With Grace

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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.

And So I Worry

WorryI sit at home during this time of self isolation and I worry. Let me make it perfectly clear that I do not worry about myself. I will either get the virus or I will not. If I get it I will either survive or not. I am seventy one years old and my journey on this earth has been good. I feel very close to God and that belief brings me great comfort. My anxieties and concerns center on other people whose lives are being upended or may be upended by what is unfolding at warp speed. I am one of those individuals who wants our president to know that I am very scared of the repercussions of this pandemic and how they will affect the entire world, not just my little corner of it. I am most especially concerned for the young who stand to inherit a situation that will forever impact their lives in ways that few of us are even considering because nothing of this magnitude has ever before happened.

I am fearful for the medical community, people who understand what protocols they need to stay safe and keep their patients safe. They are on the front line and their pleas for our attention and help are real. They are not children crying wolf. They are highly educated, highly qualified individuals who are trained to stay calm. When they are afraid I know that the rest of us should also be afraid and that our job is to insist that immediate measures be taken to assist them in any way possible. If that means that we all stay in our homes avoiding contact with others, so be it. We need to listen to them, not a man whose claim to expertise in science and medicine is his relationship with a very bright uncle from M.I.T. The medical community tells us that this is serious and I believe them and so I worry about them.

I am anxious about the people who are already losing their jobs and their businesses. I know who they are and how vulnerable they are feeling. Nothing about their situation is typical. They have no guarantees that our economy will quickly return to a normal enough state to provide them with secure employment when all of this is over. My own city is the oil capital of the United States and that industry is collapsing almost as quickly as the virus is spreading Already there have been furloughs and layoffs. Sadly if the general outline of the Senate’s plan to stimulate the economy comes to pass many who have been most affected by economic loss will receive no relief even though they are the ones who need it the most. The proposed bill would only send checks to people at or below a certain income level based on 2018 tax returns. These people were working and doing well back then, but now they have no income and their retirement investments are in a shambles. Thus I am anxious for them.

I see a political game of back and forth insults playing out on social media even as we should be working together to achieve the common goal of defeating this virus. If there ever was a time when we should set our differences aside it should be now and yet I see so many instances of the quarreling only intensifying. Blame and finger pointing is on the rise as though it must surely be the fault of some nation other than our own or some group that does not believe in God or those who voted for a certain person in the last presidential election. The political paranoia and poison is operating at full tilt when we should instead be working together. Covid 19 is apolitical, a virus that randomly chooses its victims, and so I worry because I keep hearing accusations and excuses instead of a united front from those in charge of guiding us through this battle. I would be far more calm if the press conferences included members of both of our major political parties. I would be relieved to hear that plans were being made in a bipartisan way for the good of the country. I would feel less anxious if we were able to heal the wounds and divisions of our nation and the world even as we fight the virus. Since I don’t see as much of that as I think we need I am ill at ease.

The  millennials are more like those of us who are Baby Boomers than either demographic may think. We Boomers were a rebellious group that was often misunderstood by our elders. We looked honestly at the world as it was and were unafraid to point out its problems. We witnessed racism that made no sense and we stood up to our elders and spoke out against the ways things had always been done. We worried that the war in Vietnam was not being waged in an honest and legitimate manner and we voiced those concerns. Our parents and grandparents thought we were rude and too inexperienced to have valid points of view.  They disapproved of our audacity. So too are today’s young people taking note of things that bother them. Surely we should remember how demeaning it felt to have our concerns silenced when our intentions were so sincere. It’s time we listened to our young because they are about to step into an adult world that will be riddled with residual problems created by this pandemic. We are handing off immense challenges without acknowledging them and supporting them as much as we should. I worry about the future not because I don’t think they can handle it but because so many of us are not willing to consider that the millenials have a bigger stake in making things right than us older folk do. It would serve us all well to remember that aside from people like Benjamin Franklin most of the revolutionary men who forged the independence of this nation were very young.

