Roach: Shelter from the storm

In times of turmoil, it is difficult to see the full story. But then it hits you: The chaos is the story.
Black Lives Matter Protest
Individuals chant and listen to speakers during protests on John Nolen Drive.
Beth Skogen

In times of turmoil, it is difficult to see the full story. But then it hits you: The chaos is the story.

Look at the times in which we are now living and count the stressors. Pandemic, check. Quarantine, check. Economic crisis, check. Presidential election, check. Yet another black man murdered on the street in broad daylight by those charged with protecting us, check. Nationwide and local protests and riots, check.

Things are coming so fast it feels like we cannot stand.

Worse yet, we have a leader who revels in the chaos. When there is a fire, he is right there to pour accelerant on it. There is no small problem that he does not make bigger.

In short, the year 2020 is doing its best to drive us as mad as Lee Elia. If you are unfamiliar with the former manager of the Chicago Cubs, Google his famous R-rated rant delivered on April 29, 1983. It will do your heart good because he is far better at articulating frustration than you are. But don’t play it for your mother.

So how do we stay cool when things are so hot? Sane when all is insane? Calm when all is frenzy?

You already know the answer. You go small. Shrink your world to what is immediately around you and find the pleasure and comfort hidden in the smallest and simplest of things and moments.

Forget the virus. That cardinal in the tree out your back door who is warbling his heart out? He’s singing for you.

Forget our braying leader. Revel in Madison in all its verdant beauty, for right now there is no better time or place in America for a quiet walk along a sunlit path or to sit by a quiet shoreline than in this Midwest town.

Despite its knee-buckling implications for our friends who work at taverns, restaurants and hotels, the quarantine has also come with blessings. Home is a haven in times of chaos. We lived for two months with our adult children and we didn’t kill each other. How is that not a comforting realization? I was even introduced to new foods. Mostly vegetables. And something called “tempeh,” which is not to be confused with quinoa.

The arts also offer us solace. Few things are better than music and books to take us to different worlds when ours has gone awry. Movies can do the same, but they can also add to the stress if you sit and watch Netflix on your iPad in the same position for two months until your neck locks into a permanent cant and you have to add Advil to your Metcalfe’s delivery. That is exactly what this columnist did. I now strap on the occasional neck brace, which makes me look like Joan Cusack in “Sixteen Candles.” This adds stress for me, but comic relief for others.

When things become too much we can withdraw altogether, because solitude is the greatest luxury during chaos.

For the first 17 days of sheltering in place due to COVID-19, I isolated myself in the wilds of northern Wisconsin. A quiet place usually, it is even more quiet during a pandemic. No truck roars wafted to me on the westerlies that blow over Highway 51. The only sounds were those of the wild world. In early April I could hear the ice losing its grip as the lake executed its annual transformation from solid to liquid, a miracle that is an honor to behold. And it’s a reminder that nature is the surest refuge of all, for it shrugs off human crises.

And there is another place to flee, although it is sometimes tough to get to; a place of compassion.

In the wake of the grotesquely casual torture and murder of George Floyd, when our chronic problem of racism was laid bare in the most explicit fashion possible, protests began and continued undaunted. Yet, as acts of anger, brutality and the venal erupted, there were brief moments of beauty that made your breath hitch. Remarkable scenes of compassion and bravery by brothers and sisters of all colors who practiced charity under fire as they lifted, comforted and consoled others who were overwhelmed by the sheer awfulness of the moment.

And we saw people who made us so proud, and not embarrassed, to be Americans. And humans.

And that is the moment you discover that the most effective vaccine for chaos is kindness.

John Roach, a Madison-based television producer, writes this column monthly. Reach him at johneroach@mac.com.