Facing the Fears

practice-self-care

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

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. 

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

Writing a Letter_tcm1089-296047

March 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With deepest love,

Mama/Gammy/Aunt Sharron/Mama B

With Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living In the Twilight Zone

6008456_031320-empty-store-shelves

Do any of the rest of you feel as though we have been caught in an infinite loop of The Twilight Zone? I know I do. I find that I awake each morning feeling rather good until my brain reminds me that nothing is exactly as it was only a couple of weeks ago. I won’t be planning a camping excursion any time soon nor will a trip to the grocery store be as unremarkable as I had grown accustomed to it being. As long as I am in the quiet and safety of my home I don’t feel anxious at all but as soon as I turn my attention to the outside world I am stunned by the extent to which we are all grappling with the unknown and my cockeyed optimism is rattled just a bit more.

I keep thinking of Rod Serling’s greatest stories and how they have stuck with me even though they seemed to be only the stuff of science fiction, unlikely to ever transpire. There is the tale of the young woman stuck in her New York apartment as the world is slowly and painfully coming to an end. Then I remember episode featuring a man who is a lone survivor of some cataclysm making the best of the situation by planning to read away his loneliness only to drop and break the eyeglasses that allow him to see. When I see the photos of empty shelves in grocery stores I am reminded of Serling’s take on the effects of panic in a cautionary story of a once friendly neighborhood that turns on itself at the first sign of trouble. Those shows had a way of stunning us with their shocking endings but we never thought that any of the creative scenarios might possibly come true.

Let’s face it. Despite all of our past grumblings about the unfairness of the world most of us would be more than happy to rewind to September 2019 if only we might never have to face the unraveling of the world that has slowly enveloped all of us in fear. It’s difficult to go the the dark possibility that maybe things will never be quite the same again. If there were indeed a way to undo all that has happened would we remember how it felt to be threatened with loss and privation? Would we be more willing to be appreciative of our good fortune and then share it with those who have not been as lucky? Would we be more attuned to working together to solve problems. Would we always be generous and less wasteful, eager to slow down to enjoy our families and our friends? Would we treasure life more now that we have seen how fragile it and our institutions can become? Would we be able to see how destructive our hubris can sometimes be and begin to value our differences?

The human experience is riddled  with instances of grave mistakes as well as stunning victories over injustice and evil. We seem to slowly work our way toward better versions of ourselves as long as we don’t get lost to temptations that interfere with our focus. We work best together when we are willing to tap into our more enlightened natures by a willingness to admit that we rarely have all of the answers. Perhaps we have been moving too quickly of late. Maybe we have been to busy competing with one another and building resumes of our accomplishments that are not particularly important. We have scurried about too quickly, forgetting to take the time to be still and hear the beating of our hearts and see the simple beauty that surrounds us.

This is indeed the most incredible event of my lifetime and I have seen quite a bit in my seventy one years. It has the potential to define us in the long stretch of history. We will eventually move on from this, but will we have learned from it? I know that I have been continually reminded of the wonderful people who are part of my life during the last few weeks. I have felt their love surrounding me. I want to cherish that feeling and never forget what it has meant to me. My hope is that the whole world will find renewed pleasure in the simple act of spreading kindness and understanding every moment of every day.

I am not so naive as to believe that this is a kumbayah moment in which humankind will shed every aspect of its darker side. People have endured plagues, wars, economic depressions and holocausts many times in the past and yet we still haven’t found a way to prevent those things from ever happening again. We fall back into our bad habits again and again which is why I find it somewhat hypocritical to denounce our ancestors when our own modern track record is not free from sins. Instead we must attempt to learn from mistakes and rectify them as best we can.

We’ve seen hoarders and thieves and individuals who have attacked Asians in the misplaced belief that they are somehow responsible for our present woes. At the same time we have witnessed even more signs of generosity, courage, brilliance and understanding. When all is said and done these are the qualities that will remind us of who are and should be as the human race.  Our questions right now should not dwell on judging others, but rather on how each of us might help. These are the things that will provide us with the optimism we need to build the future and take us out of the twilight zone.