and more people crowded in, and, of course, at the bottom thousands are pushed out onto the street as America’s endlessly growing homeless population.

Covid-19 is affecting African Americans and Hispanic Americans as heavily as it does not only and perhaps not even mainly because of their “front-line” occupations: after all, a great many of them are unemployed. It is affecting them disproportionately because they live crowded into spaces where quarantine and social distancing are impossible. One physician was quoted in the press saying, “You can’t be in quarantine in a house with only one bathroom.” Today, I had a Zoom consultation with my pulmonologist (I’m provisionally okay), and he told me that St. Joseph’s Hospital, where I had my cardiac ablation, is “slammed” with Covid cases. As the skyrocketing rate of new cases devolves into mass death for Black and Hispanic people, the current rage over police violence could acquire a new platform. If Black lives matter, then mass Black death has to matter massively.

It may be that some well-educated young professionals like your children and their spouses may find it appealing to move from the cities to attractive smaller towns. The Getty employs a professional oral historian (I own a bound copy of the one he did with me); he chooses to live in Fargo, North Dakota, and just loves it. He’d be a good example of what you envision. But a huge proportion of our country’s overall African- and Hispanic-American population is already in rural areas. In California, agribusiness in the San Joaquin Valley is overwhelmingly Latino. Look at the Covid map today in the New York Times: rural Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia are heavily Black. And then there are the many pockets of Hispanics in chicken-processing plants in Arkansas or pork-processing plants in Iowa. (“Mechanization or Mexicanization,” I once heard the phenomenon described.) These small towns are not where the well-off white millennials will be heading, but the people who live there and live on the edge of dire want may be heard from when and if they are all pushed over the edge at once.

Jack Miles (Louis Pescevic)

There is a good deal of overlap between your “How the World Became a Real Fake” and the view of religion that I sketch in the general introduction to The Norton Anthology of World Religions, but where you speak of real fakes, I speak of useful fictions—fictions recognized as fictitious but honored as useful, and indeed actively employed. And rather than speak of God or gods, I speak of our founding American political/religious fiction that “all men are created equal.” It’s true, of course, that some and perhaps most Americans fall short of recognizing that there is nothing “self-evident” about the assertion that all men are created equal. Many simply take that hallowed line as true without further reflection or, in your language, as a “real fake” unrecognized as such. But some do examine it without necessarily abandoning it. In today’s New York Times Lucian K. Truscott IV, a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, proposes that the Jefferson Monument in Washington D.C. be taken down. Monticello, including the slave quarters, is both a better monument, he says, and all the monument needed. Or perhaps this temple of our civic religion could be retained but the towering Jefferson-idol within it correctively replaced by a statue of a Black woman. The ancient Greeks always made their god-statues larger than life-size, and that seemed as right and “natural” to them as our gigantic statues of Lincoln and Jefferson seem to us—or at least to the True Believers among us. Truscott’s word will not be the last word, of course, but it is a legitimate word and perhaps part of a painful journey toward the condition that Herbert Fingarette formulates (and you warmly approved when I placed it near the conclusion of my little book):

It is the special fate of modern man that he has a “choice” of spiritual visions. The paradox is that although each requires complete commitment for complete validity, we can today generate a context in which we see that no one of them is the sole vision. Thus, we must learn to be naïve but undogmatic. That is, we must take the vision as it comes and trust ourselves to it, naïvely, as reality. Yet we must retain an openness to experience such that the dark shadows deep within one vision are the mute, stubborn messengers waiting to lead us to a new light and a new vision.

But then does Black Lives Matter—which has stimulated this daring suggestion from a Black descendant of the Thomas Jefferson who penned the Declaration of Independence—not call us to an “openness to experience such that the dark shadows deep within one [national religious] vision are the mute, stubborn messengers waiting to lead us to a new light and a new vision”? I doubt very much that Lucian K. Truscott IV wants to call us away from the faith of “all men are created equal,” but he doesn’t want that line or even that faith to live on just as they have lived, perhaps not even as quoted by Martin Luther King Jr. He wants them to change their life (Du musst dein Leben ändern) and in the process to change ours.

