Author: Rick Merrill

From Sheltering in Place to Dancing on Shifting Ground

For days a robin has been flying into the glass doors of my studio, bouncing off and then standing nonplused on the deck, looking back at the glass with, what I take to be utter consternation. Then she goes at it again, hurling herself against the glass, bouncing off and then standing four feet away confused, I suppose gathering resolve for the next, duty-bound attempt. At first, I thought she might be a pregnant female looking for a good nesting site. Worried, I did a bit of robin-nesting research online and built a small bird-house along the lines of what I’d seen on birding sites. I mounted the little house on the exterior wall of the studio, where the robin could see it. I even collected some nesting materials—grasses, sticks, and mud. But the robin took no interest and continued bashing herself against every glass window and door. Alarmed, I sent off emails to various birding sites asking if anyone had seen something similar. In just a few hours I had received a half dozen …

Three Meditations on the Apocalypse

I. ORIGINS 3.23.2020 On the first day I look for origins1: Corona (n): [1] a crown, a garland of laurel bestowed for serving in wartime, in a lifetime; so may we make for each other garlands of tenderest gratitude, coronas of lotus and laurel. [2] a luminous circle left behind dark moon during total eclipse; this darkness remarkable only because of the knowledge of light that exists beyond it. II. GENERATION 3.27.2020 On the fifth day I boil bones to make a stock. My grandmother’s recipe, something passed invisibly from women’s hands— tender, strong, the shape of holding— into my hands, into my bones: a knowing how to hold on. The steam billows out from the stove and clouds the windows. If I had a child, I imagine her hands drawing flowers upon them, play affirming life, a crack in the fog of this uncanny war, through which we could look out on our neighbors and they could look in on us: the humanity of it— a small child and a grown one making something …

Grief in the Time of COVID: Sharing in Compassion and Resilience

When my father went into the hospital on May 6th, there were 76,000 deaths in the US from COVID-19. By the time he passed away eleven days later, there were 90,000. It’s strange when something as deeply and personally felt as the death of a loved one becomes part of a national statistic. Yet it also points to the collective nature of grief related to the pandemic and the systemic injustices that it has revealed and intensified. We are in a time of collective grief. Some of us have lost loved ones to COVID-19. Others have lost jobs or been furloughed due to the lockdown of cities and towns across the country. On top of all that, since the killing of George Floyd on May 25, the streets have been filled with renewed anguish and calls for racial justice and the end of police brutality. The enormity of the crisis affects us all, directly or indirectly. How can we handle the emotional intensity and grief while supporting each other in the process and working for …

Survival Will Always Be Insufficient, but It’s a Good Place to Start

Rereading Emily St. John Mandel’s speculative fiction novel Station Eleven at the start of the pandemic was strangely reassuring. The book toggles between the onset of a future global flu pandemic and the lives of people living twenty years later. I often find post-apocalyptic fiction helpful for affirming the possibility of going on past disaster. Station Eleven is explicitly organized around the proposition that “survival is insufficient.” This phrase—tattooed on a character’s arm and written on the side of the traveling theatre and musical troupe’s vehicle in the twenty-years-from-pandemic plotline—comes from a Star Trek episode. In the book, the phrase, “survival is insufficient,” asserts that people deserve art, and music, and other seemingly useless things that are apparently secondary to basic biological survival. To reprise the 1912 labor slogan, we need not only bread but also roses: Beauty is integral to surviving and thriving. What does it mean for us to fight for roses—for more than survival—when so many people are not even surviving? Ruth Wilson Gilmore defines racism as “the state-sanctioned and/or extra-legal production …

Interdependent During a Pandemic

Last summer, my partner and I worked on a research project about wildlife trafficking in southern Africa. While trafficking in elephant ivory and rhino horn tends to dominate the headlines, we also examined smaller species such as the pangolin—which is both the most trafficked mammal on earth and one possible source of the novel coronavirus. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, one lesson from our research stands out as particularly crucial: Wildlife trafficking is not a problem of protecting a single species in a single place. Rather, it is a global problem, composed of unaddressed poverty in rural communities, middlemen profiting from illegal trade, and indulgent demand for exotic food and art. It is a problem from roots to leaves, which unfurl thousands of miles away. The same is true of the virus now ravaging human society. It knows no boundary. It reaches my aging parents in a small mountain town, my anxious students scattered across the United States, and my friends in rural Botswana with limited access to healthcare. In a recent letter …

