I think I’ve gotten to the point where I’m like “Maybe I’ll just randomly FaceTime everyone I’ve ever met.” It really didn’t take long for me to go full friendly chaos. I always imagined that living in an apartment building would be like Friends or The Mary Tyler Moore Show where people just walk in your door and rummage through your fridge, which—I know—sound like things I would definitely not be about but let me just pretend, okay? But people in my building don’t even speak to each other in the halls most times! What a shock. And I can only imagine it’s going to get even more distant as we continue to distance ourselves (as we should be doing!) So, I guess I’m taking all my Rhoda Morgenstern/Joey Tribiani energy and dumping it into my phone. Just virtually bursting through the door and plopping on the virtual couch and saying to you “Could I be any more virtual?”
I actually might do this. I don’t like FaceTime or video conferencing or any of that e-connective stuff because it feels awkward and herky-jerky and I’m someone who really thrives on person-to-person contact. That’s also why I love doing The Moth and book tour stops; I love being in front of an audience because it feels like a conversation, something alive and vivid. But I’m also someone who believes deeply in our responsibility to each other, in the unspoken agreements that make a society more than just a mass of people. And so, of course, I won’t be having person-to-person contact on a large scale for a while and will only be un-virtually (what’s the word for that? Oh, right “real life”) connecting with David and whatever neighbor’s dog I run into in the hall. And that can be a scary prospect, tbh. But the alternative is scarier. So prepare for a random FaceTime.
I’ve been thinking, as it becomes clearer that the most responsible thing for all of us to do is to stay still where we are, of a speech from Angels in America. I love Angels in America; I think I wrote more papers on it in college than any other text. If I wrote thesis, I would have written it on Perestroika, the second half of the 6-hour play. But instead, I dropped out of college repeatedly and so now I’m writing you a newsletter about it!
Angels is a particularly apt play to re-visit at this moment as it concerns a plague and a governmental response that is craven at best, criminally negligent at worst. But it also speaks to hope, to recovery, to resilience. One of the big ideas in the play (of which there are many) is the merits of migration, which is to say people coming in contact with each other and finding themselves enlarged and changed. The danger, of course, of that act in a time of pandemic is obvious. And so there are characters, the titular Angel included, who advise against migration. Perestroika begins with a speech being given in 1986 in the Kremlin by “the Oldest Living Bolshevik”. He is, according to the stage directions, unimaginably old and totally blind. In his speech he argues against migration and change and I think all of the time about his concluding words: “If the snake sheds his skin before a new skin is ready, naked he will be in the world, prey to the forces of chaos… Have you, my little serpents, a new skin? Then we dare not, we cannot, we MUST NOT move ahead!”
I find myself muttering that as I wander my house in my curlers and housecoat, reminding myself that the world is rapidly coming to a halt and that I must halt with it. “Have you a new skin?” I ask myself as I lament not being able to go to the mall and get an Auntie Anne’s pretzel. No, I have no new skin. “THEN WE DARE NOT MOVE AHEAD!” I bellow into the guest walk-in closet as I change shoes for no reason whatsoever. It’s going to be a rich quarantine.
I think also of the way he begins the speech, equally fiery, just as sure: “The Great Question before us is: Are we doomed?” he says. “The Great Question before us is: Will the Past release us? The Great Question before us is: Can we Change? In Time?” Just sitting in my window, staring at my neighbor’s Peleton taunting me, asking myself the Great Question: are we doomed? It’s fun to have a hobby! Cut to me showing up on your FaceTime like “Hey, OMG hiiiii! Quick question: WILL THE PAST RELEASE US?”
Just me, sitting in David’s empty church this morning, scrolling through the screeching anxiety spiral that is Twitter as I waited for the virtual service to begin, muttering to myself “can we change? In time?” As was the case with many, if not most, congregations Maryland Presbyterian made the difficult decision to close the building to physical meeting this Sunday and for the rest of the month. This isn’t something David nor any of our clergy friends took lightly. It’s not just a public health concern, there’s the real danger of isolation for the congregants, of a lack of resources, and, of course, of spiritual disconnect. People don’t come to church or synagogue or a mosque just out of rote habit. They come seeking. And the clergy know that; it’s a sacred responsibility, which is why taking away that option—even to pivot to online broadcast—is such a hard thing to do. David asked me to operate the camera for the FB livestream and naturally I was willing but deep down I dreaded it. There’s nothing that I could conjure, really, that’s more apocalyptic than a pastor preaching in an empty church. We’ve seen this image a million times. The town around the church is a ruin, there’s zombies or a storm or some other horror right at the window, and the pastor stands at the altar, railing to no one, as his spouse—usually in a raggedy sack dress or a tattered pantsuit with a drop of zombie blood on the collar where a brooch would be—quietly weeps. Well, honey, my tattered pantsuit is in the cleaners so I was at a loss.
