Day 168. I am already dead. It is the end of my life, and I’m working backward. How old am I? Where am I? Was I rich or poor? Will anyone remember me? What mattered to me in my life, and did I feel content? No big deal, no pressure, it’s just life, they’re just questions.
In this pandemic, many of us have been home for extended periods, and even Netflix and the perpetual stream of entertainment is beginning to dry up. We are asking some tough questions. These are leading to widespread protests against systemic racism and widespread social inequalities. We are discussing defunding the police state and instead funding social programs that will help have a real, positive effect on distressed communities and people.
I was going to write on July 1, or July 4 (yay, all countries matter!), but they are also just dates. I don’t know if, under the weight of all the chaos and confusion, Trump even noticed those trolling hashtags or “all birthdays matter” on his birthday. Maybe that’s not what’s important. Black Lives Matter is important. BIPOC matter. We are listening, and we are changing, as a society, to become more just, more equal, and more virtuous. This matters. Living our lives, making this place better for those around us, that matters. This year has been hard, but we’ve done a lot of talking, a lot of listening, and the veneer of civility has chipped off, and we’re dealing with the uncomfortable reality of an uncivil society, and a quickly unraveling ecosystem. We will adapt, or we will die. I know what side I’m on. I think in the end, with philosophy, with goals so much bigger than ourselves that we cannot directly weigh our personal contribution, it doesn’t matter so much if we collectively succeed, at least in our lifetimes, but it really matters that we personally did our best. I think that is enough.
On my mountain, where I’ve sat living a peaceful life for six years after two decades in the spotlight of lasers and bass music, it’s made me ask what is important to me. I left behind a reasonably successful touring and music production career at the height of its success (our band was playing the Olympics, Burning Man, and top festivals in North America, Europe was calling, and Asia was wide open) in search of something new and satisfying: nothingness. Silence. I wanted peace, and wisdom, traveling the world to discover cultures and philosophy and the idea of growing old writing books. In six years, I’ve done a little of that already. I’ve lived and stayed in a dozen countries around North and Central America, Europe and Asia, and written a handful of novels and recently, a non-fiction diary of my pandemic discovery tour. If I died now, would I be happy? Yes, I think so. I am married, I have given a home and some stability to my family, and I have helped those who helped me. I have tried to return the favor and give back and leave this place better than I left it. I did something. But I know, also, my journey is not over yet.
We’ve, you know, humanity has hit 10,000,000 cases, 11 million, no 12 million by the time I’ve got my thoughts together—half a million dead, 550k, wow, it’s really accelerating. This exponential growth is really starting to cook, it creeps at first, the first pandemic broadcast on social media, and by the time it’s really going people seem to have lost interest. I remember when there were 100,000 global cases, and it seemed like a lot. More than 130,000 Americans alone have died of COVID, and according to some recent science, 99% of them would have been prevented by using a South Korean style (competent) response to the pandemic. Instead, Trump closed the pandemic prevention office to squeeze a bit more chain link fence on the southern border to get some votes out of xenophobic, racist, scared little white nationalists. The lack of science literacy, tolerance, and education as far-right leaders take hold in various places around the world is shocking and numbs me, fills me with dread. I turned on the TV and watched a few hours of Zoe’s Extraordinary Playlist and remembered that Broadway exists still, in our hearts and in our bedrooms, if not in New York, but that is also in us, dancing and singing, and loving and joyous behavior. It’s worth remembering it’s not all doom and gloom.
That said, the numbers are surging in a dozen countries, including the USA, the UK, Brazil, and Russia, and others. We finally have mandatory masks in public spaces in some key areas in Canada and the USA, and no sooner do we have the laws to protect us than we have mask holes on TV pushing and shoving their way onto subways and into supermarkets. Are they real people, or just trillions of virus cells held together with a thick coating of fake tanner and smug?
How old am I? How did I go? Let’s do the math.
