A Parenthesis Utopia

One of the difficult lessons I learned from COVID and beyond (because the world won’t be the same, at least not for us) was how futile efforts at utopia are.

When COVID hit in February 2020 I was living in Yerevan, in the mountains of the South Caucasus. Coming off a difficult six years in West Africa – tremendous boredom punctuated by poverty and explosions – I was ready for a change. It is fairly ugly, West Africa is – I know we’re not supposed to say that but it’s true. Most of Africa, the massive Sahel regions resemble the Texas panhandle. Sure there are amazing places – Douentza in Mali where the Dogon live that looks like Monument Valley, Timbuktu which is ancient and inspiring – but most of the flatlands are overgrazed and baren and the cities, where we were trapped for our ‘safety’ are ramshackle affairs with no planning or entertainment. I was done with Africa and her wars, at least for a season.

Armenia represented to me a sort of utopia following the terrible African years (at least so I thought, for war found me there as well). A nice little program, helping a new government of good people to succeed. No bombs and no starving babies. For those two years I was there I decided to eschew saving for tomorrow in order to live only for the moment – a utopia with an end date, to be sure, but a utopia nonetheless. 2020 was looking grand indeed – Oslo in February, Georgia in March, Italy in April, Greece in the summer and Jerusalem for Christmas. And damn the torpedoes (and the budget).

Needless to say, we did none of those things. Hunkered instead in our basement cowering from friend and stranger alike. Home schooling for Jr.; attempting to keep my work afloat through Zoom calls and virtual encouragement. Dealing with State Department mayhem (not a well oiled machine – that), fighting off attempts to send us away (State eschews responsibility of any kind) and trying to make sure we had enough medicine as the diplomatic pouch (which brought our mail) stopped flying. Trips to the Russian supermarket to see if the Georgians (who hate the Russians) were letting the food through despite closed borders. Above all trying not to get sick – pre-vaccine, when the disease was still introducing itself to us through a far-more-fatal intercourse.

I decided not to be bitter at my lost utopia – yes these things are decisions – and instead learned a new lesson. I learned how to live day-to-day. When the future is unsure and mayhem is all around, one learns to focus on things that we can control. Is my car full of gas (today, who knows if tomorrow there will be none?). Is Jr.’s virtual science assignment done? How to make the best of the moments – summer with water fights and hiking mountains and wading through streams and ancient monasteries, alone but for each other. Halloween, bat caves and trick-or-treat with phantom ghosts, giving thanks for our little lives, a Christmas of cookies and movies and songs. A new year wondering what 2021 would bring? (turns out the greatest changes in life for a decade).

And then it was over. And as I look back at my Armenian utopia lost, I realized it actually was a utopia gained – an amber season frozen in time for me and my little family. A glorious period – sure it was hard and stressful but I remember workouts with my son and skiing and picking fruit and hiking the mountains. I remember reading books, the Russian classics printed in English in Soviet Moscow and bought for a pittance from a little bookseller on the streets of Yerevan.

And as I look back on the last decade, I realize that everything comes to pass. It doesn’t come to stay. The first years, in Bamako when Jr. was nothing but work and my wife wondered if the punishing rhythm of babyhood would ever end. The mind-numbing tedium of Nigeria, interesting only for the violence. Moments we could have lost it all, through frustration or bad decisions now only a parenthesis, as all other periods are parentheses. Armenia, a parenthesis – a pause – while a disease raged around our cocooned life in the South Caucasus highlands.

There is no utopia – because we are all mortal. Even if we find that perfect crystalized stasis, it is shattered by disease or tragedy or misfortune or simply just the normal ebb and flow of life. An epic season with Jr. must end, because he must eventually go away to college. In the natural order of things, it is the moment that matters, what you do with today which echoes into the years that come, long after you are gone. That is the only utopia, really, the utopia of a life well lived, and with meaning. A big house, or a peace deal. A fancy new car, or a group of girl musicians saved from their predators. A period of glorious silent tranquility that will mark my little boy forever, or a bunch of trips across Europe.

I am not sure what comes next. Whether it will be hard or easy. Whether it will be glorious or disastrous. What I do know is it too will come to pass – as all things pass and fade away – and really the only thing that matters is how it settles itself into my imagination as a paradise won or lost and how it ripples beyond into eternity; even if that eternity is the limited one of safeguarding the spirit of my little boy. And all I know is we must meet it, we must face it. Because who knows what tomorrow brings.

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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5 Responses to A Parenthesis Utopia

  1. Bill Loughlin says:

    So much human misery has been, is, and will be from the earnest belief, or hope, truly unfounded, that man is perfectible. So many eggs, and not one omelet.

    Peace to you and your family.

    And if you send your boy to college, be very careful which one.


    • Thank you Bill! You’re absolutely right, this is as good as it gets. Good governance is about trying to control the damage. We’ll leave perfect utopias to heaven or perhaps a scoop of Cookies and Cream ice cream ja. And ya, he’s gonna go to college. In the process of figuring out how to pay for it – no debt!!


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