Facing the Fears

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I’ve noticed a number of people being very honest about their anxieties with regard to Covid-19. I was raised to be stoic about such things. My mom never complained or showed her worries until she had a mental breakdown and then in a state of psychosis she could not stop talking about her fears. I suppose that it was that point in life when I realized that we should not have to keep our concerns to ourselves. Bearing the unbearable alone does not always lead to a situation as dramatic as my mom’s was, but it can have both physical and emotional consequences that sap the very energy out of a person. I think it is quite healthy of my friends to admit that they are worried and afraid. I admire them for asking for help in dealing with the losses and frustrations that they are feeling.

I’ve been rocking along being rather proud of myself for bearing up and adjusting to the temporary normal of Covid-19. I’ve kept myself busy, made sure that my husband’s recovery from recent surgery has been smooth and upbeat, created distance learning for my math students, checked on members of my family and circle of friends, kept a written record of this historical event, and generally rolled with the ever changing punches that we are experiencing. I had considered myself to be immune from crushing worries because I’ve handled many crises in my lifetime. So it was a wake up call when I had a dream a view nights ago that made me realize that I was a bit more concerned than I have been willing to admit.

My nightmare began in my old home on Anacortes Street. I was a younger version of myself and my two girls were still children. As I walked down the street to meet them at the bus stop after school I waved at my neighbor Betty Turner who was smiling at me from a lawn chair in her front yard. I told Betty I would be back in a few minutes and I would sit with her and have a little chat. The school bus pulled up just as I arrived at the corner and my daughters hopped off with their book bags and lunch boxes. I was happy to see them and I gave them both hugs before starting back home. That’s when the fun or, should I say, the horror began.

Somehow our straight and quick pathway had become blocked and we had to take an alternate route. At first I wasn’t worried because I knew the area well and there was more than one way to get back home. Unfortunately no matter what I tried we could not find a way to the safety of our house. In fact we were getting farther and farther away and I was doing my best not to frighten my children. Instead I attempted to turn our adventure into a game which worked for a time but eventually they grew weary and begged me to take them home so that they might rest and see their friends and enjoy some playtime.

I kept trying my best to protect them from the reality of our situation but it was beginning to feel hopeless. Our wandering even took us back to the old neighborhood where I grew up and when I searched there for someone to help I only found strangers who ignored me when I attempted to speak to them. I was exhausted and on the verge of hysteria when I awoke and realized that it was all just a dream, but it helped me to understand that I had been denying the impact that this pandemic was having on me and the people that I love.

I suppose that most of us are longing for the comfort of that yesterday before any of this happened. As a mom I still worry about my still grown and very capable daughters. I long to see them and hug them and protect them. It’s difficult for all of us to be so separated and to feel so helpless. I am a person who takes control of situations and suddenly much of that control is in the hands of others. For now I am mostly doing what I can from afar and not being the responsible person in the room makes me feel a bit lost.

My dream has helped me to visualize and vocalize my fears. I don’t intend to dwell on them because that is not my style, but by allowing myself to feel them I have become stronger in my resolve not to allow any of this to defeat me. I think that it is important for each of us to find that honest part of our minds and then deal with the demons that haunt us. It really is okay to long for the normal times and want to rewind to a happier moment. It’s normal to want to protect our children even if they are grown. It’s a very human thing to want to get back to a dear friend like Betty where we can just sit and feel ourselves returning to a sense of safety and contentment that feels threatened by the specter of Covid-19.

I think of myself as a superwoman and I know I have a backbone of steel, but I am in reality just as human as anyone. I believe that it will be our very humanity and empathy that gets us through this crazy time. I’m thankful for all those dear souls who have been courageous enough to admit their fears. They have helped me and others. If we are honest we all know that hearing someone voice the feelings that we have pent up inside assuages our own worries. There is nothing more normal than being a bit anxious right now. Once I admitted it to myself I knew that I would be okay. It’s time to keep calm and remember to practice self care.

Learning From the Past and the Present

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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

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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.

 

The Insanity of It All

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So here we are in another election year and I’ve been a fairly good girl in my resolve to stay as neutral with regard to the political race as much as possible. I suppose that I have become numb to the whole situation because the campaigning and sloganeering has never really stopped for several years now. We seem to be trapped in an infinite loop of divisiveness, hyperbole, and propaganda which always reminds me of my seventh grade teacher who taught us all about the methods that people use to influence our thinking. I recall that we argued that only the Soviet Union did such things and she insisted with a sweet and knowing smile that we were constantly being subjected to rhetorical methods designed to persuade us to accept one side over another.

Somehow her lesson stuck with me because it seemed so shocking at the time. Since then I have found myself watching for the methods that people use to bend us to their ways of thinking. Like some paranoid cynic I see them everywhere, and most notably in the political arena. The voices of reason and honor seem to be so small while slogans and soundbites rule the day. I’ve taken refuge from them by avoiding the furor as much as possible, but it has become increasingly difficult to find a source of news without a tinge of political commentary. I’ve had to attempt to ferret out the facts and ignore the hysteria. It has become an ever more difficult task and I have actually grown rather weary of it all, even as I know that one of the tricks of propaganda is to wear people down.

I honestly don’t know how I will endure the political season this time around. I suppose that what worries me most is that it will not end regardless of who is actually elected. The fighting will go on and on and on. It’s like being caught in a middle school food fight that nobody is able to control. We can’t even enjoy a sporting event or a nice night of entertainment without the injection of politics and protests. It has grown so tiresome.

