Harrison Middleton University

Virginia Woolf in the Time of COVID-19

Virginia Woolf in the Time of COVID-19

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


April 10, 2020

Thanks to Minette Bryant, a 2020 HMU Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.

To say the least, these are unprecedented times. Certainly for the current generations—all of them!—there has not been another scenario like the one we are living out. We are making it up as we go.

As a mother and a wife, more than being concerned with how I am handling all the changes myself, I am focused on helping my children (especially) and my husband to manage the uncomfortable restrictions on their comfortable lives. With two high-school boys, one of which is facing the cancellation of his graduation, I am making daily pep talks to encourage them to use this time for more than video games and refrigerator raids. I want them to look back on this time and list the things that they accomplished rather than the things that they missed.

And as I make this pep talk…again…I cannot help thinking of Mrs. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s classic To the Lighthouse.

I had to dig out my Great Books of the Western World volume 60 to find the spot where I had cordoned off a specific section in Chapter XI with blue crayon. I knew I’d marked it…it had stayed with me for too long to have gone unmarked in my initial reading. I’ve learned to always read a book with a crayon in hand; it saves a great deal of heartache later when I want to quote something precisely but can’t find it because…no crayon.

Sure enough, there it was.

I had remembered that Mrs. Ramsay experienced something in her solitude…something about shrinking down to a small dark wedge. What I found upon re-reading it was much richer than my simplified memory:

For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of—to think; well, not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others. Although she continued to knit, and sat upright, it was thus that she felt herself; and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures. When life sank down for a moment, the range of experience seemed limitless. And to everybody there was always this sense of unlimited resources, she supposed…

This is it, exactly. This is what I’ve been trying to say to my sons and my husband, and Virginia Woolf gave me the words. “Unlimited resources” indeed!

We all spend so much mandatory time going hither and thither. I often feel like the Pokey Little Puppy in the classic “Little Golden Book” (Janette Sebring Lowrey, 1942) which describes the puppies as going “roly poly, tumble bumble, pell mell” down the hill. That’s what my life felt like four weeks ago. Jangling alarm, quick shower, kids to school, get to work, work all day, kids from school, homework, dinner, personal responsibilities, fall into bed exhausted…jangling alarm. This was “the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal” experience of every workday, and most weekends as well. Roly poly, tumble bumble, pell mell.

And now suddenly, I’m mandated to stop doing all of that. I still work, but it’s at home, in my pajamas, with a kitten on my lap and a dog at my feet. I can actually linger under the hot water in the shower. Dinner is more of a family effort, and we talk throughout the day about what we’ll have, and who will make what part…and who will do the dishes, because it doesn’t always have to be Mom! My husband and I have been watching a movie together every night, relaxed, eating dry Cinnamon Toast Crunch like jet setters at their leisure.

But in and around all of that, I have a unique ability now to shrink down into that wedge-shaped core of darkness; to look inside myself, to illuminate dusty corners of forgotten intentions and passions, all the things I said I might do someday. I don’t knit, like Mrs. Ramsay, but I can sit quietly, playing solitaire on my phone, and shrink into my wedge.

And, oh! The “strangest adventures” I can have! I can go back and revisit exciting moments in my past, I can look over my world journey like thumbing through the Akashic Record of my life, making connections between events and circumstances, contemplating the concept of free will, identifying the start points of large impactful turns I’ve experienced, and identifying the end points of particular pains or sorrows.

Of course, I could spend this time focused on the slights I’ve perceived or failures I’ve blundered into or losses that I never recovered…but that is, indeed, a choice. Like Mrs. Ramsay, I choose to spend this time on the positive experiences afforded to me by my own unlimited resources. That wedge-shaped core of darkness in all of us is where big ideas begin and are nurtured. It’s where we can find the quiet stream of gratitude to bathe in. Unlike all the being and doing, expansive, glittering, vocal…that wedge is where the real me lives.

This social distancing is an opportunity. It’s a feature of the current crisis, not a flaw. Listen. Listen to Virginia Woolf…and then grab your knitting needles or your iPhone or your Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and find a quiet place to shrink down and listen to yourself.

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