Sunday, March 22, 2020

A comforting phrase pandemics can’t touch: ‘like a balm’

When this is over, we will emerge changed in many ways, and our language will not be immune. Perhaps “pre-pan” and “post-pan” will enter the lexicon. Or “pre-covid” and “post-covid.”

Already we have additions to Merriam-Webster, “social distancing” and “self-quarantine” among them. But the terms, though necessary, do little to console.

So let’s dig into that vast trove of English words and phrases and find something comforting we can use right now. One that sounds right to me is like a balm. “Balm?” you’re probably thinking. “Isn’t that something you rub on your lips?”

Well, yes. It’s any healing ointment, actually, and usually fragrant. Something soothing, in other words. It harks back to the Latin balsamum, which gave us the aromatic balsam.

Why balm works

The beauty of balm is that it’s linked to the physical, to touch. And reassuring touches are what we crave right now, as we don’t hug, huddle, gather or otherwise affirm one another’s physical presence. Solace is soothing, too, as it seeks to console us, but not in a physical sense.

Like a balm floated into my consciousness recently as I read one of the emails from Books & Books. Owner Mitchell Kaplan and his dedicated team have taken their physical spaces—the various Books & Books venues in Miami—and turned them into a devoted community of readers.

At the moment, those physical spaces are closed. But the messages that Books & Books is sending customers are like a balm. Here’s part of the one I received on Friday…

None of us knows what the future will bring, but we know we have a shared community that is planning to emerge from these dark times into a brighter day. Stay calm and read on. We will meet in that land that readers inhabit. It's a safe space, a life-giving space, a space unlike any other. We all know it and now take shelter there -- together. 

Beautiful, don’t you think?

And there are other things that act like a balm right now. One, for me, was reconnecting with a friend from so long ago it seems like yesterday. Another has been the emails and texts and phone calls (phone calls!) checking in with relatives and friends and colleagues.

The lovely watercolor you see here is by Renee Reese.  She shared it with her friend Andrea, a dear friend who shared it with me. The daffodils offer solace. The fact that my friend took the time to virtually share them with me is like a balm.

The philosopher Joseph Campbell encouraged us to follow our bliss. That may be too distant at this particular moment. But I hope you’re finding those special, small gestures and kindnesses right now that act like a balm.