This op-ed piece was originally found in the Chicago Tribune.
“Do we detect the reason why we also did not die on the approach of spring?”
— “The Journal of Henry David Thoreau,” April 6, 1856
Perhaps it is due to Thoreau’s living amid a tuberculosis pandemic himself (which took his life at 44), that many of his ideas now feel so resonant.
“Only that traveling is good which reveals to me the value of home,” he wrote, “and enables me to enjoy it better.” Henry loudly proclaims “the gospel of this moment” over and over in “Walden” — that the present tense is not a cage but a gift, that solitude should inspire rather than mire.
During the pandemic, such ideas have been useful. We have found some relief from physical isolation in Zoomathons and social media, but that kind of presence only goes so far. Soon, the sad hum of anxiety seems to drone 24/7 from our laptops and smartphones, and so we reacquaint ourselves with the natural world, or with our partners, or ourselves, as we learn to travel at home, and reimagine time — to recover the arts of baking bread and reading books or simply walking.
Thoreau might call this new presence or attentiveness — to the same old place or people — ”a more deliberate life.” Not a simpler life, but more meaning-filled. For some, it has been the silver lining that still shimmers.
But the pandemic has caused more shadow than shimmer — enormous suffering and loss. So far, nearly 3 million people around the globe have died, and hundreds of millions have lost their jobs or businesses and the hope of recovery.
We lost my mom a year ago, two weeks after her care center was shut down to visitors due to COVID-19. Though 95, with a walker and waning memory, her death unleashed an emotional tsunami in me that was equal parts grief and gratitude. The waves are still breaking now, as I write and watch the rain, and think of her, and her deliberate life — the joy she found in the daily routines of an ordinary life in a small town. Like Thoreau, she was frugal and stayed put. Unlike Thoreau, the family she created was her home.
I sense her presence now, as the rain ticks on the roof, and a robin glides by with a beak full of wet grass, and flaps up to his mate in the crook of a silver maple. She’s preening in the nest — adding and adjusting the twigs and leaves — getting ready. Most of the birds have just returned from a winter feeding ground somewhere south. An internal geomagnetic compass allows them to home their way back to their nesting place each spring. For birds, home is both verb and noun — both journey and destination.
Oddly, I think it was for my mom too. She was always traveling home, to her family. Though she had a different kind of compass, a different magnetic force, love, which she shared with anyone who could not find their way, including me, and my dad and three older brothers. The needle always seemed to be pointing to others.
And that may be the simple lesson from her generation to ours amid the pandemic. Compassion, and patience. Both words have the same Latin root: “pati,” meaning “to suffer.” Like thousands of other elders who were isolated from their children and grandchildren due to the coronavirus, Mom lived through the Depression and Dust Bowl and stock market crash and WWII, and other times when having “enough” was both gift and goal, a cause for gratitude.
The COVID-19 era has been such a time — a time of fear and loss, where we could never imagine enough. Enough vaccines or money or work or face masks to make it through. Or perhaps enough compassion and patience?
As death and infection rates continue to rise and fall amid the growing dis-ease all around us, I’m convinced that our resilient patience and small, quiet acts of compassion could make a difference, could point us to a safe place to land, and guide us home.
Tom Montgomery Fate, a professor emeritus at College of DuPage, is the author of five nonfiction books. The most recent is “Cabin Fever,” a nature memoir (Beacon Press).