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I keep a hammer in my car. Now, that’s not because I plan on stopping on my way to CVS or Trader Joe’s and building something. No. It’s for the same reason that I have a rope in my car. And flashlights. And water bottles. And a tool kit, and first aid supplies… And those tiny aluminum blankets in those itty bitty plastic bags. I’m not sure what they’re supposed to do, but the word “emergency” was on the packet, and that’s not a suggestion I can pass up.
I have these things not because I’m a pessimist, but because I’ve been dancing on this planet long enough to know a few things.
Few things number 1: The World is a scary place.
Now, I have many friends who will argue with me on this point.
“It’s scary,” they say, “if you choose to see it that way.”
“It’s scary if you don’t believe in yourself.”
“It’s scary if you focus on fear.”
But the truth is that I see it – the world – in all kinds of ways, and I do believe in myself, and I focus on a plethora of all things beautiful, and light, and musical.
And I love this world. I do. I love this beautiful, musical, magnificent, and very – scary world.
Yet, what I have come to understand is that if you are an inhabitant of this planet, you are dancing with calamity on a daily basic.
And if I couldn’t convince my friends of this reality, I feel that 2020 has swooped in and done it for me.
In late January, I started having conversations about this novel virus threatening to undo us all.
“We’ll be fine,” I heard over and over.
And I murmured, “This one is different.”
Now, that’s not because I have some keen insights that my friends lacked, or because I understand all kinds of medical and scientific patterns, and algorithms. No – it’s for the same reason that I keep a hammer in my car. Face it, The Universe has a lot on its mind, and there are a million ways that things can go wrong, but only a few ways that they can go right.
One of my favorite Broadway songs is Stephen Sondheim’s “No More” from Into The Woods. In it he ponders the travesties of existence:
“How do we ignore
All the witches
All the curses
All the wolves, and the lies
The false hopes and good-byes
All the wondering what even worse
Is still in store?”
And, of course, there is plenty – we know – that is still in store for us. Plenty of witches, plenty of wolves, plenty of false hope- and perhaps, most sorrowfully, plenty of good byes.
So, I guess, what’s been on my mind lately is “how do we contend with all of the suffering and despair that comes our way?” How do we manage to dance with calamity on a regular basis, and come out okay – make it all worthwhile- greet a new dawn with joy?
On March 11th, at about 1:30 pm, an email was sent to every adult in the school where I work.
“At 2:45 this afternoon,” it read, “all Westport schools will be closed until further notice.”
Shortly after the onset of the lockdown, there was a meme showing up on social media. It went like this:
“The CDC says: To prevent Coronavirus stay home, avoid physical contact, and don’t go into large crowds.
The introverts respond: I’ve been preparing for this my entire life.”
At first glance, I chuckled in recognition. I had always identified as an introvert. I derive energy from quiet and contemplation, and a number of solitary pursuits. Within seconds, though, I knew this was not for me. Was not what I wanted. Or needed. The thought of spending hours upon hours isolated from friends and family, and even strangers, felt dark and empty. No, my idea of solitude was more about being in a room with living, breathing beings who just wouldn’t talk or annoy me too much. But, they were there. And, I wanted them there.
If I was going to make it through this current dance of calamity, it wasn’t going to be a solo act. I wanted a whole chorus line there beside me. Or, at least a sidekick or two.
I have learned that to be with those I like is enough, says Walt Whitman. The thought kept reeling through my mind that these connections was all that I really feared missing.
Toward the end of A.A. Milne’s children’s story, The House at Pooh Corner, Pooh and Christopher robin discuss the joys of togetherness:
“”Where are we going?” said Pooh
“Nowhere,” said Christopher Robin.
So they began going there, and after they had walked a little way Christopher Robin said:
“What do you like doing best in the world, Pooh?”
“Well…what I like best…?”
And then he thought that being with Christopher Robin was a very good thing to do, and having Piglet near was a very friendly thing to have: and so, when he had thought it all out, he said,
“What I like best in the whole world is Me and Piglet going to see You, and You saying ‘What about a little something?’ and Me saying,’ Well, I shouldn’t mind a little something, should you, Piglet?,’ and it being a hummy sort of day outside.”
“I like that too,” said Christopher Robin.”
And, isn’t that what we all want?
Which of our days, of our moments- have brought us the greatest joy? If you are like most of us, it is not the fancy vacations, or when you bought your first car or house. Most likely, not even the grand celebrations. No, I would say, it is most likely the good friends, and the “ hummy sort of days.”
It is the simple pleasure, and the unmatchable comfort, of companionship. This is what heals us. This is what makes life’s slings and arrows bearable. This is what helps us endure the inevitable suffering that comes with dancing on this planet decade after decade.
It is companionship that carries us through the plethora of problems that we humans contend with. Through ravishes of disease, of old age, of social turmoil. There is no other way to survive. And there never will be. Perhaps for some. Maybe some wolves, or sharks, or some deep water bacteria get on well without connection to others. But, for our human species, we are hooked, flesh and bone within the flesh and bone of others. We hold on to each other as if our lives depend on it. Because, of course, they do. This is how we dance with calamity. This is how we make our world a better place.
Charles Dickens reminds us:
“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of others.
Our survival then, depends on being with, and being FOR each other.”