Inertia. Physics. A property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force.
… what tried to climb up the back stairs
of heaven’s mansion falls back, caught
on the trellis, hemmed and hawed, snagged
and stunted to the gravity field, that
unforgiving inertia which we call “ourselves.”
Rebecca Seiferle, “Law of Inertia.”
I’m walking into the woods behind my house, past what is usually a pond, but what is now, thanks to a dry summer and early fall, nothing but a mud hole. I stop and gaze at the cracked clay, the animal tracks, the half-buried rocks and sticks …
I know now where the expression “stick in the mud” comes from. That’s me these days. Seven months into the pandemic, I’m less and less wanting to go to the store, take a drive—hell, today, even walking in the woods feels like a chore—and when I do go out, I usually find somebody to be irritated with: someone without a mask, somebody cutting me off in the parking lot. I’m sleeping more. I’m spending even more time that usual on YouTube, mired in the 50s, hanging out with Dion, Jerry Lee, Buddy, and Sam Cooke, longing for the good old days.
Seeking to climb out of this mudhole of inertia, I go to my journals to try to recapture some of the sights, sounds, and smells of a pilgrimage or two, enjoy some of the excitement, feel some of the growth I’ve experienced in past years.
But what I notice is how many pages I devote to my apprehension before these trips, how often I write about rearranging my office or bookshelves in the days leading up to departure as if I were settling in instead of going anywhere. For example, in looking at my journal for the last extended trip Mary Lee and I took, to Tanzania, I see that I spent almost as many pages worrying about the trip as I did in describing the trip itself. “I say I’m trying to be open to what’s next,” I write, “but so far I’m not succeeding, only closing up, trying to lose myself in novels, YouTube, and Netflix. And I’m tired, even before our trip begins, not sleeping well.”
Mmm. Sounds like what’s going on in my life now.
I worried I was too old for an 18-hour plane ride and hikes at 6-9 thousand feet. I felt unsure of how to act in another culture, frightened of coming across as an ugly, Trump-loving American. And I spent the day before we left finding a new place for the heater in my office, moving a radio upstairs, working on a new blog about growing up in a small Maine village—all efforts to do something—anything—other than deal with my anxiety. All efforts to stay put.
In other words, I was afraid.
I’m not sure I’ve ever thought much about what an important a part fear plays in inertia, at least the kind of inertia I’m stuck in these days. When I haven’t been mucking around with YouTube, I’ve been reading how previous pandemics have changed the course of history—from the plague (probably typhoid) of 438 B.C.E. which weakened the Athenian army so that it fell to its enemy Sparta, through the Justinian Plague of 541 A.C.E. which led to the rise of Christianity, through the Black Death of the 14th Century which led to the weakening of Christianity and the rise of the middle class, to the almost complete extinction of American indigenous people from European diseases, to the convulsive social changes of the 1920s after the 1919 pandemic. Periods after pandemics, I see, are often filled with violence, especially against scapegoats like early Christians, Jews, Native Americans, immigrants, and Black people.
Which is probably why I want to cling to the past, go back to those good old days when I was oblivious to much of the world around me.
But as my journals show, once I’m able to pull myself out of my inertia, my anxiety, and enter into the not-knowing of the pilgrimage experience, I grow in ways I never thought possible. Once I was able to start looking outside of myself instead of spending my time focused inward (another definition of inertia, come to think of it), those ten days in Tanzania became one of the highlights of my life.
And it’s possible that after this pandemic, humanity will make a great leap forward, become more global, learn how to work together, eliminate violence. As my Quaker friends say, “Sometimes, way has to close before way can open.”
I don’t know, of course, which is why, until change actually happens, I remain stuck in that “unforgiving inertia we call ‘ourselves,’” as poet Rebecca Seiferle puts it.
Looking at that line, I’m struck by the word “unforgiving,” which to me usually means not showing mercy, not allowing for mistakes or weakness. And I wonder if, since I can’t overcome my inertia, maybe I could be a little more forgiving of myself for being fearful about the world today.
Maybe even go a little further than forgiveness?
Besides old journals, I like to look at old photographs. On my computer, just up from the picture I took of the mudhole that used to be a pond, I see a picture I took when Mary Lee and I met her son and his family for a socially distant get-together with the grandchildren on the shore. It was low tide. When we got there, the children were already wading in the mud, looking for clams and horseshoe crabs, mud on their hands, their faces, trying to run without falling, laughing.
Looking at the photo now, I feel a sudden sense of joy. I realize I need to accept the fact that these are difficult times and that I can’t know how they will turn out. According to Newton’s first law of motion, sometimes called the law of inertia, inertia can only be overcome by some external force. I have no idea, nor do I have any control over, what kind of force—a vaccine? a bomb? riots?—will end this seven-months-and-counting pandemic. Or, for that matter, if, at the age of 77, I’ll be around to see whatever does happen.
But, instead of slogging through the mud of inertia, maybe I can find ways to keep moving, even play in it.
Here’s an idea. If I can’t stop watching Dion and the Belmonts, perhaps I should sing along with them? Snap my fingers? Learn the choreography?
Want to join me? Altogether now:
Dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun d-d-duh-duh-duh
“I wonder why-y-y, I love you like I do.
Dun dun dun dun dun dun d-d-duh-duh-duh …