Remembering Summer 2019 is like remembering a former life: concerts at the Ordway and at Orchestra Hall, sitting elbow to elbow with unmasked strangers; baseball at Target Field, the baseball season having arrived as dependably as the first robin; church services on Sunday, the eucharist received from the ungloved hand of the priest followed by, God help us, the common cup; church dinners on Wednesday nights, sitting across from unmasked friends, talking and laughing; dinner parties with friends.
And the bike rides: 20 or 30 miles, to Stillwater and back, the Minneapolis Grand Round; Kayaking the chain of lakes; hiking the state parks, half of them already checked off my list.
And the knowledge that, the civil rights struggle having been triumphantly concluded, full equality for African Americans is in sight, and that progressive Minnesota is as good a place to live for African Americans as it is for Euro American me.
All gone. Sheltering in place, and the friends, the gatherings, the sports seasons, the concerts all gone for the foreseeable future. Then in early spring, a new breathlessness grew to the point where I couldn’t walk to the mailbox without leaning against it, gasping for air. Congestive heart failure. Hospital tests showed clear arteries, normal blood pressure, the bodily functions of a guy who’s eaten right and gotten plenty of exercise for the better part of eight decades; and an underperforming heart, possibly a long-term result of the chemotherapy that saved my life 20 years ago. Medication and rehab might restore some, maybe most, possibly all of the lost cardiac function; time will tell.
And then, unforgettable images of a police officer pressing a Black man’s neck to the pavement with his knee, choking out his life, and the city across the river exploding in an anger that, in a few days, had crossed the river, gone nationwide, worldwide. And suddenly the country that I’d been told was the last best hope of mankind, the city set on a hill, was shown to be, for many of its citizens, an always repressive and often deadly police state, and the progressive city where I’d raised my children, always ranked among the Top 10 in quality of life, was shown to be what I’d recently been told but had only half-believed, among the worst cities in the country in which to be Black.
And so the comfortable world of Summer 2019 has become the strange and challenging new world of 2020; we are truly doomed to live in interesting times. Education and experience have taught me that change and challenge are healthy, renewing, leading to growth; true enough, yet I would prefer change in somewhat smaller doses, and comfort and familiarity have never seemed more, well, comforting, necessary. Would that a new normal, healthier, more just and equitable than the old, but normal, might descend upon us soon.
In these times, one of my favorite perspective-restoring, I’ve-got-nothing-to-complain-about historical figures is St. Augustine of Hippo, who prospered in the fourth and died in the fifth century CE, when the western Roman Empire was being overrun by illiterate barbarian tribes. Augustine was an educated Roman citizen, the beneficiary of 1,500 years of Greco-Roman civilization, a bishop of the Christian church. He had heard of the sack of Rome by the Visigoths, an event that shocked the world, and now, at the end of his life, he looked out from the walls of Hippo at the besieging Vandals, a barbarian tribe whose name has become a byword for senseless destruction. In this world we have no lasting city, he wrote; we seek one to come, the Heavenly city, the City of God.
Augustine died and may have ascended to this City of God, and the Vandals moved on. After wrecking the western Empire the barbarians settled down and acquired some civilization of their own, living in the transient earthly city and seeking the one to come. Their distant descendants rediscovered the high civilization of the ancient world, then did the Greco-Romans one better by inventing modern science. By the mid-1800s, it began to seem that the city made with hands might actually be improved scientifically to the point where it couldn’t be easily distinguished from the heavenly city.
The first half of the 20th century, one of the most interesting periods in human history, with its worldwide bloodbaths bookending a worldwide economic collapse and introducing the threat of nuclear annihilation, should have been a huge corrective to this optimistic progressivism; yet the good guys won, and to many of us pre-boomers and boomers, the nation and the world seemed back on track for liberty and justice and material sufficiency for all. By the end of the century, the Berlin Wall was down, the global economy had lifted most of the world’s people out of poverty, progressive policies had won out over most of the industrialized world and might even win out here in the USA.
And now all this: pandemic, weak heart, racist injustice. I look out over the ramparts at the besieging forces of disorder and I wonder, why did I, why does anyone believe in the delusion of progress in this universe of entropy, where increasing disorder is the direction of all things, where disorder can only be held back by strenuous efforts, where life itself with its intricate organization is no more than a form of negative entropy, a momentary reversal of universal decline?
Then I remember some of the negative entropies of these times: people singing on their balconies, serenading their neighbors; the people who wear masks in public and maintain social distancing to protect their neighbors and themselves; the millions of essential workers who risk illness and even death in order to deliver essential services; the thousands of volunteers who helped clean up during and after the demonstrations, the tens of thousands of bags of groceries and necessities donated to the people of the Seward and Longfellow and Phillips neighborhoods by the people of the Twin Cities; the wonderful care I received at Regions Hospital in St. Paul and the ongoing rehab care, the care I receive from my children, my friends and neighbors.
And entropy has its own gifts. On my walks, I must take more time, take more rests, take the time to look around me at the beauty of the day, at my lovely lake neighborhood where I take most of my walks, which in my more active past I had barely seen in my rush to be off to the next thing; no more charging off to the next milestone, the next state park to be conquered. And from this pandemic we may learn some sobering and useful lessons about the fragility and sustainability of our civilization, and from these protests we Euro Americans may learn about our own racism and how to counter it. An uncritical belief in progress can blind us to what’s going on in front of our noses; a healthy dose of entropy can be clarifying.
And I am told that there may be other universes, maybe an endless number of them, each with its own set of physical laws. Maybe in one of them the tendency of all things is toward greater order, not greater disorder; a universe of reverse-entropy, where the idea of progress is not a delusion but a law of nature. Maybe this universe is our true home, whither we are bound. Maybe in this universe I’ll run into St. Augustine.
Michael Nesset lives in North St. Paul.