There’s Always Something Behind the Nothing

Dejan Hudoletnjak
Photo credit: Dejan Hudoletnjak

“Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground, and start over. After the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too. They start over. They find a way.”
― Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere

I sat with an old Indiana farmer this week who was suffering from complications related to COVID-19.  It occurred to me, while watching him sleep,  that I care for alot of old Indiana farmers, and they remind me so much of the old cowboys and ranchers that I knew and loved as a child growing up in Texas. The old men I would hear countless stories from, the old men who were some of my biggest heros, and then over time, the same old men I would visit in hospitals, nursing homes, and finally, in funeral services.

There’s something about old men…I’ve always resonated with them and made quick friends with them…not in a weird way, but in a friendly, “we get each other” kind of way.  Which seems kind of strange since I’m a young (now young-ish) female, but for whatever reasons, this is the way it’s always been.  It’s been funny to me, too, how many of these old men have told me that if they were 40 to 50 years younger and not married, they’d snatch me up without a second thought.  This makes me really laugh, because it seems it must take most men reaching the age of at least 65 to realize what a great catch I am.  If this trend continues, when I’m pushing 70 my love life is likely to be going gangbusters. 😀

Anyway, as I cared for this one old farmer, I thought of how quickly his life had changed. Just a couple of weeks ago he was still out and about, active, and managing his farm.  And then COVID knocked him off his feet in the matter of just a few short days.  Farmers and ranchers are kind of different in a way, it has always seemed to me.  Most of them grew up in the country, working hard from a young age, and so the land and the work is part of them, anchored deep in their bones.  The land, and the animals, and the sweat, and the long hours, and the one-ness with nature become part of their identity…part of how life makes sense to them. Then, inevitably for many, something will come along that rips this identity away from them…and they are sent to town to convalesce on a patio or in a bleach-cleaned hallway, sitting in a wheelchair with a crocheted blanket across their legs to ward off chill, only left with stories of years gone by to share with those who are smart enought to sit at their feet and listen.

My grandpa was one of these men.  Until he was in his early 80s, he still went out every morning to dynamite rocks out of the hills on his South Texas ranch to build passable roads, and he still cared for his goats that he had loved dearly since his was a boy.  COVID didn’t knock him off his feet; in his case, he slipped while walking out in a wet pasture and slammed his cervical vertebrae onto a rock, effectively becoming paralyzed.  He lay there, unable to move, until my Dad found him hours later. Over the next few years my grandpa was largely resigned to hospital beds, in long-term rehab, then in his home, and finally in town at the local nursing home, until he died.

My father is pushing 70 now, and still walks the backcountry daily, checking snares and traps in places you have to take a 4-wheel drive to get to…running bulldozers to clear juniper brush…clearing pastures with controlled burns. I’ve asked him for years to retire, to start slowing down. He’s told me more than a few stories over the last couple of decades that scare me half to death, of things that happened to him while working alone….the time his bulldozer caught on fire and he had to drive it straight into the river, the time he was getting off the bulldozer and stepped on the track before it stopped moving so he was flung into a nearby tree,  another time he was bulldozing and he hit a beehive and again had to drive straight for the creek to get away…(do you notice a bulldozer theme, here?)  These are only a few of the many near misses he’s told me about.

And yet I know, while I ask my dad to stop, to just sit around and drink coffee on the backporch and tend his garden, that all these things that he does that scare the crap out of me are part of who he is, part of his identity.  He’s told me on more than once occasion that when it is his time to cross the river to glory, he wants it to be back in the hills, to happen in the places he’s known and cherished since boyhood.  And I understand him in this.I know that if I had to put my dad into a nursing home, his spirit would be broken.

*************************************************************************************

Since COVID came and knocked the wind out of all of us, we’ve been struggling with identity crises collectively. The things that we feel define our society have in many ways been put on hold, literally and figuratively. Our ways of communication and being community have had to shift dramatically. And many of us have been thrust into lonely places, beyond just isolation from other people.

Our country has always been one of action, of business, of running here and there.  We aren’t a society known for contemplation, solitude, and silence.  We wrap up our understanding of who we are in our consumerism, our ability to do this and go there, and our standings of how we compare to the rest of the countries in the world.

And now we’ve been blind-sided by a pandemic that changed our modus operandi overnight.  Our lives, in many ways, have slid to  a screeching halt. This leaves us with the question that life is forcing us to ask ourselves, whether we like it or not: if we don’t have all these things that we used to think defined us, if we lose much of it forever, who are we now?

