Learning From the Past and the Present

GETTY_INFLUENZA_1120

Several years ago I read a fascinating book about the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. It was one of those page turners that I was unable to set aside, so I found myself neglecting all of my other duties until I had reached the final page in the hours after midnight. After reading the story of the world’s battle with the unknown disease I had a difficult time thinking about anything else.

I suppose that aside from my fascination with the vivid first person descriptions of the horrific time was the fact that I had never before heard of this event. My grandfather who was a storyteller of the first order had spoken of small pox, the Great Depression, the Cleveland Panic and all sorts of historic events but not once had he even cursorily mentioned the pandemic that killed millions of people worldwide. Sadly, by the time that I had finally learned of this historic emergency Grandpa had died so I was unable to question him about what he might have known.

Today we get minute by minute updates on Covid-19 with our twenty four hour newsrooms and breaking headlines on the internet. We get texts from local authorities with news of what is happening near us. We learn how our friends and members of our family are doing from social media and any number of communication platforms. In 1918, I suspect that the average person was mostly privy to what was happening nearby and only peripherally concerned with faraway events. It’s possible that my grandfather was untouched by the Spanish flu and so he simply went about his work and thought little of it.

On the other hand I have often suspected that my grandmother, Minnie Bell, was more personally impacted by the events of 1918 of something that I found as I was researching my family tree. She had been married to Orville Thompson prior to meeting my grandfather. Her first husband who was still rather young died in 1918, and her son seems to have somehow vanished in the same year. The next thing I know about my grandma is that she and my Aunt Opal were working in a boarding house a couple of years later where she met my grandfather. They had a kind of whirlwind courtship that lead to marriage and eventually the birth of my father.

I knew that my grandmother had been a widow but she never once spoke of her first husband, nor did she ever tell me that she had a son other than my father. Of course adults rarely spoke of their personal business to children back then so I knew very little about the most private feelings that my grandmother may have had, but I have since become intrigued by the possibility that her first husband may have been a victim of the pandemic. I wonder if what she witnessed was so horrific that she chose not to speak of it ever again. Since the official death records of Oval Thompson do not list the cause of death I will never know but I think that my conjecture may hold some truth.

The Spanish flu coincided with the end of World War I and the homecoming of soldiers who had served in battle. The first recorded outbreaks were in military bases. There was so little knowledge of the illness that doctors were uncertain how to treat it. There were no vaccines, no drugs, nothing of particular impact and the numbers of the sick began to rise exponentially especially in places like Philadelphia where the city leaders had decided not to cancel a celebratory parade that attracted thousands of people even though there were credible warnings that such an event would be dangerous. That city would become one of the hardest hit places in the country.

When word of the rapid rate of infection began to spread to middle America many cities and towns essentially locked down just as we are now doing. The incidence of illness and death in those places was considerably less than locales where the people continued as though nothing was happening. Thus the historical precedence that is guiding our activities today.

Back then researchers worked feverishly to understand the nature of the Spanish flu and to find ways of protecting people from its ravages. It would be many years later before they unlocked the mysteries of that virus. By then the world was fighting new battles that would ultimately lead to another war, but the knowledge gained would keep us relatively safe from another such occurrence for a hundred years.

The scientific and medical communities have been studying diseases that affect humans for decades. Since 1918, they have found vaccines for chicken pox, measles, polio and the common seasonal flu. My generation still came down with serious illnesses like the measles, chicken pox and mumps but our children and grandchildren have never known such diseases. I had friends who were struck down by polio but now it is a disease of the past. I suspect that within a very short time there will be a reliable vaccine for Covid-19 along with viable measures for better treating those who contact the disease in the future. 

Nonetheless those on the forefront of medical science tell us that we will face new challenges as viruses and bacteria mutate in their natural tendency to fight for survival. It would be good for us to learn from the Covid-19 experience just as our ancestors may have done with the Spanish flu. Each family, state, city, country and organization must include the possibility of a worldwide pandemic in their risk management plans so that the mistakes that we have made this time around will not be repeated in the future. I suspect that there will be many discussions as to how to successfully prepare for any health eventuality once we are clear of our current danger. We need to take such conversations seriously and be willing to respond to honest critiques. It is imperative that we prioritize such efforts rather than becoming so relaxed that we dismantle programs designed for readiness because they appear to be unneeded. 

