How Do We Make Meaning in Difficult Times?
Playing with arithmetic today, I figure I’ve taken over 200 walks in the last 13 weeks since I’ve been staying at home.
Yesterday I baked cinnamon rolls and made pesto from a mix of cilantro (store-bought), plus arugula, basil, mint and dandelion from my backyard.
I taught an online Alexander session, helping my student to find more ease in her shoulders.
I donated money to several organizations working for justice, equality and safety for Black people. I posted something simple on social media, not wanting to seem like a poser. I learned—too late—about a march near my house.
What is the point of it all? Does it make any difference? What does it all mean? How do I make meaning?
It is tempting to chase pleasure—in a doughy roll or a pungent green paste or a perfect Hood strawberry. It is tempting to reach and strive and agonize: how will I make a living now? What’s to become of us?
Is meaning in the laundry?
I’ve folded two loads of laundry so far today. And there’s more to go. It’s not the laundry per se. I also need to put the clean sheets on the beds and scrub the bathroom floor (again), as it smells like pee in there (again). (Six year olds don’t always hit the mark.)
I think there is a distinction to be made between finding meaning and making meaning. I don’t imagine I’ll find the meaning of life in the bottom of a basket of clean laundry. Or dirty laundry, for that matter. But there may be something to be said for simple, honest work of gathering and washing and folding and piling for the people I love. Using my hands to create something—a pile of fresh clothes to be tucked into drawers and pulled out later for riding bikes or building with legos or reading Calvin and Hobbes.
Is meaning in the neighborhood walk?
I can now identify Birch trees and Elm trees. I recognize the cones of the Giant Sequoia. I’ve seen Irises in every color of the rainbow. I also wave daily to the neighbor I’ve never met who seems to be on my same schedule in the morning. He talks on the phone enthusiastically in a variety of languages—I recognize Spanish and Portuguese, but I think there is another (others?) I don’t recognize. One day I heard him say, “now let’s practice your English.”
To be in a place, so deeply, that you rarely leave. That is what people used to do. Before commuting, before world travel. People just lived where they lived, didn’t they? And walked their streets and greeted their neighbors and sat on their stoops after supper.
Is meaning in the conversation?
Is talking to my mother twice a day a good thing or not? I’ve also talked to friends—old and new, one of my students, several colleagues, my mother-in-law and her best friend, my 95-year-old grandmother, my cousin. It is good to connect and I feel guilty that I’m not doing more. The list above may sound significant, but consider the 200+ walks I’ve been on.
“How are you doing?” The conversation begins.
“Up and down.”
“Yes, me too.”
How do I make meaning when the things I took to be meaningful are stripped away? In my work I help people feel better, freer, easier in their bodies, more whole. For the last three months, I’ve (mostly) not been able to do that. Starting soon, I may have the opportunity to do it again. But the three-month interlude begs the question: is that really how I make meaning? Or rather, is that the only way?
Can I make meaning through writing? Can I make meaning through conversation? Can I make meaning by being with my family for unrushed hours that I had barely conceived of before? Can I make meaning by sharing Star Wars with my children, and then pointing out how everyone in it is white?
Can I make meaning by being, rather than doing?
This is a stone I’d like to keep in my pocket to remind me that being here, now might actually be more important than what I’m doing or what I’m planning to do. Inhibiting, to use the Alexander parlance, the old habit of working myself up into a lather to get things done at the cost of snapping at my kids and stiffening my shoulders. Inhibiting the wish to check anti-racism off a list, as if it were something I could master in five easy steps.
Remember…13 weeks seem to whisper…you can’t pile up meaning. Like logging hours worked or miles commuted or money donated or laundry folded. The meaning comes in the act of folding, talking, walking, playing, teaching.
I’ll try to be there for it.