What happened to my city? Times Square continued to illuminate empty sidewalk tables, empty chairs, and empty streets. Everyone had vanished. I felt like an alien surveying the ruins of a civilization that appeared to have swiftly collapsed. A strong need drove me here. I had to step outside, to see with my own eyes the possible beginning of the end of my nation.
Watching the giant electronic ads scroll new TV shows, new vacations, new clothes, and new cars it was clear we blinded ourselves. Lured by the promise of perpetual re-invention, consumption, and social climbing in a system teetering on the edge, too many did not heed the warnings. None of this was sustainable.
America was facing reality. Yes, Covid-19, and the fast-spreading fear of sickness and death chased us indoors. Yes, it halted the economy. But if not Covid-19 it would have eventually been Climate Change, or a depression, or war. So what now? There’s no going back to the old “normal.” And, anyway, maybe we shouldn’t return to the bright lights? Maybe, instead, we can create a new world?
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There’s no going back to the old “normal”… Maybe, instead, we can create a new world?
Walking to the subway, I got a text. “Ready for your trip?” my long time Burner friend and Afro-Futurist Shaman asked. When news of the quarantine hit, she said it was time for a psychedelic journey. In these upended days, she texted that “psychonauts had a role to play.” If a vision for tomorrow is to emerge, we need to “go in” and find it in our shadow. The Old World is dying and we have to purge its decaying parts to renew the imagination.
“Yes,” I texted back. “I’m ready to say goodbye to all this.”
Tonight, she was going to guide me via Zoom through a low key psilocybin trip to clear my mind of the rising panic and fear in order to, as her favorite philosopher Edmund Husserl said, “get back to the things themselves.” The “thing itself” being the body, not just mine but the collective body that we all feel being shocked and jolted by fear.
The Phenomenology of Panic
In the train, our reflections in the windows sat opposite us, and it looked like our souls were hurtling through darkness. And we were. Who knew what tomorrow would bring? More strict quarantine? More job loss?
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I took out the bag of mushroom caps, squeezed them. I took out my cell phone and saw the messages. “My boss cancelled my shifts.” “Mom is in the hospital, she can’t breathe.” “I’m learning to be a house cat.” “Stay safe.”
Thumbing the screen off, I squeezed my eyes. Please no more panic. Or warnings. But against my will, I imagined my friend’s mother breathing through an oxygen mask, working hard to fill her lungs. How terrified she must be. How foreboding to see bagged up corpses carried out of the hospital, or lining the halls. More will come. Just the other day, the President said, “100,000 to 200,000 Americans could die.”
We are going to lose so many. I rubbed my face, and studied the sparsely filled subway car. Riders were masked and gloved. You may die. I palmed my chest. And I may die. Sitting on the loud, rackety A train to Brooklyn, hand on chest, I began to laugh. Fuck it. Let me just get The ‘Rona already. I’m bored of fear, bored.
A text buzzed. It was the Shaman: “Think beyond what you and everyone’s losing. What are you gaining? What are you discovering? What is the phenomenology of panic?” The next text came. It was a quote from Martin Heidegger’s essay What is Metaphysics? I smiled and shook my head. My PhD having Shaman is so cool. It read:
“No matter how fragmented our everyday existence may appear to be, however, it always deals with beings in a unity of the ‘whole,’ if only in a shadowy way. Even and precisely when we are not actually busy with things or ourselves, this ‘as a whole’ overcomes us—for example in genuine boredom…Profound boredom, drifting here and there in the abysses of our existence like a muffling fog, removes all things and humans beings and oneself along with them into a remarkable indifference. This boredom reveals beings as a whole.”
It was true. Between the bouts of panic were long stretches of time with no work, no dates, and no meetings. And yes, boredom magnified each moment and revealed a beauty once drowned out by the city’s din. I woke up to birds chirping, so musically, all day, chirping. I had no idea. I laid in bed as dreams lifted like steam from my eyes. I had no idea. I drank in friends’ voices in long phone calls, like a man who crossed a desert. At dawn, I stumbled to the roof to see the sunrise turn the sky into a giant rose. I had no idea.
