There is a wonderful book titled Shantung Compound: The Story of Men and Women Under Pressure, written by theologian Langdon Gilkey in 1966. It is at once a memoir and a portrait of human nature when almost everything has been stripped away. Shantung Compound was an international internment camp run by the Japanese near the city of Weihsien in China’s Shantung province during World War II, and Gilkey was a prisoner. Years after being released, he went back through his notes of the experience and detailed what it was like to forge a moral and political community from scratch—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
We are not now in such a dramatic erasure of life as we knew it prior to 2020, but the scale of disruption is sufficient to encourage reflection on why certain aspects of our old normal are stubbornly sticking around, why other aspects are reinventing themselves (often creatively) with fewer available ingredients, and why still others are or should be released. There’s enough talk swirling—including by us here at Breaking Ground—that we should be careful about the desire to “go back to normal.” But it’s worth exegeting what precisely of so-called normal needs to be discarded, what needs to be grieved, and what should and must and can’t help but return.
This week, Breaking Ground had the privilege of publishing two essays on the poetry and plot of our timeless needs amid temporal upheaval. J.L. Wall reflects on mourning time as practiced in the Jewish tradition, sobered by the limits of his own power to protect his newborn daughter as her surgery is delayed by COVID. Kathryn Watson offers a poignant, whimsical glimpse of the pop-up community her neighbors have ritualized on her Staten Island block.
“We let go of the things we had believed and became a universe emptied, pulling in space debris,” Watson writes. “I craved truth to offer my children—truth about the virus, but also truth about More. . . . I wonder about the things that will make my kids comfortable, knowing they are not the same as the things that will make them good. I think about the gifts of majesty, and dignity, and wonder. The privilege of letting things we see mean only what they are, and hoping to one day understand what they were for.”