I am an admitted worrier. I do not need anyone to tell me to set aside my worries and be happy. I am already happy, but I think about things and fret over solutions for problems. I do not need anybody to suggest that if I only trust in God all will be well. God and I have a beautiful relationship and I know that He/She does not play favorites nor smite people in spite. What I do believe is that God gave us wondrous minds and imaginations with which to tackle our challenges. I worry because we don’t always use that precious gift as well as we should. I worry because even in a pandemic we sometimes forget that the most important commandment of all is to love one another.

I hope that I am wrong in all of my fears. I pray that we will rise up and become better for all of the difficulties that lie before us. We may be in for a hard road ahead. We have everything we need to do well but I fear that we will be so busy chiding and advising anyone who does not think exactly as we do that we will miss opportunities to find the way forward without a world of pain…and so I worry. 

Living In the Twilight Zone

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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.

   

Understanding Why

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On Wednesday, I had an opportunity to observe the world of doctors and nurses during the time of Covid 19 from a close up perspective. My husband Mike was scheduled to have a stent placed in one of the arteries of his heart. I had initially argued that I did not want him to have this procedure done at this time. I worried that he might be exposed to the virus and then have a difficult time recovering from it. My youngest daughter, a nurse, had a different point of view. She insisted that fixing his heart actually make him more likely to survive a case of Covid 19 if he were to become infected, and that furthermore it was time to get the surgery done now rather than later before the hospitals potentially become overwhelmed. Since my husband was eager to have the repairs done and my daughter supported his thinking, I did my best to overcome my many anxieties and fake the optimism that Mike had.

We arrived at the Walter Tower of Houston Methodist Hospital at the appointed time. The usual valet parking was unavailable, no doubt so that there would be no close interaction between employees of the garage and the patients. We found a spot to self park and proceeded to the main building where we were greeted by two nurses sitting at a table sporting surgical gowns, gloves, masks and plastic headgear with clear screens that covered the length of their faces much like I had seen during the ebola virus outbreak.

They asked us to stay at least six feet from the people both in front of and behind us. Once we reached the station they scanned our foreheads to determine whether either of us had a fever. If we had not passed that test both of us would have been told to return home and quarantine ourselves. Since our temperatures were normal we next answered a series of questions about travel and any symptoms of illness that we might have. I was honest in admitting that I have been coughing at night but noted that I do that all the time due to acid reflux. The nurse understood what I meant but nonetheless asked me to wear a mask inside the hospital.

There were few people in the hallways and every entrance was blocked and guarded by hospital personnel and security guards. Each incoming patient was allowed one and only one person to accompany him/her. Social distancing was being strictly enforced even as we lined up to check in at the admissions desk on the fourth floor where the catheter labs are located. The business administrators were kind and friendly and did their best to ease our anxieties and hide their own.

There were hundreds of chairs for patients and their families but fewer than twenty people who were waiting. We all kept away from one another with no problem and there was an unusually quiet and tense feeling overall. The smell of bleach was quite noticeable and a hard working woman circled about continually cleaning areas that people had left. The machines that might have provided us with coffee, tea or hot chocolate were unplugged. There would be no communal gathering around any part of the building.

We waited for quite some time and I observed that all but one pairing of patient and visitor was in what the world is now calling the elderly demographic. I sensed that nobody felt particularly comfortable about being there but understood that there were few other acceptable options. We simply stared blankly at one another pretending that the strange scene was normal.

Once my husband was called to prepare for his surgery I was allowed to accompany him to learn what was in store for both of us for the remainder of the day. The smell of disinfectant became ever more noticeable and the nurses and aides while very kind and determined to allay our fears became more clinical. I found out that once my husband left for the surgery I would have to return to the waiting room where I would stay until he was released later that evening.

By the time I found my way back to the holding area there were only four of us remaining and we avoided one another like the plague, no pun intended. In other circumstances we might have conversed about our common situation but on this day there was a more somber and silent tone to the environment. So I busied myself with my laptop and my phone until I would learn about the results of my husband’s surgery.

