The Authenticity Experiment, the Julian of Norwich edition. For as long as I can remember, during difficult times, the Woman Who Gives Me Stories In Lieu of Advice has repeated to me, “All shall be all and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
This is what Julian of Norwich—an anchorite—said to parishioners as the Black Death of 1348 ravaged the town of Norwich and killed more than half the population. Norwich, you might not know, was second only to London in those years and center to most of England’s agriculture and trade.
The Woman Who Gives Me Stories In Lieu of Advice also would add, “If Julian could say that then and Eliot could write The Four Quartets while swinging from the rafters of St. Paul’s during the Blitz, then you can survive this.” However, this, for me, never meant a pandemic. This always referred to some dating drama or some literary loss or some thing I believed at the time would ruin my life, but in the end hadn’t, not really.
Unsurprisingly, after the long year of last week, I’ve been saying this to myself, to friends, to family, to frantic people in the grocery store who seem like they might need a kind word. And I’ve been saying this incantation, to the people who’ve emailed and Direct Messaged me on all the social platforms, asking would I please write an Authenticity Experiment that might offer some hope.
But along with promise that all shall be well comes the other part of what the Woman Who Offers Me Stories in Lieu of Advice says, “But the only way out is through.” This is something I am not always good at. I think I can go so far as to say this is something we as a culture are not good at: waiting, sitting still, not taking action.
We want a panacea—in this case, in the form of hope. Hope against the fear we feel rising up as we sit alone and are still. Hope as we check the shelves of our grocery stores and see there is still no toilet paper. Hope against the darkness we so very rarely let rise up in us, very rarely allow ourselves to feel—even though the light always finds a way to push through the darkness if only we won’t run from those feelings. Those fears of the disease, the loneliness, and the deaths of those we know and those we don’t know. We feel out of control. We feel like we should take action. But in this moment, we can only do what Unitarian Universalist Reverend Bill Sinkford said this morning during the new normal of online church: “let rest be your action.”
The truth is, and maybe it sounds cavalier, pandemics come and pandemics go. Just ask Julian—because the plague raged back through Norwich a second time in 1471, and then a third time in 1479, when she herself got sick but did not die. What’s scary to us now is that we are in the middle of one and we don’t really know how to stop it except to stay inside our homes and sequester ourselves, sort of like Julian of Norwich. To go inside with our own quiet and stillness, and feel all the feels.
We are not truly cloistered away. Unlike Julian of Norwich, we have FaceTime and Zoom. We have Facebook Messenger Video Calling, and Google Hangouts. Wherever the people we love live, we can see their faces and leave funny messages on WhatsApp or Marco Polo. We are not so much alone, really, as we feel we are. Because in the words of Franciscan monk Brother Richard Hendrick, “behind the factory noises of your panic, the birds are singing.”
In late January, the North Dakota Music Teacher brought me a bunch of pussy willows right before she left town. I put them in a vase and occasionally remembered to change the water. I’d walk by them and run a finger over the soft nubs and remember being a kid and playing near a swamp where they grew. I loved that swamp—but I wasn’t supposed to go near it because snapping turtles nested in the mud at the edge of the water. It might not have even been a swamp—maybe only a slow-flowing creek—there’s no one left to ask.
Now, the pussy willows are blooming. Did you know this happened? They are blooming into catkins—from the Dutch word for kitten—which are flowers. Unscented, nothing showy, but flowers, still, right in my living room. Better yet, roots sprouted from the bottom of the stems and, next fall, I will plant these pussy willows at my new home.
Even as I ramble around in my empty home, these pussy willows serve as a tangible sign of someone’s love and, in a way, her presence. It’s there, too, in my freezer where my beloved placed jars of pasta sauce that she cooked for hours, so that I might be able to make a quick meal if I didn’t feel like cooking or became ill. I can only see the North Dakota Music Teacher and my beloved on FaceTime, but if look with different eyes, I find that they are really here with me. I just have to quiet the factory noise of my panic.
In this new silence—no kids at the red brick schoolhouse a block away, very little vehicle traffic, and no music or loud voices coming from Slim’s Bar across the street—I hear new sounds that ring out. I am not really alone. The other night, in the stillness, I heard the Amtrak whistle blow as the train rolled over the tracks and through the cut in St Johns. Passenger train whistles are based on a major sixth chord, unlike freight train whistles which are meant to sound more ominous and are built on a diminished seventh chord—a warning rather than a welcome like the Amtrak, its windows glowing yellow against the dark of the cut, people inside looking out into the night.
Ca-chunk, ca-chunk, ca-chunk the train wheels rolled on the tracks and echoed over to my balcony, reminding me, reminding us all, that life rumbles on, if only in a slightly different key, because all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.