Life is immensely uncertain right now. Last March, I wrote a piece about how time and space were taking on a new character as we transitioned to online learning. We did so with heroic efforts. And now we face another major transition, preparing for an unprecedented start to this academic year with teaching, learning, and engaging in university activities remotely. This time, we’re ready for this uncertainty and constant living on edge with the coronavirus to be over, yet we’re being asked to renew our energy once more to survive this pandemic through the long haul.
I picture standing amidst the giant Sequoias – each one between one and three thousand years old. The signs of trauma and pandemic they have lived through are visibly apparent. Deep burns from forest fires hundreds of years ago; skin wounds from insects or predators; bulbous growths in trunks; wrinkled bark showing signs of aging. Looking up at these giants, I wish they could talk to me about how they have survived. They actually can talk, in a way – to one another. Peter Wohlleben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees, reveals that trees in old growth forests are actually social beings. They communicate through their root systems, sensing when other trees are experiencing stress and slowly, steadily send them extra nutrients. Even after surviving pandemics and forest fires, they care for one another.
It’s time once more to take a break to deepen our roots and send energy to one another. I am not always a proponent of just “taking time for yourself” if it means being self-centered. But right now, it’s plain essential – taking a break, whatever works for you, however short or long, brings new energy and appreciation.
Appreciation, first, for people in our lives. A friend recently shared that she went to stay with her family members who were eager to help care for her son, so she could get some work done. But very shortly into the visit, she realized she needed to slow down and just appreciate being with family. “I mean,” she texted, “this is a global pandemic!”
Appreciation, secondly, for people whose every day is lived in a constant state of uncertainty, year after year – as refugees, in worn-torn lands, in circumstances of poverty, or for some, just being Black in America. Many of you are already engaged, listening and organizing against structural injustices, or preparing to engage in new research and education this fall that will contribute to a better future.
Appreciation, finally, for life itself. I may not be able to stand beneath the majestic Sequoias right now, but I take a small break each morning. I sit on my patio and watch the sparrows, as they steadily bring food to their hatched chicks nesting in the tiled eaves of my roof. I know they are an invasive species and annoy some of my neighbors – but they don’t know that. They simply and continually choose life.
Additionally, when everything around me seems chaotic and uncertain, I often turn to a meditation I first learned from Gullu Singh, a meditation teacher in LA (I have recorded it here). Imagine in your mind one of those Sequoias – or as he suggested, a mountain – stable, rooted, unshakeable. The brightness of daylight comes, the darkness of night comes, and the mountain (or ancient tree) just sits. Through the renewal of summer, decay of fall, cold of winter, and rejuvenation of spring, it just sits. People, animals, rain, winds come and go, and it just sits. Imagine this, then sense the qualities of vastness, elevation, stability, and resilience within yourself.
Wohlleben’s book has been described as “a powerful reminder to slow down and tune into the language of nature.” This continued time of COVID-19 can still be that for us. If you need to slow down to gain appreciation, and are able – for even a few moments a day – to do whatever it is that nourishes you, do it. Together we can weather yet another transition. Others are counting on us to choose life, and stand on deep roots.