Disequilibrium on Stormy Seas

I think that there is always a brief moment, when the world begins to lurch in a new direction, when we all try to deny what we’re feeling – when we try to deny that everything is off kilter. A few weeks ago, I gathered with a group of women from Homeward Bound via Zoom for a community yoga class. At some point, in a balance pose, I remembered the disequilibrium I felt crossing the Drake Passage in a storm. The initial rise in ocean swell came on slowly. So slowly, it was hard to tell anything was changing, except for the stirrings in my stomach.

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Crossing the Drake Passage aboard the MV Ushuaia in a storm in January 2019.  Photo from a video filmed by Lesley Sefcik. I think, for many of us, life right now feels somewhat like being on a ship in a storm.

I think that’s how I felt in mid-March, during our last week on campus with my students, before ‘Spring Break’. The week that many now think of as the last week of ‘normal’ life. And even into that first week of Serious Social Distancing, I was queasy and tired, and still in denial.

But at some point, the wave really hits you. Your world is off center, and your brain can’t reconcile what your body is feeling. That’s when you want to hide. Or, if you’re on the Drake Passage in a storm, you hang your head over a toilet.

I think that’s where I’ve been at times with this pandemic – wanting to hide (which I suppose is good, because that’s what we’re supposed to do to get COVID under control). But also, I have desperately want to hang on to something normal. I still teach. I spend hours each week talking to my computer – who has become my most attentive student. I usually have a few students join me for office hours, or meet with me via Zoom to talk with me about their projects. For a few moments, it can feel almost normal. But then the room shifts again, and I remember that we’re all on the Drake Passage in a storm, not sure when we’ll find calm waters.

This is a period of profound disequilibrium – on a personal level, on a societal level, and on a global level. We have been forced to radically adjust our sense of ‘center’ over the past couple of months. We are all trying to find our footing on a ship that is swaying violently – and just when we think we have adapted to the rhythm of the waves, a rogue swell sends us flying into the wall. The world is no longer what we expect, no longer what we see, and that profound sense of discomfort can actually make us feel sick.

But remembering my journey on the Drake Passage, I also know that something else can happen. After spending a day and a night just trying to hang onto my bed, I was able to get up and move around. This wasn’t magic. I confess, someone gave me one of those little patches with a drug to quell the seasickness. But it really helped me find a small bit of equilibrium.

Walking around our small ship, I learned how to pause and wait for a swell to pass. I learned how to grip the railings on the stairwell that would keep me from flying up or down, depending on the direction the ship was swaying. I learned, at dinner, to hang onto my fork, because as the ship swayed, silverware tumbled from one plate to the next. I even learned to eat (although, we were served only simple foods and no liquids while the ship was listing from side to side.)

The Drake was the rocky liminal space between worlds where time stood still for awhile, and you simply had to learn to sway. It feels like we are in a strange liminal space right now, not unlike the Drake Passage. It’s the liminal space between the life we had before, and the life that will come after COVID-19. Our world, our lives, will never be the same, as much as you might hear people talking about when things go back to normal.

Two years ago, before my trip to Antarctica, on a long road trip across the Midwest, I listened to the book Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing (2015). I was captivated by the tale: first, the months of isolation on a ship stuck in ice in the Weddell Sea, then the harrowing journey to get help. After months and months of time on water or ice, Ernest Shackleton leads his crew to the small but harsh Elephant Island, in the outer reaches of the South Shetland Islands, near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.

But then, Shackleton promptly gets back in his dinghy (I imagine it to be a dinghy) with five other men, and heads right out across the Drake Passage to get help. For more than two weeks they tossed and turned on the Drake until they finally made landfall 800 km away on South Georgia Island, the place where they had launched their expedition nearly 18 months earlier.

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The South Shetland Islands on a beautiful day.

Hooray! I thought, they made it! But no. They have come aground on an uninhabited part of the island, and must make another harrowing journey across the island on foot to the port where they started their journey.

I suppose I’m remembering this story because, what’s clear, is that once we hit calmer waters, once COVID-19 is under control, as a civilization, we’re still going to have to take a long walk together across harsh terrain. We are going to have to rebuild this world that’s fallen apart economically, politically, and socially. That’s a lot of work, and it will take some time.

I’m not saying this to freak anyone out. Rather, I think this journey we’re all on is one way that we learn, again and again, what it means to be human. We ride the rough waves, then power on until we reach a safe harbor, however that may look: in a dinghy, or on foot. And through that, we have an opportunity to step up where we can and help each other out, however we can.

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Even in rough seas, sometimes you get a spectacular view right from your own window.

Shackleton managed his whole misadventure without losing ANY of his crew. That’s not always the case when you’re crossing rough seas. But I think we have a chance to learn how we can better help each other out when we cross rough waters in the future.

For now, this means: hang on, stay in your cabin, learn to ride the swell, and check-in with each other. Wash your hands and wear a mask, please. We’re still in the storm. But we’re not all on the same ship, so let’s help each through this crossing however we can.

2 thoughts on “Disequilibrium on Stormy Seas

  1. Thanks for continuing these posts–helps many of us. The coming of the next wave seems to have no end…when we are in the middle of the storm. Best wishes, Bill

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  2. Your analogies are apt! Thank you for this thought-provoking post. I think our trek across South Georgia Island is just beginning – if indeed we have even landed. We’re continuing to shelter-in-place – although it may be easier here in our mountain valley than in other places. We are blessed by great beauty.

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