A Lifeboat in Uncertain Times

This summer ended with two mass shootings in a single day — one in El Paso, Texas, and another in Dayton, Ohio — each at crowded malls, killing 31 and wounding dozens more. This, only a few days after a gunman opened fire at a farm festival near San Jose and children fled for their lives.

These tragedies are a uniquely American phenomenon, and they hit at the very heart of home and community — our ability to gather with friends and celebrate in public places. They disrupt our family outings, our back to school shopping, a leisurely afternoon at the movies,  a respite from the heat.

When I heard the news of these attacks, I felt a sudden aversion to open spaces.  I didn’t want to venture out.  Instead, I spent the morning, feeling lost and helpless, wondering what we could to do to set things right.

The poet Wendell Berry advises that when human events grow too much to bear, we return to the comforts of nature.  In one of his best-known poems, The Peace of Wild Things, he reminds us of this haven.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life an my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water and the great heron feeds
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
or grief. I come into the presence of still water
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with the light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

In difficult times, our first impulse may be to take to the streets in protest and join the clamor of the crowd, yet Berry argues that we first need a quiet place to be still and collect ourselves.

Nature offers that container, because for a moment it lifts us out of ourselves, and spending time at home can also help.  Our domestic routine helps us focus on the common thread of our humanity. It reminds us that everyone, no matter what their beliefs or affiliation, makes a life out of the same raw materials: a house, a room, a set of dishes. A broom, a mop, a pair of hands. Maybe this portion of daily life is the true basis for empathy and cooperation.

Illustration by Ann Arnold

For generations, we have bonded with our neighbors, not through our slogans or political affiliations but the rhythms of our days. Stopping to weed the garden, clean the pots and pans, sweep the floor, or make the bed, matter. These time-honored rituals play an important role, connecting us to one another, and to the flow of life.

Being a householder is an act of faith. In the long arc of history, towns have been founded, hardscrabble lives built, and small victories won with the flapping laundry, the freshly painted porch, the well-tended garden. Yet, as we have learned through hard experience, Utopia is always out of reach. Each era of expansion is followed by a series of violent uprootings. Houses are washed away by fire and flood, whole regions hit by economic downturns, hard work and long-held dreams erased by sudden shifts of fortune. History shows us that there’s no steady state.

The story of America can be summed up like this: No matter how well we perform our duties, dirt and grime will soon build up and all our chores will have to be redone. What counts, however, is our will to recommit. This is the slow housekeeping required for democracy.

Sometimes dirt and grime are festering not just under our beds but in remote corners of society. These are always the hardest places to reach. The most difficult to expose to light and air.

But when you lose heart, remember this. Approached with a sense of tenderness and devotion, every swipe of the duster, swish of the broom, and nail in the fencepost, is a revolutionary act of love and hope.

My advice: Do something homely tonight. Have dinner by candlelight. Wash the dishes. Relax on the sofa. Spend time with loved ones. Tomorrow find something to renew and rebuild.


Valerie Andrews
Valerie Andrews
VALERIE is the Chief Storyteller for Reinventing Home, an online magazine exploring how home shapes our culture, creativity, and character. Isabel Allende calls this publication Brain Pickings for the Home—a thinking person’s guide to the well-lived life. Our contributors explore home as a personal sanctuary and interactive hive, and how home contributes to our health, happiness, and productivity. Valerie calls her own features “a mindful approach to home with a Jungian twist” and considers everything from the secret lives of our possessions to how the dust underneath your bed is related to the creation of the cosmos. Reinventing Home is nonprofit journalism at its best—a virtual living room for an enlightened conversation about the way we feel about our nests and the bigger issues that are shaping home today, from technology to climate change. Read more at

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  1. Valerie, the more “progress” we make, the more we distance and separate, the more we distract and ignore, the farther we get from the realization that we’re tribal animals. Our families, our friends, the members of our tribes, our homes, nature and the other elements of the environments in which we live are all necessary to our belonging, our balance, and our well-being, even if we don’t know it or don’t want to. Those who perpetrate mass shootings and other atrocities do so in the absence of such tribal connections and comforts.

    Thank you so much for this very necessary reminder.

    • Couldn’t agree more. Impressed by how many people in this forum instinctively get the principles of evolutionary psychology — and who we really are at the core. Appreciate your comments. What was the ideal group size? Something like 50 or 55, and beyond that, we find it hard to relate or understand what’s going on. No wonder we’re such a mess with 24 hour news! I love that: balance, belonging and (well) being. The three B’s!

    • Thanks, Mike. We all have to hold on to nature, home, and our humanity. This community does a good job of it!

    • Thanks, Kimberly. I wrote this awhile ago, but we can substitute just about any headline in the daily news for my opening paragraph and still we need the same sense of sanctuary to recover, and find that sweet silence space where all is well inside.

  2. The message you share here is beautiful, Valerie, and it resonates. I find comfort and peace in nature often. I love going for a run, weather permitting, in the early morning or evening after work. However, during the winter months in New England, I use the gym and can’t wait for better weather (and more daylight) to take to the country roads again. Fortunately, I can still carve out some outside time, and it is an ideal way to renew and rebuild.

    I do agree with you that being at home doing normal things also helps. It’s the sense of comfort and the usual stuff that Larry referred to that help bridge whatever gap you may be feeling. Sometimes, for me, nothing soothes my stress like deep cleaning my house. Then, after the cleaning is complete, sitting in my favorite chair or on my window seat, and taking a long, deep breath.

    • Oh, yes, about the cleaning! Thanks for sharing this. Tidying up is my quiet time, the time to get anchored in my body. To breathe along with the hushed breathing of the house. That and long hikes or daily walks restore my sanity in a world where we have so much problem solving to do!

    • Thanks, Melissa. I so enjoy your columns about neuroscience. I’m a former medical writer with a specialty in the psych beat, so you’re right up my alley!

  3. Lovely article Valerie. I truly enjoy diffusing with nature. It can be a horrible day, but I can put on my running gear and disappear down some trails in the park. The tall pines give me shade and a deep whooshing sound on a windy day. It brings me away from the frustration of work and paying bills. Other times I may be at my desk and struggling with some project, I just put on my headphones and dial into some great nature soundscapes. It is important to have something that nurtures the soul, something healthy that reminds us how simple things could be if we only slow down and listen…

    • Running did the same for me for many years. Now I’m addicted to long walks and listening to what happens in the trees above me. And to the sound of the waves when I can hike near the beach. We need the earth to sooth us, calm us, give us sanctuary, so maybe we can figure out our daily lives!