I realize all too well that we have many problems facing our country and the world as a whole. They will only be solved when we begin to address them together which seems unlikely for the foreseeable future. There is so much emotional manipulation on our minds that many of us have become hypnotized into walking in tandem with one political philosophy or another. Actually discussing ideas has become virtually impossible, and being the voice urging caution results in political suicide.

So we just go back and forth, topsy turvy, without a sense of security because we know that whoever wins the elections will undo anything that their opponents accomplished or go all in for their own side even when it is ridiculous to do so. Meanwhile we are stuck on a ferris wheel that never stops, and while it might have been fun for a time, I for one have grown weary of the posing and preening and warfare.

I remember a conversation that I had long ago with a priest who was a dear friend of our family. He told me that every difficult situation required an adult in the room, someone willing to logically and emotionally make reasoned and fair decisions. I spent most of the rest of my life attempting to be that person. When my mother was in the middle of a mental breakdown I had to be the steadying force. Inside my classroom I needed to stay calm and not allow my personal feelings to rule me. I took hope from leaders who demonstrated honor and thoughtfulness in times of chaos. I found diplomacy and compromise to be powerful tools for bringing disparate groups of people together. I accomplished wonderful things by knowing when to be firm and when to bend.

Dividing ourselves into one side or another without respect for our varying opinions, desires, and worries is a zero sum game. It will only lead to an increasingly virulent standoff. It will take great courage for someone to break the loop that has us so entangled in vitriol. If we support such a person when we see him or her we just might be able to signal to all the rest that we are done with their antics. We have to be the ones who push back on the rhetoric. If we become the adults in the room those who long for our approval will follow because their only goal is to win. That means that we cannot praise childish behaviors from anyone regardless of which side he/she represents. Wrong is wrong and we should be able to point to it without being pilloried by any person or group. When our basic rights to an opinion are heckled or degraded by a mob we should always wonder if we are being victimized by propaganda.

I suppose that some may view this blog as a screed given the political environment. They will believe that my remarks reflect only on one party or another. They will not understand the idea that I am looking at all of the arguments and philosophies and sifting the good from the bad. In that process I have seen that nobody has all of the answers or best plans but everyone has a few very good ideas. It’s time for each of us to be more discerning. If we accomplish that, the poisonous partisanship will subside, but sadly I think that we are still a long way from being able to bring ourselves together. For now I will just have to continue to find ways to endure the insanity of it all. 

Lean On Me

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We’ve all had those moments when everything changed in a flash, those traumatic times when it doesn’t seem possible to ever feel happy and optimistic again. Such events fashion us into new people, sometimes more courageous and determined and sometimes defeated and cynical. Always we feel the wound on our hearts that ultimately becomes a scar reminding us of our vulnerability as humans and of the vagaries of living.

While virtually everyone is able to describe such an event, some seem to have a Midas touch that keeps harm away from them for most of their lives and others appear to be chosen as the continual targets of tragedy. Coping with our fates whether they be few or seemingly never ending is always a struggle and while some may appear to be better at enduring the horrific, everyone is hurt by them in ways that burrow deeply into their hearts. We should never judge or underestimate the impact of bad news on anyone.

My own defining moment was of course the death of my father. I was young, only eight, and shy to boot. I tried to be brave for my mother so I went deeply inside my own psyche and rarely spoke of how devastated I felt. I pretended to be little more than a child who was ignorant of such things but my unspoken anxieties would haunt me for decades. We often forget that children have emotions as powerful as adults, sometimes more so. Ultimately my own story helped me to be intensely understanding of the problems that my students faced. I knew how greatly they were affected by the most intense moments of their lives because I had walked in their shoes.

I will always remember those battle scared children who had developed reputations as troublemakers when in fact they were driven by fear and anger over what they had experienced. There was the little tyke who had been set on fire by his mother when he was three, the teen who had watched his father murder his mother, the adolescent who felt unwanted because he was passed from one adult to another throughout his childhood. I grieved for them but also shared my own story with them and began a healing conversation that helped them to understand that they need not be defined by the tragedies that had so engulfed them.

As grew older I began to identify more and more with my mother. I realized the fear and the loneliness that she must have endured after my father’s death. She was brave to the point of stifling the deep feelings that swirled in her head. She set them all aside to care for us, but they were still there and would come back to haunt her again and again. People in her generation rarely spoke of their challenges. They had been taught to be like soldiers guarding their words lest they appear somehow broken. Being that way took its toll on my mother in the most horrific ways. I only wish that she had been able to talk with someone honestly about the trauma that never quite went away. Now I know and understand how important it is to allow anyone who has endured a shocking event to let their thoughts out knowing that they will be safe and without judgement.

Each of us should learn how to become a compassionate place of refuge. It is not an easy thing. It means setting aside our own concerns, avoiding platitudes, suspending judgement, just permitting someone who is hurting to describe the contents of his/her heart. Knowing that it is okay to voice even the most terrible of thoughts is a beginning in the process of healing.

All too often we humans tend to tell people how they should feel about certain things. We fear displays of emotional weakness because so often they get very close to touching the most fragile parts of our souls. We prefer to see someone smile through their troubles because it makes us feel better when we should be more concerned with how they are dealing with the reality of what has happened to them.

If we are very lucky we each find a person or persons to whom we might reveal our innermost thoughts without hesitation. Such beautiful souls allow us to express ourselves honestly. They gently drain the poison from our hearts. Perhaps we should each strive to be that kind of individual for someone, a haven of understanding and compassion. We call such people our brothers, sisters, best friends, partners. They know us as well as we know ourselves and love us “warts and all.”

Someone that you know is suffering right now. Reach out to them. Be the person on whom they can lean. Allow them to be however they need to be in the moment.