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.

An Introvert’s Covid 19 Story

funny-introvert-comics-64-57443ca53453c__700

I’m a bonafide ninety ninth percentile introvert according to a test I once took. I didn’t argue with the results or the explanation because the comments appeared to be right on target when they came to describing me. The analysis made a point of explaining that my introversion has nothing to do with a dislike of people but rather a preference for how to recharge my emotions. In other words I’m a people person who sometimes needs to retreat from human contact for a time just to ease the stresses of living. When times get tough I prefer a quiet weekend inside the comfort and privacy of my home, alone with my thoughts rather than sharing them in a large group in public. Our tendencies toward introversion or extraversion are mostly determined by the extent to which we feel better in a serene understated setting or one that is filled with people and excitement. In my case I unwind best with a walk alone in an empty forest or snuggled in a blanket on my couch with a good book.

Once we introverts are feeling calm once again, which rarely takes more that a few hours or days to accomplish, we are fully able to return to the crowds and the noise and actually enjoy our interactions with the world. Our feelings for the people around us are often even stronger than those of our seemingly differently wired extrovert friends who find so much joy and comfort in raucous gatherings after a long week of work. Perhaps it is our intensely deep feelings for the humans around us that are at the root of our need to step back into our little cocoons now and again. We are often empathetic to a fault. We notice those who are hurting with little more than a glance at the pain in their eyes and then worry about them until we are assured that they will be okay.

As an introvert I tend to be content with little more than observing the birds in my backyard or time spent writing in my front room where I can hear the children playing in my neighborhood. So when we were asked to isolate ourselves in our homes for a time to prevent the spread of Covid-19 I believed that I had been preparing for such an eventuality for my entire life. It seemed as though being confined to my quarters would be an intensely pleasurable experience and one that would lead me to a kind of self healing of the soul that would feel luxurious. Sadly I did not count on the longings for purpose and social interaction that have always defined me. I did not seem to understand that my introversion is a healing mechanism, not a lifestyle.

At first I felt rather joyful staying home. After all I have virtually anything a person might want to keep myself busy and entertained. My husband Mike is my very best friend and I enjoy my conversations with him. We have food in our pantry, books on our shelves, flowers in our garden and interests to keep us occupied. I’m not someone who cares much about food so I honestly don’t miss eating out. I suppose I could go the rest of my life without entering a restaurant and be just fine. I used to enjoy shopping as a kind of sport but it does not give me the thrill that it once did. I can enjoy a movie as much and perhaps even more in my living room than at a theater. I politely put up with sports but don’t really miss them now that they are gone.

Nonetheless after many weeks of staying home I find myself longing to get back out into the swim of things while hearing people say that I am part of a group that should continue to maintain my now self imposed isolation. I sense that my patience with this situation is wearing thin and in that realization I see more and more clearly the true meaning of my introversion because what I long for most are intimate gatherings with my family and friends. I can see them on Zoom conferences or with a FaceTime call but I really want to hug them and see their faces. Just sitting next to them without saying a word would be glorious.

If things were still normal and Covid-19 had not entered my life I would have been as busy as the bees that flit around my yard. By now I would have spent time in the mountains of Colorado with my brothers and sisters-in-law. I would have celebrated with my grandsons on Aggie ring day and attended parties for a number of young people who are graduating from high school or college or medical school. I’d be packing and preparing for a grand tour of Scotland with a Rice professor as my guide. I’d be excited about taking our trailer out for camping trips and counting the days until the Elton John concert for which I snared tickets back in November of 2019. I would have gone to see my aunt on her one hundred first birthday and I’d get to spend time chatting for hours over lunch or dinner with friends. I would get to be with my mathematics students when I teach them the fundamentals of arithmetic and Algebra. I would sit inside my church again smiling and embracing the lovely people that I are there each Sunday. I would be out and about in my bustling city grumbling about the traffic but secretly enjoying that I live in a place so vibrant and filled with life.

I miss all of that so very much and I wonder when I will be able to feel safe enough again to join the world around me without a mask or gloves or hand sanitizer or disinfectant wipes. I have grown weary of feeling a profound sense of worry about the physical and economic health of the world. I sense an almost tectonic shift in the routine ways of doing things that is shaking all of us to our very core. I long for normal even as I fear that I will have to redefine what that means. I want to believe that we will be able to come together to make positive changes that will make the world an even better version of itself than it was before Covid-19.

On some days I am filled with optimism and on others I grieve. Perhaps my introverted tendencies are too much with me. I am overthinking and instead of comforting me, those thoughts sometimes lead me to conclusions that are terrifying. I see us humans attempting to avoid truths by showering ourselves with superficialities, but thankfully I also see instances of profound compassion and sacrifice. My hope lies in the prayer that we will ultimately make our way through all of this but this time we will watch and learn how to build a better world.

When the dust settles I will cast aside my self imposed shackles and literally dance back into the flow of life. I will be everywhere with everyone. I’ll still be an introvert at heart but I will grab the world with everything that I’ve got.

