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. 

We Can’t Keep Looking Away

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I have a grandson who is a runner. Seeing him gracefully striding around a track is a thing of beauty, the ultimate vision of human endurance and grace. He has a particular racing style that reminds me of a gazelle and I never tire of watching him in action.

This would have been a record breaking year for him but sadly after only a few track meets the season ended when schools were closed due to the virus. He has continued to run each day nonetheless. Those moments when he is able to feel the wind on his face and achieve a feeling of being totally in sync with the world have been good for him. They allow him to forget about the troubles we are facing if only for a few minutes each day.

I thought of my grandson when I first heard of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia by two men claiming to have taken him down under suspicion of being a thief on the run. When I eventually saw the video of Ahmaud in his last moments I was stunned. I saw his jogger’s stride before he encountered his attackers. This was not the furtive motion of someone evading capture. It was most certainly the pace of a seasoned runner who was pursuing a most innocent pastime. He must have been terrified as he realized what was happening and he struggled unsuccessfully to get away from the danger. Watching the film is exceedingly difficult and heart wrenching but we cannot look away from it because it holds a truth that we must face.

Of course there is a difference between my grandson and Ahmaud that is striking. Ahmaud was a black man while my grandson has blonde hair and blue eyes. Ahmaud had a lovely smile that lit up his face, but those vigilantes who became judge, jury and executioner without even a consideration of evidence would never have seen his sweetness. The color of his skin and the fact that he was running was all they needed to know.

Sadly they got away with their crime for a time. Law enforcement accepted their story and seemingly decided the case was closed. Ahmaud might have been just another casualty of racism, the victim of a lynching, had not his mother continued to question the circumstances surrounding her son’s death. Eventually videos of the scene that had been filmed by passersby emerged providing an unavoidable clarity for determining what had actually happened. Over seventy days later the two men were arrested.

My daughter says that she does not worry when my grandson runs in the neighborhood. He is a good boy and almost everyone knows him, but she understands that if she and he were black she would be terrified each time that he set out from home with his track shoes. We still have far too many in our country who seem to believe that color, not character defines people. They are suspicious of anyone who does not fit the stereotypes of their minds and sadly too many among us excuse their flawed thinking. It is easier to look away when people spew their hate and sometimes even our leaders attempt to cover the ugliness of such actions by insisting that those who spread their foul beliefs are really just good people who are frustrated or feeling left out.

As humans we often feel so uncomfortable confronting truth. When athletes kneel during the National Anthem to shed light on the racism that still exists we tend to ignore or insult them. On the whole we are unwilling to admit that there is a double standard that lurks beneath the veneer of our society. Groups among us will become enraged when a white hairdresser is jailed for flaunting restrictions during our pandemic, but they can’t see the reasoning behind the Black Lives Matter movement. If groups of minorities protest it is often called a riot but if gun toting white men scream in the faces of state troopers because they do not want to be restricted by pandemic rules even our president applauds them for fighting against tyranny. Then those same folds scratch their heads in wonder when any minority feels beset upon.

I’ve been having a difficult time maintaining my usual optimism for the past couple of weeks. I am witnessing a level of anger and ugliness that I have not seen since my high school and college days when we were engaged in a struggle to end segregation and a war in Vietnam that had gone so very wrong. It was a frightening time during which the curtain that had been hiding the rot that festered in our nation was drawn wide open. A schism rocked the country and we all found ourselves either choosing sides or averting our glances and joining the silent majority. When the dust finally settled we were eager to just go back to a more normal state, but far too much had simply been swept under the rug where it has been sitting ever since becoming foul. Somehow our nation’s biggest mistakes have never been properly faced and rectified. We are still too afraid to admit that while we have freed the people whose ancestors were wrongfully enslaved and even given them the rights that we take for granted they are still struggling to be free from judgement and persecution. We have yet to adequately call out the racism that exists in corners of our society and because of that it only tends to grow.

I realize that we will never be able to eradicate hatred. It is been a part of the human experience since Cain killed Abel. All across the globe one group fights with another. What we can do is call out those who flaunt their racism in the public square. We must insist that our leaders deride any person or group who discriminates and foments violence against a particular group. We have to quit categorizing individuals based on the characteristics of color or ethnicity or sexual preference or religion and we need to voice our disdain for those who do.

