This was the final episode of Season 1 of Vesperisms. I will still be giving some transcripts of Vesperisms for free subscribers, but if you’d like to receive exclusive content, please consider becoming a paid subscriber to the Substack. This will include access to livestream content as well, discounts to my Book Club, and more. Thank you!
Greetings and Salutations, and welcome to Vesperisms: The Art of Thinking for Yourself. I’m here to help you recalibrate toward an artistic worldview. So grab your coffee, and have a seat in my studio, and let’s have a chat.
This is the last episode of Season One of Vesperisms! Can you believe it? I know I’m definitely not alone in having started a new podcast in 2020, and I appreciate you staying with me as I’ve learned a podcasting rhythm that makes sense with my work as an illustrator and novelist. Many of you have written me very touching notes about how Vesperisms has met a need for you that was a little different from what you were finding elsewhere. I take that, and you, very seriously. I’ve got more coming your way in Season 2 of Vesperisms, just after the New Year.
So without further ado, I offer you our Season 1 finale, Episode 13: Renaissance and Forgiveness.
If you’re like me, you had no choice this year but to reflect on the world and your own life in terms of pre-pandemic and post-pandemic. And while, of course, we’re not post-pandemic yet, we’ve reached a point where there’s nothing more you and I as average people can really throw at it. Masks, hand sanitizer, physical distance (notice I didn’t say “social” distance), and now several vaccines—that’s about it. I know, it’s hard to admit that we don’t have more control, but there it is.
So now, as we get ready to enter a new year, I want to suggest that it’s time to move our thinking beyond the mitigation we’re all doing, and into rehumanization, just like we talked about in the last episode—letting go of fear, letting go of the low-resolution worldview of politics, and grabbing hold of an artistic worldview, to build real life with real human beings. It’s time to make a different kind of resolutions list this year, one that’s not just about our own goals or self-care, but about how we will move outward, as artists, to be part of rebuilding what we’ve lost.
It’s time to look at 2020 in the rear-view mirror and go, “What the hell just happened? What was that?” and then to shake off the road dust, and begin to look forward: to dream again, this time with a different perspective. It’s time to pull out the journal and the sketchbook; it’s time to book some studio time and choreograph; it’s time to get out the guitar and write some songs. Are you feeling that, too?
Hey, it’s OK if you’re still too exhausted or you honestly don’t have the mental space. But for myself, other than my novel writing and illustration, I’m making myself dream and take risks again—baby steps. Here’s what I’m doing: I started doing large-scale landscape-based color field paintings, and learning the Japanese art of Kintsugi. I’m also learning some English and Scottish folk songs from centuries ago. I’m really excited about this, especially because it means recovering some of the musicianship I’ve lost through my disability, and it means I’m ready for some progress. As someone who closely examines the past, old songs, like old houses, get me really jazzed.
I tend to write about pretty dark periods of history, like the Holocaust, the Cold War, the decline of the Scottish Isles, and in my latest novel, A Cloud of Outrageous Blue, I dealt with the Great Plague of 1348. That came out this past summer. That’s right, a pandemic book in a pandemic year. But it’s not just about the plague itself. Much of what I wrote about in Cloud was the inevitable social dynamics that emerge in times of fear and upheaval. Civil unrest, power grabs, mass movements of self-abasement and social purity—it’s all par for the course. Some of it leads to growth and change, and some of it exacerbates existing issues. And so what played out in 2020 came, unfortunately, as no surprise to me.
But as pessimistic as that might sound, knowing that history—indeed having dwelled in it for the 3 years it took to write the book—meant that I knew the other side of the story. You see, what emerged from the Great Plague of 1347-1351, the same pandemic that killed fully half of Europe—was nothing less than the modern world.
For centuries beforehand, most of European society was built on the foundation of the manorial system, sometimes called the feudal system. You might remember it from world history class—the serf or peasant class served their local lord, who in turn served a more powerful lord, who, yada yada, up the hierarchy, ultimately owed military service and tribute money to the king—all in exchange for protection, subsistence, and a certain amount of community cohesion.
But when the Plague hit, it didn’t just hit the peasantry, God bless ‘em. It was no respecter of wealth or class, or religious or ideological orthodoxy. No, the Plague was the great leveler—just about every other person dropped dead from this illness within about 3 days of getting it. By the time it ran its course through the population, the very fabric of society was blown to smithereens. People who were once tied to the land now had to travel to seek their livelihoods. Lords who once depended on a stable population of peasant labor now had to pay actual money wages to the precious and drastically reduced labor force—and the laborer could pretty much charge what he wanted. This was the beginning of the free market—the ability to charge what the market will bear for goods and services.
