It all seems so much. The pandemic. The tremendous uncertainty. More than 130,000 Americans dead. An administration that thrives on chaos and uncertainty. And then there is all the “regular” business of justice – the immigration crisis, kids in cages, racial justice protests, Confederate statues coming down, and all the rest.
It’s apocalyptic, in the real sense of the world. It is an unveiling of all that is wrong with us, and that is unsettling.
A friend told me once that she really wanted to fight The Man, but right now, she needed to figure out what to cook for dinner. As a new parent, I can relate to that a lot. The mere act of existence – figuring out what to eat, how to pay the bills, fixing the icemaker, remembering to get tags for the car – it all takes up so much space that finding the time – let alone the energy – to protest, to fight, to resist, is beyond you.
My Dad and I were talking the other day. He works in Emergency Management for a Large Government Agency. If you live in his neck of the woods, you have probably seen him on television after tornadoes come through. We were talking about how to live in the midst of the pandemic, and he compared it to Europe in WWII.
“At first, it was chaos. But then you settle into the new reality that you must have blackout curtains, you don’t have access to meat, you ration your gas – it is just what life looks like now. One day it won’t, but this is what it is right now. It becomes the new definition of normal”.
I think that is what a lot of us are coming to terms with right now – we are looking for a definition of normal that includes the current reality, yet also makes room for us to change the things that are wrong.
Which is why I love this story from the lead up to WWII told by Leonard Wolfe, in his autobiography.
One of the most horrible things at that time was to listen on the wireless to the speeches of Hitler—the savage and insane ravings of a vindictive underdog who suddenly saw himself to be all-powerful. We were in Rodmell during the late summer of 1939, and I used to listen to those ranting, raving speeches. One afternoon I was planting in the orchard under an apple-tree iris reticulata, those lovely violet flowers… Suddenly I heard Virginia’s voice calling to me from the sitting room window: “Hitler is making a speech.” I shouted back, “I shan’t come. I’m planting iris and they will be flowering long after he is dead.” – Leonard Wolf, in Downhill All The Way: An Autobiography of the Years 1919-1939
It’s about finding a way to live in the midst of the chaos. For Wolf, it was planting flowers. He added beauty to his world in a way that would outlast the temporary ravings of a madman.
This pandemic, a project I have been focusing on at home is building a deck. It’s a large deck – 16×24. It replaces a tiny patio we had outside our living room and looks out over our backyard. It basically took all the money we had saved for a summer vacation to do it – but there is no place we feel safe being for a week right now anyway. It makes our lives dramatically better – I have spent every morning before I begin work sitting on the deck, listening to birdsong while I drink my coffee. It also serves our community goals, as we don’t feel safe having people in our house right now, but the deck is large enough to have someone over and keep an appropriate distance.
By focusing on the building something that serves our new definition of normal, it lets me feel as if I have some amount of control in a world that feels very out of control right now.
I’m not saying that the only way forward is planting flowers, or building a deck. But it surely is one way. Because if you find yourself in a world you cannot endure, it’s time to start building a better one.