The word “hysteresis,” which describes the influence of a system’s history on its present state, was a term unknown to me until recently. Imagine a memory foam mattress that retains the imprint of a person’s body after they have gotten out of bed, and you are imagining hysteresis. I encountered the term not in a science journal but in a poem written this year by the Rhode Island poet Tina Cane, to whom I gave the last word in my remarks to our Upper School students earlier this week.
Cane’s poem, titled Shelter in Place, likens its speaker—homebound with her children during the pandemic—to a nesting bird who “uses her shape as a template to form her nest / shoving sticks together in a fit of random engineering… / a steady state of hysteresis… / in which the structure / bounces back but not completely.” Zebra finches especially, the speaker notes, “are content in captivity” and “make their nests / from anything they find.” Perseverance is a theme of the poem (“I’ve been thinking / of ways to speak to my children about…how to be adaptive”), as are kinship (“we don’t struggle alone as the architects of our days”) and wonder (“nature will continue to amaze us in ways we don’t expect”).
It is inevitable that the phenomenon of hysteresis will obtain in our post-pandemic lives in 2021—that our world will “bounce back but not completely.” The encouragement that I gave to our MICDS Upper School students is to continue to be adaptive, both to the pandemic and to whatever follows it, by accepting and even embracing our lack of control over our circumstances. Indeed, the experience of life, not just in a pandemic but in general, is an experience of captivity to one’s circumstances. Zebra finches, as Cane’s poem illustrates, discover ways to thrive in captivity. We should be guided by their example. “It is very simple to be happy,” observes the Bengali poet and writer Rabindranath Tagore, “but it is very difficult to be simple.” How paradoxical it is to discover freedom in the embrace of our captivity—to discover significance in the embrace of our insignificance.
I would invite you to view my full presentation to the Upper School, which incorporates not only poetry but Shakespearean tragedy, mathematics, and even a Cardinals baseball reference. I am addressing brilliant MICDS students after all. I must ever rise to their level.
Always reason, always compassion, always courage. I wish a happy holiday season to you and your loved ones. I will look forward to seeing you again in the new year.
Head of School