A decade ago, I could have died in any number of occupational hazards: breaking up a bar fight at a DJ gig, off stage crowd surfing accident, dehydration in the desert, insanity or incarceration from an accidental night out of control, a passenger to some after-party drinking and driving or any of a dozen other ways young people disappear too fast. Now, the landscape is changing. Will it be a heart attack or blood clot or stroke or diabetes or some early-onset dementia? Does it matter?
I think the things that we make matter, matter, and the things that don’t, don’t. I’m happy. In the past few years, I’ve dug myself out of a mountain of student debt and started to set myself up for a humble retirement. By 44 years old, I plan to step back from teaching full time and perhaps lecture a couple of classes a week, creative writing at a university, and just sit back in my home and work on writing books and telling stories. It makes me happy.
With the pandemic, many of us don’t know day to day what is in store for us, what security we have with work, money, or even if the jobs we lose today will ever come back, or neatly shift in the dust and chaos to be taken over by automated learning machines, robots, and AI and the Internet of Things plugging the holes that men left as we sheltered from the plague. We don’t know what will happen if CERB doesn’t turn into a full-blown UBI. So we must be agile and look for opportunities amidst the coming economic squeeze.
This summer, I will keep writing the Lighthouse with my friends around the world, I will write a solarpunk Amos the Amazing novel, for the kids who want something good to read, and rewrite my paranormal thriller, Where the Wicked Rest, and prepare to publish them all before 2021. This is a good goal for a writer. The Invisible War may have been muzzled for now, but it will be out when it can be out, and I’ve done all I can. I will go to the gym and swim every day, I will play games and mingle with my friends when I can, and I will take care of my wife and family and furry kids. This is life, and this is a good life.
I sit in our Senior 2 IELTS Writing classroom as the students quietly finish their grammar practice, practice test, and review our final review notes. It’s my second-last class, and then I’m on summer vacation until September, except for a bit of tutoring, and my daily writing and editing work. It will be a welcome break. I waited until the end of the year to tell them no one can really teach writing, surprise surprise, but all along, I have tried to encourage them to learn with me, practice, and become self-motivated students of the craft of writing. Last week I slipped on a flight of wet stairs and clawed the wall as I skied down, reaching for a handrail that wasn’t there at all. When I landed, it was with a sickening pop; luckily, not a break, just stretched, strained, torn and battered ligaments, and I have a brace on them, holding them together. I swim, slowly encouraging them to work again, and otherwise favor the right foot and try not to walk too much. I won’t miss teaching on the 8th floor with no elevator this summer.
As I walk slowly back from the international department to my on-campus apartment, a police car is parked at the gate, lights flashing, people arguing in loud voices, an unusual sight at this normally tranquil and studious environment. I think in gratitude that I am not breaking rocks in a hard labor camp in Siberia. As six months of lockdown have continued, many of us do feel like we are in jail, but we are in prisons of our own design, and we are free to get fresh air and see the sky as often as we like. Perhaps all of life is merely one set of prisons after another, but it is up to us to design one that we can thrive inside, and ultimately, find liberty inside our mind and within our imaginations.
Eden, our 18-year-old niece, has just finished the two-day grind of her college entrance exams (the “GaoKao”), and I really hope she did well and can live her dream of being a psychologist. She’s smart and happy and deserves a great life.
I may live to be 80 or 100; by then, I could live to be 300 and even live on other planets. I’m working to prepare, by swimming every day, writing, and saving what I can, eating healthy and, most importantly, being happy, being kind, and not making life harder on everyone else. I wear a mask for me, and for you, and I hope that together, we can make the changes we will need, drastic ones, nimble ones, difficult ones, in the next decade to reshape the earth to be a continued source of nurturing for humanity and intelligent life for centuries to come.
Kai Wood continues to share his diary with iChongqing since the pandemic began in January 2020. The first part, known in China as “Kai’s Diary” and internationally as “The Invisible War” is set to be published in July 2020. This ongoing collection by Kai and his friends around the world is titled, “The Lighthouse.”
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