May 29, 2020 — “Shelter in Place.” “Social distancing.” How do these words make you feel? I experience varying amounts of uncertainty, loss of autonomy, the urge to protect, and curiosity about what is coming. Three words I’ve heard before in the context of threatened violence or severe weather over the plains of Colorado. But in this era of coronavirus they carry a heavy load. Three words with a brooding sense of warning; take cover, watch out, something destructive is coming. The safest place, until the danger passes, is where you are right now. Stay put. Don’t move.
The poet Mary Oliver in her poem “Today” offers this advice for navigating troubled times: “the world goes on as it must.” Yikes that sounds like harsh advice from a poet known for her caring tone. She seems to be saying, what did you expect? Life is challenging. Get over your difficulties. Move on. It is also possible to read her tone as a frank assessment that the world is value neutral when it comes to human concerns like-shelter in place. “The world goes on as it must”. It has no choice. It can’t slowdown or stop to attend to my wants and needs. Or perhaps her tone is soothing reassurance that despite the trials and tribulations, the natural pace and purpose of life persists. I just have to trust in the wisdom of the world. What then might be the wisdom in “shelter in place” and “social distancing”?
A student who knows my love of poetry and stories sent me a Facebook post by Cheyanne Thomas that offers a way for me to trust the bigger forces that keep the world alive.
“I have been feeling very caged in with isolation and social distancing, and my partner Joseph gave me a bear teaching: When a bear goes into hibernation, they do it for the health of their community and themselves. In the winter, food is scarce, hibernating allows other animals to have access to the limited resources. It slows the spread of disease and viruses among other animals during a season when immune systems are lowered, and energy is limited.”
It is also a time of conserving health for the bear, a time for reflection… it is a time that allows you to renew, to undergo change, to honor your place in life and food cycles.
It is not a time for anxiety or fear. When it is time for hibernation, a bear can finally relax. All of the stress of finding food, territory, and a mate disappears. The bear believes that they have done enough and trust in themselves. They know this process is necessary and they will come out the other side renewed.
Be the bear. Stay home. Rest. Know you are doing this for something much bigger than yourself.”
In the opening stanza of “Today”, Mary Oliver writes: “Today I’m flying low and I’m / not saying a word / I’m letting the voodoos of ambition sleep.” There are many things about this opening line that resonate with Thomas’s bear story. She invites me, and I hope you as well, to realize that at times it is important to “fly-low” to rest, renew, and retool. I know many faculty, staff, and administrators who have a hard time saying “no”. It is easy, and I know this all too well myself, to say “yes” to the work. To always “fly-high” and take on more and more responsibilities and projects. I find myself, even though I’m working from home, doing more work than when I drove to campus every day. I ask, how can that be? I guess it is because my “voodoos of ambition” are still wide awake and unwilling to hibernate. I’m a helper by nature and there is lots that can be done to heal, help, and care for others these days. But if I fly too high with my sense of indispensableness I can lose track of the ground where the real work is done. Mary Oliver reminds me to fly low at times. To slow down enough to get up close and personal to the world. To be present to the people and needs right around me. I only need to give myself the gift of stillness.
I tend to rush opportunity. I’m a doer. I lean toward action in service of others. Cheyanne and the bear remind me to be patient, resist the urge to emerge too soon and push forward, back into old habits. I don’t have to feel like my work is essential to the smooth running of the world. And in this case, I’m thinking of the world as my teaching, service, and scholarship. My ego would like me to think that when I retire or if I suddenly quit, that some important aspect of the university will note my absence. That may be partially true but not fully true. The work of academia was here long before me and it will remain long after me. Yes, I have much to contribute and I know my work and presence makes a difference. But Mary Oliver and the bear remind me that ultimately what matters is not me individually but rather the way the collected whole, the world, moves along. We are all in this COVID-19 mess together. This is a good thing because the challenges are too great for any one person to resolve or even begin to approach with clarity. We are the world and we must go on.
Are there any ambitions you can set down for the moment in order to see your work as it should be, not as you are driven to achieve? What does it take to give yourself approval to fly low? To be the bear? What is the emotion you feel when you hear that the “the world goes on as it must”?