Silent Heroes

39324-teacher-apple-thinkstock-creditJackHollingsworth-200309830-001.1200w.tn

We love our children. Parents dream of helping their offspring to live glorious lives filled with joy, success, and love. Teachers play a huge role in the journey of a youngster into adulthood. We put our educators under a microscope, judging their every interaction with our youth. Each day in classrooms across the globe men and women accept the awesome challenge of educating the adults of the future. The work is both daunting and rewarding. Teachers quietly and tirelessly perform their duties without a great deal of encouragement. In fact we are more often likely to hear criticisms of their mistakes than compliments of their dedication. Nonetheless teachers carry on with their vocations even when the conditions are difficult, the pay is subpar to other professions, and the evaluations of their worth in society are not indicative of the enormous sacrifices and contributions that they make.

Teachers are often told that theirs is a last resort occupation that is the solution for those who cannot find anything better to do. They hear snide comments about their short work weeks and three months of vacation. In conversations about improving education they are generally the last persons whose opinions are considered. Instead lawmakers, business people, and an assortment of souls with no experience managing a classroom decide how to run the educational system. Nonetheless our teachers return for insult time and again simply because they have a beautiful secret. They love their profession and they adore their students. No amount of indignation can chase them away. They have a mission that drives their enthusiasm more than money or status.

A tiny virus came along this spring to upend the educational process without warning and along with the chaos that ensued came a pleasant surprise for everyone except those who are teachers. With amazing speed all across the globe educators went into action to create remote classrooms and lessons. They transformed bedrooms and dining rooms into spaces where they might continue to demonstrate their magic. They spent untold hours learning how to manipulate technology. They found ways to bring the needed equipment and conferences to each of their students. They worried over their flocks until they were certain that everyone was present and accounted for. They grieved at the loss of being with their students in person and wondered if their pupils had enough to eat or if they were being abused. They even went on parades inside the neighborhoods that they serve and made efforts to personally congratulate the top graduates in the Class of 2020. Not for one single minute did they forget their students in fact they spent sleepless nights worrying about them.

As moms and dads contended with having their children under foot all day long they began to marvel at the patience of teachers who shepherd whole classrooms of kids and somehow remain calm. The parents realized how complex the concepts and lessons actually are and realized that one would have to be rather bright to explain such things. They began to reconsider the value of teachers in ways that had not before occurred to them. As the long weeks in isolation went by they learned of the many skills and talents that good teachers so humbly provide to society.

In spite of the newfound estimation of the educators of the world many old habits are slow to die. In planning for the reopening of schools at some future date few teachers have been consulted even though they are very people who may have the best answers for the logistical questions. When grateful citizens provide food and gifts for first responders and essential workers they tend to forget the teachers with such rewards. There are even those who wonder why teachers are still being paid since they are just sitting around at home. Some suggest beginning the new school year in July but without any extra pay even though the salary that teachers will receive in that month is part of contracted pay for this past year.

I am and always will be a teacher at heart. I think that mine has been a noble profession that ranks alongside the most needed work in all of society. We have learned during our lockdowns and stay at home orders what is most important in this world. We can live in our pajamas and walk around the house in our bare feet. We can cook for ourselves and find entertainment in very simple things. Slowing our pace has brought us new found joys and realizations of what and who we most need. Our world has become a quieter and less congested and polluted place. We see an opportunity to change some of our habits which may not have been good for us individually or for the world collectively. We stand at a moment of possibilities and among them is a new way of viewing our educational system and our teachers. Perhaps it is time that we acknowledge the wonderful men and women who care for our children as the heroes that they have always been.

Most teachers will tell you that the joy that they feel for their work is not about the money. They will admit that they don’t even need the respect that other occupations provide because there is something innately glorious about having a career that provides so much purpose. Each day for a teacher is a meaningful experience and teachers never forget the students who have passed under their watchful eyes. They think of them and dream of them and worry about them and hope for them. Their ultimate reward is knowing that their efforts have made the world a better place.

May is traditionally the month for acknowledging teachers. Find a way to reach out to the valiant and selfless people who have influenced either you or your children. Try to understand how much love was poured into their work. Let them know how much you value them. They are already planning the future and it will no doubt be very good. Let’s acknowledge them as the silent heroes that they have always been.

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 Legacy From My Mother

clothes line

It’s a dreary rainy day as I write this. Nature has provided me with a platitudinous kind of feeling and an opening statement that is devoid of originality. The situation in which I find myself is confusing. I keep track of the time and the passage of each day by attempting to create a kind of routine that reminds me of my five year old self when my mother was a stay at home mom and my father was a young man with a promising future.

Back then my mama created a repetitive schedule for herself that I too used to mark the rising and setting of the sun. If I put on my “Monday” underwear in the morning I knew that my mother would be spending the day washing clothes and I would get to help her hang them on the clothesline to dry in the sun. When our things had been warmed by gentle breezes and solar rays we would take them from the wire lines and place them in a wicker basket. Then Mama would show me how to fold each of the clean pieces and together we would put all of them away save for those that required ironing. They were set aside for the Tuesday duties, a task that she demonstrated to me but never allowed me to undertake until I was many years older.

