Life Will Go On

lv-circle-of-life920I’m reminded every May 31, just how difficult life can be. Of course that is the anniversary of my father’s death. I might have forgotten exactly when he left this earth but for the fact that his fatal accident coincided with Memorial Day of 1957, a time when it was celebrated on May 31 rather than the last Monday of May. I have not celebrated that holiday from that fateful time. Having it roll around each year is like rubbing salt in the wound that scarred my heart back when I was an eight year old child.

I am essentially an optimistic soul. I learned soon enough after my father died that our little family would survive. My mother kept us safe and sound and family and friends continuously rallied to our sides whenever we needed anything. My youth was idyllic save for the loss of my dad. I adjusted to the new normal but never really got over the void in my life that his death created. With each passing year after he was gone I found myself wondering what he would have been thinking about how my brothers and I had developed. I felt his influence on us genetically and in the memories that he left for us. Somehow he was always a factor in our lives even in his absence.

As time has passed I see my father in my brothers and in my nephews and even some of my grandchildren. I suppose that unbeknownst to me there are also hints of ancestors whom we never met in me and my brothers. The circle of life on this earth is an infinite loop that may at times appear to be bleak but the progression and evolution of humanity always finds a way to continue.

I have been cautioned by the doctors in my family to wait out the reopening of the country for another three or four weeks. Covid-19 still restricts me but i refuse to allow it to overwhelm me regardless of how it presents itself in the future. I have learned that I am capable of dealing with great sorrow and even fearful moments. I know that I will handle whatever blows the virus sends me and the members of my family.

If all of us are very lucky we will be laughing and celebrating our good fortune as the weeks and months go by and Covid-19 vanishes with little more than a whimper. If instead the virus battles on with a vengeance I am prepared to do my part in fighting back with everything that I have inside me. Experience has taught me to be patient when times get tough. I have learned that there is light even in the darkest hours. When I battled the mental illness that infected my mother I would sometimes become angry and frustrated, but I always knew that determination and time were on my side. Over and over my brothers and I were able to get her the therapies and medications that she needed to become whole again.

Life is littered with ups and downs and in this moment it feels as though the downs are overtaking all of us. Nonetheless as I look around I see the points of light that will guide us to better days. Our future joy is not to be found in false promises that are unlikely to unfold but in the quiet work of people whose goal is the betterment of all of us. The doctors and nurses and aides and researchers who continue to provide us not just with care but with facts and truths about how we should contend with the virus are heroes with no hidden agendas. They are not running for office or lining their pockets with profits. They are driven by the sole purpose of keeping us safe. When I think of them I believe that we may be wounded but we will not be crushed. This makes me smile.

I see stories about ordinary citizens making masks and little children raising funds to help those who are in financial trouble. I watch the good news from John Krasinski and I see the kind of hope that has guided me through every juncture of life. I smile at the earnestness of people all over the globe who are doing phenomenal jobs of dealing with the health and economic blows that have been inflicted on them. I laugh at the jokes that lighten our spirits remembering all the times that my father roared with delight over a good cartoon or satire. I feel him telling me to lighten up and look around at the positives that are everywhere.

I’ve made it through one more Memorial Day. I’m now more than twice as old as my father was when he died. I’ve overcome one crisis after another. Like my father I have a great interest in history. I read all of the time. I have learned that the world has been on the brink many times over. Somehow we have overcome evil, war, disease and natural disasters each and every time that they have threatened us.

While I tend to think that we have not yet seen the worst of the effects of Covid-19 I revel in the thought that we will find a way to extricate ourselves from its deadly grip. Life will go on. Memorial Day will return and my father’s spirit will be part of future generations. It has always been the way we survive. 

