11. Fake Blue Spruce

November 2020

Another long month in a very long year with an extra day. During the first week of November, the sound of televisions bled through the walls and filled the hallways, the babble of news anchors telling us there were no new votes from Alleghany county. When the networks called the race for president at 11:26 on Saturday morning, the city erupted in cheers. Horns beeped, voices hollered, and pots banged. We went to our windows and screamed with sweet relief. It was a beautiful inversion of the evening cheer during the pandemic's early days—a collective exhale. We filled the streets, strangers needing to look at one another to confirm that, yes, this was real. For a day, the cities finally got to have their say.

I wept as Harris and Biden delivered their acceptance speeches. Politics aside, I wept with the relief of seeing recognizable humans with faces capable of joy and concern.

Misty-eyed for Joe Biden. 2020 has been filled with so many disorienting moments.

He spoke to us from a parking lot with a Planet Fitness in the background. Instead of applause, cars honked. “It sounds like he's talking to the world’s worst traffic jam,” said C. The optics did look apocalyptic, a reminder that America is not okay as the pandemic claims more of us each day. If I’d tuned into this scene a year ago, I would have thought we were building a provisional government after a terrible explosion or invasion.

During the seventeen hours I spent in a gymnasium on Election Day, I was overwhelmed by the chaos of the voting process. Nearly one hundred strangers had gathered at a middle school to work the polls. Some of us had challenging personalities. Some of us had tantrums. Some of us made mistakes that needed to be corrected. We bumped into one another and got in each other's way. It was ugly and unruly, but at the end of the night, thousands of people had voted and the numbers tallied up correctly. I'm trying to hang onto this moment as a metaphor.

Last week C. and I returned to Ohio to hunker down for the winter. We bought an artificial Christmas tree, another unexpected development in 2020. We haven’t celebrated the holidays in years. This wasn't a conscious decision, more of a gradual drift as the hassle of storing ornaments and trying to guess what to buy each other faded into a preference for end-of-year travel or logging time in dim sum parlors and movie theaters. But these options are no longer available, and we need something to anticipate, so we bought a fake frosted blue spruce from the superstore, twenty-five percent off and fully loaded with faux pinecones and prewired lights. We even bought some Christmas tree perfume, a remarkably specific product that makes it smell like a real tree.

I admire the artifice of our tree, from its polyvinyl chloride leaves to its pine-scented cologne. It makes me feel very modern, simulating an ancient ritual with murky origins that can be traced to the Roman mid-winter festival of Saturnalia or perhaps the Viking worship of trees. Yes, let’s recreate outdoor scenery indoors and push it to the brink of flames.

Domestic rituals of all kinds will be critical during this long winter.

This year has been a hard lesson in the inability to predict anything. There was a time when people believed the stomach's gurgles and rumbles belonged to the voices of the dead. Ventriloquism began as a religious practice; the term is Latin for “speaking from the stomach”: venter (belly) and loqui (speak). The ventriloquist would decipher the belly's sounds and predict the future.

Lately I've been riffling through my collection of stray factoids that never found a home: Evolution is fastest in body parts used to attract mates or frighten rivals. Or words that haunt the unconscious: Trilobites, moonfish, and gorgons. I scan the liturgical names of geological epochs like the Time of the Great Dying and scribbled phrases that I can no longer place: Light echoes from red supergiants. Eyes on stalks. How the word static implies fixture as well as chaotic noise.

In the beginning, God was only “a permanently existing ghost.” The philosopher Herbert Spencer believed the first gods appeared in our dreams. These visions gradually became ghosts that haunted our stories; the word spirit applies to ghosts as well as gods. Or take the word disaster, the inversion of astro, a term which means a negative star, a kink in the heavens that leads to catastrophe.

I need a word for the slightly hungover sensation after a mindless bout of clicking and scrolling—a term for shaking off the digital residue. I must remember the screen is a tool, not an environment. Sometimes it feels like a sense of obligation, the way I keep clicking and scrolling, as if I’m abandoning my post if I press the off button. The otherwise decent urge to bear witness has been hijacked.

I sympathize with the sleeping figure in Valentin de Boulogne's Dream of Saint Joseph, a portrait of a weary man unaware of the angel tugging at his sleeve. The description that accompanies this painting has been on my mind these day: "Incapable of rising to the truths of the spirit, exhausted by the effort, mankind falls back into his torpor." How many times have I glimpsed a better, more spiritualized way to live—and retreated? Sometimes I fantasize about chucking my gadgets into the river, retreating into the pages of the classics, and living a solitary life in the gloom like Magdalene or Francis with their skulls and candles to remind them time is short. Yet even as I write this, I find myself still scrolling, refreshing, and clicking yes, I am still watching.

But it's reassuring to know that saints wrestled with distraction, too.

In the year 375, Saint Jerome was determined to escape the world’s clamor and find salvation in the desert. In a letter to a student, he described the difficulty of removing himself from the ones he loved and “harder still, from the dainty food to which I had been accustomed.” Although he managed to leave these comforts behind, he could not bear to abandon his books. So he carried his copies of Cicero, Virgil, and Ovid through the Syrian wilderness, books that were considered profane by his religion. “And so, miserable man that I was," he wrote, “I would fast only that I might afterward read Cicero.” It lingers in the mind, the image of a man dragging his library through the desert, only to punish himself for reading.


  • Teju Cole on Caravaggio.

  • Started reading P.D. James’s The Children of Men, and I’m only a third of the way through, but it’s one of the best novels I’ve read in a while; I didn’t realize it was so substantially different from the film or how deeply it engages with questions of faith. It’s filled with so many eerie details that are impossible to shake.

  • A wonderful reflection on Crash by Joanne McNeil: “Ballard’s voice is distinctive—like he’s writing in the cool and lucid moments of shock after a disaster, before the anger, despair or resignation has set in.”

  • Autechre released two new albums this year, which led me back to 1995’s Garbage. It might be one of my all-time favorite records: industrial-grade symphonies that fuse emotional melodies with machine grit. The last track is neon ambiance perfected.

  • A thing I wrote last year about grief and the holidays.