When the Body Speaks
At home, I set up the laptop on the table and there my Shaman was, onscreen, wizened eyes and a crinkled face haloed by a salt and pepper afro. And when she smiled, a lovely snaggletooth poked out like a pearl.
“Did you take them?”
I nodded, and waved a bundle of freshly burnt sage in smoky circles, lit candles, and sat on the yoga mat. We faced each other. Eyes locked.
“Breath work. In and out. Release it all.”
In and out, in and out—slow breath sped up the psilocybin’s effects. The “I” emptied out through exhalation. Thoughts floated away like phosphorescent foam on waves. A warm raw feeling rose and fell from chest to head. The body was speaking.
“Where are you?”
“I hear the Earth laughing at us. The trees and plants laughing at us as the virus kills and kills. I see numbers fall from the sky like hailstones, shattering windows as people run inside. I go to friends and take off their masks but they have no mouths underneath. Just blank flesh. I yell at them, ‘What did you do?’”
“Like the Matrix?”
“Yes. Like the Matrix. Ha ha ha! Now I see politicians wearing big puffy hats that look like the coronavirus, spikes and all. They put old people in big plastic bubbles and tell the rest of us to push them into deep sinkholes.”
My fists are clenched in my lap. She tells me to get up, move, dance to a song that feels like now. I play the Cure’s Pornography. I huff, scream, pace back and forth, claw the walls, take a bat and pound the bed cursing Trump, cursing the Republicans, cursing the Chinese Communist Party for disappearing the doctors who sounded the alarm on Covid-19, and cursing every lying fuck in Washington who left us to die in New York.
“Hey! Hey! Breathe!”
I crawl to her on the screen, palms over my eyes.
“Anger is easy. Go to a deeper place. Who do you love? See them. Who do you love that is at risk? Go to them.”
Mom. I see her hiding in her apartment. Old, diabetic, and terrified. I open the door, she is in bed, breathing from an oxygen mask. I remove it. She’s scared, but I gently walk her outside. Across the street, my friend and his mom wave. He is next to her, arm-in-arm. Everywhere people unzip body bags as the dead awaken and clumsily stand. We get them on their feet. They are so surprised, and cry out in joy. It is sunrise and the sky is a giant rose. We reach up and red petals fall into our hands.
The psilocybin wears off, and the waves recede within me. The visions fade. I blink and wipe tears off my face. The laptop screen is blank. My Shaman was gone but left a message, “Welcome home.”
Healing the Mirror
Days after the trip, the Shaman checks in and asks how the integration of the vision into my life is going… or not going. I tell her I feel clean. The panic that poured into me from the news and from friends had been flushed out.
“Are you more you, now?”
“No,” I said, “I’m more us…I think…we’re larger than this pandemic.”
“Love is the vaccine,” she responded. “Spread it.”
Yes, I thought. Everything we need is right in front of our faces; our attachment to the Old World makes it hard to see a new one. Food is here. Homes are here. Technology is here. And most importantly, we are here. The psilocybin purified me of terror, and I saw the cure for the crisis: solidarity.
The psilocybin purified me of terror, and I saw the cure for the crisis: solidarity.
Another ambulance speeds down the street. Its alarms blare. The passage from this world to a new one is going to be so painful. Will we make it?
Days later I received a text from my friend. His mom passed away. The coronavirus took her. A sharp pain split my heart. I saw a memory of her, casually waving goodbye after we shook hands for the first time, years ago.
“No, no, no.” I pressed the phone to my chest.
A loud roaring filled my head. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t talk. How can we put our lives back together? How?
Nicholas Powers is a poet, journalist, and professor. His book “The Ground Below Zero: 9/11 to Burning Man, New Orleans, Darfur, Haiti to Occupy Wall Street” was published in 2014. His writings have appeared in Truth Out, The Raw Story, The Indypendent, Vibe, and The Village Voice.