To this day I derive pleasure from a clean load of clothes and I use the methods of ironing that my mom taught me as I watched her deftly sprinkling water from a bottle and then using the heat to remove all of the wrinkles. Of course during this current time of pandemic neither I nor my husband wear clothing that needs to be ironed. We are more likely to don jeans and whichever t-shirts happen to catch our eyes. We don’t even worry about losing socks from the monsters inside the washing machine and dryer that eat such items. Our feet are mostly bare and as free as they were on summer days when we were children. Our freedom nonetheless is constrained by an invisible virus that keeps us at home and causes me to remember each day of my mother’s seemingly confining routine. 

After the laundry chores of Monday and Tuesday my mother allocated Wednesday to sewing and mending, a task that was more creative and interesting to her. She was quite clever with cloth and made most of the dresses that I wore along with those for herself. I always enjoyed accompanying her to choose the fabric and look at the pattern books from Simplicity and McCalls. Mama was quite meticulous with her measuring and if a seam was not perfect she would rip out the threads and begin again. Everything had to lie just so. Her finished products were worthy of the tailors on Savile Row and if I was lucky she would design lovely clothing for my dolls with the extra fabric.

My mom worked in the yard on Thursdays even in the winter. There was always a flowerbed to be weeded, a plant to be fed, or a tree to be trimmed. She was not quite as gifted with a green thumb as my Grandma Little, but her yard was always stunning. She liked climbing vines that flowered in spring and old fashioned shrubs like gardenias. She grew fig trees and pear trees and then used the fruit to make jams and other delights. I loved those Thursdays when we spent whole days outside putting our hands in dirt and delighting at the sounds of the birds.

Friday was house cleaning day, a time when Mama prepared for the weekend. She was as particular with cleaning a toilet as she was with her sewing. The process had to be done just right and as I watched she would demonstrate the proper manner of reaching every nook and cranny in which germs might lurk.

Fridays were quite busy because we changed the sheets, dusted the furniture, swept and mopped all of the floors. I had a job even though I was only five. I was very serious about dusting the wooden surfaces of everything in our home. I dared not miss a single inch because I felt so wonderful when my mother complimented my efforts.

Fridays also meant an evening at my Grandma Ulrich’s house. All of my aunts and uncles and cousins would gather there as well. We had a raucous time with the adults playing poker and the kids inventing games of every sort. I treasured those times then and to this day they remain one of the most wonderful aspects of my life.

On Saturday we would go shopping with my father. It was a day filled with fun and surprises. My father often wanted to buy new records for his collection and so we would visit a music store where they allowed us to preview the recordings before purchasing them. I so enjoyed putting on the headsets and listening to my father’s selections while sitting in between my mom and dad.

We’d always end our adventures with a visit to the grocery store that was filled with the aroma of baking bread and coffee being ground by machines. My father always convinced my mother to add some cookies or ice cream to the cart and he would smile knowingly at me as though we were co-conspirators in some plot.

Sunday somehow felt more like the end of the week to me than the beginning. We attended mass at St. Peter’s Church and then visited my father’s parents. My grandmother almost always took me and my mother on a tour of her yard which was as glorious as a photo spread in Southern Living magazine. Then Grandma would finish up cooking a spectacular meal while I had the privilege of setting the dining table with her china and silver. We’d end up sitting on the front porch talking of life and watching the neighbors parade down the sidewalk on their afternoon walks.

I suppose that I have kept my sanity during this time of isolation by emulating my mother’s habits. I keep track of each day by creating a kind of schedule. I give myself regular chores to do and routine tasks to perform. I make certain that I set aside a time for reading, and even more for writing. I have a washing day and a cleaning day, a lesson planning day and a teaching day. I insist on exercising and walking on my treadmill even though doing so only reminds me of the sameness of quarantine. I call people that I know each day to see how they are doing and to let them know that I am thinking of them. I have devised a sense of order out of a confusing and often chaotic time and it calms me.


These days I often find myself thinking of my mother who so happily and pleasantly performed her household chores while teaching me how to derive pleasure from simple tasks. I don’t recall her ever complaining that she was stuck at home doing jobs that might have seemed meaningless and unimportant had she not tackled them with so much joy and pride. How could I have known way back then that her example would sustain me in a time when I might otherwise have been filled with bitterness at the losses that we have all experienced? This woman who seemed so simple in those times would eventually become a warrior in my eyes as she battled untold tragedies and challenges always with that same gratitude for life that she conveyed to me on those routine days when I was still an adoring child of five.

I know I will endure this COViD-19 experience regardless of where it takes me. I’ve learned from the best how to take each day as it comes and make meaning out of even small endeavors. Regardless of where this all goes my mother’s legacy of  joy will guide me.