Plan B

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There is plenty to cause people to be afraid these days. We are bombarded twenty four hours a day with stories presented more to earn readers and viewers than to just present the news. The more titillating the piece the more likely it is to increase ratings, the holy grail of journalism in today’s super charged environment. Add to the mix hackers who foment terror with propaganda and it can sometimes be difficult to discern the difference between truth and fact. Rumors abound to add to the inflammatory atmosphere. Uncertainty provokes anxiety that grows faster than a pandemic.

Everyone has real personal concerns that are enough to keep them worrying. They may be financial or health related, social or physical. I can’t think of anyone who is not grappling with some private tragedy that saps energy and brings on insomnia. The added furor over issues that may or may not be as dire as they are presented only adds to the pressures of existence. Our natural instincts to react when signs of danger appear have been stressed again and again by predictions of terrorism, murder, pandemic, natural disasters. We don’t want to be ruled by panic or illogical thinking, but we also don’t want to get caught unprepared. We find ourselves wondering whether to just laugh and continue our routines or take warnings seriously and make changes to our lives. When the information that we gather becomes contradictory we don’t know who to believe and our concerns only grow.

I remember a long ago day in October when I arrived at school to find fewer of my fellow students in attendance. My teacher appeared to be unusually tense and ultimately she spoke to us about the Cuban missile crisis that was unfolding. It was honestly the first time that I had heard of such a thing. If my mother knew of it, she never mentioned it to me and my brothers. I remember being somewhat amused by my teacher’s concerns and advice for what we should do if an attack on our city occurred. Because my mother appeared to be so nonplussed by the event I took her cue and simply ignored the whole thing which ultimately turned out just fine. It would be years later before I realized the extent to which our country had been on the brink of nuclear disaster. When I learned the truth I was unable to decide if my ignorance had been best or if I should have been more serious and prepared for a dangerous eventuality.

I worry enough without additional input from muckrakers. I’m generally not so much fearful of what may happen to me but rather how to protect my loved ones from harm. My guess is that I take after my mother in that regard. When I lie awake at night it is never out of anxiety for myself but always from fear that one of my family members or friends my be in trouble. When I am frightened I try to take control of the situation. I become like a mama bird preparing and guarding her nest. I maintain an appearance of calm and quietly go about my days as routinely as possible while also gathering whatever I may need to overcome the demands of an emergency.

Fear is the most normal of human reactions and one that may actually help us to avoid danger. It also has the power of driving us inside our own minds, crippling our ability to lead normal productive lives. I watched mental illness turn my mother into a sad paranoid shell of herself. She hid behind heavy curtains in the darkness of her mind. Hers was a medical problem that righted itself only when she took medications designed to balance the chemicals of her brain. Most of us will never know the terror that her bipolar disorder created in her thoughts. Still if we let our anxieties overtake us we lose the joy that we need to get the most from each moment of our days.

I suppose that I have learned to keep my fears at bay by taking constructive actions that may or may not be of any consequence but nonetheless allow me to feel more optimistic. I insure my home against disaster knowing that I may not escape devastation but at least will have a means of rebuilding if the worst case scenario unfolds. I take care of myself with healthy habits of both body and mind understanding that there are no guarantees that I will not be struck with a difficult illness. I can only hope that my routines will at least provide me with a reservoir of strength in any eventuality. I avoid dangerous situations as I go about my business and drive with care knowing that none of my cautions are foolproof. I have a store of provisions in case of some unexpected disruption in the normal flow of the world. Like a Girl Scout I plan ahead just as I always have.

I suppose that the events of my lifetime have taught me to never say never. If someone had predicted my future when I was a child I would have scoffed at the very idea of things that ultimately happened. Perhaps I may have also been very afraid. Instead I went about my life being a bit cautious just in case. There have been times when my careful planning served me well but I have admittedly spent sleepless nights wondering and worrying needlessly. Life has taught me that dreams come true through hard work but nightmares sneak up on us when we least expect them. Having a Plan B and staying calm has helped me through such situations time again. 