I Keep Busy

earth-stops-spinning-orig

I plan math lessons. I teach math lessons. I grade math homework. I write blogs. I cook dinner. I clean the house. I wash the clothes. I walk on my treadmill. I read. I call to see how people are doing. I read posts on Facebook. I check my email. I take part in Zoom conferences, I order groceries. I take drives around my neighborhood. I floss my teeth and take showers and dry my hair. I organize drawers and paint lawn furniture. I feed the birds and watch them in my yard. I plant a vegetable garden and weed my flower beds. I text family members and friends. I watch Netflix and Amazon and Acorn and PBS and Hulu and CNN and CBS and NBC and YouTube. I keep busy. It’s the way I cope and always has been.

When the end of the day draws near and all is quiet in the neighborhood my mind begins to wander. I think about things and thinking about things leads my awareness to worrisome places. We are in new territory and there are so many different ideas and theories being bandied about. Are we humans overreacting, under reacting? Who is right and who is wrong? I feel as though we are all being gaslighted, but by whom? Am I the crazy one or is it them? I have to squeeze my eyes shut and listen to calming sounds on my Echo Dot to shut out the thoughts that make me anxious. If I manage to fall asleep I can begin again tomorrow. I can keep busy again in another rotation of the earth around the sun.

I know that I can do this. It’s how I kept going after my father died. I just kept busy, tried not to think too far ahead, went one day at a time. Things got better just as they always seem to do, at least until the next challenge came along. Whenever my mother presented her symptoms of bipolar disorder I just kept busy. When my husband had a stroke and my city filled with the waters of hurricane Harvey I just kept busy. It’s what I do. It’s how I cope, any yet somehow things feel very different now. My mind tells me to pace myself for the long haul, to be prepared for more bad news before the good news returns. I keep busy in spite of my concerns.

I prefer to listen to the realists, not the ones who attempt to lull me with seemingly false promises. I’m a big girl. I can take the truth. In fact I crave it. Still, I want to remain optimistic about the future even if that future may take awhile to unfold. I like the guy from the federal reserve who believes that our economy will slowly heal in the next many months even as we continue to witness illness and death. He is not attempting to fool me and I appreciate that.

I listen to the scientist who sees this moment as an opportunity to envision the world in a new and better way. I hear the historian note that in other times of pandemic humanity applied its inventiveness to improve sanitation, move toward more equitable living conditions and invent medicines. The darkest hours have almost always led to brighter futures from the lessons that we learned, but then I wonder if we have truly grasped the significance of our foundational weaknesses or if we just want to rush back to the way things were without thought of whether or not we might do things better.

I keep busy. I watch the birds in my yard and notice that there are more of them than I have ever before seen. My plants are greener, more prolific. It is as though nature is happier now that we are not filling the air with our pollution. If we just return to the way we were will the haze of ozone once more fill the sky? Is it possible to reconsider how we live? Did we learn how little we actually need during our lockdown? Isn’t that lovely sound of singing birds worth so much more than the frivolous things that we have sought in the past?

I keep busy but I think of the people who have lost their jobs. I hear that Rick Steves is adjusting the salaries of his employees so that he may keep all of them for at least two years. Why isn’t this a tactic being used by every business, every corporation? Why fire some while keeping others and even giving raises and bonuses in the process. What would be wrong with asking everyone to share in the sacrifice until better days come?  Why must there always be winners and losers?

I keep busy but I know that just because we wish the danger of Covid-19 to be over it does not mean that we will all be safe and sound. Just because we may not know someone who has grappled with the virus does not mean that it does not exist. How is it even possible that so many seem to believe that the pandemic is nothing more than a hoax? How is such thinking even possible when there is no logic to it? How have some managed to conflate being careless with patriotism? In what kind of world do we attack our scientists and medical experts for demonstrating the methodologies that guide their work and prevent emotional bias from tarnishing their results?

I know that Covid-19 has forced us to operate in the present. Today and today and today creeps in its petty pace. I keep busy. It is what I do, but maybe this time I should allow myself to think just a bit more.

Lord Have Mercy

Great Plague of 1665

In 1665, a terrible plague began in London. By the end of the epidemic an estimated 100,000 of the 460,000 living there had died. Sadly the vast majority of them were the poor. The wealthier citizens like lawyers, businessmen and even doctors fled from the contagion into country homes much like King Charles II who left London for Hampton Court. Even Parliament suspended meetings within the city, choosing to only gather one time in Oxford.

