The fire swamp in The Princess Bride has at least three known dangers, but at first Westley (played by Carey Elwes) mistakenly believes there are only two: the flame spurts and lightning sand, which can both be spotted ahead of time and avoided. “When Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright) asks about the ROUs, Westley tells he doesn’t believe they exist. Cue Rodents of Unusual Size, rats the size of footballplayers, to attack.
It’s kind of like that for us now. First, there’s the coronavirus, but we’re learning more each day about the signs (fever, cough, difficulty breathing, loss of smell or taste, etc.). Then there’s the lightning sand — the places that will swallow you up fast and deep, so it’s best to avoid them — which I interpret as any indoor gathering with a lot of people, especially if they’re packed close and, unlike some of the characters in The Princess Bride, maskless. Now it seems the ROUs are out in force with the pandemic aggressively pinning down whole communities and swatches of this country and many others.
Add to that the heat and humidity, the spectrum of fear (from mild worry to abject terror) about schools and universities opening back up a little or a lot, the lack of any vaccine or super effective cure available to all, and I wonder how many more terrors there are in the fire swamp. Yet wonderng doesn’t give me a leg up on preparation so I go back to looking at where I am, as Westley did when he said he wouldn’t want to build a summer house in the fire swamp, but is habitable and even has its charms.
On what I count as Day 128 of the pandemic, we still have no idea how we’ll get to the other side. I can’t yet imagine eating indoors in a restaurant, having friends over for a potluck, or casually going on a long road trip, stopping whenever we need food, gas, or sleep. But here in the fire swamp, there’s some lovely moments amid the certain dangers we need to avoid, most of all, by staying put.
Right now, it’s in the 90s with humidity that feels like 200%, but with the ceiling fan, floor fan, and big sweeps of wind, I can sit on my porch and be okay. Like many of us, I’m more attuned to the phoebe’s chirps, the hummingbird’s buzz, the barred owls “who-cooks-for-you” call, and many manner of cicadas and katydids. I’ve had more frequent and in-depth conversations with friends — by phone, Zoom or Facetime — than at just about any other point in my life, all of us sharing the matching pieces of this puzzle time. And certain things seem to be more possible (such as really grappling with systematic racism, and on a more individual level, what our life’s work is).
I think about the most tender times in my life, usually involving hospitals or deathbeds when our hearts are blown open by finally seeing our vulnerability and mortality. These are the times some of the least expressive among us might easily repeat “I love you” late into the night. The moments we show up for each other are so often when one or more of us in the fire swamp of uncertainty, fear, dread, and sadness.
While I don’t know when and how we’ll get out, I trust we won’t follow the plot of The Princess Bride (which involves torture and almost death before coming back to life and triumph), but instead find our own plot twists to greater safety, freedom, and love. Meanwhile, we need to remember, that while it might feel like we live here forver, we’re just passing through the fire swamp.