Our future in the coming weeks and months is uncertain but while we are rebuilding our economy we would do well to consider insisting that our leaders understand that we have grown weary of accepting a status quo that still allows stereotyping. We need to finally speak up. Looking away is no longer an option.

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.

  

Plan B

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There is plenty to cause people to be afraid these days. We are bombarded twenty four hours a day with stories presented more to earn readers and viewers than to just present the news. The more titillating the piece the more likely it is to increase ratings, the holy grail of journalism in today’s super charged environment. Add to the mix hackers who foment terror with propaganda and it can sometimes be difficult to discern the difference between truth and fact. Rumors abound to add to the inflammatory atmosphere. Uncertainty provokes anxiety that grows faster than a pandemic.

Everyone has real personal concerns that are enough to keep them worrying. They may be financial or health related, social or physical. I can’t think of anyone who is not grappling with some private tragedy that saps energy and brings on insomnia. The added furor over issues that may or may not be as dire as they are presented only adds to the pressures of existence. Our natural instincts to react when signs of danger appear have been stressed again and again by predictions of terrorism, murder, pandemic, natural disasters. We don’t want to be ruled by panic or illogical thinking, but we also don’t want to get caught unprepared. We find ourselves wondering whether to just laugh and continue our routines or take warnings seriously and make changes to our lives. When the information that we gather becomes contradictory we don’t know who to believe and our concerns only grow.

I remember a long ago day in October when I arrived at school to find fewer of my fellow students in attendance. My teacher appeared to be unusually tense and ultimately she spoke to us about the Cuban missile crisis that was unfolding. It was honestly the first time that I had heard of such a thing. If my mother knew of it, she never mentioned it to me and my brothers. I remember being somewhat amused by my teacher’s concerns and advice for what we should do if an attack on our city occurred. Because my mother appeared to be so nonplussed by the event I took her cue and simply ignored the whole thing which ultimately turned out just fine. It would be years later before I realized the extent to which our country had been on the brink of nuclear disaster. When I learned the truth I was unable to decide if my ignorance had been best or if I should have been more serious and prepared for a dangerous eventuality.

I worry enough without additional input from muckrakers. I’m generally not so much fearful of what may happen to me but rather how to protect my loved ones from harm. My guess is that I take after my mother in that regard. When I lie awake at night it is never out of anxiety for myself but always from fear that one of my family members or friends my be in trouble. When I am frightened I try to take control of the situation. I become like a mama bird preparing and guarding her nest. I maintain an appearance of calm and quietly go about my days as routinely as possible while also gathering whatever I may need to overcome the demands of an emergency.

Fear is the most normal of human reactions and one that may actually help us to avoid danger. It also has the power of driving us inside our own minds, crippling our ability to lead normal productive lives. I watched mental illness turn my mother into a sad paranoid shell of herself. She hid behind heavy curtains in the darkness of her mind. Hers was a medical problem that righted itself only when she took medications designed to balance the chemicals of her brain. Most of us will never know the terror that her bipolar disorder created in her thoughts. Still if we let our anxieties overtake us we lose the joy that we need to get the most from each moment of our days.

I suppose that I have learned to keep my fears at bay by taking constructive actions that may or may not be of any consequence but nonetheless allow me to feel more optimistic. I insure my home against disaster knowing that I may not escape devastation but at least will have a means of rebuilding if the worst case scenario unfolds. I take care of myself with healthy habits of both body and mind understanding that there are no guarantees that I will not be struck with a difficult illness. I can only hope that my routines will at least provide me with a reservoir of strength in any eventuality. I avoid dangerous situations as I go about my business and drive with care knowing that none of my cautions are foolproof. I have a store of provisions in case of some unexpected disruption in the normal flow of the world. Like a Girl Scout I plan ahead just as I always have.

I suppose that the events of my lifetime have taught me to never say never. If someone had predicted my future when I was a child I would have scoffed at the very idea of things that ultimately happened. Perhaps I may have also been very afraid. Instead I went about my life being a bit cautious just in case. There have been times when my careful planning served me well but I have admittedly spent sleepless nights wondering and worrying needlessly. Life has taught me that dreams come true through hard work but nightmares sneak up on us when we least expect them. Having a Plan B and staying calm has helped me through such situations time again. 

