WELL, WAIT AND SEE
(Quarantine Essay #8)
In the midst of crises our fears can loom larger. What light we have has a lower slant and casts big shadows across our path. Frightening shadows.
We don’t know what life will look like a month from now. We can be anxious about that; but having a timeline can also be calming. This staying home part “may be” over then. (Although there’s certain to be a nightmarish amount of suffering and death still awaiting us.)
As I’ve been recovering from a stroke these past fifteen months I’ve often been frustrated that my doctors couldn’t give me any firm timelines. When will my right hand regain full function? When will I be able to lift my arm long enough to hammer a nail or paint with a brush? When will this constant muscle fatigue begin to subside?
They couldn’t and wouldn’t give me firm dates because any such dates were unreliable. There were too many variables. Much depended upon me. Upon my persistence. My determination to be determined.
All of us are in a similar situation now. When will it be safe to return to normal life? When can we send our kids back to school? Go back to church, out to eat, attend a movie or a concert? We don’t know.
Living in the not-knowing we have to create some sense of order, routine, or purpose within the confines of our domestic cage. We are all somewhat different in how we do this. This temporary routine we eventually find doesn’t need to be perfect, just good enough. But we need to snap out of the emotional whirlpool many of us found ourselves in during the month of March: immobile, distracted, uneasy. Watching too many screens, eating too much food, avoiding deep reflection.
Perhaps you’ve already begun to find your way. Given responsibilities help with that: work we must do, people whom we have to care for; quotidian things that have to be done even under crisis (cooking, dish washing, managing finances).
For some this is familiar territory. For many it is not.
We find our way. Eventually. But how we do it is not always clear.
Birds do it, bees do it; but I’m not sure educated fleas do it. But most animals have to navigate their worlds. If they have a home, a burrow, a nest, they have to leave it sometimes, and then find their way back without getting lost.
Even though we can’t get lost staying in our homes, we can feel lost emotionally and spiritually during this time.
Navigation is both essential and mysterious.
Scientists are pretty sure birds use the earth’s electromagnetic field to navigate. How they do that is not so clear. Bees have more circumscribed patterns that depend upon specific landmarks. Ants leave trace smells
In a crisis like this, when so many of our patterns are disrupted such that often we can’t even remember what day it is, how do we find our way? Especially if I’m required to stay home for another thirty days: how do I find my way?
The GPS in my smartphone is one of its most valuable features. I can find almost any location anywhere in the world. I can map a route from where I am to where I want to be. My phone will tell me not only how to get there, but perhaps offer me one or two alternatives. (Note to self: There’s more than one way to get where I want to go.)
But there isn’t any app available for a time like this.
This morning I was reading an opinion column by Michelle Norris in the Washington Post (“My children are now watching me. All day. Every day.”) where she described her mother’s childhood experience in the 1930s and how it shaped her for the rest of her life:
“The things she saw and learned growing up stayed with her a lifetime. Years later, almost everything that came in our house had a dual purpose: The brown paper bags and the coffee tins. The pantyhose and toothpicks. The little wire twisters and the bag the bread came in — that is, when she wasn’t making her own bread.”
This was my parent’s generation too, and I often found their frugal ways confusing, quaint, or peculiar. But they had grown up under a situation where the social fabric was stretched very thin if it existed at all.
In a book that has renewed relevance right now Rebecca Solnit wrote in a A Paradise Built in Hell about situations of crisis when communities rise to the occasion:
“This is a paradise of rising to the occasion that points out by contrast how the rest of the time most of us fall down from the heights of possibility, down into diminished selves and dismal societies. Many now do not even hope for a better society, but they recognize it when they encounter it, and that discovery shines out even through the namelessness of their experience. Others recognize it, grasp it, and make something of it, and long-term social and political transformations, both good and bad, arise from the wreckage. The door to this ear’s potential paradises is in hell.”
Sixty years ago I heard a children’s song on Captain Kangaroo that I haven’t forgotten and probably haven’t heard since (with a little research I found it on Youtube this morning). It was sung by Bing Crosby concerning an apocryphal story about Daniel Boone. The legend is that Boone was asked if he had ever been lost in the wilderness. “No,” he said, “ just bewildered.”
So the song (titled “Incident at Rogers Creek”) is a call and response: “Were you lost? No, just bewildered. Were you caught? No, just surrounded. Were you brave and were you courageous? Well, wait and see.”
This is a bewildering time. I am the type that wants to know as much as possible about what is going on: how the virus is proceeding, how mitigation and treatment efforts are progressing, how governmental leaders are (or are not) responding.
But for others this level of awareness is too distressing.
Unless you are in the type of denial that endangers the lives of others, there is no right or wrong here.
We are in the early stages of an unfolding drama.
Were you brave and were you courageous? Well, wait and see.
March 30, 2020