lessons from quarantine // “how to”

After it started, I was basically non-verbal. I found reading impossible and lived in a daily fog. Eventually that changed. I found myself preoccupied with details. When you can’t go outside, you go deeper inside. Suddenly I was reading a lot.

In Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (chapter 5), we get a lesson on reading:


“Is there anything on your family bookshelves that might help you if you were stuck outside?”
“You answer too fast. Go home and look again. And like I said, use your imagination. Any kind of survival information from encyclopedias, biographies, anything that helps you learn to live off the land and defend ourselves. Even some fiction might be useful.”
She gave me a sidelong glance. “I’ll bet,” she said.

Every part of human experience needs guidance, needs theorization, needs contextualization. This doesn’t seem to be true at first because it often feels so easy to step out into the world without actively having to situate yourself in it first. And certainly we get a lot of advice, a lot of messaging, a lot of conditioning about how to be in the world, whether we actively seek it or not. These lessons may or may not also come in textual form. Sometimes those didactic processes — active or passive — end up doing a lot of damage. We focus on some things, and not others. We relate to people in ways that are harmful. We learn to hierarchize human worth.

How to Look After the Body.
How to Cultivate Healthy Desire.
How to Keep Connected with Family.
How to Grow and Tend to Friendship.
How to Maintain Boundaries with the Internet.
How to Relate to and Respect Yourself.
How Not to Disappear into Your Work.
How to Use Your Voice Without Fear.

Some imagined book titles. There are so many “how to” books out there; so many of them advise constriction, though. And so many of them are aimed at reducing or changing external appearances. If I’ve learned anything during this time (…debatable), it’s the lesson of paying attention to the interior. There are details there that often don’t get attention. Once you realize something is there, however, you might find yourself wanting to learn more about it. To learn to look after it. Once the tide of regular life has gone out, leaving behind the artefacts of the sea floor, you might begin to take stock of what was always present but not yet in view.

Note on Adrienne Maree Brown “Emergent Strategy” // Future Ancestors

Adrienne Maree Brown (2017) Emergent Strategy. AK Press. p14.

Adrienne Maree Brown’s work is oriented towards the future. This futurism draws deliberately on the imaginative possibility of science fiction, as she writes in Emergent Strategy (p16):

I would call our work to change the world “science fictional behavior” — being concerned with the way our actions and beliefs now, today, will shape the future, tomorrow, the next generations.

In particular, Brown draws on the work of Octavia Butler, whose science fiction dramatized the present moment by extending it into the future (p17):

Octavia wrote novels with young Black women protagonists meeting aliens, surviving apocalypse, evolving into vampires, becoming telepathic networks, time traveling to reckon with slave-owning ancestors. Woven throughout her work are two things: 1) a coherent visionary exploration of humanity and 2) emergent strategies for being better humans.

Brown’s work likewise asks us to orient ourselves towards the future. One piece of this is her interest in framing ourselves as “future ancestors.” I am struck by this phrase, with its time travel implications. Because on the one hand, naming myself a future ancestor opens the possibility of imaginatively investing the shadowy figures, the precursors of the past, with the flesh and blood, the intellect and the emotionality, which I currently possess, which in turn does something to complexify the notion of ancestral authority: personalizing it, humanizing it. If can see yourself in those who came before, crucially, you might be able to see both your debt to, and your impact upon, those who are still to come. In this way, the past and the future are kept in relationship via a kind of tensility — and a live wire. What we do now simultaneously draws on the past and shapes what comes next. We’re usually pretty good about paying attention to how the past influences us; and we’re certainly accustomed to invoking the past to give meaning to what we do in the present. But how we relate our present actions to the future is something that takes some conscious effort. Brown asks:

How can we, future ancestors, align ourselves with the most resilient practices of emergence as a species?

In addition to adjusting our vision to more actively include the future as well as the past, Brown asks us to broaden out the very notion of ‘ancestry.’ In this context, being a “future ancestor” does not mean simply considering the mother of your mother or the child of your child, but the generations of humanity as a community, i.e. “as a species.” In fact, understanding the family unity as something beyond a bloodline is a crucial component of the kind of future vision Brown asks us to use; an attachment to a narrowly defined idea of family is an invitation to other the humans who are not included in that category.

Roman carnelian intaglio set in a ring, 1st c. BCE/CE. The Walters Art Museum. Aeneas carries his father, Anchises, and leads his son, Ascanius, away from Troy as it burns (cf. Aen. 2.707). Present facilitating both past and future. Note that Aeneas did abandon his wife, Creusa, to achieve this…

Toshi Reagon, on the Octavia’s Parables podcast (Ep. 10, Aug. 24th 2020; 55:10):

“Every ten years of your age, there should be somebody ten years younger than you…The annoying one that’s always asking you questions and correcting you from something you said before which you can’t remember and who’s bringing in the latest technology that you need to move on to. That person needs to have real agency in your life. So now I have somebody in their twenties, somebody in their thirties, somebody in their forties, ’cause that’s how I’m rolling. And you do start to see that you don’t do a disappearing. An evolution happens around, over, and beyond you.”