It would be a grave mistake to simply bury this event in the pages of history. Instead it is an opportunity to honestly reassess our responses and our institutions. If we are very lucky we will never again witness such a thing, but we must nonetheless be cautious about becoming complacent. Just as we sometimes grow weary of fire drills we do them anyway lest the practice session becomes a reality one day. So too must we adapt to the new emergency requirements that Covid-19 has revealed. The first step will be listening intently to those whose life’s work is to know more about these tiny microbes that lurk among us. They will tell us how to proceed. 

Accepting Our Different Ways Of Coping

stress

I’ve often noted that speaking or writing in public can be a dangerous game to the extent that words whether uttered or written down are subject to misinterpretation. As someone who majored in English Literature I remember the energetic debates regarding what an author may have actually meant to say. It always amazed and amused me how we bring our own preconceptions to the analysis of virtually any topic. Where and how we grew up plays a major role in shaping how we view the world. The experiences we have had or not had contribute as well. Our understanding of the nuances of language is yet another factor. Indeed communication is far more complex than a simple utterance may at first glance appear to be. Putting thoughts on paper or speaking them in a public forum is an exercise that will lead to as many different parsing of the words as a game of “telephone” played by a hundred people.

There is very little in the world that is simple but we humans nonetheless do our best to keep things that way. We want certainty in our lives, routines that help to make us feel secure. When those things are taken away the foibles of our individual personalities are tested. Some become uncomfortable while others actually appear to enjoy the riskiness of the situation. When the situation we are facing is wrought with more questions than answers we go into survival mode and how we behave can be very different from one person to another.

As we navigate the unknowns presented by the outbreak of Covid-19 our individual modes of coping are often at odds. There are those who appear to do best by laughing at the situation and that’s not a totally bad idea. The award winning film Life Is Beautiful tells of courage in the face of horror in a story of the power of humor in overcoming the unthinkable. Being able to voice our fears is important but sometimes difficult. A good chuckle allows our emotions to run free.

I have noticed others who turn to activity to keep their minds from dwelling on the possibilities. I know from my own experiences that keeping busy is a powerful antidote for sadness. It was the very panacea that I needed and used after my father’s death. The only trouble that I found with it is that I eventually needed to face down the powerful feelings that remained in my heart. Hard work kept me going but it was not enough to heal my hurt. Stoicism can be admirable, especially when we need people to get things done but we must always remember that at some point they may need to vent, to express what is bothering them. It is important that we allow them those moments.

Of course we all know individuals who quite openly speak of the thoughts that are flowing freely through their minds. For some their honest utterances are uncomfortable. As a rule we sometimes don’t want to hear them. We try to quiet them with platitudes and assurances when all they really need is our willingness to hear them out, our attempts to understand. In many ways they are actually the most courageous among us because they are often saying things that we are too reluctant to say. They have the wisdom of profound honesty and I wonder why it makes so many of us so uncomfortable. Their embrace of the truth of their feelings is a sign of trust, so why do we so often cringe when we hear them saying the very things that are buried in our own hearts ?

I suppose that I am a classic “Pollyana.” I go about in a crisis attempting to make everyone feel happy and optimistic. It is as though I have some notion that if we just stay positive everything will work out for the best. While there is nothing innately wrong with that approach it can be annoying to the realists and it can also have unforeseen consequences. Not every ending is a happily ever after but facing the state of things as they actually exist can sometimes be the surest route back to the promised land. A mask of false confidence can be as ineffective as a thin mask used to contain a deadly virus. Sometimes people have to hear the truth to get to a better place even if it makes them uncomfortable.

We are each reacting to the threat of this novel virus in our own particular ways. How we manage to get through the coming days is a very personal journey. Perhaps our reaction to one another’s differences should be more understanding.

I am in a good place on a personal level. I do not mind being isolated inside my home. It is a lovely environment that allows me to spend my days in a serene little cocoon. I do not have the virus but I have every other thing that I may need. I only worry about others as I watch this tragedy unfold.

I hear the panicked warnings of the doctors in my family and the healthcare workers who are my friends, and I am anxious for them. I witness the anxiety of those who have lost their jobs or watched their nest eggs decrease, and I understand their concerns. I see the young men and women whose educations and experiences have been so abruptly upended, and I understand their disappointment.