If you tuned into the FB Live broadcast this morning, however, you saw a completely different scene. First of all, I did not make an appearance (they couldn’t come to an agreement with my agents). I did make cue cards to hold up to the screen for the lyrics to the hymns, so my hands made a cameo and I got to do my best impression of Andrew Lincoln wooing Keira Knightly in Love, Actually. (BUT NOT A BAD PERSON WHO SHOULD NOT BE DOING THIS BAD THING!)
Second of all, there was none of the end-of-the world doom that I feared. David had even purchased a really lovely fountain to run behind him as he and his co-pastor Leigh spoke. And they weren’t speaking to an empty church, they were speaking to a congregation calling in on Zoom or watching on FB, numbers that I could see climbing in the corner of the screen as if to remind me of what was actually happening. This, too, was church. This, too, was movement. This was change, but it wasn’t a spiral. I realized midway through that I had my references all wrong. When you have a camera setup and no physical audience and a beautifully decorated set and a script, you don’t have the apocalypse; you have a web series! They weren’t talking to no one as the world crumbled; they were speaking into the unknown, secure in the hope that the congregation was out there, clad in their new skins or their old skins, sitting in place but nevertheless moving ahead.
"Experts" strongly suggest starting your day as you normally would by putting on "outside clothes" to trick your brain into thinking that you're "a functional member of society." That's malarkey. They really want you sitting up in your living room, watching The Kelly Clarkson Show in a bra or a tie? Or both? Grow up! Literally do not even think about getting dressed until about 2 p.m. and then put on your prom outfit. Walk around your house in it like Miss Havisham. Stand by the window ominously so your neighbors think your place is haunted. Really lean into it. The only relationship you should have with professional attire is aimlessly ordering a bunch of it online so you can give yourself a little fashion show later in the week. It's important to set a schedule for yourself.
You may wonder how a company, an institution, or an individual makes the decision to cancel. Well, all you really need, in the end, is a tipping point—an event that indicates it is riskier to move forward than to step back. And for me that tipping point came at 8:55 Eastern time last night when a pastel-colored Lisa Frankenstein bear took off its head to reveal Sarah Palin rapping "Baby Got Back." I turned to the video camera that I have forgotten to mute after this yesterday's Zoom WFH staff meeting and declared "That's it! I'm canceled."
Sergio tells Nancy he's planning to surprise his partner Kade (an icon! Give them their own show!) with a proposal at Fashion Week. By the by, Proposal at Fashion Week is definitely a romance novel I would read. And Promposal at Fashion Week is a YA novel I need right now. Let's work on this. Anyway, spoiler alert: Sergio actually does propose (congrats icons!) which is good because when he told Nancy his plan I immediately thought, "this is going to be hella awkward if he put all his business out on the airwaves and then didn't actually get a chance to propose." Like he's backstage after the show and he reaches into his pocket and a production assistant comes barreling through telling everyone they have to clear the area because they have a hard out and they can't go into OT. This is surely a plot point that will complicate matters in Proposal at Fashion Week.
FYI: all events through mid-April have been canceled or postponed. I’ll update you when I get new dates. As of now, the Six Bridges Book Festival is still on and I’m hoping we can keep that, but obviously the next few weeks will give a clearer understanding of whether that’s possible.
BUT, we can always hang out in the pages of HERE FOR IT or on the audiobook, which I read. I think it’s the perfect antidote to the news cycle. Click here to grab a copy or see if your local indie bookseller can send it to you by mail!
Random Thing on the Internet
This is literally just a video of a kid with a Southern accent asking to pet a dog repeatedly but it’s the most delightful thing ever.
Could I be any more virtual?