The Shelter in Place Diaries: Miasma

Hello, blog buddies.

This week I’m reading Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (my second attempt), and I’m taking notes on an index card as I go. Snow Crash is a densely written book, and for some reason taking notes helps me get through dense books without my eyes glazing over. Yesterday, I ran across the word carapace, and I realized that I didn’t know the precise meaning, so I looked it up.

Does it mean an exoskeleton, like bugs have? No, it means the outer shell of an invertebrate, like turtles and lobsters have.

Some words you have only a foggy understanding of from reading the word in context. Carapace was one such word for me. Other words you learn though experience, and the definition becomes something you feel. That brings me to today’s word: Miasma. It refers to a vaporous exhalation thought to contain disease. Like the breaths coming from infected people in a hospital ward. Scary air. Dangerous air. Miasma can also refer to a heavy fog. And here in the Pacific Northwest, we know the meaning of Miasma. My lungs know miasma, intimately. So do my throat and eyes. I think my spirit knows it too.

Awindow showing a bank of smoke, like white fog. A building is barefly visibe in the distance.

I’ve been wishing that 2020 was over. And there’s a shoddy optimism in that kind of wishing. Why wish the year was over unless you believe next year will be better? Despite that rationalization, I’m hesitant to feel hopeful. After the last four years in the US, I can’t quite escape the feeling that hope is an emotion for chumps and cheerleaders. I used to believe strongly that humanity was, on average, good! Now, the best I can muster is a belief that human beings are capable of goodness. That might not feel like a loss, but to me it is. Here I am, mourning my old illusions for no good reason. Perhaps I used to be a cheerleader? Years ago, one of my employees made me a “spirit stick” as a gift, with paste jewels and streamers. And I miss being that person. The woman who believed in people without cynicism choking off her air.

Hope feels like a trap right now. Hope is an invitation to get punched right in the spiritual balls, and mine are already smarting.

When I asked P, my resident philosopher and beloved, what the Stoics said about hope, he pointed me to some reading material and reminded me that virtue is in our actions, not only our perspective. And so I’m joining him in writing letters to encourage people to vote in November. (see my previous post) And I’ll be kind to my neighbors, and I’ll try to treat people with respect, even if I feel like half the country has lost their damn minds. (This isn’t a partisan statement. I see loonies at both extremes) This has been a uniquely distressing year, and that distress is probably clouding my perspective. So today I’ll remind myself that Miasma can also refer to a heavy fog. Fog can obscure what’s near, but this doesn’t mean that “things that are near” have ceased to exist. There’s indeed a chance that a better future may be close at hand, right behind that fog, waiting for a fresh blast of wind to reveal it.

Can we become that wind?

It’s possible. I don’t know if it’s probable. Today, that’s the best I can muster. So I’ll focus on what I can control, as limited as that is. When I can’t write happy stories because I’m feeling glum, I’ll write some letters to get out the vote (one election won’t solve all our problems – but it’s a start), and I’ll try to be the kind of human I’d like to see more of in our world, and I’ll read books, and I’ll wait for the fog to clear. We started the week with heavy smoke and bad news. The rain we expected isn’t coming after all. Instead, we’re in for a long and slow improvement. Each day may get slightly better than the last, and if that keeps up until Friday, we’ll be able to breathe.

On page 27 of Snow Crash, Stephenson writes:

When Hiro first saw this place, ten years ago, the monorail hadn’t been written yet; he and his buddies had to write car and motorcycle software in order to get around. They would take their software out and race it in the black desert of the electronic night.

That’s a beautiful sentence, isn’t it? Art keeps us afloat when nothing else can. And with that hopeful notion in mind, it’s time for me to get back to work.