*************************************************************************************

I have a couple of friends who seem convinced that their lives are basically over, or at least at a very long standstill, because their careers were taken away from them unexpectedly.  These people identified very strongly with their jobs and education, and now feel trapped because they can’t go backwards, and the path forward appears entirely uncertain.

I understand this trapped feeling.  Although the details of our stories have been different, I know exactly what it is like to feel as though all that you’ve worked for has vanished, in vain, and that there is absolutely nothing great to look forward to in the future. I know what it’s like to look all around you and feel so completely stuck and hopeless that every morning when you wake up, you’re like, “God, again??!  Another day of THIS?”  It’s like that clip from The Office, where Michael realizes that Toby is back, and he just can’t face the reality of it.

Man, have I been there.

But, I’ve also seen the other side of this dark place, and so I can say with some authority and credibility that it does not, will not last, forever…if you’re willing to let the pain and terribleness of it sit and be a while…realize that it is not going to kill you….and then you slowly, steadily look up and start finding the ways that you are not trapped, and the paths you can take to start making changes.

Now, to their sometimes obvious chagrin, I don’t accept the woeful resignation my friends try to offer me about how their lives are effectively over.  I empathize with them, and feel their struggle, but I will not give in with them.  Partly because I’m wicked stubborn, partly because these two people are brilliant and talented and have so much to offer the world, and largely because I’ve been to the dark places and back and know that the journey out of trapped places is possible.

*************************************************************************************

There’s a fundamental law that everyone learns in science class, probably starting around 8th grade:  the law of conservation of energy.  This basically states that energy is never created or destroyed, but simply changed from one form to another.

I can’t help but believe this is the way life works.  As Eckhart Tolle has said, “Nothing that is of value, that is real…is ever lost.”  At first glance, this statement can seem trite, superifical.  But, if you work it over and wrestle with it, you’ll realize it is true.

I also strongly believe that there is always something behind what appears to be nothing.  I wrote about this idea several years ago in an essay for a graduate program.  Space, in whatever form it takes, is not void.  It contains the potential for new life, new ideas, new ways of being, new so many things….to spring forth.  If it can at all be said that COVID has brought any blessings with it, it is that we have been given the opportunity to reaquaint ourselves with space and and quiet and discover the good things that can be found there once we calm our frantic minds.

*************************************************************************************

I finished watching the TV show Little Fires Everywhere last week, and I love the quote from the top of this post.  Sometimes you just have to let it all burn down around you, and start over.  But in reality, the burning never destroys everything.  It actually burns away all that isn’t truly real or lasting. As someone who grew up on a ranch where we regularly did controlled burns across acre after acre of land, I know that sometimes a good burning is the absolute best thing that can happen to restore fresh life into a pasture.  If you just look at the scars on the land immediately after a burn, it can look ugly and barren…a wasteland of nothingness. But by next spring, with some good rains, that freshly rejuvinated soil will sprout of new, lush, green grass and the countryside will be transformed.

I think our lives are similar.  Sometimes we keep insisting on trying to make the past work….we want to keep what we had and bring it with us, whether or not it wants to come with us.  And through this relentless struggle, we suffer and despair.  We keep looking down and looking backward insstead of looking toward what we might have waiting for us.

We need to start looking at the scorched things around us in a new way.  We must stop gripping on so tightly to the things that are dead and gone, and develop new eyes to see the potential for newness that is everywhere around us, that is just asking to be grabbed a hold of.

COVID has changed us forever.  We will never go back to the way things have always been.  And while there’s some significant loss and grief present there, there is tremendous potential for good things that we couldn’t have imagined if our lives hadn’t been so violently disrupted. Right now is the hard part…the scorching, as it were. But I firmly believe all the best about humanity will survive this, and so much about us as a society that isn’t real will be burned away.

Finally, it is out of this nothing, this long period of isolation, that new things are already arising.  People are fabulously creative and are discovering new ways to help each other, to encourage each other, to laugh, to distill meaning out of life. These are the people to watch and follow….the ones who know that who they are doesn’t reside solely in their careers or where they live. These are the people with eyes to see the new paths that will lead us out of this trapped place, and who will teach us to see, if we are willing..

 

One thought on “There’s Always Something Behind the Nothing

  1. Ya.. Covid has changed our life’s, our way of thinking , have to be creative instead of lamenting over past days or past luxuries. We need to follow the way your grand pa or dad had followed and is following. Can not we exist without luxuries , it is only an attitude…, I feel

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s