In some ways, it was like being a child again. Back in those long-ago days of the 1970s, it seemed like a week was a mighty length, a month an eternity, and a summer unending. More recently, I blink, and a decade has passed me by.
Since Friday, March 13, 2020 – the first day after my school told us all to go home and stay home – time has slithered along, as the normal markers have all changed or disappeared.
|Night Rain at Ōyama by Utagawa Toyokuni II (c. 1830)
I know that I’ve been extremely lucky that much of my work was able to be done remotely. I’ve taught eleven college courses online, written multiple articles at home, done interviews and given lectures on Zoom, and remotely recorded my bits for various music projects.
But I’ve also seen a big percentage of my income evaporate as orchestras shut down and music venues closed. Even now, some performance spaces are bumping scheduled performances into the future.
For others, the toll has been much higher. Loved ones have been lost to this pernicious disease. Lives have been derailed by long COVID. Jobs have evaporated. Careers have crashed. Businesses have been permanently closed.
Through the worst of it, many of those with jobs that couldn’t go virtual have soldiered through. Not only doctors, nurses, and other first responders, but also the dedicated people who make our lives possible by maintaining roads, sewers, farms, and food distribution. We owe them much more than this selfish society will ever give them.
As I scan tables of dark statistics, read testimonies of suffering and loss, and drive by empty storefronts, the words of J.R.R. Tolkien echo in my mind.
Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?
In The Two Towers, Tolkien set these words into the mouth of Aragorn as “Lament for the Rohirrim,” but they are based on and inspired by the anonymous Old English poem known as The Wanderer – a compiled work with several parallels to the aphorisms of Odin compiled in the Old Norse Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”).
We have made such a great number of mistakes in our response to this gross pandemic. Even as time has seemed to slow down, it hasn’t been slow enough for our elected leaders and appointed officials to get a grip on the right thing to do, the efficient thing to do, the moral thing to do. Stuck between bad actors and those incapable of acting, it often feels like our nation is careening onward like a horse without a rider as we chase after it and attempt to grab its reins.
Have we ever had true leadership? The very idea seems like a dream or a memory on the edge of sense. The last year or five have often demonstrated that we exist in a strange netherworld between anarchy and police state, and they have repeatedly revealed loopholes that the so-called founding fathers left in the system they started. Many among us have long known these things, and now hard reality has begun to dawn on many more as naïve hopes pass away like rain.
In the United States, we’ve nearly reached 79 million cases of COVID-19. We’re now closing in on one million deaths. There are incredibly awful rates of hunger, housing problems, and unemployment. For far too large a number of those in our communities, the days have indeed gone down behind the hills into shadow.
Yet there is reason for optimism and for mature hope.
Baldr will come
The numbers of fully vaccinated Americans continue to climb. Children as young as five have been getting the vaccine. Elementary schools, high schools, and colleges have been providing shots to their students, faculty, and staff.
We’re slowly moving back to a place where we can have some version of a regular life again. We won’t get back to the way things were. There have been too many losses. There has been too much change. Going backwards isn’t a great direction for a society to go, anyway.
The world we’re heading into will be different. I believe it will be better.
The prophetess who narrates the Old Norse poem Völuspá (“Prophecy of the Seeress”) speaks of new life after the cataclysmic and epoch-ending events of Ragnarök (“doom of the powers”).
She sees, coming up for a second time,
earth from the ocean, eternally green;
the waterfalls plunge, the eagle soars above them,
over the mountain hunting fish.
The Æsir find one another on the Renewing Field,
and they converse about the mighty Earth Girdler,
and the Mighty God’s ancient runes.
There will be found again in the grass
the wonderful golden game pieces,
those which they possessed in the bygone days.
Without sowing, the fields will grow,
all evil will be healed, Baldr will come…
Our world will come up a second time, and life will again thrive. We will get through this, and we are closer to the end than we are to the beginning. The world we’re heading into will be different from the one we left behind, but new green will grow, and new lives will be led.
As the Æsir gods will do after Ragnarök, we will find one another again. Relationships that were suspended in what used to be commonly called the world-wide web will break free, and we will step back into the eternally renewing fields of conversation and community.
We will discuss the mighty monster that surrounded the earth, but it will be an airborne virus rather than a serpent of the seas. Some of us will indeed discuss the symbols and secrets of Odin, hopefully over a horn of ale or a glass of wine.
We will return to the games we love. I will take my magnetic backgammon set to the coffee shop to destroy all challengers, and I will jump up from my seat at Wrigley Field to cheer the Cubs on to another World Series triumph. At least, these are things of which I dream.
I also dream of new growth, new life, new joys. I dream of the effects of evil and hatred being healed. I dream of a time when Baldr, bright and beautiful god of peace, will loom larger in our lives than gods of chaos, conflict, and destruction.
After her glorious vision of the future, the prophetess of Völuspá issues a final warning.
There comes the shadow-dark dragon flying,
the gleaming serpent, up from the Dark Mountains,
the Hateful Striker flies over the plain, in his pinions
he carries corpses; now she will sink down.
Before she returns from her vision to everyday existence, the prophetess warns that there will still be darkness in the beautiful new world after Ragnarök.
|Autumn Mood at Ishiyama by Utagawa Hiroshige (c. 1835)
Despite the continuing roll-out of the vaccine to those five years old and older, the shadow of the pandemic still falls upon our youngest children. Those who are age four or below are as vulnerable now as they have been all along.
There are some signs that a form of the vaccine for the youngest children will be approved in April, but there are also signs that the safety data collection and review may take even longer to complete.
Despite this news, elementary schools nationwide are determined to return to fully unmasked instruction this spring. Only a prophetess can tell us whether we’ll look back at this decision as a massive disaster or no big deal.
Even after a safe vaccine for young children has been approved, produced, and distributed, there will be yet other shadows lingering over us.
The problems that were here before the pandemic have not magically evaporated over the last fourteen months. We continue to be a nation of mass shootings, police violence, resurgent white nationalism, racist disenfranchisement, gross income inequality, and willful turning away from the very real climate crisis.
Whenever the post-pandemic world arrives, whatever form it takes, the fundamental problems that we have refused to truly address together will still be deeply woven into it.
Will we continue to fuss over the effects instead of focusing on the causes? Will we meekly point to the written rules while the hateful strikers around us trample on the very structures they claim to value most?
As we dream of the future, we must also work to make it better. The old ways of engaging with the serpent aren’t working, and they haven’t worked for many, many years.
It’s long past time for people of positive intent to join together and stand against the dragon of hate.
Whether we force out compromised incumbents by electing new progressive voices, leave the corporate political parties and support the alternatives, work to repeal the Second Amendment and design a sane replacement, join massive boycotts of corporate polluters and strikes against billionaires who pay starvation wages, demand federal prosecution of killer cops and violent nationalists, or refuse to accept the racist gerrymandering of our communities, we must do more than quietly complain.
Is it so scary to say these things? Must we forever be a nation of snipes who stick to our decayed political banners, link arms in shield-walls against each other and against any real progress, and merely nibble at the edges of the real issues we continue to face while shouting slogans at each other?
Yes, a better era is coming, but it will not come quietly. We must brave our fear of the dark mountains and work together to illuminate the shadows.
An earlier version of this article appeared at The Wild Hunt. Verses from Völuspá have been adapted from Carolyne Larrington’s 2014 translation.