This Not Being Sure

April 27, 2021

Message from the headmaster



Having decided to write about the frustrations of uncertainty—in particular, this strange species of uncertainty many are feeling as we look toward the end of this pandemic—I find myself uncertain of how to do it in a way that does justice to this moment in our collective life.


We’ve waited so long to be able to speak and think definitively about the future that the prospect of actually doing it is proving surprisingly daunting. Our conversations verge on the surreal: What can or can’t we do now? How can or can’t we occupy space, interact, and live our regular lives? What, indeed, are our regular lives, now that we’re all accustomed to this?


And now, even though some definition of the near future is emerging (we will soon be able to gather and mingle outdoors, even to dance), my impression is that definition is not making us as unreservedly jubilant as we hoped. There is still enough equivocation to create unease—especially when charged, as we are, with choreographing the movements of an institution so it can stay balanced, and even move forward gracefully, between uprightness and abandon. That is to say, what do we do about Prom?


Metaphors for the predicament are useful—the path (forward, hard to find), the dance (see previous paragraph), the fog (we struggle to see through), the boat (the same one in which we all are), the roller coaster (if roller coasters were both dull and excruciating), and on and on. But most of these metaphors only go so far. Are we all really in the same boat? Can movements so ungainly really be a dance or even progress?


In 1966 the poet John Ashbery wrote a famous meditation on uncertainty called “Soonest Mended.” For most of its lazily arranged 71 lines, the poem ignores the echo in its title of the maxim least said, soonest mended. Instead it meanders at the speed of thought past the events and non-events of a modern life, made up as all of ours are of bizarre mash-ups of Ingres paintings with Happy Hooligan cartoons; “brushing the teeth and all that” with deadly hazards; paying bills and rent with being on “the brink of destruction.” By the time we get to the final four lines, we realize what we already knew: that the certainty of ongoing uncertainty is inescapable. But there is also in that a kind of triumph:


“For this is action, this not being sure, this careless
Preparing, sowing the seeds crooked in the furrow,
Making ready to forget, and always coming back
To the mooring of starting out, that day so long ago.”


As much as I would like to imagine that one day soon, when this pandemic is over, we will all know exactly how to navigate the world, of course, that is not true. It helps not only to remember that, but also to understand that there is power in “this not being sure.” In fact, the preparation we do so painstakingly always runs the risk of “sowing the seeds crooked,” but there is really no other way to proceed, and knowing that makes us free to enjoy the surprise of what grows.


Getting to the dry land of a world without COVID will be a relief, but we have also spent the last year getting our sea-legs—adjusting to constant and unpredictable shifts and rolls without being fully conscious of it—so it may feel dizzying suddenly to disembark. Perhaps we can think about it instead as “coming back/To the mooring of starting out,” where we’re not all at sea, and not quite at rest, but somewhere steady enough to help us start again. I’m pretty sure we can find that place.


Dr. Sharon L. Howell



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