THE NAVIGATOR —Responses to a disrupted world

Hannah Smith
Apr 19, 2020 · 5 min read

Part 2: Oscillation

This series — The Navigator — is reconciling how The Point People are navigating this moment of collective grief and uncertainty, the transition from a pre-Covid time to a brave new world. It is an imperfect record of our experiences and reflections over this period. We are all grappling, recalibrating, coming to terms with something new and discombobulating. There is so much to navigate — practicalities, possibilities, hopes, thoughts and fears. We hold no answers, but we travel these unknown seas together.

Photo credit: Sam Baumber

A few weeks on, further into this new time. Our Point People calls remain a lodestar for many of us and they are ever warmer. For most of us the call takes place in the evening, following the new normal of Thursday night cheers for the NHS, for those who are at the coal face of it all. For one of us, it is morning. Bleary eyed as the day begins, there is comfort in sharing the evening of the day before. We are all separated these days, what’s a few thousand miles between friends?

Our conversations swerve and curve. Rolling between personal, cerebral, practical, emotional. From dancing like plants, to the challenges of post-pandemic urban planning. The oscillation suits us, seems to suit the mood of this time as we each find ourselves rocking between so much of everything. In fact it seems this oscillation is one of the few constants we are finding in this strange new normal.

Grappling, juggling, see-sawing, lurching — words we use often as we navigate these new seas. Noticing this I wonder — are we in fact finding ways to be more comfortably plural with thoughts and feelings of ‘both at once’? We are grieving AND we are optimistic. It happened so fast AND the days seem so slow. We are swept up in concerns for society and humanity AND dealing with deeply personal challenges. We are being forced to face our edges, on both sides, at once. There is a mass recalibration going on. We are working out how to be and do in an entirely new context. No wonder it feels hard.

There is a sense of everything being in sharper relief. This ‘great pause’ is endowing us with heightened sensitivities. Perhaps it is the confinement, the concentration. Typically modern humans, many of us have lives usually spread across multiple places, multiple roles. We are jugglers and plate spinners — seeking and trying and racing all the time. And now we must stop for a while. It’s making us question our places, our roles, our priorities. We are holding the sadness of all we can’t have, whilst encountering untold beauty in this strange new confinement.

Kyra describes her experience below:

Medieval monks, I heard recently, believed that the world was a book, and that moments of transcendence — what I imagine Virginia Woolf would have called “moments of being” — are those rare, wholly ecstatic, and sublime flashes of light that allow us to read a few lines before it all goes dark once again.

It is often said now that the world — our book, if we continue with this monastic train of thought — has indeed gone dark (“I hope you are well during these dark and uncertain times,” reads one e-mail; “The lights have come off,” offers a headline). It is as if humanity is experiencing a prolonged total eclipse — “the sun,” as Annie Dillard wrote in her stunning 1982 account of an eclipse, “was going, and the world was wrong.”

Photo by Jongsun Lee on Unsplash

The world being wrong is a sentiment I am, at the best of times, completely overwhelmed by. The irresolvable tension between the sublime and the everyday gnaws away at my soul, often leading to tortured admonishments that tell me how little I know of how to live a good life, or how impossible it is to derive meaning from daily existence. These extraordinary moments, when you can read those few, sacred lines, when the world comes alive and you can feel the life quivering inside it, are — so much of the time — inaccessible to me. The words of Lily Briscoe, from Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, often circle around in my mind:

“To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain. And then to want and not to have — to want and want — how that wrung the heart, and wrung it again and again!”

I am aware of how easy, or cliched, it is to say that I will now hold dear all that this radical suspension of normal life has exposed as meaningful, but that before was veiled by the numbing effects of habit. But this, precisely, is what I am now holding in my heart: some of the most melancholy moments of this tragic time happen when, like in a vivid dream, what has been lost appears (it is right there!) and yet you cannot reach for it. Our friends are in front of us, two metres away, perhaps, while they drop off a batch of homemade pasta, or a loaf of freshly baked bread, or, even, a glorious pile of books, and yet we are unable to touch them.

The impossibility of fulfilling our deeply held longing for those tiny, ordinary, daily intimacies — even, perhaps especially, with strangers — is one of the many losses that illuminates the inseparability of dailiness from the ecstatic. They are not, as I was utterly convinced they were, opposing forces. There is always, it feels right now, a quality of the sublime — that longed for “moment of being,” when the world is a book you can read — in the everyday.

Yes, the world is a different, and in so many desperately tragic ways, a darker place than it was only a couple of months ago. But as with everything, there is a crack — and through it, the light gets in, enough of it, even, so that we can read what this moment might be trying to tell us.

Photo credit: Sam Baumber

The light is getting in right now. The air is clearer; we can see differently. It may be tricky to see far — mostly it feels like there’s just yesterday, today and tomorrow. But where we can, we soak up these moments of quivering, radiant life.

To end, some beautiful words from John O’Donohue, read by Fergal Keane; they really are worth a listen.

Until next time, take good care.

The Point People x

Compiled by Hannah Smith, with writing by Kyra Maya Phillips. For more from Kyra, subscribe to Marginalia, a beautiful newsletter made for The Point People.

Contributors: Sneh Jani-Patel, Abby Rose, Cathy Runciman, Nish Dewan, Beatrice Pembroke, Sophia Parker, Ella Saltmarshe, Anna Mouser, Eleanor Ford, Jennie McShannon, Sarah Douglas, Jennie Winhall, Cat Drew, Victoria Stoyanova, Kyra Maya Phillips & Joana Casaca Lemos.

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