“Potatoes in the Cellar”: Finding Halifax’s Wise Hope

potatoes in a cellar

Amy Ratto Parks

In the past few months, I've been noticing the sudden lack of chipper, placating slogans and hashtags about life. Things like #livelaughlove and #liveoutloud and #YOLO have faded from my social media conversations, and I've been grateful because they would just feel out of step with the gravity of life these days. But are we to be simply without a sense of lightness and hope? Is there a path toward hope? How can we act when we aren't even sure what the fall will hold for us?

In the July 2020 issue of Lion's Roar MagazineRoshi Joan Halifax explored the idea of hope and its place in the chaotic landscape of our times. Initially, she explains that hope is not simply optimism and not a belief that "everything will be OK".  She writes, "it is clear to me that hope is not the belief that everything will turn out well. People die. Populations die out. Civilizations die. Planets die. Stars die."

I felt attuned and alert reading these words because they rang true to me. I don't want someone to pat my arm and tell me everything will be OK because it's obvious that there isn't yet a trail sign pointing to the summit of clarity. Instead, Halifax suggests "through the lens of Buddhism, we discover that wise hope is born of radical uncertainty. [...] Yes, experts are modeling the future, but they are not making the future. [...] Who is making the future? You and I are." She continues by saying, "Like putting potatoes in the cellar at the onset of a long, hard winter, wise hope is a manifestation of wisdom and caring. It is also an expression of resistance to futility and sappy passivity."

She argues, too, that wise hope leads us toward action. She says, "the place where improbability and possibility meet is where the imperative to act rises up" even though "how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can really know beforehand."

And so, as parents, we keep helping our kids navigate the uncertainty of their lives and the many cultural conflicts happening around us. As teachers and caregivers, we keep trying to move forward in our values, even if we aren't sure what the state of school or healthcare will be in the coming months. And as citizens, we "show up" as Halifax writes. We read and listen, we think and share, we try to understand the lived experiences of others alongside our own lived experiences and beliefs -- and we leave space for the discomfort that can come with "radical uncertainty."

If I think of my actions now - this month, this week, today - as "potatoes in the cellar" or even fall bulbs planted for spring blooms, it's easier to keep going. If I leave space for "radical uncertainty" I remember that there isn't really a road map for any of this and that all of us, even in our best efforts, are clearing the trail as we go.

Photo credit: P.Trankov