Once an individual became sick all members of the family were quarantined by law in their home. The doors of such houses were marked with a foot long red cross with the words, “Lord, have mercy upon us” written above or below the marking. Armed watchmen then patrolled outside the home twenty four hours a day with orders to kill anyone who attempted to force his/her way either inside or outside. Burials in mass graves took place in the early morning and late afternoon hours as the disease raged through the late spring, summer and fall of 1665 and then burned itself out in the spring of 1666.

It is believed that the illness was carried by fleas on rats and dogs so efforts were made to eradicate any stray creatures. Unfortunately the crowded and unsanitary conditions in the poorer sections of town made the people in those areas more susceptible to becoming ill. The incubation period once an individual was infected was only a matter of days and the likelihood of it spreading to anyone who had been in close contact was great.

I have been reading accounts of this plague by Daniel Defoe who is better known for his story of Robinson Crusoe. In the flowery English of the era A Journal of the Plague Year provides a vivid account of the horror and fears of the people, the attempts to limit the spread of the illness by authorities, and the civil disruptions that occurred as more and more unfortunate souls became ill. In another time I might have found his memories to be quaintly interesting but given our present situation I instead find myself identifying with the concerns and confusion that the epidemic produced. It was as though the world of the citizens of London had been turned upside down as they watched death and privation overwhelm them.

I thought of my own grandfather’s accounts of a smallpox outbreak in his town at the end of the nineteenth century when he was in his teens. His father and stepmother both became ill and he was charged with their care. Guards patrolled the property to insure that nobody save the local doctor went inside the house or came out. The incident had such a profound effect on my grandfather that he told the story of his time in quarantine over and over again. In his usual style he added a bit of dark humor to his recitation that demonstrated his preferred way of coping with the isolation and concerns for his family.

Humankind has been here before. People have faced pandemics that were ultimately quite terrible and they did so without the resources that we enjoy. Nobody was driving for take out dinners but my grandfather did admit that he ordered some moonshine to be delivered for his dad. He figured that the poor man was going to die anyway so a bit of whiskey might make his father more comfortable. Other than that it was just a lonely time for my grandpa and one in which he might possibly have contracted the disease himself. Somehow that never happened but as my grandfather noted it did not mean that the contagion was not as bad as people thought.

We have a far better understanding of infectious diseases than ever before in history. We are able to unlock the DNA and RNA of the viruses and bacteria that live invisibly around us. We have modern hospitals and sanitation methods that we heretofore believed would protect us in ways that our ancestors did not have. I suppose that we have in many ways assumed that we might never be touched by the kinds of epidemics that have historically rocked civilizations We have had a kind of false pride in our modernity and accomplishments, believing that we were somehow immune from the kind of disruptions that have occurred in the past. Now we see that in many ways we were wrong.

Covid-19 has shown us the cracks in the foundations of our public health services, our economy and even our relationships with one another. If we are to find a positive take- away from this horrific situation we will need to learn from our mistakes. That will require a level of honesty that has been slowly eroding in our politically charged world. We don’t want to hide difficulties but rather find ways to expose and attack them.

We are better educated and more knowledgeable than the unfortunate souls who suffered in the past but if our hubris prevents us from taking the necessary steps to prevent pandemics from happening on such a scale again there will most definitely be consequences. The eventual outcomes should not be about who is best or first. This should not be a competition but a convening of the best minds and ideas from all over the world. We can’t afford to turn our backs like they did in the past and leave the most vulnerable alone to deal with the problems.

  

A Message For All Time

Jesus

This is Holy Week in the Christian world, a time to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. His was a story that changed the world and is embraced to this very day by millions across the globe. After weeks of sacrifice and good works during Lent we pause to consider Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem when people lined the streets to see him, laying precious palm leaves in his path as a sign of respect and adulation. This no doubt only added to the concern of political forces who worried that his growing popularity might lead to rebellion and so the time seemed right to convict him with trumped up charges of crimes against the state.