I do not have to be told to relax or to endure or that everything will soon be alright. I have every faith that humanity will ultimately win this battle, but my instincts tell me that recovering will not be as easy as some would have us believe. We are in for great change and difficulties unlike many of us have ever seen. It will take a global united effort to get back to a good place and there will be no room for laying blame or making excuses. We’ll simply just have to get to work just as humans have done anytime the world has turned upside down. More importantly we will need much understanding and a willingness to accept our differences in the way we approach problems.

The reality is that we need will need everyone and every response. We will need to laugh from time to time and sometimes cry. We will require the brutal truth and the softness of diplomacy and encouragement.  Perhaps as we sit in our homes it is time that we consider how to be more tolerant and willing to accept that nobody has all the answers and no one person is always right. Maybe coping means being willing to accepting that each of us has a place at the table and something important to offer the world.

 

Living History

history

If only we had a crystal ball that would accurately foretell the future, we might know exactly how to proceed in any situation and most especially during times like those in which we presently find ourselves. Of course we know that no such thing exists and even if it did we might still find ourselves feeling anxious, uncertain and out of control as we wait for a shoe to drop. In truth there are no magic formulas for making the best decisions in a given situation, but there are ways to consider alternatives and then choose a course of action to follow based on rational data. Of course since nothing is perfect there is always a chance that mistakes will happen, making it necessary to adjust as needed.

Humans are part of an intricate web of differing ideas, philosophies, dispositions. Two people might look at the same problem and see it differently. In the luxury of hindsight we may eventually know who was right and who was wrong but in the moment it is impossible to be one hundred percent certain about anything we do. In truth life is a procession of trial, error, correction, and hopefully ultimate success.

I have always enjoyed reading about history. There are certain events whose consequences were so epic that it’s easy to feel as though I am viewing a horror scene in which I know that the boogey man is hiding from the unsuspecting people who are about to get the scare of their lives. I wonder how many Americans from the south would have seceded from the union if they had known the toll of death and destruction that they would endure. Would the people of Russia have revolted against the Czar had they realized the decades of privation and fear that would follow? How many Germans would have supported Adolf Hitler had they seen what would ultimately happen to their country? Would our founding fathers have allowed slavery to be legal in their new nation if they had realized the full consequences of such a decision?

It is always easier to assess a given moment in history once we are able to see the whole picture. We become aware of how things might have been made better. In the heat of the moment we are all too often ruled by more by our emotions, our needs, our personal inclinations than by rational analysis. We desire to find the easy answers even when they are few or nonexistent. Most of the time the situations in which we find ourselves are not dire enough to warrant much of our attention and so we blithely choose sides mostly with those who think exactly life ourselves without giving much thought to alternative ideas. We find comfort in groupthink because it is never easy to be that extraordinary person who goes against the grain of society.

So here we are with all of our human abilities and talents that are tainted by our frailties and fears. We hear the noise of opposing solutions all around us and we are confused as to how best to proceed in light of a worldwide pandemic. There are so many points of view to consider that we feel overwhelmed. We crave simplicity for a complex question. So perhaps we might take a cue from Mr. Rogers and look for the helpers, the people who are working on the front lines all across the globe to save lives. We need to listen to their stories and learn from them, for they are the ones who are living the nightmare in real time while we are isolated in our homes.

During the early years of World War II the United States was decidedly isolationist. It was only after the attack on Pearl Harbor that our nation went to war. We were quite unprepared and our first forays into battle were alarmingly unsuccessful. I have little doubt that the American people felt overwhelmed but they found ways to change the course of history with their sacrifice and determination. They looked to the brilliance of men like Admiral Nimitz and General Eisenhower and supported those who were on the forefront of the war. It took time and treasure and changed everyday life but they were willing to support those who were on the forefront of the war.

We have been asked to isolate ourselves to prevent an outbreak of Covid-19 that has the potential to send our healthcare system into a death spiral. The men and women of medicine are telling us what they need and far too many of us are questioning them and suggesting that what we are hearing from them is little more than scary propaganda, but in truth they are the experts, the generals and the troops who are in the trenches. They should be a primary source for our decision making for the time being. We can worry ourselves with elections and personal causes later. For now we need to rally around them with everything in our power knowing that our sacrifices are small compared to theirs.