Ask Alice

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I suppose it was inevitable that we would all go a bit stir crazy after being shut in for so long. Sadly my own time in lockdown continues as I allow the more anxious folks to test the waters of returning to a more routine way of life. As my hermit existence is extended I have moments when it feels as though I’ve been pulled down a deep and winding rabbit hole that is filled with a level of crazy that makes me want to batten the hatches and hunker down for an interminable time.

Each new day brings almost unbelievable news of folks not handling the pressure of all this too well, but I should not be that surprised because of my decades of working in churches and schools. As the first lay director of the religious education program at my church I was accused of being an agent of the devil simply for having the audacity to take on the task of working with the children of the parish without being a nun. As a teacher and school administrator I’ve been threatened more times than I am able to count and that is just taking the bad behavior of the parents into account. I have learned that while the vast majority of people are level headed and polite there are always outliers who grab the attention with their noise. Most of the time I able to simply ignore their shenanigans but for the moment my patience is wearing thin.

I suppose that I am a cautious individual by nature and I generally admire anyone who is willing to take a few risks but there are indeed moments when discretion is the better part of valor. I can’t think of a more appropriate time in history to demonstrate a bit of sacrifice for the greater good than now. For the most part people are being quite generous in that regard but my patience has worn thin with those who seem to want to make a stink just for the sake of garnering attention. Those people who crowd into the streets refusing to distance themselves or wear masks or follow safety guidelines are exhibiting highly selfish behaviors. I understand their anxieties regarding their need to get back to work, but what difference could it possibly make to wear a mask and stay six feet apart while doing so? They remind me of adolescent students who refuse to follow a school dress code.

I used to tell my pupils that most rules and their punishments are created when people take advantage and push the envelope to the limits. When the behavior gets too bizarre someone invariably stops it with a mandate that includes consequences strong enough to prevent the unwanted action. If people simply thought of why certain dictums come about they might be less inclined to go ballistic over them.

Those of us who are older or have health problems are essentially being urged to stay at home while the rest of the world goes back to work. I don’t mind doing that at all even for an extended period of time if it helps to safely get our economy back on track. On the other hand when I do have to go out and about I want to feel secure and for now that means keeping a distance and wearing masks. I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would have a problem with that. If I am willing to do my part by secluding myself to get things running, then why can’t those who are out on the town demonstrate a bit of understanding of those of us in the more vulnerable groups? Just put on the masks and be done with it!

I also prefer honesty even if it hurts. My Uncle Bob is still one of my all time favorite people because when I saw him attaching his prosthesis to his amputated leg when I was quite young he told me exactly why his leg was gone and what his prognosis was. When he died when I was only six I understood what had happened and I loved him for telling me the truth rather than attempting to sugar coat the situation. He treated me with respect even though I was a child and to this day I prefer such honesty rather than attempts to make me feel better. Thus I am quite disturbed by those who try to downplay the pandemic and its future when nobody knows for sure what will happen. I would prefer hearing all of the possibilities so that I will be prepared for any eventuality. It’s a dangerous thing to give people false hope just to spare their feelings.

When the President of the United States floats promises of rainbow days and unicorns coming soon I am wary. He may be privy to more information that I am but I doubt that the long term outlook is as rosy as he sometimes paints it to be. He needs to encourage the nation to stay the course, make the sacrifices and work together. We’ve done this sort of thing before during the Great Depression and two world wars. He should be encouraging us to have the will to do whatever is needed in the moment, not to wear red caps and create difficulties for governors and mayors who are attempting to protect us. He needs to be honest and humble about how long this might take. We will be far more likely to survive with courage and determination if he models a leadership style that offers hope without unrealistic timelines and guarantees.

We are a nation of good and creative people. We do not need to boast or be selfish. This is a worldwide problem and it will be in working with all nations that the world finds its way back from the edge. It’s time we crawl out of the rabbit hole and back into the light of day, just ask Alice.   

Another Victim

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Aside from my father’s death I have to admit that my childhood was idyllic. I lived in a neighborhood that was like a small town. For many of us who resided there it centered on Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church which also offered a first through eighth grade education to those willing to pay the relatively small tuition. The area and the church were shiny and new back then and booming with the children of World War II veterans. Much like any suburban subdivision the homes ran the gamut from custom built brick to wooden ,models. The people who lived there were mostly middle class with those on the higher economic end having college degrees and professional titles.