Of course Jesus saw it coming and told his apostles in a final gathering that one among them would betray him. It was Judas Iscariot who led the Roman soldiers to Jesus by identifying him with a kiss. The trial was swift and the punishment was brutal. Jesus was nailed to a cross alongside other criminals. His pain was excruciating and his captors taunted him with commands that he prove his divinity by coming down from the cross. His apostles meanwhile were hiding behind locked doors, afraid that they too might be captured and found guilty of their association with him. Only Jesus’ mother, Mary Magdalene, a cousin and a kind stranger stood at the foot of the cross to watch him die. All seemed dark and unbearable after the triumphs of the past. His followers must have wondered if they had been fooled, if it was all over.

Three days later when the tomb was opened Jesus was gone. His apostles still hiding were told that their prophet and savior had risen from the dead. From that moment forward the story of Jesus spread throughout the world until today Christians around the globe continue to celebrate the glory of his life and his word.

Of course we know that many did not then and do not now believe that Jesus was a savior, the son of God. Some have their own alternate prophets and beliefs. Some continue to wait patiently for the true savior to come. Others do not believe in any form of higher power, thinking it foolish to even consider the idea a being who watches over us and guides us in our behavior toward one another. They think of prayers and religious ceremonies as silliness. The world is made of believers and nonbelievers of every sort. We humans have often injected our personal thoughts and feelings onto the teachings of religion or disbelief. Little wonder that the whole idea of Jesus as God is confusing to some.

I am a Catholic, a member of a religious group that some believe is not Christian, although I can’t imagine why such a differentiation would be made. Mine was the first organized church to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. Over time there were those who began to question the direction of Catholicism and so they made efforts to reform Christianity by creating new sects. The variety that evolved from such efforts makes it clear that even among those of us who strive to adhere to the teachings of Jesus there can be great differences in how we react to and interpret his words. Somehow just as with nation building we humans have complicated the most basic essence of Jesus which he so very clearly iterated and reiterated while he still walked on the earth.

Jesus represented a new way of thinking and doing things and his message did not involve thousands of little dictums and instructions. He made his message very simple by example and word. We are to love one another, not just those who think and act and look like us, but everyone. That is essentially all we need to know. It does not take a magnificent cathedral or a list of rules to follow his example, but he showed us that following his commandment of love may be difficult. Our intentions may be misunderstood and like him we may be abused for our beliefs. We will endure hardship and suffering just as he did. The miracle of Jesus is not found in riches or success or lack of difficulties but in the comfort that he provides us with his teachings and his love. He did not come down from the cross to save himself because he wanted us to know that part of our humanity requires enduring difficulties.  He helped us to understand that the rewards for following his commandment to love will be immeasurable but not in the usual ways that we interpret good fortune.

As the world struggles with a virus that has changed our lives in ways that are daunting to comprehend it is fitting that we think of Jesus from behind our locked doors in the safely of our homes just as his apostles did so long ago. He would want us to think of all of the people on the earth with love and compassion. The best way to honor him and his teachings is not found in judging one another but only in love. Our prayers should focus not on asking for special favors from him but on pleading that we have the courage to always do what is right and just. The glory of the Easter message lies in hope and a determination to continue to follow the goodness of Jesus throughout our lives. He is with us in all things, even our darkest hours. The cup of agony was not lifted from him and so too must we cope with this moment doing our best to remember all of humankind and its salvation, not just our own. He taught us the way to live and in doing so became a light for all the world.

In this holy Easter season I pray that those who feel lost will find comfort. I pray that those who are hated will find love. I pray that the sick will be healed. I pray that the doctors and nurses and first responders and all people engaged in the fight against Covid-19 will be honored and supported for being the finest possible examples of the kind of people that Jesus asked us to be. May this be a glorious Easter in which we love and respect all people just as Jesus would have done. Go forth and be kind.

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.