Animation still from dodie's "Secret for the Mad"

They Can’t Take Your Kindness

This time last year was the last time I saw a film in the theater. It was “Emma”. I went to a coffee shop afterward to work on the review and a little bit of novel writing. It quickly became apparent that the pandemic was spreading in our state the next week.

Weekends before “Emma”, I’d seen “The Invisible Man” with Elisabeth Moss, before that “Birds of Prey”. Earlier during the Trump administration, I’d put a lot of time into working with writers and artists who had received threats. You can burn out on that quickly, and I put about two years in. It took me a lot to get back out to theaters regularly after that, and then I got my own serious threat, and then stalked by two other people. That was another two years. The threat was to shoot me and others in the head. It was viable; I knew the person and I knew they owned guns.

Movie theaters have always felt like something of a safe place for me. I realize they aren’t; I adopted recognizing the exits before the movie started same as a lot of other people. It took a long time when I was getting back into feeling comfortable stepping outside – on the rare occasion a man walked in with a backpack or duffel bag, I’d be on edge. I’d observe their behavior; I’d be relieved when they were joined by a woman or friends who laughed with them (simply because acts of violence usually aren’t perpetrated by women or casual social groups).

But they still felt like a safe space the minute the film started; it still felt like this place where everyone could give themselves up to artists and what they had made shoulder to shoulder, an ad hoc community that existed for two hours before dissipating, like a temporary art installation that’s meant to erode without record.

Reviewing films has always felt like more than just talking about that movie. It’s felt like recording what it is to be a witness to that moment of art, to that momentary community existing then and there, some sort of evidence that we were here despite so much overwhelming bullshit.

I don’t miss theaters. I miss what they enabled: being a witness to those pieces of art we can’t create anymore. Not the art on the screen – I can still watch that at home just fine. I miss that temporary human installation that would set everything aside for two or so hours just to participate together in a fantasy, or introspection, or wonder, or laughter, or whatever that film in particular brought to us.

In a weird way, I feel like I pre-gamed for the pandemic due to threats and stalkers. I was finally reclaiming the major things the social anxiety I’d dealt with had taken away when the pandemic hit. I already knew what it was to stay inside and bide my time, to busy myself in the face of a larger horror. It felt like I’d practiced, and as hellish as those two years of anxiety were, I was lucky, privileged, and supported enough to develop the skills to sustain another year or two of a different type of patience during this pandemic.

The most beautiful thing people do, the thing that rails against entropy the most, that gives us meaning when we’re all specks to the universe, is to be able to join together and form communities with their own momentary meaning, to understand our own participation in something artistic. To feel removed from that, unable to create that on a regular basis – it feels dehumanizing. It feels lonely. It’s OK to recognize that. I think it’s necessary and healthy to recognize that. It sucks. It sucks that we have to fight for the common sense to be patient for it to come again, for it to be available to us again. It sucks that we have to practice patience with ourselves and prolong a desire to participate like that again, and balance it directly against a fight with those who want to worsen the pandemic now and stick us in this dehumanizing state indefinitely, who are invested in that chaos and profit from it.

People who won’t wear masks, who oppose vaccines, it’s not just that they’re still gathering. It’s that they’re taking those moments we don’t get to have, that we’re responsible enough not to have, and they’re perverting them. They’re taking that ability to join together and create meaning in a moment, and they’re using it to feed conspiracy theories and cause harm. It’s personal because they put us and our loved ones at risk, because they feed the continuation of a pandemic hurting people. And it’s also personal because they’re taking something that for us is key to being human, feeling human, being affirmed as human, empathizing with others, they’re taking it and they’re making the only version that takes place an inversion of what that creative, communal act is. They’re making it an act of harm. If a communal event takes place right now, it is one that at best dismisses and at worst prioritizes that it will cause harm to others.

Please know that they won’t keep those spaces. They won’t redefine what those communal activities mean. They can only repurpose them that way because there’s a vacuum that responsible communities have intentionally created to keep people safe. That creation, that lack of events, that’s a communal creation, too. It’s a difficult moment to witness and take part in, but everyone setting aside their lives for a year-plus to protect people they love and people they don’t even know…that’s beautiful, too, as difficult and traumatic as it is to see.

Just please be patient with yourselves. Please know that if you feel an aspect of yourself is missing in all this, that’s normal, it’s to be expected. It won’t stay missing, it’s just informed by something that’s key to being human missing. When something that’s key to being human is missing, the most human reaction possible is to recognize that part of you is missing, too. It’s evidence that we haven’t been changed by the circumstance, that our norms haven’t been taken from us, that we still yearn for and feel incomplete without the ability to experience what we create for each other shoulder to shoulder with friends and strangers alike. They can’t take your kindness if it’s still what makes you whole.

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