Home as a Lifeboat

Illustration by Ann Arnold

What do to when the news seems too much to bear? This summer ended with two mass shootings in a single day — one in El Paso, Texas, and another in Dayton, Ohio — each at crowded malls, killing 31 and wounding dozens more. This, only a few days after a gunman opened fire at a farm festival near San Jose and children fled for their lives.

These tragedies are a uniquely American phenomenon, and they hit at the very heart of home and community — our ability to gather with friends and celebrate in public places. They disrupt our family outings, our back-to-school shopping, a leisurely afternoon at the movies,  a respite from the  heat.

When I heard the news of these attacks, I felt a sudden aversion to open spaces.  I didn’t want to venture out.  Instead, I spent the morning curled up in bed, feeling lost and helpless, wondering what we could do to set things right.

The poet Wendell Berry advises that in the face of collective despair, we return to the comforts of home and the solace of nature.  In one of his best-known poems, The Peace of Wild Things, he reminds us of this haven.

"When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water and the great heron feeds
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
or grief. I come into the presence of still water
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with the light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

In difficult times, our first impulse may be to take to the streets and join the clamor of the crowd, yet Berry argues that for an informed and balanced activism, we first need a quiet place to be still and collect ourselves.

Nature offers that container, because for a moment it lifts us out of ourselves, and spending time at home can also help.  Our domestic routine helps us focus on the common thread of our humanity. It reminds us that everyone, no matter what their beliefs or affiliation, makes a life out of the same raw materials: a house, a room, a set of dishes. A broom, a mop, a pair of hands.  This portion of daily life is the true basis for empathy and cooperation.

For generations, we have bonded with our neighbors — not through our slogans or political affiliations but the rhythms of our days. Stopping to weed the garden, clean the pots and pans, sweep the floor, or make the bed, matter. These time-honored rituals play an important role, connecting us to one another, and to the flow of life. 

Being a householder is an act of faith. In the long arc of history, towns have been founded, hardscrabble lives built, and small victories won with the flapping laundry, the freshly painted porch, the well-tended garden. Yet, as we have learned through hard experience, Utopia is always out of reach. Each era of expansion is followed by a series of violent uprootings. Houses are washed away by fire and flood, whole regions hit by economic downturns, hard work and long-held dreams erased by sudden shifts of fortune. History shows us that there’s no steady state. 

The story of America can be summed up like this: No matter how well we perform our duties, dirt and grime will soon build up and all our chores will have to be redone. What counts, however, is our will to recommit. This is the slow housekeeping required for democracy.

Sometimes dirt and grime are festering not just under our beds but in remote corners of society. These are always the hardest places to reach. The most difficult to expose to light and air. 

But when you lose heart, remember this. Approached with a sense of tenderness and devotion, every swipe of the duster, swish of the broom, and nail in the fencepost, is a revolutionary act of love and hope.

My advice: Do something homely tonight. Have dinner by candlelight. Wash the dishes. Relax on the sofa. Spend time with loved ones. Tomorrow find something to renew and rebuild.

—- Valerie Andrews

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