Passing Phrases

When we first got the news that Governor Evers had declared a state of emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic, my instinct was to react in a measured way. To press pause on any wild terror and instead to move through the planning process methodically, wisely– to prepare. My husband, Alex, had been stockpiling canned goods for a few weeks, asking me, despite my eye-rolling, to buy a couple extra hermetically sealed items every time I visited the grocery store. I tried my best not to gaslight him aloud, but I silently downplayed the possibility that we would truly need three pounds of Basmati rice. After all, this was the same man who had two vintage gas masks hanging in the garage and had been acquiring potable water jugs in the event that we needed to survive a Mad Max: Fury Road scenario.

I had heard about the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic overseas and in large cities on the coasts, but I half expected it to bypass the Midwest for larger, hipper locales, like an influencer on her way to Coachella. I joked with Alex that if the world did end, I’d rather die than eat only canned beans; he said he’d rather die than smell what beans did to our bodies.

Some friends of ours had a small Pi Day party scheduled to celebrate math and sugar (and, plausibly, inebriation), and we opted to attend given we had been feeling healthy and had not interacted with anyone known to have the virus. It was a smirk in the face of the end of the world –one last hurrah the weekend before our places of business sent us home to hunker down and ride out the storm. We didn’t know then that it would be the last time we’d see those friends in person for over a month (and possibly more).

Now some odd weeks later, I’ve gassed up the car for $0.98 a gallon, holding my breath as I imagine tiny germs crawling from the touch screen of the gas pump and onto my outstretched fingertip. After liberally applying hand sanitizer I’m now driving aimlessly through our side of town just to remember how it feels to exist outside the confines of my home.

After 45 minutes of meandering aimlessly and listening to my favorite playlist of raucous Americana and indie rock, I take a right turn and creep slowly down the main artery that runs from the neighboring town of Monona into East Madison. I spy a plethora of bright murals splashed up on the sides of store fronts –some walls tagged with the artists’ distinctive graffiti lettering, others displaying pop art and street caricatures, still others the carefully shaded faces inspired either by a loved one or a lost one or both.

On the left side of the street a colorful flash catches my eye, and I make a U-turn to double back and see it again in person. THIS TOO SHALL PASS. I can’t remember if this mural has been up since before the quarantining began or not, but it’s perennially modern.

I realize I’ve heard this proverb since I was a child, and it always seemed callous, dismissive, maybe careless in its utterance. It’s a phrase devoid of emotion, and I wonder to myself, Who wrote this? Is that supposed to be helpful?

I snap a photo and return home to look up the phrase. It’s an old adage with roots in Sufi poetry — a phrase embedded among works that brought Hindus and Muslims together, reminding people for over 850 years to focus on community and Love Divine in the face of adversity. The phrase acted as a reminder of the temporary nature of humanity, grief, and glory as it was passed on from generation to generation across cultures, reaching from Persian poetry to Jewish folklore. I discover that the University of Haifa still contains multiple iterations of this proverb in its Israel Folklore Archive. The story goes that a Sultan asks King Solomon for wisdom that would remain true whether in times of prosperity or grief — Solomon says, “This too shall pass.” As the lesson has been passed down, the specifics have varied — sometimes Solomon provides the insight, and sometimes he is the one receiving it.

Poetic, then, that the cyclical nature of this phrase was to be learned and then taught again. British poet and author, Edward FitzGerald, was enamored of medieval Persian literature and did what many Western writers do — popularized the sentiment in English:

“The Sultan asked Solomon for a Signet motto, that should hold good for Adversity or Prosperity. Solomon gave him, “THIS ALSO SHALL PASS AWAY.” (The Works of Edward FitzGerald, Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1887.)

This was then read and repackaged by Abraham Lincoln, and on and on. Now it has arrived, emblazoned on the cinder block wall of a Midwest store. How fittingly displayed in a time of grief and uncertainty, in its impermanence as a street art mural along a well-traveled road. The message lasts, the art will not. It’s a bittersweet reminder that this is neither the first nor the last crisis we are to survive.

I savor this fleeting moment like a paleta in the summer.

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