My family lived at the outer edge of what was known as Overbrook. Our home was quite basic with three bedrooms and one bathroom. It was quite different from the one that we had when my father was alive with it’s extra bathrooms, built in bookcases, wood paneling and formal dining area. Nonetheless it was a great place to be as a child and I will be forever grateful to my mother for providing me and my brothers with the security of living in such a safe and child centered place.

My mother was an old school religious woman who believed that it was imperative to send her children to Catholic school and so she enrolled me and my brothers in Our Lady of Mt. Carmel as soon as it was time to begin our educations. The experience was nothing short of delightful.

The school was bursting at the seams back then. There were at least four sections of every single grade with twenty five to thirty children in each classroom. Every grade level was anchored by a School Sister of Notre Dame and the other teaching spots were filled with lay people. My mother managed to give us the private school education by working as a teacher there. We were allowed to attend at no cost and she received a small salary that helped us make ends meet at home. It could not have been a more perfect situation for any of us.

We had no air conditioning in the classrooms in those days which meant that for many months of the school year it was rather hot. Somehow we never seemed to mind the stifling air but it was admittedly nice to have a seat next to one of the big fans that whirred constantly as we learned, and learn we did in those halcyon days.

Our teachers were tough, but kind, (with the exception of one.) Our school was known throughout the city for being one of the best. We were well schooled in grammar, usage, literature, writing, mathematics, history, science and of course religion. I literally grew up with the same group of friends year after year as I advanced through the grades. Many of my pals’ mothers taught alongside my mother and from them I accumulated so much knowledge that I was still explaining to professors in college where I had become so well educated.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel School had sports teams of every variety and a drill team that became one of my favorite groups. By the time I was in the eighth grade I was the captain of the twirlers and enjoying the kinship of young ladies that I know to this very day. The school and its people were well known for excellence and so I was rather proud to be part of it all.

I eventually moved on to Mt. Carmel High School, then college and finally to my adult life. Just as I had changed so too did my old neighborhood and with it, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic School. Many of the old families had moved away and the new occupants of the homes more often than not did not have either the inclination nor the income to send their children to a private school. My old alma mater struggled to stay afloat as even the School Sisters of Notre Dame moved away and the salaries for lay teachers became a burden on the budget.

With each passing year it became more and more difficult to keep the school going. The buildings were no longer shiny and new. In fact, they began to have a careworn appearance that spoke of the problems getting students and teachers to keep things going. The academic excellence that my friends and I had experienced was slowly eroding until the Diocese of Galveston Houston decided to rescue the school from total bankruptcy. It seemed important to be able to provide the new residents of the area with an opportunity to give their children a Catholic school education but the reality is that the school was only a shell of what it had once been in spite of herculean efforts from dedicated individuals intent on keeping the fine tradition of the school alive.

There have been countless victims of the current pandemic. The world mourns the people who have lost their lives to this virus. We also hear of businesses that have closed and will never again open. Both our personal and economic health is reeling. Among the casualties is my old school, Our Lady of Mount Carmel. In late April the diocese announced that it, along with some other struggling schools,\\\\ would be permanently closed siting a lack of funding to keep things going any longer.

I suppose that the death of Our Lady of Mount Carmel had been in the cards for many years. I had witnessed its demise when I traveled to the old neighborhood to tutor students at Cristo Rey College Preparatory which is situated next door. I saw the peeling paint, patched roof and pothole rutted parking lot instead of the building that had been so modern and glorious when I was a student there. I spoke with people who taught there and realized how desperate their situation had become. While they worked to save the school that they loved they understood that it was getting more and more difficult to find students to fill the seats. The people living nearby often struggle just to get by. It is doubtful that many of them had the income necessary to pay tuition. Now with churches lagging behind in their contributions each Sunday because they have been closed I am sure that the diocese realized that the luxury of keeping schools such as Mt. Carmel afloat was no longer an option.

I’m filled with great sadness at this news. I worry that there will be so many more losses of once fine institutions before all is said and done. I grieve for those students who will no longer have this school as an option. Maybe it is indeed for the best, but I profoundly sad that my old school is no more. I will have to be content with my memories which include the magnificent education that I found there and the forever friends who shared those glorious times with me. 

