05. Beauty for Ashes

May 2020

Yesterday a privately-financed rocketship launched into outer space, leaving behind a nation wracked with pain, tear gas, and the fragile hope that something might finally change. Images of two smiling astronauts collided with clips of militarized cops whose very presence introduces the specter of mad violence like a promise.

Today Gil Scott Herron’s “Whitey on the Moon” is bleaker and more resonant than when he recorded it fifty years ago.

Flipping on the news, I watched a man stand before a crowd of reporters, his eyes filled with hurt and conviction. His name was Pastor Brian Herron from Zion Baptist Church in Minneapolis, and he wore a mask that said Dignity. Shaking his head at the applause as he began to speak, he quickly short-circuited the press conference optics:

“I don’t know what you’re clapping for. This is serious. A man’s life has been lost at the hands of someone who has sworn to protect and serve. I don’t condone the violence, but I understand it. You want to focus on that, rather than the violence that kicked this all off. We’re not going to be distracted. We’re not going to allow you to change the narrative. That man pleaded for his life. And the camera is a witness, so I don’t know how many more witnesses you need. It’s time for justice to be served. We’re tired. This ain’t no photo op. This ain’t no game. We live this every day. You’re upset when Kaepernick takes a knee but you’re not upset when a knee is on a man’s neck? But we’re also here with hope. We’re going to keep fighting. We’re not going to quit. God said he’d give us beauty for ashes. And out of the ashes we’re going to walk together and live together—the way we were meant to.”

The amount of incense smoke that darkens a temple’s ceiling indicates the popularity of that particular god. I learned this last year in Taiwan, and I can’t stop thinking about this image: the accretion of so many centuries of wishes, prayers, and confessions painted across the rafters in ash.

I wonder what the accretion of faith looks like in my life, the evidence of my little rituals and routines. Perhaps this year’s journal is something like that, the nightly act of fumbling through the muck of the day’s thoughts, trying to articulate something coherent while the world grows ever more unsteady. But I need something more tangible, something closer to ash.

Revisiting my notes from a small-town Memorial Day service three years ago, I was reminded how much of America’s bigotry and violence is given spiritual cover by a rotted-out Christianity. Maybe this is where the battle should be fought.

But more than ever, I must remember the wisest thing I’ve been told, which I will recite here again and again: “Opinions kill motherfuckers, experience saves lives.” Seven years ago, an old man in New Orleans growled this to me when he heard me jabbering to someone about what I thought they should do.

I need to extricate myself from the blinkered logic of social media, which has infected my thinking to an unholy degree. For some reason, deleting the app isn’t enough. It’s the cruel logic of addiction: I know this is bad for me, but I’ll do it anyway. But it’s time to shake my nostalgia for the days when Twitter brought pleasure and discovery, the incredible sensation of a million lone voices naively broadcasting into the night because it didn’t matter: Here’s a song I like! I’m driving to Arkansas! I believe in ghosts, etc. Those days aren’t coming back.

Now there’s so much raw pain and anger helplessly trapped beneath a performative gloss with its lunatic scoreboard of hearts and followers. Stripped of context, scenes from a crisis begin to loop, deform, and take on realities of their own. There’s a scene in Don DeLillo’s Underworld when one of his characters drives along the Jersey Turnpike:

…and he saw billboards for Hertz and Avis and Chevy Blazer, for Marlboro, Continental and Goodyear, and he realized that all the things around him, the planes taking off and landing, the streaking cars, the tires on the cars, the cigarettes that the drivers of the cars were dousing in their ashtrays—all these were on the billboards around him, systematically linked in some self-referring relationship that had a kind of neurotic tightness, an inescapability, as if the billboards were generating reality…


  • Made a new mixtape of half-speed 1990s techno classics (Plastikman, Basic Channel, Aphex Twin, etc) melded with reverberated vocals from Bobby Vinton, The Ronettes, The Paris Sisters. It’s called Sacrilege.

  • Revisiting the KLF’s Chill Out for clues for where to go next.

  • Finished Ling Ma’s Severance. Although I’ve had my fill of emotionally-detached narrators from Brooklyn, I admire how she welds something that feels like a memoir to a dystopian frame. Her depiction of a pandemic-stricken New York harmonizes with our current moment to an eerie degree, particularly the slow unwinding of normalcy rather than the sudden cataclysm that defines so many other apocalyptic visions. And she writes wonderfully about how we cling to routine while craving disruption: “We hope the damage was bad enough to cancel work the next morning but not so bad that we couldn’t go to brunch instead.”

  • Started forging a path through High Weirdness, Erik Davis’s inventory of 1970s mysticism and conspiracy that tracks how writers like Philip K. Dick responded to a decade that saw the first seeds of “terrorism and environmental collapse, surveillance paranoia, political cynicism, foreign war fatigue, and a pervasive apocalyptic undertow that tugs beneath an over-heated, desperately sexualized, fantastical, and often bleak popular culture.” It seems like a worthwhile companion for this summer so far.

  • I’d also like to revisit Teju Cole’s Open City. I think the title got stuck in my head now that I’m nursing vivid fantasies about New York reshaped into Taiwanese-style night markets this summer.