April 3, 2020 — Stability is something I long for in these days of the coronavirus pandemic. I dread the uncertainties of what is next. The recent weeks of personal and professional transitions were anything but normal. I struggled to: integrate work and home responsibilities, change patterns of social interaction, set up a home-office, teach family how to Zoom, plan for the spring quarter of classes, track the latest updates on the virus, and find ways to virtually check on neighbors. Always in the background was COVID-19; amorphous, mysterious — peeking over my shoulder — assessing my safety protocols. Waiting, it seemed, to exploit cracks in my physical isolation, daring me to make skin to skin contact with another human. In a matter of days my usual spring rituals, practices, and traditions were upended. My new normal is composed of feelings of unease, uncertainty, and wonderment. Luckily I do not have to travel the path of fear and a new normal that is anything but normal, alone. My traveling companions are family, colleagues, poets, and keepers of wisdom stories.
The Columbian poet William Ospina, in response to the dread of the coronavirus envisions fear as a teacher:
“There is also something poetic in fear: it teaches us the limits of strength, the extent of audacity, the true value of our merits. Like the sea, it knows how to tell us where there is something that surpasses us. Like gravity, it shows us what powers are over us. Like death and like the body itself, it tells us what commands we cannot violate, what is not allowed, what border is sacred.”
I can find a sense of stability in knowing that fear, as a teacher, professes the truth that there are forces bigger than self and self-knowledge. Ospina names them as the sea, gravity, and death. He offers the image of fear as guardian and protector of the sacred borders of knowing and being. Fear and its compatriot change are reminders to me to pay attention, to walk softly, sacred ground is near. There is a certain spirituality to anxiety, a religion of observation, as Ospina writes: “That, as a Latin said, religion is not kneeling, praying and begging, but looking at everything with a calm soul.” In practical terms I welcome the fear and unease that I feel prior to the first class of the academic quarter. They are reminders to look sharp, to listen deeply, and to enter the classroom as a sacred space of learning. Anxiety keeps me instructionally alive and it provides the energy to resist complacency.
When faced with fear what do you find yourself paying attention to? What brings you closer to the center of your “calm soul” where you can see and experience the fullness of the world; the true complexity of the classroom? What brings you to a place where you can count on the stability of the bigness of the world to eclipse the ego and efforts to control self and others? For me, I count on the rhythms of nature in moments of dread. For instance, on March 19th the earth passed the spring equinox in its orbit around the sun, our trustworthy center of cosmic life. Every dawning day means more light, less darkness, in the world. I can count on that, day after day after day.
I too, like the seasons, can create predictable cycles in my life even in the midst of apprehension and change. For instance, the poet Wendell Berry shares his spring ritual, which speaks strongly to my teacher-heart. In “A Purification” he invites me to consider the ritual of cleaning out the old, overused, and false; to make way for the new. To bury fear deep into the fertile soil of possibility, not to hide from it but to repurpose it into something new and unpredicted. There is much that is disturbing and tragic about the coronavirus (viral fear in the world), its personal and professional impact is frightening. And the virus also invites me to reevaluate, create new practices, and wait for unexpected outcomes. The road map for turning failure, uncertainty, loss, and death into new life is clearly outlined by Berry:
“At the start of spring I open a trench / in the ground. I put into it / the winter’s accumulation of paper, / pages I do not want to read / again, useless words, fragments, / errors. And I put into it / the contents of the outhouse: / light of the sun, growth of the ground, / finished with one of their journeys. / To the sky, to the wind, then, / and to the faithful trees, I confess / my sins: that I have not been happy / enough, considering my good luck; / have listened to too much noise; / have been inattentive to wonders; / have lusted after praise. And then upon the gathered refuse / of mind and body, I close the trench, / folding shut again the dark, / the deathless earth. Beneath that seal / the old escapes into the new.”
I can’t control or even attempt to control the coronavirus. I can protect myself and those I care for with proper handwashing and social distancing. But the virus, in its smallness, is bigger than me. Like the sea and gravity, it moves with a steady energy that exhibits a power over me and my definitions of normal. And at the same time, as Berry suggests, I can count on rituals and practices to bring a sense of stability to my life, especially when those traditions are aligned to movements in the natural world. What ritual or practice (past, rediscovered, or explored) brings you light and enlivens your spirit these days? If you were to dig a trench into the ground of your personal or professional identity/work. What items from the winter of your work, personal life, or coronavirus do you want to bury? What would it feel like to know that the elements of loss are composting, breaking down, and waiting to burst forth into the newness of your personal/professional life?