What Would Mama Do?

Risk Uncertainty

For me uncertainty is perhaps the most bitter pill. I like to be able to plan. Being ahead of the game is deeply rooted in my DNA. As a student I was that kid who had the research paper completed two weeks before it was due. As a teacher I had an outline of how and when to sequence my curriculum before the bells rang on the first day of school. I have my home decorated and presents wrapped under the tree long before the Christmas revelry begins. I do these things just in case something unforeseen happens. I am generally ready for any eventuality. I pride myself in being prepared, but this pandemic has thrown all of my organizational skills askew. The only thing that I feel sure about is that I have very little idea of what may happen next.

My calendar is blank at this point. The trips that I planned are canceled. The evening with Elton John is no more. The graduation parties have been rescheduled for later dates. I have no clear guidelines, no rubrics to tell me when the routines that made me feel so secure will return. I can only surmise when or even if normal will return and for someone like me that is a very scary prospect. I understand that there is much in this world that I cannot control. To lose the little bits over which I previously had command is difficult.

My mother was buffeted by challenges for her entire life. She became rather philosophical about the lack of influence that she actually had over so many aspects of her life. She became a free spirit of sorts, allowing events to happen all around her without getting overly anxious about them. She scaled down her wants and her needs and found ways to happily accept life as it unfolded.

In our Friday evening adventures I witnessed her childlike joy in getting a free ice cream cone at  Gringos or walking up and down the aisles at the local Walmart. She had learned how to enjoy each moment no matter how simple it might have seemed. Sometimes when I was with her I would become impatient, looking at my watch, thinking of how much time I was wasting when my schedule told me there were so many things to do.

When I think of my time with my mother now I see the wisdom in her willingness to release her need for control. She understood that the world was going to unfold as it was meant to be and that the secret to enduring the tough times was to find those very little things that brought her happiness. For her that might mean lingering over a cup of coffee in the early morning or spending time conversing with her sisters. She got as much joy out of driving along the seawall in Galveston as taking a grand vacation to the Bahamas. She had been forced by circumstances to reduce her life to its simplest priorities and rather than expending energy decrying her fate, she embraced it with joy.

I keep thinking that I need to employ a bit of her seemingly ridiculous optimism during this time of pandemic. When I think too far ahead or attempt to put myself back into the driver’s seat I sometimes find myself drifting toward sadness. I think too much about the past and worry that my future will not include the wondrous adventures that I have already had. I wake up each morning wishing for things that are not yet possible instead of glorying in the blessings that are right in front of me.

When I ask myself’ “What would Mama do?” I know the answers. She would be giddy over the sunshine of the spring days. She would spend hours reading the many books that line my shelves. She would cook and watch the birds in the garden. She would see each day as a wonder. She would tell me to relax and quit attempting to bend the arc of history to suit my own desires. She would urge me to understand and love even those who annoy me with behaviors that seem selfish and destructive. She would encourage me to enjoy the moment and count my blessings.

The world is attempting to restart but I keep being told that I am one of the vulnerable ones who needs to do the younger folk the favor of staying safe at home. The thought of many more weeks of not knowing what to expect or how to plan ahead is difficult for me but I intend to do my best. Each of us has a role to play in the rebuilding process and I suppose that mine is to stay the course of avoiding contagion while continuing to teach my little band of students. In the  meantime  I’ll do my best not to overthink a situation filled with so many  possible outcomes. I’ll try to let go.

Learning From The Past for A Better Future

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This is not the first time in history that the world has suffered through a pandemic that altered the lives of people around the globe. We’ve all heard of the Black Plague from the Middle Ages, the bubonic plague that sent Isaac Newton into quarantine, and the Spanish flu of 1918. Our medical knowledge and communication mechanisms made it incredibly difficult to stop the spread of disease in each of those eras leading to dramatic alterations of societies and even a lowering of the average life span. It would take centuries of research and decades of twentieth dedication to finally discover to a more comprehensive understanding of how and why such diseases suddenly appear, run amok in the human population and then eventually burn out. Scientists would learn how to treat and even prevent the most dreaded infections but they would also come to the undeniable conclusion that new strains of virus and bacteria are certain to find their way into the human body again, threatening worldwide medical emergencies.

