The Island and the Lifeboat

A bright yellow boat paddle leaning against a red wall

I feel like I’ve been on an island as the COVID-19 crisis has unfolded. It’s an island I’ve lived on for a long time, in a home that’s acted as a bunker. The bunker isn’t fancy, but it’s adequate.

I’ve been part of making a lot of wonderful things happen on the island. Those things have helped other people. Thanks to the hard work of many, there have been adequate resources on the island — not luxurious abundance, but enough. And the co-inhabitants of the island are good-hearted folks who care about others, plan ahead, and live cautiously so as not to use the island’s resources unwisely.

But the cataclysmic, multi-faceted storm of COVID-19 has come along and altered everything in the world, including the island. It has shrunk the island’s size. It has reduced its small but sufficient stockpile of resources and made its ability to regenerate those resources much less predictable. And it’s thrown the rest of the world beyond the island into a state of massive disruption and uncertainty, and in some cases, danger.

When COVID-19 first hit, I was so thankful to be on the island, in my bunker. It was calming during the initial shockwaves, thunderclaps, and earthquakes. Those disasters shrunk the island’s land mass considerably and depleted its resources significantly. But we emerged from our shelters and took stock, and saw that the buildings were still standing and we could keep living there. And I felt extremely relieved and fortunate.

But then, after the ringing in my ears lessened and the nausea in my stomach subsided, I looked around and realized several things.

1) Some people around me on the island were terrified that everything they had was in jeopardy. They reacted to that fear by deciding to ride out the rest of this storm of unknown severity and duration, by limiting outflow of resources, pulling back from interactions with the rest of the world, and essentially, hunkering in place in a state of fear and anxiety about every bite of food and every drop of gas expended during the rest of the onslaught. That felt crushing to me — the constriction left me unable to sleep, eat, or breathe.

2) There were people way out in the water, struggling to stay afloat, and in some cases, drowning. Granted, we islanders trying to reach them, when we had so little ourselves and had never trained for, planned for, or done deep water rescue missions, carried a lot of risk and maybe seemed foolhardy. Plunging into the waters ourselves might cause us to drown along with those folks, or we might reach them and realize we couldn’t save them after all, and we’d have to leave them to save ourselves, which would be awful.

But we could see the drowning people out there, and we knew we had some resources we might be able to retool into makeshift life jackets that might help them stay afloat a little longer even if we didn’t have boats big enough to carry them to shore…if we were willing to head out into the big waves and try. Maybe our bit would help them hang on until the next support vessel came along, or maybe it would be too little or too late. Impossible to know unless we got out there.

Many of the islanders were petrified about taking to the water, though, feeling it would be reckless, and that they weren’t the damn Coast Guard — it was not their jobs to rescue people lost at sea in this storm.

3) There were some people who had gotten into lifeboats (big and small), and were paddling hard towards the drowning people, and also, towards other land masses that they couldn’t see, but had faith were out there. Each of those drowning people might need different types of help to survive, and not every lifeboat had what each drowning person needed, nor room for every sinking person to come aboard. And the waters were rough and the course was unknown.

But the people helming the lifeboats felt safer, stronger, and more filled with joy while paddling, than if they’d been back on the island, sandbagging against the rising floodwaters for an indefinite period. They felt there might be some breaks in the waves, some passages, to a bigger, more wide open, more abundant place. And they felt they might be able to scoop up some of the drowning people and bring them along, or at least drop them something that would help them hang on until the next lifeboat arrived.

They also realized, once in the water, that there were actually a lot of others out there — which was hard to see from the island, especially from within a bunker. And they realized that if they lashed their boat to other boats that were also in motion, they had more momentum and more energy, collectively. They had a better chance to make it to the other destinations beyond the horizon. And they had more ability to scoop up drowning people or pass them survival supplies along the way.

So despite being really scared, the paddlers were also hopeful and energized, and glad to be in motion and paddling (even though it was risky and expended A LOT of resources), rather than hunkering and conserving resources and living in fear on a shrunken, depleted island…no matter how solid that little (and now smaller) bit of island ground was.

Out in the water, the paddlers were meeting each other, and finding inspiration and energy from each other. They were sharing tips about how to stay afloat, and sharing ideas about which direction might be the best to go, even though none of them really knew. It was risky, intense, and terrifying to be out on the water, but the terror was different than the terror of huddling in place trying to duck and cover. There was tremendous freedom in those open waters, and comradery, and opportunity to maybe end up on a more expansive, exciting piece of land, after the journey. So the paddlers were able to work at their paddling, even while afraid.

Back on the island, as I steadied myself and took stock, I realized I knew a little bit about how to paddle, and I had a few, partial maps for navigating in other parts of the world, and also an untested but possibly viable lifeboat. And I realized I wanted to be out there in the water. The solid ground of the little island and the safety of my bunker had been comforting in The Before, especially in the first round of the COVID-19 storm. But it felt soul crushing, dangerous, unhealthy, and unbearably sad and lonely in The Now.

So before I could take the chance that fear would paralyze me, and that the mass of paddlers would get out of sight before I could lash onto their flotilla (because from my vantage point, it looked like they were moving fast), and before anyone else drowned whom I might’ve either helped save or at least comforted in some small way as I paddled by, I decided to jump into my untested little boat with the few supplies and maps I could grab. And paddle like hell.

I understand why some people on the island would feel safer staying there than expending any extra resources. It feels scary and maybe foolhardy to leave solid ground to rush into the waves toward the unknown.

But it’s also euphoric. And I really want to paddle, and be in motion, and see if, along with other people who feel the same, we can buoy ourselves and some of the drowning people, and eventually disembark in a transformed place where we can create a new life for ourselves and the people we love.

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Amber Black

Amber Black

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Valley girl from the wilds of western MA. Music lover, art appreciator, connoisseur of irony, hilarity, spunk. Paddler. passthesongpassthehat@gmail