Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
A note from adrienne maree brown: chelsea cleveland is a Black liberation facilitator who dreams of tarot decks and generates quirky cultural engagement strategies. They help me think about disability, loneliness, and family.
Amid a pandemic that had forced the world into isolation, I found myself drawn to the story of Julian of Norwich, a 14th-century anchorite who willingly embraced solitude as a path to spiritual enlightenment. Julian’s journey into a life of seclusion, her encounters with divine revelations, and her unwavering connection with her community offer profound insights into the concept of loneliness as a form of fermentation—a transformative process, much like the slow and deliberate changes that turn raw ingredients into something entirely new, like the way cabbage becomes sauerkraut or grapes become wine over time.
Julian of Norwich, born in 1342 in Norwich, England, embarked on a unique Christian religious vocation as an anchorite. This path, primarily pursued by women, required them to take a meaningful step in their spiritual journey. Anchorites, like Julian, lived in isolation, physically walled into a room with their cells cemented shut, rendering them unable to leave. In these confines, they devoted their lives to the study of the Bible, considering it an essential act of offering to God.
As we examine Julian’s life and the isolation she willingly embraced, we can draw striking parallels with the transformative process of food fermentation. Just as foods undergo significant changes, evolving into something more intricate and nuanced, we, too, experience compelling transformations in our lives. Sometimes, we may remain oblivious to these changes until they conclude. Our former selves linger underneath, but the transformation brings forth something new.
Years before the pandemic, I grappled with loneliness due to my depression, spending countless hours in isolation, often pondering the darkest thoughts. The pandemic, however, forced a different kind of solitude upon me. I contracted COVID-19 and developed health issues, compounding my existing disabilities and resulting in a deeper and more distressing isolation than I had previously experienced. It was a time marked by grief, fear, and uncertainty, where the need for community and connection became more vital than ever.
In this newfound isolation, I discovered portals that allowed for connection in online spaces. Communities like Divergent Design Studios provided comfort and a place to be my authentic self. Dating apps allowed me to simulate the touch and intimacy I longed for; I even went on virtual dates, and connected with others in unconventional ways.
Within the disabled community, we have consistently crafted magical gateways into places that allow us to foster a sense of belonging, especially among ourselves. These connections became lifelines during the pandemic, offering support and assistance when physical interactions were limited. They served as a testament to our resilience and the strength of our bonds. Our practices have sustained our existence and extended critical support to others. These efforts endure, rooted in our longing for connection and our right to thrive.
To seek even a semblance of safety, we create practices that foster safer spaces, acknowledging that perfection is elusive. In these spaces we can connect with like-minded people who can provide access to critical information, from mask recommendations to how to build DIY air filters. Our community possesses essential wisdom that the wider world, facing a pandemic that will disable many more, desperately needs.
Julian lived her entire life during the Black Plague outbreak, and in her book Revelations of Divine Love, she expounded on her principled beliefs regarding care, tenderness, and love. As an anchorite, she had her portal—a small window through which she could guide people in the community, consistently upholding her deep convictions even amid the despair and sadness of her time. Her decision to live in solitude didn’t entail a life devoid of community.
I recognize an important lesson here: that even in our solitude, whether forced upon us or chosen, we must strive to stay connected with people.
In fermentation, or prolonged isolation, the significance lies in finding these gateways of connection, whether they resemble Julian’s window or the virtual gatherings I experienced. Even during solitude, it’s crucial to seek relationships and connection. Without it, there is a risk of stagnation, a slow decline into decay rather than a transformative journey toward a beautiful new form. Just as an anchorite relied on community support for food and shelter, these connections are essential, highlighting our need for interdependence.
Amid the backdrop of connection and mutual support in the early days of the pandemic, there were instances where nondisabled individuals failed to recognize the invaluable gifts we were offering, or seized upon them, used them, and abandoned us. This highlights the delicate balance between genuine connection and exploitation, a challenge we must address as we navigate the evolving landscape of isolation and connection.
As the pandemic unfolded and people began shedding masks and precautions, my sense of connection grew more complex. I felt a disconnect in many long-term relationships.
I began to observe a shift in the behavior of my friends and family—masks, once a common sight, began disappearing from their faces. While I couldn’t discern everyone’s safety measures, the sight of people neglecting masks in shared public spaces weighed heavily on me.
Wearing a mask is a small yet potent gesture in the battle against COVID, signifying solidarity with those who remain cautious and vulnerable. It began to feel like I was an outsider, the sole person in my vicinity still wearing a mask. I continued my regular testing regimen and bolstered my protection with nasal sprays, but asking, “Where is your mask?” often drew sighs.
Coming from an organizing background that inherently distrusts our capitalist government’s ability to safeguard our well-being, I found myself both perplexed and infuriated that people chose to relax on this particular issue, as if we could now trust the powers that be to keep us safe.
We have to keep us safe.
In response, I first turned inward, seeking solace in my fermentation space. Simultaneously, I sought solidarity among my incredible disabled comrades and friends, who shared similar concerns, politics, and feelings.
I have a lingering fear that these little portal spaces might not be enough to sustain us, and that the fermentation process could go awry, resulting in mold and the need to start over from scratch. Meeting the needs of all individuals demands significant time, energy, and planning—a labor often unacknowledged and unpaid. Many undertake this work quietly and eventually burn out. Nondisabled people often overlook the incredible spaces, work, and contributions that disabled people are crafting for the benefit of all.
Still, within those worries, I must hold on to a belief in a new world where I can exist without shame, embracing my identities as a disabled, fat, queer, nonbinary and trans, mixed-race Black person—and more. I must hold to these convictions like Julian of Norwich held to hers. To achieve this, we must keep creating and experimenting—no matter how small the steps may seem.
In exploring the parallels between Julian of Norwich’s transformative solitude, the magic of fermentation, and the resilience of connection, I’ve come to understand that our experiences of isolation, like the slow fermentation of food, hold the potential to evolve into something deeper and more enriching. Let us not decay, and let us not allow others to waste away either. We must not leave people behind.
So, as I lie in bed, dealing with the pain that overcomes me, I can close my eyes, snuggle up with my blanket, and embark on some thought experiments that can help bring new portals and points of connection into our world. I hope you will do the same.
chelsea cleveland is a fat mixed-race Black, non-binary and trans, queer, and disabled imaginator with more than 12 years of organizing and facilitation expertise. They have created many spaces that encourage deeper connections among communities. chelsea draws from their history of experiences and the wisdom of collaborators, envisioning a world where meaningful connections flourish. Currently, they are working on a project with co-collaborator and friend Kristianna Smith, exploring how imagination serves as a crucial tool for liberation. chelsea is also the dreamer and co-creator of a highly anticipated forthcoming tarot deck.