Living From Day to Day

beautiful-sunset-sky-with-birds-royalty-free-image-865856136-1547059564Regardless of what may be happening with respect to the rest of the population I won’t be leaving my home to resume my normal activities anytime soon. My cautionary tendencies are screaming at me to take a wait and see approach to attempts to restart my routines once again. In spite of my own feeling that I am not one of the vulnerable ones despite my age, I happen to live with someone who has heart disease and I love him enough to make a few sacrifices to keep him safe. Besides, I have no assurances that my body would respond well to an infection of Covid-19. I may be kidding myself in thinking that I am made of steel.

Years ago my husband, my mother-in-law, and I came down with hepatitis A. They sailed through a relatively mild two week case while I spent three months sapped by the illness with my doctors wondering if I would ever become well again. I did finally overcome the infection but I spent over twelve weeks in quarantine, only leaving my home to visit my doctors. It took me many more weeks to regain my energy.

I suppose that my point is that I am not ready to take any unnecessary risks so I will continue staying home until it is very clear that the danger has passed. In the meantime I know how to keep myself busy but I will surely miss my encounters with people. I know that my writing has become a bit boring. I tend to find my inspiration by being part of the world at large. For now I am limited to watching my neighbors from my front room window and checking the pulse of humanity from posts on Facebook and news stories from journalists who don’t necessarily share my views. My borders have become smaller and smaller but I feel guilty to complain because my “prison” is filled with luxury.

Last year around this time I was in London. Perhaps the most fascinating place that I visited was the London Tower, home of Willam the Conqueror and countless monarchs which eventually became better known as a place of imprisonment and execution. I walked through cold stoney rooms where people had spent years languishing in isolation as criminals. They left intricately carved graffiti on the walls that speak of their frustration even centuries later. My temporary time of being shut off from society does not hold a candle to what they must have endured so I know that one way or another I will manage to get through this.

My head is filled with so many questions and concerns that it’s sometimes difficult for me to string words together in a coherent sentence. I am a thinker by nature but I have to be careful not to let my thoughts take me too far down a rabbit hole. I’d be much better off doing something constructive like Sir Isaac Newton who invented Calculus after he was sent home from Cambridge during a plague. I doubt that I will ever be quite that brilliant but it inspires me to use my time constructively rather than dwelling on possibilities that may or may not unfold. Perhaps I may use this time to relearn Calculus since I haven’t done anything in that realm since I was eighteen years old. I might even end up with a healthier mind.

It’s not as though I am incommunicado. I still speak with family and friends. Zoom, FaceTime, and Skype have been godsends in keeping me linked with people. I send texts and voice my feelings on Facebook. I read voraciously. The world is literally at my fingertips in one form or another. My worst days stuck inside are indeed mostly pleasant.

I found a list of books about plagues on the BBC website. I bookmarked the article that outlined the various volumes. It might be fun to take a look at some of them. I read The Plague by Albert Camus when I was in high school and recall being fascinated by it. Maybe it’s time to read it from the perspective of someone who is older, wiser, and has seen the actual ravages that a plague can inflict on the world. Maybe I can even set my mind to writing my own historical fiction book or story about Covid-19.

I sometimes wonder when I will feel safe enough to reintegrate with the life outside my home. The doctors in my family urge me not to be in a hurry to demonstrate my courage. They speak of their own worries for themselves and their children. They seem to believe that our dangers are far from being over. They are unwilling to suggest a time when it might be totally safe for me to emerge from my cocoon so I will just take things one day at a time, one week at a time, one month at a time without trying to gaze too far into the future and hopefully without letting my very vivid imagination get away from me.

The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 was horrific. Writer Katherine Porter lived through that terrifying experience and later wrote a semi-autobiographical piece about a young woman who survived the epidemic. During an interview not long before Ms. Porter died she revealed that of all the tragic events of the twentieth century it was the 1918 influenza outbreak that most affected her. In fact she spoke of never having been able to totally get over the horror of what she saw during that time.

We are living history even from inside our homes. The children of the future will want to know what we did and what we saw. There is something both exciting and terrifying at one and the same time. My only hope is that however each of us chooses to react to the situation we will do so with the intention of making it a bit easier for everyone else. For me that means staying put for a bit more time.