The Stowaway Seeds

The Stowaway Seeds I am afraid to touch the shopping cart, the bright cool hide of the fragrant orange, the wet sand on the beach. This pandemic virus spreads RNA where people pass too close to one another and gather to buy food, or crowd the ocean’s edge. “It cannot be killed because it isn’t alive,” my scientist brother says. But something unknown has always contained our death, which is why we are respectful and delicate as we lift teacups and snow salt crystals on grilled asparagus and touch one other and spoons and books and the surfaces of the earth we will one day be pressed gently between, like book pages on the fat stems of large leaves. Such abundant offerings – these tiny crowns and multiplying stars, the resplendent small burrs I found in the rough striped blanket we took to the woods before everything shut down. They came home with me, to seed a new world, in which we aren’t the most important thing. Mushim Patricia Ikeda is a socially engaged Buddhist …

Photograph by Trudi Lynn Smith

Toilet Paper as Terror Management

The toilet paper aisle at my local grocery store was the first to go barren. Similar scenes of scatalogical scarcity are now the norm across North America as consumers prepare for months of physical distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19. You can find footage online of shoppers fighting over the last roll, and The New York Times recently reported on a toilet paper shipment requiring police escort. It is peculiar that in the early days of this crisis, a pooping accessory took priority over food. Survival instincts appear low in late capitalism. Fortunately, there is a body of social psychology that helps explain the collective impulse to put our heads in our asses in this moment of genuine crisis, and it’s called “Terror Management Theory (or TMT). TMT is rooted in the work of Ernest Becker, who won a Pulitzer for his 1973 book The Denial of Death. According to Becker, the intense existential fear caused by the reality of death compels us to psychologically buffer ourselves with fantasies of supremacy that compensate for …

Illustration by K.T. Tierney

Facing Pandemic, Finding Ground

I’m writing this in the still-early days of the pandemic. Canadian federal, provincial, and municipal governments are requiring self-distancing and closing non-essential services. Increases in coronavirus deaths are in store, though the curve may have been flattened. Much of the predicted economic carnage lies ahead. It feels like the calm before the storm. How do we work with our minds in this situation? What meaning can we make of what’s happening? Ayahuasca My core spiritual practice these days is ayahuasca ceremony. Ayahuasca is a psychoactive plant mixture and traditional medicine long used in Indigenous ceremonies in the Amazon basin. Within a well-crafted ritual container and led by someone deeply trained in ayahuasca chants and healing, twelve or so of us drink ayahuasca and experience a night of insight and sometimes visions.1 I’ve drunk sixteen times and almost every time experienced a connection with the sacred; from the point of view of the profound interconnectedness of all phenomena, I’ve worked with my patterns, my root traumas, and how I show up in the world. The experience …

Finding Ground, Making Sense, and Getting Simple

Relax, everything is out of control. —Ajahn Brahm Finding Ground March 13, 2020 In a world of tension and breakdown it is necessary for there to be those who seek to integrate their inner lives not by avoiding anguish and running away from problems, but by facing them in their naked reality and in their ordinariness. —Thomas Merton I thought I was handling it all quite well. With the increasing cases of coronavirus, the disappointment of recent election results, the cancellations of the many social gatherings I’ve come to rely on, I was being practical. I hadn’t been glued to the news, I was washing my hands and making time to check in with friends. My pandemic supplies were more-or-less stocked. There in the grocery store, though, another reality became clear. While my head was managing, my body was freaking out. I know this saran wrap feeling in my chest well. It’s fear. It’s anxiety. It’s uncertainty. Doom is a breath away. Though my mind had it “under control,” my body reminded me of the …

Illustration by K.T. Tierney

Practice, Resilience, and Compassion in the Time of COVID-19

In this collection on the COVID-19 pandemic, authors share reflections on the personal and political in this time of global uncertainty and suffering. We invited authors to consider the following questions in their writing: How are you showing up for the pandemic? What are you doing to practice calm and clarity? How are you staying grounded in the midst of groundlessness and sudden shifts in routine? How can we negotiate safety and mutual aid? How can we practice compassion and helping others at this time? How do we make sense of this monumental crisis? How are you relating to ways the pandemic’s effects are mapping onto the injustices and inequities of our society? Their responses, which we will publish successively in the coming days, speak to personal experience and social calamity, to profound injustice and the possibility of something else. Check back here or follow The Arrow on social media as we publish new pieces. Contents Finding Ground, Making Sense, and Getting Simple by Kelsey Blackwell Facing Pandemic, Finding Ground by David Kahane Toilet Paper as …