It has been quite a year. On the surface, so many of us experienced the same thing, but how we experienced it, how we felt it, how we thought about it, was as varied as we are. Amongst many possibilities:
• A big time-out, sent to our room and forbidden our usual pleasures.
• A challenge to survive financially, emotionally, physically.
• An opportunity to attend to things we often can’t in our busy lives— more reading, piano practice, creative cooking, cleaning the basement, walking in the park, etc.
• A chance to sort out the important from the unimportant, the deep needs from the superficial wants.
• A collective initiation into the world-to-come that we desperately need.
In a recent video, mythologist Michael Meade follows this idea of a collective initiation. He notes three phases in traditional initiation as follows:
SEPARATION: The young men are taken off into the forest with the elders, the women gather in a hut, there is a break from business as usual. Mortality is more present than usual, some extreme initiations literally a life or death ordeal.
Clearly the pandemic has created a collective separation, which can be felt as isolation and loneliness, but also as a welcome reflection and solitude. Business as usual is either entirely suspended or radically changed— Zoom work, masked shopping, the closure of restaurants/ concert halls/ movie theaters. Death is present in the Covid numbers broadcast daily, in the neighbors, friends or family members who were afflicted.
ORDEAL: Classic initiation requires going through some kind of ordeal, a kind of testing ground. It often involves some kind of both physical and psychic pain, suffering, a descent. It is a liminal space, a threshold that puts us “betwixt and between” between who we were or who we thought we were and who we are about to become. Classically, in rites of passage initiation, it is a farewell to childhood and welcoming into adulthood.
We have all suffered some form of this descent, the worst those who died and the loved ones of those who died who can’t properly mourn, those who caught the virus and those who lived in great fear of the virus. The grandparents separated from their children and grandchildren, friends separated from friends. In the midst of this suffering, there were two paths available—to become smaller versions of ourselves (Capitol riots) or larger souls (Black Lives Matter). The first are those who refused the invitation of initiation, failed the test to become larger, more aware, more compassionate, versions of themselves, the latter those who will emerge transformed. In either case, the metaphor holds that not only individually but as a culture, we’ve been in a holding space between who we’ve been and who we’ve yet to be and one way or another, will emerge— and should emerge— different from when we went in.
RETURN: The third step is to return to the community with a conscious recognition of what has changed, both from the young people initiated and the community welcoming them back.
Collectively, we clearly have experienced the first two phases of initiation. But now we stand at the threshold of return. How have we changed? What kind of community will welcome us back?
Almost a year ago on June 14, 2020, I wrote a blogpost titled “No Business as Usual” suggesting that we should not return to the world as we knew it, but decide from our new perspective what to keep, what to throw out, what to change. I quoted the Indian writer Arundhati Roy:
“Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew, to enter a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
How tragic if the passing of the virus put it all back to sleep again. Will we music teachers return to jobs? If so, will they be reduced or enlarged? Have parents and administrators finally learned that in the big life moments, the times of crisis (more of which awaits), it is the singing and poetry and imagination that lead the way. No one gathers around the deathbed of a loved one and takes out their old math sheets. We are all gathering around the deathbeds of so much— fellow citizens murdered by police because of skin pigment, birds and bees and little creatures losing habitats, predictable weather patterns going awry because we drive so often to Walmart, the foundations of democracy being purposefully dismantled while so many just sit around and watch.
This is the time of our singing. This is the time to dance that moral arc towards justice. This is the time to improvise through the staggering accelerated changes like a disciplined jazz musician. This is the time to work on our downward dog and then come up barking ferociously at the robbers trying to steal the treasures of our humanity, the shameless profiteers coming to steal the souls of our children. This is the time to connect the mindfulness of our breath with the denial of some of us to breathe while the knees of centuries old and government sanctioned brutality are on their neck.
And as we head into another school year of distanced learning, it is the time to commit yet more fully to the real education our children need and have always needed and now need more than ever. The education that nourishes heart, mind, body and spirit as one undivided entity. The education that puts arts in the center, not the arts of the specialized talent off to the side playing for the football game, but arts as an exalted and necessary faculty of the human imagination that is in the center of the way we live, think and act. We’ll need all the players in this game—the scientists, the business folks, the politicians, the lawyers, most certainly the doctors and more, but we need the artists up there at the front leading the songs that give us courage, comfort and connection. This will be a singing revolution.
And that means the children need to learn the songs. They need to know how to sing. And right now, in this moment, they need more than ever the comfort of a soothing lullaby, the caress of a violin string or the healing breath of the saxophone.. They need to create something from sounds, images, colors and motions to stave off the chaos of the world, to bring order to the pandemic’s pandemonium, the cultural confusion. They need to understand that beauty is powerful, a flowering plant pushing up through the concrete or singing even through the screen. This they need and this they deserve. We all do.
My hopes that we will emerge from the winter of our sheltering into the beautiful blossoming that was waited patiently for its moment. And that moment is now.