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

london-black-death-plague-1665

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.