Before the Plague, medicine was based on an ancient Greek theory of the balance of the humors, or the four types of bodily fluids—as well as the alignment of planets, and the hit-or-miss use of herbs, stones and spiritistic remedies. This isn’t to say everything was a shot in the dark—some of those medieval remedies, which were developed over thousands of years, have actually been scientifically proven to be effective. But there simply wasn’t a way to test medicine in the way we can today. One physician, Guy de Chauliac, who was a medical adviser to the pope, contracted the plague but survived, using himself as a test case as he closely analyzed the symptoms and patterns of the disease, and tried different remedies. He was able to distinguish between the two parallel infections, bubonic and pneumonic plague, which had combined to made the outbreak so devastating, and to note empirically which treatments worked and which didn’t. He wrote all of his observations in his book called the Great Surgery, one of the first texts of modern medicine.
With the change in labor, the standard of living rose, and so did rates of education and literacy. Books which previously belonged exclusively in the domain of monastic libraries became increasingly available to a wider audience, and that was especially true after the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1450, only a hundred years after the Plague had wiped out half the population. And people could try for careers that were never open to them before. This was true of our fellow-travelers, the artists. The explosive growth of the middle class meant that not only could talented artists make a go of it, but newly wealthy patrons sought to show off their status through commissioning works of art. Skilled artists were in high demand, and you saw the rise of artists making individual names for themselves—Michelangelo, Leonardo, Van Eyck and Holbein, for example. We all know what this burst of creativity, art, engineering and science was called—the Renaissance.
Think about this past year. I know it seems like five years ago, but when we entered lockdown in mid-March, multitudes of people—some of them newly unemployed, some now working from home, trying to figure out how to adapt—they used the opportunity to channel their fear and anxiety—and frankly, their boredom—into creative pursuits. Illustrators and writers posted prompts and sketchbook challenges. Musicians gave online living room concerts. How many people learned how to bake bread—and how many of us put on the quarantine 10 from that bread? (Yeah. It’s a new year, OK? It’s coming off!) How many of us participated in NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month? I put in a new garden. I learned Kintsugi. I painted rooms in my house, spoke at virtual conferences and panels—and started this podcast. It’s always in times of crisis like this that creativity booms.
And that’s not even to mention the medical advances. So I want to put something in perspective. Put the 14th century plague aside for a minute. A mere 150 years ago, a Hungarian doctor named Ignatz Semmelweis was laughed out of his medical profession, alienating his fellow doctors and ending up in an asylum, because he suggested that doctors were spreading disease from patient to patient, and that they should wash their hands between procedures. Do we get that? Washing our hands—something so basic—was not considered good science or medicine only 150 years ago. The simple introduction of hand washing has saved countless millions of lives ever since.
Author Johan Norberg reminds us that if this pandemic had occurred in 2005, we wouldn’t have had the ability to create an MRNA vaccine. In 1990? No Internet to share knowledge and experiences. In 1976? No ability to read the genome of the virus. And in 1950? No such thing as a ventilator. That is stunning. That is a miracle.
In the beginning of the pandemic, our national stockpiles of medical and protective equipment were inadequate. Factories retooled on a dime to produce PPE instead of clothing, ventilators instead of cars, and hand sanitizer instead of bourbon. The presidential administration removed red tape to allow pharmaceutical companies to fast-track the innovation of a vaccine, and now less than one year after a brand new virus hit our shores, we have a vaccine against it—and not just that but a completely new vaccine technology that will be applied to other diseases. We have a range of pharmaceutical options for treatment, and even innovations like having hospitalized patients lie on their stomachs instead of their backs. All of this, by the way? It didn’t take 150 years or even a single year. It took 9 months. Just like the plague of 1348, the pandemic of 2020 has accelerated advances in science, technology and the arts in ways that will continue to unfold for years to come.
I’m not trying to be a Pollyanna about the last year. The fear and grief and loss of control were real. The loss of livelihoods was real—One of my best friends almost lost her business overnight. The anger was real when we saw a man die on a video before our eyes, and discovered that we seemed to be speaking completely different languages.
The fact that everyone was glued all year to our devices and video and social media meant that we were highly sensitive to underlying social issues like never before. We were isolated, without the social structures that would allow us to blow off steam, or participate in communal experiences like sports or concerts or broadway shows or religious services that allowed people of different walks of life to come together. Even if you are able to gather for something like church, let’s say, you’re not allowed to sing—one of the most human and cohering activities we can do together.
