Drawing on ancient times for inspiration in the age of the coronavirus

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Photo: Poppy Mookerjee

It is Spring Equinox out here. Noon to be precise. A stillness pervades. It is a ‘silent spring’. Every hour the neighboring chapel bells ring out. They are in sharp contrast to the surrounding gloom. Daylight here is pierced with the mounting fear of the predatory virus—the SARS CoV 2 or COVID 19—stalking the streets.

Entire populations across the world are under a staggering lockdown in an uncertainty that deepens by the day until, perhaps, the heavens open up in the pharma industry, and a remedial vaccine is found.

Neither a bomb nor a dollar is yet to annihilate the microbe that has shaken our civilization built so painstakingly, mathematically and scientifically through the ages. If our common health is at peril, the wheels of global economy are virtually grinding to a stand-still.

Outside the human realm, nature, however, is singing its sweetest songs.

The camellia just outside my window has opened up its velvety red countenance. Cherry trees are tentatively setting forth their blooms and the birds are a flutter with the warmth of springtime sunshine. The woodchuck is up swinging from the branches and the woodpecker is seemingly annoyed with it.

It is the peace of wild things.

“Somewhere along the river the champak blooms,/ Somewhere the earth smells fresh and sweet and dappled deer runs across it in ecstacy…” chants our beloved Indian poet sage, Kalidasa, in Meghdoot.

When hope seems bleak, I go out into the wilderness. Like the fabled Native American warrior in ancient times, I desperately try to seek a vision from the skies, the trees and the wind. And pray for the wisdom of the ancients to throw light upon these chaotic times.

“What others found in art/ I found in nature. What others found in human love/ I found in nature./ Very simple,” suggests the American poetess Louise Gluck.

This little corner of the Spirit, as I call it, is a marshy lake in south New Jersey, ringed by tall reeds of bulrushes and lit by the incandescent shadows of swans slipping in and out of its glimmering waters.

“I have looked upon those brilliant creatures/And now my heart is sore. All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight/The first time on this shore,/ Their bell-beat of their wings above my head,” W.B Yeats’s beautiful lines in the poem The Wild Swans at Coole mirror my exact feelings.

Flanked by a humble village church at one end, it seems to be a portal into another world where the lines between the earthly and the sublime melt away. I could sit there from sunrise to sunset and watch the light skittle against the waters like pieces of myriad diamonds.

The old magic seeps into my bones in recollection.

The earth is blessed with such sudden liminal spots where the magic is potent. Maybe it is where the edge of the waters meets the land or mountain cliffs open up for a glimpse into the sea or where the valley slopes into a forest.

From ancient times these were the places of intense beauty and deep healing, of enchantment and revival.

If beauty in solitude is both the healer and the teacher, so too, equally, is the joy that lies in keeping and adhering to a strict routine.

When everything around us is falling apart in unprecedented ways, it requires a different form of courage to remain steadfast to the little things in life. To make the bed, to work attentively, to cook, to read, to paint, to arrange the flowers in the vase or whatever task we engage ourselves in.

With falling stock markets, grim news on television of shut-downs, of an invisible enemy lurking in surfaces, it is hard to remain sane even in the sanctuary of home. I, easily, find myself reeling into anxiety for the future.

But stern advice coming down from the books of the14th century Renaissance author, Giovanni Boccaccio draws me out of stupor. Writing in Italy, when the Black Plague devoured Florence, killing its population by sixty percent, he illustrates the need to stick to a challenging regiment.

He advises his readers, “You must read, you must persevere, you must sit up nights, you must inquire and exert the utmost power of your mind. If one way does not lead to the desired meaning, take another; until if your strength holds out, you will find that clear which at first looked dark.”

His book, the “Decameron” notes the escapades of ten friends who leave the scourge of pestilence-ridden city for the freedom and freshness of an idyllic countryside villa where they live in relative self-isolation, amusing themselves with the pleasures of story-telling.

We, in the 21st century are now, unsuspectingly, following the same rules of the medieval society of quarantine and self-isolation though not many of us may have a villa to retreat to.

Quarantines do take a heavy toll on mental health. Recounting and sharing stories weave in the strands of enchantment into our hunkered down lives. Cathartic in its very nature, it forges bonds of friendships and illuminates the gloom.

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” says Oscar Wilde, the English writer.

And even the distant stars sparkle brighter when seen from the loving nook of family and friendship.

Guy de Maupassant’s story of two friends, fishing on the quiet banks of the river Seine while Paris is besieged by the Prussians and the escalating famine renders the city barren, movingly illustrates the poignant refuge companionship provides in such hard times.

They barely speak a word to one another as they sit together, their legs dangling on the ledges, but the slight conversations of warm solidarity and murmured affirmations are enough to filter the troubles of the day.

Their friendship basks aglow in the spangled light of the sun and the embroiled world slips away.

With these sacred truths of faith by my side, I tell myself to keep standing in light, to hold on fast to all the noble truths that have been passed down through the ages.

For summer will soon be here, and the butterflies, too, with wings smeared with gold and silvery pollen.

(Poppy Mookerjee is a journalist and a writer for more than a decade with American and Indian publications).

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