A Pandemic and an Aquarium

We’ve been in this pandemic for over a year now. It’s been a year of challenges, some worse than others, and some far more desolate (as no two situations are exactly alike). Whether in the loss of lives or the loss of way of life, it has also been a time to grieve. We’re all grieving something in this new world: our sense of community; hugging in public (and smiling); our jobs and our livelihoods; and for a few, friends and family lost to the novel coronavirus. Grief comes in many forms and losses are plentiful in a pandemic, it seems. And most of us are feeling a kind of ambiguous grief that is difficult to put a finger on, but that is palpable and heavy nonetheless.  

Just before the lockdown started, we bought an aquarium. It was a used aquarium, and it came with a couple of tiny fish that quite honestly didn’t survive very long. We bought some more fish, and those eventually died too, and with every loss we felt some serious guilt. (Every life matters, right?) It was a frustrating first few months, but the more frustrating it became the more motivated I became to make it work. So, I read what I could, I bought a bunch of chemicals to ensure the water quality and PH were right, and I started introducing some real plants. Over the next month or so, what was beginning to resemble a science experiment finally began to stabilize. There were some additional losses, but they were becoming less frequent, and after a lot of care and attention, the fish (10 tetras of various size and colour) were thriving.

(Somewhere, in all of this, there is an analogy to be drawn to the pandemic itself. It is a terribly complicated set of circumstances that we find ourselves in, far more complicated than most of us really understand. And it is undeniably more difficult to stabilize than a small home aquarium. Should any of us be faced with managing a problem of such scale and complexity, we would surely be more understanding of those currently tasked with such responsibility. I never imagined that an aquarium would be so hard to get right. But I would take the aquarium over a pandemic any day.)

So, the fish were finally happy, and we later introduced two large mystery snails (who also seemed quite content), but the plants proved to be the next big challenge. I was committed to replacing the remaining plastic plants with real ones (the thought of artificial plants is always an unpleasant one for me, regardless of the setting), yet despite claims about how “easy” most aquatic plants are, they proved the most difficult. They became their own science experiment of sorts, and a host of new chemicals (micronutrients, macronutrients, rooting hormone, etc.) were being added to the aquarium. It was a slow go, and many plants were lost in the process. Others were barely hanging on.

In the world outside the aquarium, the pandemic was reaching its one-year mark, and it seemed that the world was also barely hanging on—and yet it was also surviving. This is the paradox of all ecosystems, and of life itself. Whether contained in glass or living boundlessly in the real world, all life exists in this state of tension, wavering between thriving and surviving, and on the edge of death in either state.

Although the plants were surviving, the fish and snails were definitely thriving—so much so that about a month ago, we had baby snails. (About 40 baby snails, to be a little more precise.) Up until then, and on the advice of numerous aquarium experts, we had been destroying the egg sacs as soon as they were laid (another source of guilt, surely!) out of fear of the snails taking over the tank. But apparently, we missed one. (And now we have a lot of snails.) I must admit that despite the warnings, I was excited to see one of the egg sacs fully mature. (Who wouldn’t love baby snails!?)

It’s been a few weeks, and the babies are growing quickly. The tank is doing quite well now, too. The plants have even been improving and, dare I say, some appear to be thriving. But there has been an unfortunate turn of events since the babies were born: The Mama snail—a large ivory white mystery snail—seems to be nearing the end of her life. Though we don’t know her age, the lifespan of mystery snails is about one year, and sadly, I think she has reached that point. And I can’t help but feel relieved that after all the egg sacs she laid, the very last one was not destroyed. In the end, part of her was passed on to her 40 or so little offspring. (Who, thankfully, have not yet started producing offspring of their own. Things could still prove challenging in the tank.)

Everything in one world can be seen as a reflection of things in another. In this pandemic, I find myself finding meaning and metaphor in all kinds of unusual places (including an aquarium, it seems). The slow death of a snail, however inconsequential to our human world, strikes me as something worth grieving, if only for a moment. And it reminds me that however futile life may seem in death, there is always purpose to be found. Whether it is a year that we have or eighty, and whether it is due to natural causes or a pandemic, life keeps pushing forward. And purpose abounds.

In times like these, one must connect with the world in any way possible in order to survive. Be it a snail, a tree, a cat, or a person, connection is the only thing that will see us through this, no matter how disconnected or isolated we may feel. However alone, and however desolate our circumstances, our grief is but a small reminder of our capacity for connection, and of our humanity. Life and death exist in all worlds, contained behind glass or otherwise, and we are incapable of resisting these processes entirely. The aquarium and life within it have reminded me of these truths. And importantly, they have reminded me of the complexities and uncertainties of nature itself. Like that of the fish and snails, our world is also in a state of perpetual flux, ebbing and flowing in ways that are not always easy to discern. And life and death, however challenging in their own right, continue to unfold as they always have. Perhaps it is in these simple truths of existence that we may find some peace and stability, within a pandemic or without.

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