Because things are never going to be the way they were.
This essay was meant to be about the magical power of words to alter reality, both real and perceived. What other people say to you, the language you use to talk to yourself can summon demons faster than a passage from the Necronomicon. Talk therapy uses words to heal. Guided meditation, hypnosis, or just the kindness of hearing “I understand you.” show how language can soothe.
Add math to words and you build civilizations. Combine musical notes with words and you can divine songs that carry us away. A hurtful word embeds deeper than a tattoo or scar. Hateful dogma can alter the way society acts forever.
That’s where my prep for this piece started in February 2020, but things changed. Those plans were blown up by another transfiguring word: PANDEMIC.
Things everywhere will change, this is guaranteed because, to paraphrase the Buddha, “Everything is impermanent.”
This immediate shifting of our cultural behavior is about survival. The norms of commuting to work, kids to school, happy hour or date night at the cheap theatre, making any plans, those are gone for now. People are actively sick and dying and losing jobs and loved ones. As badly as I want to know the future, to see when all this will end and predict exactly how our universe will be altered, it’s impossible to see. Do what you can now. If you can, stay at home.
In the early 1990s, my job was to help older people–folks who didn’t have family–transition from living on their own to moving into care facilities. I sorted through the client’s life, home, and possessions. The majority of these folks lived through the Great Depression and WWII, and the majority of our clients were hoarders.
When they were younger, those clients could not have predicted that in their old age they would live among piles of boxes and bags and cans packed in so tightly that there was just a narrow path to the bathroom or the kitchen sink. They were living day-to-day with a feeling deep in their psyche that it was entirely plausible that one day they would need one of those boxes or bags of cans they didn’t have during the tough times early on.
Based on how those clients clung to the security of “stuff,” I can guess how the world will change. Can you still imagine grabbing a bag of chips from the gas station and just opening them up and starting snacking without wiping down that bag with a disinfecting wipe and then wash your hands a few times? I think handshakes will disappear entirely, people will save hugs for the closest of relationships, that the housing and healthcare models will change in America, but those are just guesses.
Everything we’re experiencing feels like a question right now and the answers seem to shimmer like an oasis that keeps shifting farther away as we move through this thing.
We’re deep in the middle of the trauma, or maybe just at the start, so anything labeled “the new normal” is pure conjecture. Even if theories are based on how people behaved historically, we’ve never seen a time like this. Societal changes happened after worldwide tragedies like the Spanish Flu or the Great Depression or the World Wars, and localized cultures changed based on natural disasters and the wounds of colonial oppression and genocide.
But the changes we will see will be unique to this time in history. We are more connected and have instant access to information. Before, we didn’t have social media and 24-hour news feeds serving both vital news, and conflicting updates and anxiety.
Alternatively, we are fortunate now to have the option to call a friend, parent, or grandparent to alleviate their isolation, and the benefit of FaceTime, Zoom or Slack to work from home, stay connected, or share virtual concerts, workouts, art lessons, or storytelling.
When we entered isolation early in March, my own mind began to change, not on a full alteration of society level, but just for me, just a little. The transition to staying in was not terribly jarring for me. I’ve been working from home for a decade, my main hobby is this magazine, which is done entirely in the virtual environment, and I was housebound by an iatrogenic illness most of 2018-2019. I’m used to not interacting IRL every day. But, as everything changed on a global scale, I see my privilege even more clearly now. As terrified as I am for the world, for my family, for the future, I am trying to let go of the fear a couple of times a day and breathe into the things I am grateful for: the internet, a good job and a loving and safe home environment, food to eat and, as always, functional indoor plumbing.
I highly recommend finding a breath meditation or body scan that suits you on the free Insight Timer app. There are hundreds, so shop around until you find one that grounds you or sweeps you away, whatever you need. This is the one I’ve had on repeat for the past few weeks.
I’m not a doctor, scientist, nurse, grocery store clerk, postal delivery person, utility maintenance person, pharmacist, trucker, sanitation worker, or any of the myriad of other essential workers who we are all relying on to keep our society functioning right now. I’m just an editor who gets to read about worlds woven out of words by talented writers, and then I get to share those words with you. But really, the only power I have is over my own actions and my own words.
The world is going through a transfiguration. Transformation, good or bad, is coming and the universe will be completely indifferent. Right now the most powerful words we have, the most powerful action we have is to try to bend the curve toward good: Stay At Home.