Our food supply continues to flow even if we find ourselves lacking some of the luxuries that we once enjoyed. Our children are still learning from parents and teachers who greet them from a distance. Many are continuing to work from home but there are far too many who have lost their jobs, their sources of income. We cannot forget them but we can reassure them that as we shelter in place for now we intend to care for them now and help them to rebuild their lives once the danger has passed.

It is true that our economy and those of countries around the world are reeling. Our work will not be done even when this epic moment has passed. We have to be ready for the long haul just as our parents and grandparents were in World War II. We can’t get too anxious to return to normalcy. Doing so might ruin all of the efforts we have made so far. This fight is bigger than any single individual. It is about all of humankind and each of us has an important role to play. Let us hope and pray that we are choosing to listen to the right voices, the helpers who are risking their own safety to protect us. Listen to what they have to say and be wary of anyone who appears to be more concerned about their own reputations and popularity.  

We are living history from moment to moment. May God help us to do it right.

A Letter To My Children and Grandchildren (Including My Children From Another Mother)

Writing a Letter_tcm1089-296047

March 2020

To My Beloved Children and Grandchildren: (Including my children from other mothers)

Who would have thought as we began this new year and new decade that only months later our world would be so changed? Life often surprises us, but this pandemic is beyond anything that we might have imagined as we each went about our daily routines making our plans for the future. This is certainly not how any of us would have wanted the situation to be. So many of our short term goals have been dashed into unrecognizable pieces in the blink of an eye and many of our long term ones feel more and more difficult to achieve. We each wonder if the world will ever again be as it once was. Perhaps the only bit of optimism to which we now must cling is that so far we are still here and hopefully will remain untouched personally by the virus known as Covid-19.

We have always been participants in the great arc of history but now the events swirling around us feel far more momentous than any that we have hitherto experienced. I sense that each of us will be called upon to be flexible, make sacrifices and use the talents that we have to help rebuild a better society. Every moment of life teaches us important lessons and few provide us with as many opportunities to demonstrate our character and courage as this moment in time. History will tell our stories and I predict that each of you will be judged magnificently because you are all good and decent and bright. I know that no matter how battered your dreams may appear to have become you will resurrect them and accomplish them with even more resolve.

All of the tomorrows truly belong to each of you. Do not fret or worry about what you may have lost or the “might have beens” that never happened because of this interruption of your lives. There will be times of great rejoicing ahead. There always are for individuals with enough grit and ingenuity to remain focused and optimistic even when things appear to be falling apart. The world will need your intellect, your charisma, your work ethic, your compassion.

The days of my generation are not quite over yet and contrary to some thinking we are not totally expendable, but the truth is that you will soon be taking the reins to steer the course of the future. Your talent and beliefs will shape the world for years to come. I have every faith that you will be magnificent caretakers of this earth and its people. While it appears to be in a bit of a shambles right now I have confidence that humankind will rise up just as we always do to make things right. It is in our natures to sometimes need the shove of a disaster to realize the things that we have been doing wrong. Be ready to help to repair those mistakes.

In our days of isolation and solitude we have been reminded of what is most important. There is nothing more precious than our relationships and the love that feeds them. If we have learned nothing else, we should all be more intent on nurturing the beautiful connections that we have always shared. Family is the bedrock of who we are and ours is and always has been so very strong. We have models of inspiration both living and gone whose stories should guide and inspire us. Our ancestry speaks loudly of strength and purpose and the ability to survive. We’ve got the DNA that we need and when we bond together we are unstoppable.

I mostly want each of you to know how much I love you. There is never a day when I do not think of you. I am proud of who you are mostly because of your goodness. You have many accomplishments and no doubt many more are to come, but it is in your sense of honor and duty for your fellow human that I am the most profoundly moved. I do not worry that you will be overcome by the challenges that will come your way and while the present one may feel a bit overwhelming you will find a way to defeat it.

I am looking forward to the coming years and sharing in the triumphs that will come your way.

