That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Pandemic
Karin Anderson returns to the series with an unflinching look at unheralded heroes and a steadying hope amid this often incomprehensible time.
The Stars Move Still
by Karin Anderson
Got no wisdom, got no real comfort here so don’t read on for any of that. This is my first pandemic. But if I had a million bucks for every time I’ve been told to “quit thinking so much and do something about it,” I’d be as rich as a Koch brother. Ruminative types are often accused of living in a dream world while practical people get on with “real life.” I retort: reading is doing something. Thinking is an act of the body, driven by a bodily organ. Writing is at least as much “doing something about it” as waving signs and guns at a governor’s door.
Besides, I do plenty. I’ve been tearing out lawn for more tomato space, and I’m neither burly nor young. I’m nurturing four chicks and I built a coop (so it was prefabricated. Leave me alone). I’ve sat on my fattening, flattening butt, individually corresponding with every one of my eighty-five students as they force themselves, against their own shock and bewilderment, to finish a ruptured term. When the rug becomes furry enough, I vacuum it. I re-learned how to calculate fractional volume in order to wheedle the ten-year-old kid next door through his online homework, so his mom and grandma didn’t strangle him—so, technically, I’ve saved a life.
And, yeah, I’ve been thinking, not always warmly or productively or wisely. Just thinking, because here I’ve been, alone(ish) with churning memories and a paisley brain.
“Turn to the small until it looms monumental; to the slow until the pressures of the clock release us into timelessness; to the repetitive until it rises to the devotional.”
What’s my point? A lot of what we do in real life—not fantasy life, not cowboy hero life, not Defend Our Constitutional Right to Cheap Hamburgers and Haircuts life—happens in the deceptive stillness of place. What we do in our defining hours is simply a more or less creative response to stuff we can neither control nor glorify. Sometimes—and I think right now is, for most of us, one of those times—the best thing we can “do” is lose the mythy heroics. Turn to the small until it looms monumental; to the slow until the pressures of the clock release us into timelessness; to the repetitive until it rises to the devotional.
I don’t say this stuff casually. I was raised within an all-encompassing authoritarian religion; I buck like I’ve seen a snake at the first whiff of “spirituality.” I’m talking about sweet, swift, slow, adazzle, dim mortality: I’ve gotten almost fifty-eight years of it on a beautiful brutal damaged planet and I’m old enough to recognize that it’s no time at all. My mother’s racked up eighty-five and she’s thinking about how fast—and yet how agonizingly slow—a human life really is. She gets up every morning and walks a mile or more because “it's something to do.” She lives alone, she’s quarantined in a neighborhood of people her same age, all of them hunkering in, waving from the windows, calling to one another across the manicured lawns—preserving their numbered days, the future mornings that may yet allow them to walk beside one another, to wake up to morning light as it clears Mount Timpanogos, to congregate in church and sing in the choir, to savor or cling to or resent the hours they’re in no way ready to forfeit.
We want to be eternal as the planet that produced us.
John McPhee devotes a chapter in Basin and Range—a book now enclosed in the larger Annals of the Former World—to spell out the psychological ramifications of geological time. As minutely temporal humans programmed to cling to our own significance, we simply aren’t capable of grasping such knowledge beyond a few staggering glimmers. We want to be eternal as the planet that produced us; we want the earth to be the ephemeral thing:
On the geologic time scale, a human lifetime is reduced to a brevity that is too inhibiting to think about. The mind blocks the information. Geologists, dealing always with deep time, find that it seeps into their beings and affects them in various ways. They see the unbelievable swiftness with which one evolving species on the earth has learned to reach into the dirt of some tropical island and fling 747s into the sky. They see the thin band in which are the all but indiscernible stratifications of Cro-Magnon, Moses, Leonardo, and now. Seeing a race unaware of its own instantaneousness in time, they can reel off all the species that have come and gone, with emphasis on those that have specialized themselves to death.
I’m not here to convince anyone that geological time, not God, is the staggering fact of creation. Many of my cousins—smart, educated, moral, religious people—would rebuke McPhee by reminding us that the planet is six thousand years old and is about to give way to the return of its Messiah. Okay, but my point doesn’t really change: our lives on the sacred ground are incomprehensibly swift and small and sweet against any screen of eternity we lay our brief shadows upon. Two months of American stillness do not an eternity make—and if they do, maybe we should take some of it to think about other infinities. The coming season of incomprehension, disruption, unrest and legitimate fear will skew time into warp speeds and numbing doldrums, probably simultaneously. The disorientation will spin us all dizzy. The hard part—besides, you know, our looming confrontation with the facts of personal and generational mortality—will have something to do with being forced to live in our own minds, in ways many of us have been allowed to skirt in our peculiarly headlong, do-something, don’t-think-about-it culture.
To savor a few more hours, a few more days, a few more seasons among our fellow citizens on a swiftly turning planet? Dulce et decorum est.
And we have plenty to think about. I really do believe that human compassion is a hard-earned action of the mind, even more than the heart. I’ve come to mistrust the casual ways we interpret the word “empathy”—if we feel it, everyone feels it? Not necessarily. That’s just solipsism. I have to say, what I’m personally feeling as I watch a ten-year-old writhe and contort on his grandma’s bar stool is probably NOT what he’s feeling. At all. Or not enough. It’s so easy to strike, or to shame, or berate. Showing a kid how to slow down, break up the problem, stick it out step by step by step: heroic. I’m not so good at it—bow down to sixth-grade teachers. Getting up to walk a mile at eighty-five, every last beautiful morning? Heroic. Stopping to breathe in the evening air from our own front porch? Lucky as hell, and heroic. Easing the trigger finger? Heroic. To savor a few more hours, a few more days, a few more seasons among our fellow citizens on a swiftly turning planet? Dulce et decorum est.
(… Of those so close beside me, which are you? …)
(… Out, out, brief candle, for life is just …)
(…The stars move stil, time runs, the clocke wil strike …)
A gardener, writer, mother, wanderer, and heretic, Karin Anderson is a professor of English at Utah Valley University. She is the author of Before Us Like a Land of Dreams and hails from the Great Basin.
This project has received funding from Utah Humanities (UH). UH empowers Utahns to improve their communities through active engagement in the humanities.
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