Ways of seeing: Post-COVID era can be a new start
As spring arrives and with it the hope of post-vaccine life, the narrative has shifted to “getting back to normal.” I can already feel myself being pulled back into familiar rhythms. When will it be safe to host a potluck? Can book club start back up in person? When will the laughter of other people’s children fill my house again?
And while I am craving gathering with friends, sharing space with colleagues, and picking back up some of the routines of daily life that were abandoned, there are many things that I don’t want to “go back to normal.”
That over-crowded weeknight schedule that had my family driving all over town? No thanks! The long commute only to sit in an isolated office? Rather not. Letting geographic distance keep us from maintaining relationships we value? Unnecessary.
We don’t need to fly all over the planet at the pre-COVID rate to stay connected. In fact, sometimes we can even be more connected when events that were once far away and out of reach can now happen online. Certainly some events can’t — and shouldn’t — be replicated online. I’m absolutely looking forward to the next in-person wedding invitation and national conference I will attend. But I don’t need to travel to a nearby (or far-flung) city to attend a workshop or meeting.
In schools, we’ve discovered that learning doesn’t only happen within the walls of a classroom and that teaching practices can change overnight. We’ve been reminded that caring relationships and connection are the foundation of a healthy learning environment, and that learning can happen outdoors, in (virtual) community, and at home. Not all learning should happen in these out-of-school settings, but plenty of learning does and always has. Perhaps now is the moment when we broaden our measures of “academic success” and redesign schools to value and measure what really matters: connection, well-being, engagement and community.
All of these things show us that something else is possible. We can change. And not just the mundane routines of our lives. Before COVID, the world’s dominant human systems were (and still are) producing inequity, suffering, and environmental devastation on a vast scale.
And while all of those things persist, it feels different now. The stakes feel higher. The consequences of our choices have penetrated even my privileged, white, North American bubble. I don’t want us to pick up where we left off in a world that was (and still is) hurtling toward it’s own self-designed demise.
A year ago, shortly after this all began, I found myself thinking carefully about this terrible opportunity: is this our second chance? As human life across the planet ground to a halt, I wondered if this could be the moment when we pivot to a more sustainable and just way of being. But when I first started having these thoughts, I was still holed up in my house, terrified about all the unknowns, and watching in terror and grief as wave after wave of infections spread.
Certainly the trauma and triage of the early weeks of the pandemic was not the moment to start talking about how we grow back better. But when would it be time for that conversation? How would I know? When would we begin to transition to the next evolution of our ways of being human on this planet (whether that meant “going back to normal” or “growing forward”)?
These questions only led to more questions: What is the right move now? … What about now? Which way is forward? How can I play a role in moving us toward a more equitable, just and joyful way of being?
And I realized that it depends. The right move depends on the moment. And now feels like the moment when we need to get really serious about deciding how we want to move forward from here. Will we fall back into the patterns of the past without question? Or will we seize this opportunity to grow forward?
Rachel Carson, in her 1962 book “Silent Spring,” offers us some advice: “We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”
Which path will we take? I’m not sure, but if enough of us take that road-less-traveled, maybe others will follow. And there are more of us than we realize. There are a few things that we have done in the past year that have given me so much hope. They are evidence of our deeper connection and commitment to more meaningful ways of being human. Here are a few:
We reached for one another. Those first, dark days of isolation as we sheltered in place led to the immediate rise of mutual aid networks. These grassroots, neighbor-to-neighbor support systems emerged overnight offering connection and support. Whether you needed groceries picked up, a new board game or puzzle, or even just to talk with another human on the phone, your neighbor was there. Or you were there, reaching out a socially distanced hand.
We connected to the source of our nourishment. Last spring, we bought all the seeds and baby chicks. All of them! We remembered that we need healthy food to live, and somewhere in our veins our ancestors reminded us that we possess the capacity to feed ourselves. Then we bought all the canning jars. These things tell me that we do remember what’s most important — each other and the earth that sustains us.
We went outside. In droves. For so many of us, the discoveries and connections we have made with the beauty and wonder of the natural world have sustained us through this long year. Last spring my family began daily walks and watched spring unfold all around us. We skied miles more than we ever have before. Parks and outdoor recreation sites have been reporting record high usage this past year. Behaviors that perhaps started as a remedy to boredom have blossomed into a full-fledged love affair with nature herself. Let us not forget that we, too, are nature.
We changed. Overnight. We completely reinvented how we do all the things we need to do to live. And this, this gives me the most hope of all. Because we’ve proven to ourselves that we can change; we can do hard things. We have, we are.
It’s built into our cells, it’s our humanness. So as we emerge from these dark times, let’s not forget again. Let’s stay connected to ourselves, each other and our human nature. Let’s commit to building back better, together, and stronger.
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