I am writing to you from a blue desk overlooking a snowy yard. Narrow Leaf cottonwoods drip ice from their bare branches, ravens circle overhead – black dots in an otherwise white sky – my dog howls at nothing and yet everything on my lawn. In this space of remembrance, with a blue wool blanket wrapped around my shoulders, it is easy to forget the outside world. But if I turn my head, I can see it there, shimmering in my peripherals. I know that you feel it too.
However, there is something else I know that perhaps some of you did not. I know what it is like to wait, to be fully prepared for whatever it is to come and yet have no influence over what is approaching.
I spent the last six months in Antarctica. I was sent into the deep field on a team of four people where, for the first time in my life, I experienced true isolation – emotionally and physically. I sat in my tent for weeks on end, in a space barely six by six feet, waiting out snowstorms that wiped the world away in a furious torrent of wind and snow. I spent months inside the cab of a tractor, alone, moving through a world that closely resembled the inside of a ping-pong ball. I ate the same food. I had the same conversations with the same people day in and day out (or would go for weeks without human contact because those around me refused to communicate). I read the same books, I thought the same things, and I felt like I was going mad. I had spent months preparing for my mission in the field and was shocked to discover that it was not what I had envisioned it to be. I was miserable. I was apathetic. I was overwhelmingly bored. Does this at all sound familiar?
I felt like I had lost control of everything. So I sat down one day and wrote down a few things that I could do daily that would bring me joy and that would establish some amount of control over my day-to-day life. I chose to write every day. I chose to eat intentionally. I chose to speak gently to myself and with compassion. I chose to gift others my smile and my attention when they came across my path. I chose to treat myself with kindness and to move my body in ways that felt good and nourishing. These were simple goals but attainable.
Still the disconnection persisted. Being a mountaineer, I knew already that I could sit in my tent for ten days and wait for a storm to blow over. I would be okay if I got buried in snow and needed to dig myself out from a frozen tomb. I knew that I could disappear into the world of literature and come out of it blinking a bit like an owl but functional. But all my previous experiences with waiting had an expiration date. Antarctica storms, much like the coronavirus, do not seem to have expiration dates. They do not care about the few souls struggling to survive on the immeasurably large sheets of ice covering the western continent, and Antarctica certainty did not seem to care about my sanity.
Then came a mid-February evening. The sun was struggling its way down towards the horizon; in fact, the first sunset of the year was drawing close. Long shadows stretched through crystalline air and I was huddled in my tent on a scratchy satellite phone call with my dad. I was crying out of sheer and complete hopeless boredom. I had been in my tent for seventeen days with no end in sight. My dad’s voice crackled over the line, “Well, just think about it this way. As a writer, you now can empathize with a lot of the people around the world who also just have to wait – prisoners, soldiers, refugees.” That was a sobering thought. I hung up the phone and I began to write, my words flowing from my personal well of experience. I do not suggest, nor pretend, that waiting out coronavirus or a storm in Antarctica reflects the same complex and nuanced struggles of refugees or prisoners or soldiers. As writers though, we can take the opportunity to tap into the empathy built from elements of our own experience. Most of us will never know the terror of war, the long drawn out fear of refugee camps, or the abuse of prison, but we do know now the grief and uncertainty that accompanies a quickly changing world over which we control nothing. Use this time to dig deep into your own emotions and to curate a more complex and fuller understanding of our fellow human beings. Let this time bring us together and not push us apart.
I had thought that I was disconnected from everything I cared about, everything I loved, everything I found vital in this world. I was wrong. Writing is vital; our stories, our survival. Empathy is the thread that ties us together. It enables us to say to someone, “I understand what you are feeling. I know your heart. Let me hold it for a while because you are not alone.”
To each of you I give you a little bit of my heart, I give you my empathy, and I give you my words. Now please, go share yours with the world so that in this time of crisis and confusion none of us will mistake loneliness for actually being alone.
Bio: Jess Lewis graduated from Goddard in 2019 and is currently working on publishing her memoir that was built from her Goddard thesis. Jess is a professional mountain and river guide who works all across the world, including most recently, Antarctica. Much of Jess’ writing stems from her work and her travel. In her writing she grapples with ideas of connection – the thread that brings us together across borders, across religions, across the land. Her work appears in publications thru the mountain west including The Mountain Gazette, Sentinel, and Rock and Ice. You can follow Jess on Instagram at @wandering_tattler or checkout her website at www.jessicafaithlewis.com.