Coping with uncertainty

Julia DeSpain/Little Village

We are in a coracle with no oars or rudder, heading to an unknown fate. We are in peregrination.

So that’s my topic for the return of UR Here. Rarely have I just not known what to write about for this column. Even though I was ecstatic that Little Village was coming back to print, I was at a loss as to what to write. Not because of a lack of possibilities — rather the opposite. The COVID-19 pandemic and its significant restrictions on our lives provide myriad opportunities to talk about our relationships with home, what community means, our relationship with nature — all the things I focus on in this column. The economic fallout that has followed and now the civil unrest of the Black Lives Matter movement are also rife with profound, unprecedented stories of our society today — local, statewide, national and global.

After a couple weeks of mind-swirling, I’ve realized my writer’s block about today’s world, especially COVID-19, is due to uncertainty. Although so much has happened on all the fronts I mention — some things with whiplash-inducing swiftness — we are still in the early stages of the pandemic (despite what our state and federal government say, as well as those making unsafe forays out into public life again). One answer to the question “what is going to happen?” that we must all sit with is “I don’t know” — and that’s the only answer I at this point am able to give.

I have never felt so much uncertainty about the future of our society and our world than I do right now. I might have felt something like it during the few days of the Cuban Missile Crisis had I had any inkling, but I was only 3 years old. Probably the only other time in my life that came close was the fall of Communism in eastern Europe. I watched slack-jawed as the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Empire crumbled between 1989 and 1991. There was a sense of anticipatory joy about what lay ahead, but what we’ve ended up with is hardly what most would have predicted.

So now — not knowing if and when a COVID-19 vaccine will be developed, not knowing how long the pandemic will persist, especially as lack of cooperation with public health measures increases, not knowing what the depths of the economic fallout will be, not knowing if we are at the beginning of a social justice revolution or if our enthusiasms will be quashed or wane — “I don’t know” is honestly about all I have to offer right now. There have been signs of resilience and strength in our local community and in the country, but also clear demonstrations that we find ourselves seriously wanting. I don’t know which directions will be our strongest heading.

Recently I have been reading about Celtic mythology and spirituality, and the concept of peregrination has captured my imagination. Very old Irish stories of the immrama and echtrai had their heroes set off, often in boats, to find unknown magical islands, if not the Otherworld. The later Celtic perigrini set off to sea in curraghs or coracles without oars or rudders to let the winds and waters take them where they would, their ultimate goal to found new monastic settlements or spread the word of God in unknown destinations. The peregrination dispenses with personal agendas and puts the unknown length and destination of the journey into the hands of fate or God — a power beyond the self.

Today, we are unwilling passengers in the COVID-19 coracle — being taken to an unknown destination in a vessel that is difficult, sometimes impossible, to navigate. Even where public health measures have seemed to quell COVID-19 for the time being (such as New Zealand), the future remains highly uncertain.

My emphasis in the UR Here column has been on rootedness, identities of place and in place, and definitions of home and community. In the crucible of the pandemic, we can certainly examine those concepts deeply, especially when so many of us are literally bound to home more than we have ever been and restricted from movement. When so much of our social and economic life has been stripped away, we can newly examine our definition of place and home, and reevaluate our relationships to community and what is “enough” for us in today’s world.

But even so, the times and circumstances are so unprecedented, the endpoint of those reconsiderations, and even what structures will remain for us in a post-COVID-19 (or a permanently COVID-19) world, are entirely unknown. Perhaps the pandemic will completely upend our concepts of home, place and community. Perhaps they will affirm our current ideas more strongly than ever. Right now, I don’t know, and I don’t believe anyone knows. For now, we peregrinate until our destiny — what we can wrest from the unknown and what the unknown gives to us — is clearer.

Thomas Dean is spending the pandemic working remotely from home. And he doesn’t know anything. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 284.