Folklife in the Age of Pandemics

by Maribel Alvarez

As occupations go, folklorists are not usually in the top ten list of “first responders” most people think of when disasters or other major disruptions to everyday life take place. Certainly, medical and emergency personnel play the most critical roles when physical well-being is immediately threatened, and we are all better off for it. However, among the professions involved in providing what are generally known as “quality of life” services in times of great change or transition, folklorists claim a special kind of expertise.

Trained to pay attention to the flow, embellishment, routines, and habits of everyday life and group identities—those recurrent aspects of culture best identified by the phrase “the way we do things around here”—folklorists can sense small shifts in human behavior that others might at first overlook or dismiss as unimportant. Folklorists are archivists of the arts of coping, detecting with fine precision how humans search for meaning in the oddest of ways and places. Think, for instance, about yellow ribbons tied around trees during the Iranian hostage crisis, graffiti scrawled on the Berlin wall before its fall, jokes about President Bush and FEMA after Hurricane Katrina, racist rumors about Arab-Americans in Detroit after 9-11, or where I live, in Tucson, Arizona, the proliferation of roadside “ghost bikes” set up as memorials for cyclists killed in traffic accidents.

The dramatic upending of everyday life as we know it brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic is generating an abundance of inventive ways of coping. Many of these are shared widely through social media channels. During quarantine, the internet and its many nooks and crannies has become the most densely “populated” public square where we all gather to share stories, comfort one another, laugh, repeat outrageous rumors, organize for social change and mutual aid, and exchange tips for folk remedies, homespun protective gear, or “Zoom Happy Hour” cocktails.

The disruption of COVID 19 is unlike any we have experienced within a generation or more, and this presents us with particularly unique challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, the disorientation of having to worry about things we took for granted only a month ago (from securing toilet paper and hand sanitizer to remembering we need a little bit of sun everyday to replenish Vitamin D in our bodies). Many are struggling with financial hardships and learning how to ask for help they never thought they’ll need in their lifetime. As we go about adjusting our daily schedule to work in our pajamas, cook more meals at home, and learn how to communicate with friends and family through new technologies, there’s also an unprecedented opportunity for practicing a new kind of cultural mindfulness. In other words, to become students and analysts of the cultural and social transformations surrounding us. If, as the great African American folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, said, “folklore is the boiled down juice of human living,” we are now more than ever reluctant expert cooks in this kitchen we call “normal” life.

Academic credentials aside, as our most basic routines for carrying on life in the ordinary turn to something “different” than we are used to, each one of us has the potential and the opportunity to become a community folklorist—a keen observer of the human condition.

Below are three simple recommendations, drawn from the folklorist’s toolkit, to help turn this time of physical distance into a productive exercise of curiosity and creativity:

  • Notice things. Making the “familiar” unfamiliar is one of the handiest practices folklorists and anthropologists use to tease out meaning out of mundane activities. It helps to narrate in your head the events of the day as if you were a visitor from another planet. This exercise can help us understand how conditioned we are to accept certain things without questioning their logic. It helps us realize how much of what we call “normal” life is not really ordained from above, but something we perform and arrange with certain wiggle room for creativity. For every unconscious thing we do, there is also the chance we may re-fashion our habitual ways to bring about more intentional compassion, empathy, and critical thinking to how we move through our obligations and relationships.
  • Ritualize daily tasks. Rituals are “frames” we create around certain snapshots of life to mark change and help humans cope with transitions—think funerals, graduations, weddings, or the daily family dinner, etc.). Rituals change things from “before” to “after.” Their universal functions are to help us stop and pay attention, revealing for a short moment in time our deeply held beliefs about each other and what we care about most (love, family, faith, etc.). Like getting dressed for a formal occasion or baking a birthday cake, rituals also often involve special stylized embellishments. As we organize life in quarantine, we have the chance to ritualize the most ordinary activities to turn them into tiny meaning-making generators. The morning coffee or the afternoon walk can become rituals of renewal; the family room can turn into a site of sacred gathering; the internet meeting space can be re-tooled as a reminder of rights and obligations to one another and community. By adding ritual significance to what we already must do, we heighten the value of our labor and effort to be well and remain hopeful.
  • Connect the dots. Soon after a folklorist begins to study the specifics of something—a basket, a song, a food tradition—she starts to realize that it is not just “the thing” at hand that is meaningful, but the context of everything connected to everything where the true story of value and significance lives. As we focus our energies in these days of pandemic into our singular, individualized circumstances, we do well to also notice the way this crisis is changing everything and everyone in ways that will last well past the virus. In some instances, this will make us fearful, or angry, or compassionate, or all those things simultaneously. This presents us with the opportunity to anticipate and prepare (our family’s finances or schedules), or organize and mobilize (our communities), or re-organize our own priorities (health, wealth, education, children, meditation).

As this time of COVID 19 unfolds in all its many convoluted and convulsive ways, I am frequently reminded of the insights of the great British scholar Raymond Williams: Culture is recurrent (that part we call tradition), but also always emergent. The force of human creativity, labor, and imagination to re-shuffle the cards we have been dealt will always surprise, even amaze us.

Maribel Alvarez, Ph.D, is a folklorist, anthropologist, and educator. She is the Associate Dean for Community Engagement in the College of Social & Behavioral Sciences and the Jim Griffith Chair in Public Folklore through the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center and School of Anthropology.

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