Let Us See It Smiling Back

I remember my Indiana elementary school smelling like banana bread. It could not possibly have always reeked of this best of foods, but maybe the first day I strode into first grade, it did. Whenever I smell banana bread, I think of Rockport, IN and the feeling of being both very small and also excited about the vastness of the world.

In his 1979 soft-rock hit “Romeo’s Tune,” Steve Forbert sings about wanting to be comforted:

Meet me in the middle of the day
Let me hear you say everything’s okay
Bring me southern kisses from your room

Hey, hey, meet me in the middle of the night
Let me hear you say everything’s alright
Let me smell the moon in your perfume

He wants the reassurance of palpable and familiar senses, to ward off the uncertain. No doubt many of us have wished for someone to barge into the middle of the Zoom office day and tell us everything’s gonna be okay; or to whisper in the middle of the restless night — the time of our most nettlesome, creeping fears — to say everything’s alright. We yearn for the cooing sound we once knew of a parent gently rocking us as furious and scared toddlers, assuring that things will be okay without any need for evidence to prove the point whatsoever. Sometimes you just want to be held and told.

August 2021 presents a Janus-like face: things are back to normal, but they’re also terrible. The virus is over and it isn’t. I think most of us knew that COVID would not end with a neatly defined point, like Appomattox or VE Day, but would gradually unspool in unsure measures. But this Summer gave the lie to that: there actually was a moment, maybe not the same for everyone, where we felt like this was over. You felt it, at some random time. Ordinary life had popped in, presenting its strange and unfamiliar visage — like an old friend you hadn’t seen for seventeen years. You recognize them, but they’re still a little different and you feel startled at first.

The COVID crisis reminds me, cornily, of Winston Churchill’s 1942 famous quote:

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Churchill was talking about the fortitude it would take to defeat the fascism, racism, and militarism of the Axis powers, Germany and Japan, if anything resembling freedom or democracy were to survive. That we were then in an alliance with the Soviet Union, which would be, in short order, cast as the exemplar of totalitarianism, is a weird historical irony. The Soviets’ Red Army brought the Nazi regime to its knees, but our narrative in the Anglo-American world has mostly centered on the virtues of liberal democracy.

Conventional wisdom holds that people are drawn to a powerful leader in times of crisis and danger. Yet, the American people rejected Donald Trump for the more placid climes of Joe Biden in 2020, even in the middle of a catastrophe surpassed in US history only by the Civil War. We find ourselves not just battling an epidemiological foe but the forces of racism, disinformation, ethnonationalism, and nihilism in a way that we never really have before. However ludicrous they may be, the Proud Boys and the Bugaboodles represent a flinty, enduring shard of American political culture that will continue to strafe and scar the rest of us to the extent they can, for as long as they can.

We’ve looked in the mirror and not liked exactly what we see — whether it is January 6th or climate denialism or seemingly normal people resorting to violence because a Target employee asks them to wear a mask. Almost everyone would rather look in the mirror, or out the window, or into their smartphone screen and see the beauty of a different world staring back instead.

The beginning might be over, but we’re still in the midst of the fight of our lives. It’s not just to get through COVID but to achieve racial justice, curb economic equality and climate change, ensure the fundamental premises of equal representation and access to voting rights, and much, much more. It might be the end of the beginning. But it’s up to us who care about human life and social justice to decide whether it’s the beginning or the end.

Here are some readings picked by our editors in recent weeks: