Soundings: Week One

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

These are strange days, we all agree. There’s a weirdness in the air, and real threats of disruption and death and ill health and trying times. These are not to be minimized. And the reach is global. The virus now ominously stretches its sinister tentacles across continents, fingering — via human carriers — into remote corners like Mishawaka, Notre Dame and South Bend. Maybe into restaurants and schools and malls and grocery stores. So we have had to scatter. Isolate ourselves. Sequester. Quarantine. 

My kids are home. They are e-learning, devoting a surprising amount of time to daily assignments from dedicated teachers. Screens and smartphones, Xbox and several streaming services help pass the time as weather also keeps us indoors — except for that one sunny afternoon we fled to the county park nearby. There were so many families there, emerging from bunkers, walking in clumps, it felt like the climax of a Ray Bradbury sci-fi story. 

There are inconveniences, to be sure, but for now we are among the most fortunate ones. 

I am at home, working “remotely.” Paychecks continue. I have survived several Zoom meetings, having managed to teleport my tech-thwarted self, appearing both on screen and with audio . . . from this little oak desk and chair that was my grandfather’s when he was a wildcatter in Colorado 100 years ago. It faces out a second-story window with green treetops waving in fresh air. Everything looks normal from here. 

A familiar view in unfamiliar times. Photo by Kinsey Temple

But I, like everyone else, move now along unfamiliar pathways. Attending meetings virtually. Communicating electronically. Writing my way down computer corridors that feel foreign to me, alienating, discomforting. 

Many people are accustomed to these media extensions of human interaction. I have done well enough to get by — with plenty of help from my friends, and patient colleagues, and tech savvy family members. I have adapted well enough, moving in the lanes of habit and familiarity. Some would call them ruts. 

Over the years I learned to follow patterns and procedures, the step-by-stop processes for editing manuscripts in customary document files, linking to stories, attaching attachments. These familiar pathways have been broken by working from home. They’ve got me off my game, adapting.   

We like our routines, the accustomed avenues of our lives. We like to settle in; we play better on familiar turf, according to our own ground rules. We like the comfort they bring, the security in knowing, the predictability. There’s an intoxicating sense of control.

While most of us take new steps to maintain the rhythms of our days, to keep working, to patch together some resemblance to normalcy, to carve new pathways that turn the strange into routine, we all navigate these days not really knowing. 

In so many big and little ways, we really just don't know. How big of a risk is that trip to the grocery store? How close will the virus come? How long will this last? How bad will it be? I think about the economy and toilet paper. Health care workers and medical supplies, people out of work, small businesses suffering. The questions and uncertainties abound. Everything on hold, appointments canceled, all sports called off, families hunkered down. 

So weird. But the lessons of living compressed. The reality of impermanence that relentlessly stalks our days. 

Yet everything looks normal as I look out this window . . . as it has at other times when a life-threatening storm is forecast, showing itself on radar screens. 

When we see the devastation that a storm can bring, we marvel at the power of nature. We see what happens to human habitations. We realize again how fragile is our construction, the buildings and walls we put up, the protections in place. And when we think about it further, we realize again the temporary nature of our dreams and plans, our saving-up and the things we hold dear. We invest so much and put so much faith in things. 

And we nod in solemn agreement as we listen to survivors tell us to value the truly important things in life. So true, we say, watching. 

But is that really how we live?

I have been thinking these days about familiar pathways, the routines and regularities to which I am accustomed, the comfort and peace of mind that comes with a life in good order, the preparations made, the plans fulfilled, the security of being in control.

It is unsettling to learn just how shaky the firmament is, how precarious the structures we depend on. It makes you look elsewhere for the right stuff to build upon. And think twice about what it is you’re building. 

Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.