Going (to the inner) home

We’re all staying at home these days, unless you’re—depending on your point of view—lucky or unlucky enough to have a job that still needs your presence. We’re keeping our distance, socializing only through Zoom, pirouetting around people who get too close in the supermarket.

It’s an opportunity to think about what it means not just to stay home, but to go home. And not just to go to an outer home, but to our own inner home.

At home you take off your coat and hang it in the closet among those other familiar jackets and raincoats you’ve known and worn. At home you have a favorite chair. You know where the vegetable steamer and the good china are kept. The floor creaks familiarly beneath your feet, and you can anticipate just how many seconds it takes for the hot water in the bathroom sink to reach the temperature you like. Home, both inner and outer, says philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, is a feeling of belonging. Home is an interior sanctuary in the mind as well as an interior refuge in the physical world.

The coronavirus is forcing us to think about what it means to go home and then stay home, physically, mentally, and spiritually. In our isolation, we find ourselves super-conscious of our behavior. We lose patience with our partners or roommates. We stay in our pajamas all day. We note in ourselves an increase or a decrease in compassion for  others. We realize how much money we typically spent on expensive coffee drinks and, having no idea where the money will come from now, we cut back. Or we fill our anxious moments by shopping on line for things we really don’t need. Having to live with ourselves, we discover how restless or content or creative or pessimistic we really are. We have to face ourselves without the mirror of others to build us up or cast us down.

What are you coming home to in yourself. As for me, I’ve found that I’ve quit striving and pushing in the way I’ve been doing since I was a freshman in college. Since no one is able to plan these days, I’ve discovered a surprising new faith that things will unfold in some creative, unhurried way when they need to—that I, personally, don’t need to foresee, predict, plan for all outcomes, and fret that others aren’t striving and foreseeing with the same intensity.

For another thing, I’ve been pondering mortality. There have been days when I’ve been in an utter panic about my own death, that of my husband, and those of the people I love. There have been days when I’ve been preoccupied with the sacrifices of the trash collectors who come to our town on Thursday, the nurses and doctors who risk their lives every day, the women who live with alcoholic abusive husbands. There are also days when, introvert that I am, I really enjoy the opportunity to read, write, and think more. And there are days when I realize that, simple as it sounds, I will survive until I don’t, and I feel enormous comfort about that.

What are you coming home to?

What I’m reading

Of course, I’m still reading The Forsyte Saga! It’s almost 900 pages long, and I only have about a hundred pages left to read. I will miss it!

Savory Moment

My savory moment occurred last Monday. We woke up that morning to see about eight inches of heavy, wet snow on the ground. “At least we don’t have to shovel the driveway,” I said to Andy, “since we can’t go anywhere.” Much of the snow had melted by afternoon, and I went outside. I wanted to check on the daffodils that I’d planted in the meadow and on the trail leading to it when we first bought our house 32 years ago. Daffodils are my favorite flower, and I was sad to see them all bent over, their yellow blossoms pressed to the ground by snow, the green stalks flattened. I set to work liberating each daffodil everywhere I found them. Finally, my gloves soaked, I picked a bunch of them and walked back to the house. I realized I had never before picked daffodils after freeing them from snow. They have survived beautifully and continue to bloom.

Is There a Lesson in All This?

My philosophically minded friends and I have can’t help talking about whether the coronavirus has some kind of lesson to teach us. By “us” I mean us-personally and us-as-humans.

A few people think there may be some cosmic overall plan meant to help us evolve to a higher level of consciousness. Others believe it’s all just random—physics at work in the physical world. As for me, I think that, whereas there’s no meaning for why this virus is rampaging the world, there may be something we can seize upon later, as we look back and ask ourselves, How have we changed?

Because we will certainly change. Never before has every single person in the world faced the same lethal threat at the same time. The virus does not discriminate among genders, religions, or races. We are all worried. At some point in the future, right now yearned-for but unimaginable, we will be sitting in the sunlight in cafés, laughing with friends, browsing inches from one another in a crowded bookstore. We will be exuberant and we will be sad, for we will have suffered through the disease and many will have lost someone because of it.

How will we change? Will we become more polarized as a country? Or will we become more generous and compassionate? Will we realize that we don’t need to rush out and shop whenever we realize we’ve forgotten one or two things at the supermarket? Will we become more patient? Or will be become more impatient, more greedy to reward ourselves with all the little indulgences we had to forsake during our self-enforced isolation? Will we realize how much we could do without—celebrate the clearing of the skies when so many planes are grounded, the return of dolphins to the canals in Venice, the bubbling once more of springs in Bali when thousands of tourists are no longer luxuriating in spas and taking long American showers?

Sometimes I feel optimistic. Today, for example, I was moved by a video of musicians from Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, playing their instruments from the homes where they’re isolated, so that we, isolating in our own homes around the world, might hear a beautifully rendered “Ode to Joy”. People can be wonderfully kind and creative, I thought.

And then, less than an hour later, I read a the Facebook post of a Florida friend of Puerto Rican heritage that his daughter is afraid that kids in her neighborhood will mistake her for a Chinese person and beat her up because they blame the Chinese for causing the coronavirus. People can be very cruel and unfair, I thought.

The mission of the organization I founded, Radical Joy for Hard Times, is to find and make beauty for wounded places. The whole Earth is a very scared and wounded place right now. The only thing we can possibly do is to be excessively generous and patient and grateful for as long as we can—and then a little longer.


What I’m reading

I’m now reading Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien.  It’s the story of a woman who was a child during the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the late 1970s. Her father is killed, her mother dies of weakness and mental confusion, her younger brother decides that the only way he can survive is to become a merciless child soldier himself. The girl, who goes by several names during the course of the narrative, eventually escapes and creates a life in Canada, but her past keeps wreaking havoc on her life.

My husband Andy asked, “Why are you reading such a depressing book at this time, when the whole world is falling apart?” I asked myself the same question and realized that in some way it just makes sense. Often, when I read books or hear news stories about tragedies and tumult that other people are experiencing, I feel like it could have been me—or even that I actually have lived that life somehow, in some region of my being or past life or very active imagination. So now, during the time of the coronavirus, when I feel like I’m connected to everyone on Earth in a new way, it’s the perfect time to read a story about fear, survival, and small acts of rebellion, because on some level that’s where we’re all living now.


Savory Moment

On a recent cold, gloomy day, after negotiating the untrafficked aisles of the supermarket and feeling both grateful for the staff unpacking boxes of yogurt, arranging apples in the bin, checking people out, and unsettled by the sparse number of shoppers resolutely keeping our distance from one another, I felt so sad and vulnerable and moved. Then Andy and I went to Home Depot to stock up on birdseed, and while we were there, I was captivated by little flats of pansies in beautiful sunset colors. I loved that there can be flowers blooming at a time like this, as if everything is right and normal with the world, as if the soil will always be glad to receive little roots that know exactly how to behave in it, and as if flowers are possible at a time like this. I bought some of the pansies and put them on a little table in my office. Together we await spring.