When I learned that preschool would not, after all, be starting again after spring break, I stood in my backyard with my two small children and the bright green nubs of this year’s lilies of the valley as they pierced the dingy March snow. As we humans endure a societal shift unlike any in living memory, plants all across the northern hemisphere awaken to a spring just like any other. Right this minute, miles and miles of roots are laying claim to their seasonal residences in the soil. Their aim is clear: Seek nourishment. When those roots encounter something that makes this task difficult — a pebble, some clay — the roots pivot and keep going. It’s called root tropism and it describes the way that, to live, roots must detect and then respond to what is happening to them.
Humans are not plants. But I think we may be alike in this way, especially in our hearts. Our hearts need nourishment. To acquire this nourishment sometimes necessitates a pivot. I think this is, in part, what is so difficult about the pandemic and the isolation required to fight it. All of a sudden, all at once, many of the ways we have nourished our hearts have evaporated, perhaps not forever, but certainly for now. What we need now is a kind of heart tropism — a way to detect and respond to what is happening to us. A way to pivot so that we can still get the nourishment we require.
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While the coronavirus rages, social media balloons with inspirational memes urging us to “look for the helpers,” to reframe (“It’s not social distancing! It’s physical distancing and social solidarity!”). These are well-intended but together read as a collective denial of our present moment’s difficulty or, worse, a kind of self-gaslighting.
What is happening is a massive change, not in theory, but in fact. In January could you have imagined the President telling the people of the United States not to gather in groups bigger than 10?
I could not. And now, I cannot pass my smooth plastic YWCA card to Satanique, who always has a big smile and a little treat for my toddler. I cannot sneak a bite of my 4-year-old’s M&M cookie, nestled in crinkled paper and still warm from the bakery, while he climbs on the ropes at the playground. I cannot huddle and swap stories with my child’s IEP team as we plan what to do in the too-hot room behind the school’s kitchen. These needed changes are as physical as any pebble.
It is not just the mass of them, it is their capacity. Among these things that I miss are nearly all of the things that gave me what I needed to get through the tricky parts of life. Now, in days full of tricky parts, I find I am empty. To save our bodies, it seems, we must deplete our hearts.
It feels somehow wrong to articulate this. We seem to be afraid that naming what is happening, what nourishment we now lack, will summon even more to be taken from us, like Bloody Mary reaching through the mirror. We worry if we say that we are sad to be isolated, this new virus will hear and will snap up our husband, our child, our parents, our brother. But that is not how it works. Words cannot invite in these horrors any more than they can shut them out.
I want us not to be so afraid of our words because I think words are our way forward. Words are the tools of heart tropism. While they cannot command a virus, they have great power over our inner lives. Words can help us to detect what is happening so that we can respond, if we’re lucky, with compassion and with wisdom. Mr. Rogers put it another way: “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.” Root tendrils sense pebbles so they can keep growing. People name difficulties so we can do the same.
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Roots do more than secure nourishment. They also ground plants into the earth. This, I think, is another way plants and people are like each other: What nourishes us is also what grounds us. What nourishes us secures us to our bodies and to the world.
This is why it is so important to seek out nourishment and note when it is missing. It is not extracurricular; it is essential. Right now, we cannot nourish in the usual ways. But, like the roots of a plant, we can adapt. We can discover new apps. We can remember old hobbies. We can give ourselves grace as our hearts pivot and keep going in this new, old world.
This essay was syndicated in The Post Grad Survival Guide.