With deepest love,

Mama/Gammy/Aunt Sharron/Mama B

With Grace

fbaefddb-4dd0-4a58-9709-48e55949a31d

My grandmother travelled alone from the Slovakia region of Austria Hungary to Galveston, Texas shortly before the outbreak of World War I. She was a young woman then with a lifetime stretching before her. She joined her husband in an unknown world to forge a future. At first she worked at various jobs outside of her home but as her family grew she mostly confined herself to the duties of caring for her husband and children. After ten pregnancies and the loss of two of her babies she suffered a mental breakdown and was involuntarily sent to a state hospital in Austin. Once she returned she never again left her home other than a few times when she experienced health emergencies that required hospitalization. The extent of her world was contained within the perimeter of her property where she busied herself with daily routines until she died in her eighties.

I never thought much about my grandmother’s isolation. She spoke only a handful of English words and so our communication consisted of mostly smiles. She had kind blue eyes and she was eager to be a good hostess by offering mugs of coffee to anyone who came to visit, including the children. She made the brew palatable for us by filling the enamel cups with mostly milk and sugar. After that she would join us in the living room, sitting in a chair in the corner just watching the proceedings from her perch while we sadly tended to ignore her and even forget that she was supposed to be the reason for our visit.

She had turned the entirety of her tiny backyard into a garden that gave her something to do other than cooking and cleaning. She’d putter among in the plants in her bare feet watering from a rain barrel rather than a hose. I never actually saw her wearing shoes even in the winter. She had long before foregone the societal rules of dressing, instead using a few well worn cotton dresses as her wardrobe. She wore her hair in a long braid down her back until one of her children gave her a short haircut that may have been easier to care for but was never as lovely as the braid.

Two of Grandma’s single sons lived with her. They watched over her, brought her groceries, made repairs on the house, and kept her company when they were not working. She seemed happy enough in her routine but I did not know for certain what she was thinking. It never occurred to me to wonder what it must have been like to be completely homebound for years, but I have been thinking about her a great deal in the last few days as I have been restricted to the smaller world of my house by the outbreak of Covid-19.

It has almost been two weeks since I self isolated into the confines of my home other than for excursion to doctors and pickup points for groceries. I have almost infinite potential for busying myself and I have to admit that the time has gone by more quickly than I might have imagined. As long as my source of food replacements and deliveries from Amazon continue I will have access to anything that I might need. I have regular communication with family and friends and enjoy hours of entertainment with my books, my laptop, my television and my garden. In truth the only thing that I truly miss is the touch of human interaction and the freedom and joy of becoming one with a crowd. I already long for adventurous days, and as I admit to myself that it’s difficult to be constrained I think of my grandmother and marvel at the contentment that she seemed to possess in spite of her very simple life.

I suppose that we humans adapt to our circumstances just as my grandmother did. People have endured great hardships throughout history and my little foray into a temporary quarantine is nothing compared to the four hundred plus days that Anne Frank spent hiding in an attic to avoid capture and imprisonment in a concentration camp. When I get antsy and a bit resentful that my independence has been curtailed I remind myself that this too will one day pass and I may even find myself rushing around and longing for a bit of solitude. I know that the key is to make the most of the moment and be grateful that I am able to spend the time in so much comfort.

I’ve always been a fan of Henry David Thoreau. Before the world ever heard of Marie Kando he was urging us to simplify, simplify, simplify. My days inside my home have allowed me to see and hear things that I might otherwise have ignored. I laugh at the squirrel who scampers among the birdseed that falls from the feeder that is designed to keep him from becoming a thief. I smile at the children keeping a social distance from one another on their skateboards while their moms shout at one another from the safety of their front porches. I marvel at the incredible kindnesses that I have witnessed and the sense of humor that keeps us laughing even in the midst of uncertainty. I have slowed my pace and joined my grandmother in freeing my feet from shoes and wearing clothes selected for comfort rather than style. I feel no sense of urgency other than to wish that this plague would leave us to end the suffering of those who have become ill and to return our world to a normal state before its economic trajectory takes people’s lives into a downward spiral.

If staying inside my home helps to end the contagion and defeat the virus then I am happy to accommodate. There will be social occasions, nights out, trips and adventures soon enough. My sacrifice is nothing in the long range scheme of things. If my grandmother could do it for all those years then so can I. She is my role model, the person who will show me the way to accept this small inconvenience with grace.