The Essay

The Eternal Return

By Christian Chensvold

The virus may not be the bubonic plague, but it’s kindling a certain feudalistic spirit. (Adam McCauley)

Wherever you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re not where you thought you’d be back on January 1, 2020. That’s because you’ve moved. Or you’re thinking about moving, so your body is in the same space, but your mind is already somewhere else. And like our social interactions these days, that place is likely distant.

Coronavirus and civic unrest have sparked surging interest in prime real estate compounds ever farther from the center of the City. If you’ve discovered you can work from anywhere and are game to leave the familiar and restart your life, the time is ripe to leave your heart in San Francisco and head for the hills.

Brokers report that ultra-wealthy buyers are seeking secluded spots with ample acreage, sustainable sources of water, vegetable gardens and vineyards, off-the-grid generators, and access to small, tight-knit communities. The virus may not be the bubonic plague, but it’s kindling a certain feudalistic spirit. Perhaps moats will return as a clever source of home security no power source needed.

While it’s quite clear what many of us wish to escape, few of us pause to consider what we’re seeking. Safety? Comfort? Connection? Conventional wisdom admonishes us not to run from something, but to something. After months of home confinement and forced introspection, are we ready to return to a more human state of nature?

Technology has saved us from the lugubrious isolation tank of lockdown, allowing us to at least feign productivity while running on fumes when it comes to motivation. But video conferencing and ad hoc home offices have reminded us that technology is at its best when in its proper place: serving our needs rather than dictating false ones.

As we consider what life was like before all this happened, certain puzzle pieces don’t seem to fit the big picture anymore. Will we see our technological inventions with cold fresh eyes, as mere tools rather than ends in themselves, as we focus on mindfulness and genuine human connections? Or will the experience of solitary confinement and social distancing hasten our transformation into atomized, emotionless cyborgs who can’t experience a spontaneous life moment unless it’s mediated through a smartphone camera?

It certainly feels like we’ve stepped out of lockdown only to find ourselves at a fork in the road. And like every other crossroads, the right path for another may not be the right path for you. Some will be ready to “turn on, tune in and drop out,” as they said in the ’60s, while others will be even more eager for brain chip implants. It’ll be bot-people versus spiritualists in a showdown of San Francisco’s two great social experiment legacies from the past half-century: hippies and techies.

Since the dawn of time, humans have enacted a ritual so ingrained we do it without thinking: the delineating of space that is sacred from that which is profane. Before a world can exist, it must be founded, explained the great mythologist Mircea Eliade, and every country, city, and homestead reboots the primordial act of genesis that mimics the divine creation of the world.

I once knew a poet of some renown who resided in Golden Gate Park for seven years. He had his own little spot where he lived and slept, the central axis around which his modest world turned. Though he spent his nights under a ratty tarp beneath a tree, he spent his days in poetic composition and escapism at the movie theater. He didn’t have a roof over his head but he had peace and freedom, and he lorded over a rich and fertile imaginary kingdom that was his alone. He had discovered that all the big issues in life — including one’s very home — ultimately reduce to a state of mind.

Eventually, a social worker friend found him lodgings in a tiny fainting room in an old Victorian house, which the poet referred to as his “cell.” He was undoubtedly more comfortable than he’d been in the park, though he wasn’t necessarily any happier.

Christian Chensvold is an erstwhile San Francisco writer and raconteur, currently weathering our shared dystopia in Newport, R.I.

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