Naamal De Silva
A couple of weeks ago, I read a wonderful article about creating comfort during the pandemic. The author, Isabel Gillies, wrote that, in a time of fear and anxiety, it helps to focus on the little, cozy things. Coziness suggests warmth and comfort, and we could all use more of both right now.
I asked the Mayla Facebook community about what has sustained them during the pandemic. The replies: baby smiles, chickens, woodland trails, gardening, volunteering, reflection, video calls with friends, sunshine, writing poetry, healing patients, listening to music. There are so many sources of comfort. I am sustained by the Schefflera plant that has accompanied me from home to home for over twenty years, by the bees and birds feasting on the Eastern Redbud tree outside my window, by homemade bread, and by conversations with family. For me, comfort is my grandmother’s sari – the silk has a few holes, but they are filled in with memories. Coziness is the red chair in my living room - faded and a bit stained but so much softer than it was a decade ago. There are so many beautiful new saris and endless options for replacing that chair, but none would hold the same meaning.
Thinking more broadly, coziness is, I think, one of the many things we give up in our quest for newer, bigger, and better. Our search for what is new can strip life of coziness and comfort. This week marks 50 years since the first Earth Day – a call to care more for the environment. Too few people heard that call, or the calls of many others who have spread a message of care for hundreds or thousands of years. Globally, our never-ending consumption of clothes, furniture, and houses is unsustainable. It results in overflowing landfills, eroding hillsides, homeless tigers, red rivers, illiterate children using tiny hands to tie even smaller knots.
As I stay close to home and walk around and around my neighborhood, I've been thinking about what feels cozy. Some of the newly renovated houses in my neighborhood feel sterile and generic, washed clean of the stain of years of comparative poverty, but also stripped of layers of joy and love and tears. There is less life, and the houses have shed the softness of age. The paint is new and often gray. If you pass by in the evening, you might get a glimpse of cool bluish down lights and newly opened up floor plans. Their manicured gardens have trimmed hedges but no dandelions for the bees. No one is sitting on the stoops chatting. There is no music drifting from open windows. As city neighborhoods fill with new wealth, they lose some of the communal ties that make life comforting. Words like gentrification and displacement do not adequately capture these losses. Even during the pandemic, the constant noise of construction underpins the songs of birds. The waste generated by all this renewal is largely invisible.
During one recent walk, I was captivated by an old porch. It made me think of lazy summer afternoons. I loved that, unlike a lot of the houses around it, it showed its age. Somehow, it also specifically reminded me of summer afternoons during childhood vacations to Sri Lanka - a feeling that held within it both freedom and rootedness. In those afternoons, I felt nourished by old houses and old people and old trees. In this time of staying close to home, I was happy to encounter an unexpected connection to another time and place.
Over the upcoming months and years, I worry that the pandemic will bring with it an even stronger global drive towards the sterile, the virtual, and the new. This is not the time to buy used things or to donate what you no longer need. This is the time of disposable protective gear - and there is not nearly enough of it to protect those who care for the rest of us.
The pandemic has created massive upheaval, and I wonder what changes will last. I wonder how many plastic gloves and bags will be drifting in the ocean in a year, about how many gallons of milk farmers will have poured down drains. I worry that relationships may fray. I fear for the leaching away of small and local and sustainable businesses. And, of course, I worry that there could be less money for protecting both nature and human rights.
Nevertheless, there is hope too. I love the stories of how people in New Delhi are seeing consistently blue skies for the first time in many years, about how people are able to breathe more freely. The maps contrasting air pollution now to last month are striking. More people around the world are noticing the birds and insects around them. There are stories of wild animals roaming the streets of villages and cities, likely in part because animals are venturing further into human habitats and in part because more people are looking for them. So many of the beings with whom we share this world might be feeling lower levels of stress even as we humans are feeling more – there is less noise in the skies and in the seas, the ground trembles less. They, our neighbors, might feel a sense of relief, a sense of comfort, and maybe even something like coziness. But their sense of ease is probably temporary, a brief respite from the seemingly endless hunger of humans.
In this moment, hope and despair feel tightly intertwined. As many of us move beyond staying at home, will we be able to regain some ease while maintaining a better balance with nature? How can we retain a sense of the small and cozy while moving back towards what we consider "normal"? I wonder if part of the answer to these questions lies in a shift in perception towards valuing what already is, in reframing our collective definitions of progress.
This year, our Earth Day celebrations will, by necessity, have to be more intimate – more cozy. These more intimate celebrations and actions, coupled with virtual global connections, could provide inspiration for a more personal approach to caring for the environment.
In the opening sentence of her book about creating comfort, Isabel Gillies questions whether coziness can possibly matter on "a planet where people are hungry and elephants endangered." But, she says that being cozy helps her "feel capable of getting through to the next moment, to help another, to accomplish something important.” As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, I think that could be true for all of us. If we invest more in understanding and valuing our own comfort, we might be better able to consider and fight for the comfort of all beings.
Curating Hope features the personal stories of diverse people who protect nature. Together, we can envision a more sustainable future.