Control in the Midst of Chaos

The school year is over, sports seasons are done, seniors will not get a prom, and spring break plans are cancelled. Millions are unemployed, the DOW just dropped another thousand points, and children wonder where their next meal will come from. When will I see my teachers again? My friends? When will people get their jobs back? When will it feel like the world isn’t crashing down from underneath me?

Those are merely a few of the thoughts that swarmed in my head on Monday afternoon, after listening to Governor Inslee officially announce that I, along with all students in Washington state, will not be returning to school this year.

Not knowing how to process this news, I immediately switched off the press conference and took a long walk in my neighborhood.

Quite frankly, I was angry; not at myself, not at any political figure, not at anyone. But I was angry at the concept of not being able to control the external factors in my life.

I could not be angry for long, though, as I became distracted by something unbelievably bizarre. The street I had been walking along has a ditch parallel to it- a ditch entirely filled with sludgy, orange liquid flowing down it. What in the world… I had thought. What could this be?

Intrigued, I took a pause from my walk to figure out just WHAT this orange stuff was! I sat down, examined it, and did some research. Turns out, the water in this ditch almost certainly has a high level of iron in it, and subsequently, has soaring amounts of iron-oxidizing bacteria in it- the orange stuff. I also learned that these microbes have been pulling off this remarkable feat for the past two to three billion years. They survive by feeding on the iron dissolved in particular water flows- something difficult to do, because iron has such sparse amounts of energy. Upon first glance, this ambiguous orange substance seemed scary and environmentally hostile; however, I soon learned it was quite the opposite. When the bacteria feeds on the iron, it turns to rust. That rust has the potential to grab onto bits and pieces floating by, such as arsenic, other harmful metals, and even viruses. Essentially, these bacteria can actually help filter water. Amazing!

Learning about the mysterious orange sludge that day weirdly gave me a sense of hope during the chaos. I was able to learn about a complex scientific concept in the real world, outside of the classroom. This led me to realize that although there are many things we cannot control, there are also a multitude of things we CAN control. For example, our attitudes and willingness to learn in the midst of insecurity.

I introduced this passage by listing things that are cancelled – school, sports, prom, etc. However, it wasn’t until I ran into (well, walked into) the beautiful ditch of orange sludge when I realized all the things that are not cancelled; all the things that will fuel us.

Learning is not cancelled. Determination is not cancelled. Positivity is not cancelled. Neither is excitement, going outside, opportunity, connection, happiness, or curiosity. We, as people, are not cancelled.

I encourage you to not let the pandemic control you. Do not give it as much credit as it is taking! I may have learned it from a small ditch on my walk, but it’s a big message- I am bigger than this virus. You are bigger than this virus. And we are bigger than this virus.

I hope the orange ditch inspires you as much as it inspires me.


Robin Ying is a 2019-20 Clean Water Ambassador intern with the Greenway Trust and King County Wastewater Treatment Division.