Ants in the smoke detector
A couple months ago, I saw a family sitting at a Five-Guys, wearing matching t-shirts: on the front was a cartoon of a dumpster on fire, and on the back was simply the text "2020."
Know the feeling?
I originally started these letters with the goal to dive head first into the muckier, ickier parts of life and make sense of them, maybe even find a buried treasure or two. I just wasn't prepared for the flaming shit pile that has been the past three months. In addition to a pandemic spiraling out of control and a nation's recurring reconciliation with its racist past and present, I lost my grandmother at the age of 100 on June 2. All of those events really gave me pause around what and who these newsletters were for, and what if any relation they had to what I needed to do as a member of society and a member of my family. I decided it was worth taking a pause from showing up here to show up for my family, show up for racial justice, and step aside for those with something to say . 'Cause in my grief, anger, and introspection, I didn't see much within me worth sharing.
A couple days before my grandmother died, and just a few days after the murder of George Floyd, Dan and I were woken up in the middle of the night by one of our smoke detectors. Gratefully, I stayed in bed with a pillow over my head, while Dan got up to change the battery. But the next morning, it started going off again. The taller of the two of us, it fell once again to Dan to investigate. He had been in the bedroom only a couple of minutes when I heard "Oh my GOD!" and rushed over. Dan doesn't ruffle easily with house repairs, but when I got there I understood: unable to find anything immediately wrong on the surface, Dan had removed the back end of the smoke detector, only to find the wires, the battery, and the hole in which they were lodged, crawling with ants. The whole unit looked like a little wriggling brown carpet.
In an attempt to fix it, we disconnected the wires and laid some ant traps both on the ground close to the wall and up inside the detector itself. After a couple days, we reconnected it, only a few hours later to hear the dreaded, piercing chirp. So we disconnected it again, and put more traps out for longer. We still hadn't reconnected it, when about a week later I heard the sound again. I knew it had to be coming from another room, but I couldn't figure out which. I kept pacing from room to room, standing under one smoke detector then another, then back again, to no avail. After replacing all the batteries of all the smoke detectors in our house, thirty minutes later I heard a chirp yet again. I looked behind the cover of each smoke detector, but found no ants. I tried new, new batteries. I tried flipping the new, new batteries in case I had put them in wrong. Nothing worked. Knowing I had a work call later that day, I disconnected all of them.
Those who know me well know I spend a fair amount of time working with my dreams: I consider them our soul's running commentary on our waking lives, and every morning I spend about 30 minutes or so processing what I'm able to remember from the previous night's sleep, working through whatever feelings and images came up. But there are times when waking life itself feels like a dream. If this had been a dream, I thought, what would I make of it? A system or device that was supposed to keep my house safe was interrupting my sleep, my work, my play, to the point where I dismantled the whole thing. And it all started with that damn infestation. For a while, I tried to map the ants in the smoke detector to various actors or forces in our present moment: the ants were racism, misfiring signals of alarm in a system allegedly designed to protect people. The ants were the president, infecting all our systems of security, health and safety to the point where they were almost completely dysfunctional. Or the ants were my own grief: swarming over and inside the circuitry of my brain, making it impossible for me to get through 30 minutes without some kind of intense emotional upheaval. Frankly, each of these corollaries seemed valid, and after trying to choose one I just accepted all the layers of the image as a signal of the extremity of our present moment: it's all pretty fucked up right now.
As it turned out, the random chirping was the result of neither the battery nor the ants, but was instead a notification to replace the whole smoke detector. It was a chirp of obsolescence. And the ants, while horrifying and disruptive, were incidental. The ants were just a parallel problem that brought my attention to the bigger one: a completely outdated home security system.
As this pandemic drags on, claiming upwards of 150,000 lives in the U.S. alone--and disproportionately claiming the lives of people of color--and as we watch police respond to protests with the exact same kind of military tactics against their citizens that sparked this movement to begin with, I believe it is becoming even more undeniably apparent than it was before that we are being bombarded not with the sounds of one or two problems, but a very broken system. Cleaning out the ants (whether those ants are the current president, the police chiefs, or our crumbling, rotten, racist institutions) won't be enough. Replacing bits and pieces like batteries or wires won't be enough. I'm not even convinced (in my house or in this country) that replacing the smoke detector units will actually be enough. And, just because the smoke detectors are broken, doesn't mean the house isn't also on fire.
Last year, after my first unanticipated hiatus from this newsletter, I wrote about the challenges of staying creative while worrying about money. But staying creative and generative through major global stresses like a deadly pandemic and state violence against its own people, let alone staying creative through grief, isn't something I have a good answer for. Or at least my answer may not be all that satisfying. And that is: sometimes, you just can't. And that's ok. Rest is not something we talk about much in this country, nor are limitations. But limitations are real. We all have them. And they are there for a reason. It didn't take more than 24 hours for my friend and I to decide to pause putting out and promoting the Lockdown album back in early June: there was simply more important work to do, causes both personal and collective that required our energy. Resting, at its best, frees up capacity where it's needed: in resting from songwriting and essay writing, I made myself available to grief, activism, and, yes, more rest.
That's not to say I think anyone has to stop being creative in the face of momentous stress. Sometimes creativity is the most powerful way to process what we feel, to cope, and to survive. Generally, that's the very same ethos that sparked these diaries: within life's garbage, there is usually something we can sift from it that becomes meaningful, that carries us through, that reminds us of our own humanity. But sometimes life throws so much at us it's all we can do to get out of bed in the morning. And as we've seen, "this life," or more accurately, people and systems in it, makes feeling wholly human and getting out the door every morning a lot harder for some than for others. For many Americans, whether because the color of their skin or their country of origin or who they have sex with or the amount of money on their paycheck every month, getting through the day is a struggle. It can even be life-threatening. So it's more than understandable if some days painting or poetry is a lifeline, and others it just doesn't make it on your list of things to do.
Precisely why I hope, for whoever reads this, that you are being as gentle with your creative spirit as you are being vehement and vigilant in the fight for a better world. Because yes: shit is on fire, and there are ants in the smoke detector. But even if the moment for you to make a new song or a new dance isn't now, that moment will come back, and we'll all need that spirit to be as fiery, feisty, loving and free as possible, to evoke and embody our humanity anew.