Just as we humans evolve so to do all aspects of the natural world. In a kind of symbiotic dance organisms fight for survival just as we do. In spite of our human brilliance we are continually challenged by disease. In most cases we have a somewhat clear understanding of how things work and what processes work in the fight against the threats to our general well being. The microbes that we cannot see with naked eye have to adjust to our educated assaults on them and so there is an underworld determined to take hold of our well being that goes unnoticed until a stealthy take-over arises. So it is with Covid-19, a new type of Coronavirus that has emerged to confound us.

Everything about this virus is confusing. We attempt to discern it’s patterns and just when they appear to be clear we see behaviors that don’t make sense. It is as though this tiny organism is playing with us, taunting us with its power to change our daily lives. We reel both from the deaths that it has incurred and the confusion it has set loose on society. We prefer routine and a sense of control, both of which feel more like chaos in the moment. Our calendars are useless. Our plans are on hold. Our economic security is as threatened as our health. How can it be, we wonder, that something that we cannot even see has so much power over us? What can we do, we ask, to reclaim our lives as they once were? Why, we plead, is there no clear pathway to feeling secure once again? Such is the very nature of pandemics.

Books have been written about death overwhelming the world in the form of illness. Albert Camus gave us a philosophical glance into how such moments affect our very natures in The Plague. Katherine Porter provided us with a movingly human portrait of the impact of the Spanish flu in Pale Horse, Pale Rider. In A Journal of the Plague Year Daniel Defoe provides a harrowing account of living during the 1665 plague that visited London with death and destruction of an unimaginable sort.

These accounts and others remind us of both our human frailties and our unwavering strength as living beings. From time to time throughout our history we have been jolted from our complacency into the frightening need to protect ourselves and those we love. We are no different from the people who have endured such wide sweeping contagion in the past. We feel the need to be cautious but also understand that survival is additionally about being able to provide for ourselves. Our dilemma becomes an almost unanswerable question of when to stay in the protection of our homes and when to resume the cadence of daily life without danger. Sadly the experts among us are as uncertain as we are as to which will be more deadly, returning to the crowded streets or remaining behind closed doors. They cautiously advise us and we would do well to heed their advice even as they admit their own uncertainty.

We can learn from history and from science when we are greeted by a new strain of disease but we must understand that it may or may not follow past protocols, especially one like Covid-19 that does not always behave in totally predictable ways. We do not know how or when or even if it will return in massive waves. We are unsure that catching it and surviving it leads to permanent immunity. We can only experiment to find adequate treatments. We can work on finding a vaccine but it may take time to determine if such a remediation will actually work. In the meantime economies across the globe are in a shambles. People have lost their jobs and businesses and much of their funding for retirement. They worry that their homes may be the next thing to go. Some even struggle just to have food to eat. Little wonder that depression and even anger is creeping into the atmosphere like a miasma.

The balance between maintaining control of the disease and keeping the world of work and commerce alive is tricky and if we are completely honest nobody is able to say with total confidence what is the best course of action. It’s easier to opt for staying safely at home if an income is still coming each month. It’s far more difficult to see continued lockdown as a viable route for those who have lost their livelihoods with no hope at present of finding new employment. Our compassion has to include not just those who are sick but also those who worry about how to survive in the future.

The authors and historians of old tell us that what we face around the globe is oddly echoed in moments of the past. The descriptions of life during earlier pandemics might have been written only last week. The same fears and horrors have stalked humanity again and again. Somehow those left to pick up the pieces found ways to rebuild and move forward again just as we surely will. The important thing will be to be certain that we do not do so without regard for those hardest hit by both disease and economic catastrophe. Those of us who have should be fully aware of those who have not.

If we leave this historic moment without learning from its lessons we will have missed an opportunity to become better than we were only weeks ago. How we choose to behave in the coming weeks will determine the trajectory of history. If we selfishly move forward without regard and respect for both the virus and the economic health of the world I fear that the fatalities of both body and spirit will be innumerable. If, on the other hand, we are able to be the good news that we so desire I think that we will ultimately be just fine. I believe that we have it in us to be the change that we wish to see in the world. We just have to learn from the past and strive for a better future.