What this combination of fear, grief, lack of options and hyper-exposure has inevitably led to, is a desperate desire to be able to find some way to contain this chaos through offense and blame. Like a heat-seeking missile, we will externalize and seek to land that blame anywhere we can. And so we find ourselves, post-protests, post-election, wondering if we can live together with anyone who does not pass our litmus tests. Wondering who is in our corner, who we can depend on. We compete for scarce resources with whoever we perceive as having it easier or suffering less. Believing the very worst about each other, believing that we live in separate realities themselves. I’m not kidding about that last one, either—I’ve heard that expressed verbatim on news from both ends of the political spectrum—that we live in separate realities. And in a very real sense, we do. When we externalize our blame, when we cease to believe that we, too, have a part to play in making things worse or better, we place ourselves in an alternate reality, and we live out of a spirit of offense.
Offense now runs rampant through our homes, through the books we read and the pundits we listen to, through our politicians and the shows we watch. Offense runs through our holiday dinners and the people we refuse to call and the assumptions we make about people who we are sure are part of the problem. We see what we want to see, through half-closed eyes. And we are all susceptible to it. We are all doing it. To ourselves, and to each other.
They did it during the 14th century plague, too. Protests and piety, scapegoating and penance, literal self-flagellation, burning whole communities of Jews, hoarding resources, opportunistic political power grabs—we’d like to think that when our lives and livelihood are threatened, we naturally come together. We circle the wagons and take care of each other, right? But no, that hasn’t happened.
To move past offense takes a conscious commitment to self-examination before passing judgment; it takes intentionality to pursue paths of mental, physical and relational health; it takes the ability to move past our own needs and to choose compassion for others. To face our fears as fears. To believe that others, too, are afraid and grieving. To understand the universality of loss and suffering, whether through pandemic or violence or financial collapse, and to refuse to judge each other by low-resolution metrics.
Creating is like breathing. Ask any artist, and they’ll tell you it’s true. Art is the air we breathe. We’d wither and die without it, and that’s just how it is. An artist without materials will find a stick and some dirt and make art happen anyway. The artist is always moving through cycles of closing and opening. We breath in the stuff of our sensory and emotional perception—the word inspiration literally means “breathing in”—and we breath out the metabolized product in the form of our work. It’s this cycle that keeps organisms, artists and societies alive.
We get it when it comes to artists and organisms. But societies have to breathe, too. We cannot have an opening of society—both literally and creatively—if all we are doing is closing—closing ourselves to our neighbors, censoring the words and views of others and even ourselves, closing in to our houses out of fear of what’s “out there”—only participating in a closed-circuit life. At some point we have to emerge, and 2020 has shown this in high detail.
Creativity and anger are not mutually exclusive. We felt that burgeoning creativity I mentioned in the early part of the year, when we thought lockdowns might last a handful of weeks. And suddenly, we felt the anger of the later part of the year, when we wanted to understand the grief of many in our society who feel mistreated. But creativity and anger can only exist in the sense that justice and mercy coexist. True justice presumes that mercy also exists. Justice is a closing in. Mercy is an opening out. Anger is a closing in. Creativity is an opening out. We need both in order to breathe.
And so, we cannot have a Renaissance…without Forgiveness.
So I think we need to forgive 2020.
What in the world would it mean to forgive 2020?
Forgiveness does not mean saying “it’s OK”, when it’s not OK. Forgiveness is not whitewashing, or excusing the very terrible things that happened this year, to you personally or to our world. In fact, true forgiveness can only come through a sober acceptance of the truth. We can feel all our anger and grief. But then we need to open our lungs again, and forgive.
Forgiveness acknowledges what happened, and then releases the clenched fist around it.
First, it would mean acknowledging that our feelings about what we went through this year are real. And then it means sitting with that, and asking, what, specifically, happened—first, to me? Then, to specific people I love? Then, to my local community? And finally, to my country?
Anger that is not specific is just blown-out emotion. Get specific. Write it down. What happened to you?
And then, forgiveness means acknowledging that without this offense, I will be alright. What I’ve been through, what I’ve suffered, even what others have suffered, will make us stronger if we let it. We can forgive, because forgiveness implies a future.
So can we say it together? 2020, I forgive you.
And 2021, I welcome what you have to teach me.
Thank you for being a subscriber to Vesperisms. You can follow me on Instagram @vesperillustration, become a paid subscriber here on Substack, Patreon or Locals (all are just $5 a month) and subscribe to my newsletter at vesperillustration.com to get news about my work, and a free outtake chapter from my book, A Cloud of Outrageous Blue, which happens to be about a girl discovering her creative gifts at the onset of the Great Plague of 1348. My NEW book, Berliners, is available now for pre-order, and comes out in October.
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I am completely with you regarding the need for forgiveness, but reading this one and a half years after you first recorded it makes me wonder *when* to forgive. Around here (in Germany), 2021 was much more of a beast than 2020, and the beginning of 2022 topped even that... of course we should not run into the trap of expecting something in return for our generous act of forgiveness, but it can be hard if you forgive, and then it is getting worse.