'Do not hope; instead observe'
Do not hope; instead observe.
My daughters and I had been reading Flora & Ulysses, a fantastic Kate DiCamillo book, over winter break, when we came across this line. Flora, is a little girl who describes herself as a cynic and reads books like TERRIBLE THINGS CAN HAPPEN TO YOU! In other words, she’s a surprisingly timely character navigating a strange and painful world (sound familiar?). When she advised observation rather than hope, well, I knew I better listen.
We cancelled our Christmas trip because of omicron. When we told the girls that they wouldn’t be blessed by the cousin pile, as originally planned, their faces fell, but then they quickly recovered. So quickly, in fact, that it broke my heart a little. I could see how their story of why it was actually all okay was for me. That was hope at work to save adult feelings.
Their dad and I were determined to distract them (read: us) by fun activities. We ice skated in a pop-up rink in an airplane hanger and discovered that John was impressively graceful and fast on the ice. We rented one of those little contraptions that you can push to make the whole thing easier, but instead of pushing it, Stella sat atop the plastic blue seal like a queen and let John slide her around and around and around. I smiled and realized I was observing the chaotic, cold joy, to be found at the end of a desolate stretch of industrial landscape. So what if it was overpriced.
We also went to the drive-in movie. Each girl crawled into one adult lap and we put a box of pizza between us, munching as we watched the big screen through the windshield. The pizza joint forgot to put dressing on the salad. The girls kept fighting, so tired of one another’s company. But in that moment none of that mattered. I observed the weight of my first baby–now 8 years old–in my lap for a couple of hours, felt her body vibrate with laughter, and that was bliss.
At night after the girls go to sleep, we discuss this latest best-laid-plan slayer: omicron. We arrange and re-arrange the facts that we’ve read (hospitalization rates, infectiousness, long-term risks) and what we’ve heard from friends. We start projecting into the next week, the next month–what will and will not be possible depending on who we listen to most and what story we ultimately tell? What sad emails will we have to send? What new products will we have to buy? This is hope and hopelessness at work. The privatization and protectionism depletes me so quickly these days–like my battery has gone bad after two years of overuse.
On my birthday–New Year’s Eve–the family tricked me into going out for a beer at the golden hour and when I returned in the dark, the whole house was covered with luminarias. The girls and some dear friends had worked with John to fill hundreds of paper bags with sand and tea lights and arrange them artfully. I sat in the cold air, cozy in the fuzzy jacket John gave me for Christmas, and looked at the light. I was warm. The light was beautiful. I refuse to make a story of hope about it.
Historically, you’d be more likely to find me evangelizing about the power of story, but these days, something else is happening. I’m shedding stories. I think people all over the country are. We’re turning away from trite, flat stories of the past (so much pain was redacted). We’re turning away from triumphant, entitled stories of the future (it requires so much denial). We’re admitting we are not authors in control, but unwitting characters, trying to ride waves of unknown narrative.
We’re settling into the small, fragile present. Into basic observation: this is my body, breathing in and out; this is my child, turning poker chips into macaroons; this is the feeling of my favorite sweatshirt and a 400-year-old tree and the light that emanates from a candle in a paper bag. This is my grief right beside my joy, my rage right beside my gratitude.
This is what it is. For now. Maybe tomorrow I will make meaning, grasp onto some sense of narrative control, take action, take heart. But today I sit in the middle of what feels like another season of confusion and uncertainty and observe what is real and dear.