Our 2021 Common Reader, Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Beauty by Karen Auvinen, begins with the author returning home to her cabin in the Colorado mountains and finding it aflame. She loses everything, from poems that she had written on paper and the countless files on her destroyed hard drive to her clothes and sentimental knick-knacks. The charred bits of paper that once were her poems drift across the mountains in the coming months as she attempts to rebuild her life.
As I read Auvinen’s striking and inspiring memoir of her time living and camping in the mountains over several decades, I was amazed at how relatable her situation was to mine. Although I read it from the comfort of my city apartment, the total isolation Auvinen often found herself in struck a chord deep within me. I was reading at what has thus far been the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, totally alone in my apartment, with limited contact with the outside world. Any time I went outside, I wore a mask and veered away from anyone in my walking path. Even now, I have not hugged someone outside my household since March. My cats sit lazily on my windowsill, irritated by my constant presence. Will she ever leave again?
Certainly, our lives feel aflame, like a blaze has rushed us out of our usual homesteads and all of us are standing outside wondering when the firefighters will arrive. The pandemic has shown us some of the failures of our society and leaders, but it has also demonstrated the remarkable resilience of the human spirit. It exemplifies what we are willing to sacrifice to ensure that other human beings do not have to suffer. It is a trying and telling chapter of human history that will no doubt last forever in the personal stories of those of us who have lived through it. For better or for worse, we are forever changed.
How fitting it is, then, that Rough Beauty is the Common Reader for our 2021 Convention, when our theme is “metamorphoses.” Next month we will come together virtually as changed people, readers, writers, students, educators, and alumni. We will carry with us a multitude of experiences: what it is like to learn or teach in a virtual setting; who we become when we are isolated physically from others for months at a time; what hobbies, books, and art we discovered when kept at home for weeks on end. Of the many lessons to be taken from Rough Beauty, perhaps the most relevant to us is that isolation is not a thing to be feared or avoided, but embraced and studied as we find out who we are when the layers of material possessions and constant human contact are stripped away. However, Auvinen also shows us how miserable life can be when we do not connect deeply to other human beings and rely on their support, material and immaterial, to weather the changes of our lives. Isolation is toxic when we are using it merely to run away or hide; it is constructive when we use it to find ourselves and remedy the chaos of modern life.
Auvinen eventually leaves the mountains and her cabin in order to live with her partner in a house on the edge of a town. Her prolonged seclusion ends and she enters a new chapter, carrying with her the unforgettable experiences one can only collect when they give themselves over to the disorder and beauty of nature.
We will not always be in isolation. The fire will end, and we will build a home again.
Student Representative, Southern Region, 2020-2021
Delta Epsilon Upsilon Chapter
University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY
Sigma Tau Delta 2021 Virtual Convention
Join us on March 25-27 for our first virtual convention, featuring roundtable presentations from chapter members, social events, networking sessions, and featured speaker presentations highlighting both our 2021 Common Reader author Karen Auvinen and environmental humorist Michael Branch. Check out the Schedule Preview to learn more and register to attend by March 22.