A metaphor to understand this moment

Hammer and dance? Or contract and expand?

(A quick note before you read on: my kid’s Title I school is short on funds for a librarian next year. If you appreciate what I do here, which is born of my love of reading and writing, would you consider donating? It will make a huge difference to 300+ public school kids in Oakland.)

Sunday night. We’re sitting around the dinner table, eating salmon and asparagus, and sharing our one wish for the week ahead. 

Me: That I get to talk to my best friend on the phone. 

John: That he hears from the federal government on the small business loan he applied for. 

Maya: Rainbow popsicles. 

Stella: Birthday party. 

As we try to explain to our three-year-old that her birthday isn’t next week, but, in fact, a few, long months from now--and that we are hoping coronavirus will be “over” by then--John says, “They’re calling it the hammer and the dance.” 

I feel like I might leap out of my chair. “Who is calling it that? What is that? What does that mean?” 

Turn out, my body was starving for a metaphor.

Why? Metaphors ground us. Part of what we’ve all been struggling so mightily against in this strange global moment is the feeling of groundlessness: Where do we stand in time? Where do we stand in history? How is this all going to unfold? And what will that unfolding mean about who I am, who we are, what is normal and possible?

John explained the hammer and dance metaphor a bit, and then, sitting in our car (my “office”) this morning, I researched some more. Essentially, it is the idea that the best way to confront COVID-19 is to put the hammer down initially--the strictest sheltering in protocols we can stand, mask-wearing, all of it. And then ease into a moment of “dance”--when we will no longer shelter in, but still be aware of and practicing new ways of being together and going about our days. We will need to be nimble, as we will see new spikes of the virus depending on where we live. We will need to be prepared to step in and out of society.  

The guy who created this metaphor appears to be, not an infectious disease specialist, but a Stanford MBA, which sort of dampened my excitement about the whole thing. But apparently a lot of legit doctors have said his explanation and argument are sound.

As grateful as I am for it, I don’t love his metaphor. I think this is less about pounding and polka, and more about contracting and expanding. We contract into our homes. We tend to our close people and our little city block. We donate masks. We sign petitions. We read poetry. We use what we already have. We get small and creative and prayerful. 

Then, someday, I don’t know when, we expand. We get to walk out of our houses without masks. We get to rub our pregnant friends’ bellies. The expansion is not a return to old times. We will never be the same. This expansion will be wiser and humbler. We will be more mindful of hygiene and hierarchy. We will pay very close attention to what the quieter, smarter people say about how viruses and food systems and the economy work, and how we can protect one another. 

Contract and expand. Contract and expand. Contract and expand.

That feels like a metaphor I can live inside for a while. 

My friend Mia told me that she’s been thinking about her midwife in this moment. When women are in labor, they often say, “I can’t do this!” 

And the midwife says, “You already are. You’re doing it.”

That’s true now. We’re already doing it, as much as we feel, some days, like we can’t. We are. We have no choice. The only way there is through. 

There is no ground now, not really, because none of us have ever experienced anything quite like this. We’re developing all of these new muscles and mindsets and metaphors we didn’t even know we needed. But we need them now. 

We need, not only to learn how to be human in this new reality, but how to think about being human in this new reality.

My wish for us is an exquisitely accurate metaphor, an ease in the contraction, a rainbow popsicle of the finest fruits.      

We watched The Little Prince and did some research on its origins. A real worthwhile rabbit hole if you’ve got some time on your hands. Which, well, you do.