dispatch 6 light on the mountain border
Photo by Terry Tempest Williams.
Terry Tempest Williams is a writer, naturalist, activist, educator—and patient. In this sixth “Dispatch from the Desert,” Terry reflects on triage, triangles, and how service brings purpose to our lives.


6 April 2020
Castle Valley, Utah


ately I have been thinking about triangles. This triangle of light on Round Mountain framed in a triangle of bare branches soon to be green holds my attention. There is the triangle of emotions we carry: hope, despair, and acceptance. 

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Photo by Terry Tempest Williams.

We are about to become a triangle of care when my brother who has survived COVID-19 comes to stay with us for the duration of sheltering at home. My heart will be calmed once he is here. A triangle pointing upward feels grounding with a strong point forward like an arrow, upward like a prayer. It is the balance between mind, body, and spirit; the integration between the past, present and future. When you put the bases of two triangles together a diamond is created.  The phrase “the diamond perfect mind” like “the thunder perfect mind” from the Gospel of Thomas can be seen as a call for spiritual clarity through light, a triangle of light, which brings me back to Round Mountain illuminated.

My body knows when Sunday arrives and I am surrendering to rest, even as the unrest of my active mind is always with me. These next few weeks will ask everything and more of us as the death count from COVID-19 rises. But these are not just numbers, metrics, models, and data. They are beloveds lost: mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandparents, lovers, and friends. My body laying down grieves for these bodies, these minds, and spirits – I grieve, we grieve for all those who have died, and who will succumb to the virus.

I think about the word triage – derived from the French word “trier” meaning to sort or separate, shift or select. History credits the idea of triage to a surgeon in the Napoleonic Wars named Dominique Jean Larrey who treated those who needed urgent medical care first regardless of position or nationality. Later in World War I, French doctors who were tasked with removing the wounded from the battlefield and treating them behind the lines of active combat divided the injured soldiers into three categories:

  1. Those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive.

  2. Those who are unlikely to live, regardless of what care they receive.

  3. Those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference in outcome.

These practices of triage continue today in hospital emergency rooms around the world. Triage is in full display during the COVID-19 pandemic in every state in the union as doctors and nurses make split-second-heartbreaking decisions as to who will live and who will die based on what individuals have the greatest odds of surviving the virus. Ethical conundrums become pragmatic acts as Code Blue, Code Blue, Code Blue warnings blare throughout make-shift hospitals in the nation’s hotspots.

Where are we to turn in this defining moment of a viral outbreak? As of April 6, the coronavirus has infected over a million people globally and over 350,000 Americans close to 10,000 of whom have died. Experts estimate that COVID-19 will kill a minimum of 100,000 Americans before the virus has run its course. 

Shortly after my brother Steve Tempest died from lymphoma at 47 years of age, I had a dream I have never forgotten. Before I went to sleep, despondent and disorientated over his passing, I asked my night mind a question, “What is the purpose of life?” I felt half of me had been buried with my brother.  

The dream I had was this: A neon green triangle rose out of the sea and started flashing before me. Suddenly, a porpoise leaped out of the water and started circling the triangle. In a watery voice, it started singing, “The porpoise of life is service.” And then, the porpoise started circling the neon triangle in the opposite direction, singing, “Service is a life of porpoise.” And then, the porpoise flipped its body midair in the other direction and once again, began singing “The porpoise of life is service. The porpoise of life is service.”

Our health care providers, bless them, doctors and nurses and grief counselors, among them, are committed to the service of life. Day and night, they risk their own lives to save ours. Purpose is among them. Triage is among us being performed. The triangle we are born into is a triptych of birth, life, and death. Imagine the tips of the triangle softening becoming a circle opening into a spiral that we can find in the galaxies above us.  

Arundhati Roy, the Indian writer and activist, writes, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”  She goes on to say, “We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

May we gather our hearts together and place them inside a triangle of light and love and loss – creating an inner home for healing, and an outer community of care and compassion as each of us commit to serving a purpose larger than ourselves.


Terry Tempest Williams

Writer-in-Residence, Harvard Divinity School

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