Jack Miles with Mark and Dinny Taylor’s now-grown children in about 1977 (Photo courtesy of Columbia University Press)

The final scene you described—and described beautifully and poignantly, I must add—touched a chord or two with me. Kathleen always struck me as a pretty verbal little girl, not that I really had a criterion to measure her by. What I am remembering, though, was a wondrous short period in which she was richly verbal but still only early in her formation of a self/other distinction. The result was that at certain moments when she was mentally alone though physically with me—classically, in her car seat in back while I drove along unaccompanied in the front seat—she would talk and talk and talk, and it was just a window right into her little brain. One of her soliloquies was a vision of something like a big family party, though it could as easily have been a big party of friendly adults, all with kids. The kids were all running around and playing together and it was “so much fun,” but a part of the fun was that the adults were also there sitting and talking and looking on happily. She definitely included the adults. There actually were a couple long-lasting, all-afternoon parties like this at a swimming club we sometimes visited that may have met this description. The mood she evoked brought me back to certain big family gatherings in my own past as well as to even bigger parish events that were a quintessence of happiness. But such also seem to have been these last days for your four grandchildren. Heaven is truly like this, I think, for a child, and so I can just all too easily imagine their tears at giving up your Stone Hill heaven, and your tears watching them. Paradise lost.

Years later, I told Kathleen that though it would be a financial stretch, if she wanted to apply to Harvard or another Ivy League school, we would make it happen. No, she said, instantly and adamantly. She had her eyes on Berkeley (which would become her alma mater), and with such a stellar option, why should she or we take on debt? But there was another factor. By going to college in California, she could build her childhood community into an adult community: a young adult hoping for a semblance of her girlish dream. If she went to Harvard, many of her friends and perhaps her partner would be from the East Coast, and that option was firmly rejected in advance: already considered, already rejected. Like her mother, another only child, Kathleen does not just make but cherishes her friends. A part of the appeal of the neighborhood where Brian and she almost bought was that they have friends there already and, casing it out, could imagine making more friends: the promise of a surrogate extended family. Choose a location and then plan to “be a neighbor to have a neighbor.”

One last note on migration, and then I’m done. Because our iPhone 5s are about to become obsolete and unsupported, we masked up and gloved up and braved the cacophony of Best Buy to purchase two iPhone SEs and to get our respective phone contents migrated over. I just loathe that store. With its glaring lights, blaring night-club music, mural-sized product logos, hundreds of flashing screens wherever you look, and acres of latter-day electronic toys, it evokes for me the macabre Toyland in Carlo Collodi’s original, long, picaresque but extremely dark novel Pinocchio. Collodi is no Disney; e.g. when Cricket (not “Jiminy”) first chirps to Pinocchio about conscience, Pinocchio crushes the intrusive little bug with a brick. Anyway, we made our purchase, don’t yet see any Covid symptoms, and the phones are working. Supplies were surprisingly short. One phone (Kitty’s, I decided, and I was doing all the talking) can only be used in the USA. The other (mine) can be used overseas, but I know to a near certainty that I will never again leave the USA. That’s one kind of big-to-small migration, no? I used to live in the world. Now I just live in the little USA, and the littler California, and the still littler Orange County, and finally I live here, possibly for good, in “Catherine’s Grove,” as I call this acre of fruit trees. Have phone, won’t travel. But, hey, I’m not complaining: the oranges have never been juicier, and Kitty’s tomato crop is also coming in with new fruit every day. Dinner tonight will be pasta with garlic, olive oil, and cherry tomatoes. Life goes on—at least through dinner.

Jack

This article is excerpted from A Friendship in Twilight: Lockdown Conversations on Death and Life by Jack Miles and Mark C. Taylor. Copyright (c) 2022 Jack Miles and Mark C. Taylor. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

Published in the July/August 2022 issue: 

Jack Miles is professor emeritus of English and religious studies at the University of California, Irvine. A former Jesuit, he is the author of a trilogy about God in three classic scriptures, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning God: A Biography (1995), as well as the general editor of the six-volume Norton Anthology of World Religions.

Mark C. Taylor is professor of religion at Columbia University and professor emeritus at Williams College. He is the author of more than thirty books, including most recently Intervolution: Smart Bodies Smart Things (Columbia, 2020). His art has been exhibited at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and the Clark Art Institute.

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