Lately, I’ve had the strangest sense: as though I’m walking on air. I know that phrase is supposed to mean I’m happy, but that’s not what I mean by it. I mean that it feels as though I’m walking on something insubstantial, as though there is no ground under my feet. I’m walking on the uncertainty of our lives right now.
This time last year, we were not wearing masks or lining up to enter the grocery store. This time last year we were not reading statistics about how many people had died. We were not facing a future in which we did not know what life would look like a month from now, a year from now. Or maybe we were, but we did not know it. We assumed the world would continue as it had for a while, that we lived in a stable, ordinary world. Whereas of course we live in an extraordinary world that can change in a heartbeat. We know that now.
By “extraordinary,” I don’t just mean extraordinarily good. It can also be extraordinarily bad, just as people can be extraordinarily bad. I think we’ve seen that in the last few months — the callousness and incompetence of some. But also the daily heroism of many. We were going about our lives, largely not noticing, but here we are now, noticing: the loveliness, the ugliness, the stupidity, the courage, the kindness. Not just of people, but also of the larger world around us, of which we are a part. The loveliness of trees, of night with its stars. Of silence. The kindness of bread. The courage of dogs. The stupidity with which we have paved over the natural world, so that now we are stuck in concrete valleys when we long for butterflies.
As I was writing this, I remembered something Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, a quotation so famous that it has been shared many times. And yet it still feels important to me: “Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”
It was as though he knew there would be days like this, when we are all walking on air: when we look down, like Wile E. Coyote, and realize there is no ground under our feet, not really. We could die tomorrow. We could live to a hundred and one. We could live in a country where people care about each other and the world we inhabit, or where they stop caring — a nation of poverty and disease and violence, where only the wealthy have freedom and power. Who knows what will happen? Who knows where we will be, next September? Sometimes I find this uncertainty paralyzing.
Rilke reminds me to keep going. Just to keep going, because the point of life is to live it, to experience it. To do what you can with it.
After all, his words were written to a young poet, who was trying (and failing) to create art. I have, lately, been failing to create art. At first, because there was so much other work to do. Last semester I had to shift, abruptly, to teaching online and trying to make sure all my students passed my courses. But later, after the semester was over, because I felt as though I had somehow lost the point of it. What was I writing for, if eventually my words would also go into the silence that waits for everything?
I have always known, since I was fairly young, that we are all walking on air. I think it was the uncertainties of my childhood — I have always known that you can lose people and countries. We are held up, like the Coyote, by our ignorance of the nothing under our feet. As long as we think we’re walking on solid ground, it’s there, under us. Don’t look down . . . I looked down at an early age, so I always knew that ground was insubstantial. But I also knew that I could keep on walking. That after ignorance ended, we could keep walking on belief.
One expression of that belief is art, in whatever form. Whether it’s creating a cake, or a garden, or an opera. In creating something, we also create the path we walk on. It may be no wider than a ribbon, but there it is, in the air before us, showing us the way. And showing others the way too, if we share it.
Honestly, I feel as though I will be walking on air for a while — as though the uncertainties of the world will not end anytime soon. So I will try to spend more time on the actual ground, the one I can stand on, created by Mother Nature, covered with grass and flowers. That gives me a sense of reality, even though I know we’re on a planet hurtling through space. I will try to stand in the moment, without thinking about what the next moment will bring. I will try to breathe now, and now, and now, because when I think about the future, my heart feels as though it can no longer beat from the anxiety. And I will try, as best I can, to create the things that are in my head, to bring them out into the world. It may feel like walking through mud. But maybe that’s better than walking on air, for a while.
(The image is The Witch’s Daughter by Frederick Stuart Church.)