Eventually I was accompanied to a more private room where the doctor informed me what kind of damage he had found in my husband’s heart. I learned that all three of Mike’s main arteries were blocked at a level from eighty to one hundred percent. I could hardly breathe as I thought of how likely it had been for him to have an heart attack, a terrifying prospect in the middle of a pandemic. The doctor explained that he had opened up two of the arteries with stents and left the third as is because Mike’s body had actually developed new arteries around to compensate for the blockage. Then the cardiac surgeon indicated that he wanted Mike to get back home with me as soon as possible rather than staying in the hospital overnight as is the usual process. He noted that the times were strange indeed.

I went back to the waiting room and watched one after another person leave. Before long I was the only one left in the huge area that now felt eerie in its emptiness. A nurse came out periodically to assure me that my husband was doing well but apologized that it would be at least ten o’clock before he would be ready to leave the hospital. When I asked where I might get something to eat I was told that there were no open eateries in the hospital because of the virus and the snack machines were one floor below. I was cautioned not to go down because I might not be able to return to the floor where my Mike was recovering. Luckily I had brought two apples and an orange with me so I settled into a nice dinner of fruit while watching programs from Amazon Prime video with my laptop.

About the time that I began to believe that I would be spending the night in the cold and abandoned room a nurse came out to announce that we would soon be able to depart. She walked with me to procure my car because she feared that I would not be able to find an exit. In fact, we had to walk around the hospital for about twenty or thirty minutes before we were finally able to find a way out. All of the entrances and exits were locked up tight so that nobody might enter or leave without notice.

It was with enormous relief that I got into my car and drove to the main entrance of the Walter Tower where I texted the nurses to let them know that I was ready to take my husband home. They told me to be safe and to take it easy because everything was so crazy right now. I had an urge to hug them but knew that I could not. As I drove away I had a sense of their worry and their courage in overcoming the fears that were so obviously in their minds. I thanked them profusely for all that they had done and literally prayed that they would be okay.

Following their instructions my husband and I stripped off the clothes that we had been wearing as soon as we got home and put them immediately in the washing machine. I wiped down my phone, my laptop, my glasses, and the handbag in which I had carried everything. We were exhausted and literally collapsed into bed but I could not sleep as I thought of those wonderful people who had so lovingly cared for us all day long.

They are no doubt back at it today, not knowing how bad things may ultimately become. I will be rooting for them and doing my part to self isolate in an effort to prevent them from being overcome by sick and dying patients. I now understand their concerns and the processes they want us to follow that may save many lives. It’s not about me at all. It’s about everyone. 

The Line I No Longer Want To Cross

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I was brought up in the Catholic faith. My mom enrolled me in Catholic school from the first through the twelfth grade. I was baptized at All Saints Church by Father John Perusina and my Aunt Polly was my godmother. I partook of the sacrament of Holy Communion in the second grade at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church. Shortly before that grand day I made my first confession. In the fourth grade at the same church I was confirmed as a Catholic. I think that my Aunt Valeria was my sponsor. My husband Mike (also a Catholic) and I were married in a ceremony conducted by the same priest who had baptized me. There are two more sacraments in my religion and one of them is Holy Orders which is used to ordain priests and the other is the Anointing of the Sick which used to be known as the last rites. 

I’ve remained a believer for all of my life but admittedly slacked here and there with regard to attendance at mass on Sundays, particularly during my hectic working days. Sometimes I  needed a day to sleep in and relax around the house just to be able to face my students with energy and enthusiasm on Monday morning. I’m a cradle Catholic who became a bit lazy at time but always returned to the fold even when I differed with some of the teachings. For example I think it’s well past time to allow women and married persons to become priests. I’ve also been rather liberal in my thoughts regarding birth control and I think that gay and lesbian folk should be able to marry and enjoy their lives. 

I learned the ten commandments when I was little more than seven years old. During my twelve years of Catholic education my teachers went more and more into depth with explanations of the scriptures and foundational tenets of the Church. My high school theology classes were rather adult in content and in the questions that we asked the priests who taught us. I learned that there was a bit more flexibility with regard to how I should live my faith than the black and white reasoning that guided me as a child. I fudged now and again with “little white lies” but did my best to avoid those that mark one as dishonest and hurtful. I suppose that I self guided my behavior by referring to all that I had learned in those twelve years of my youth.

I once stole fifty cents and felt the sting of guilt for that transgression for years mostly because I had taken from a dear friend. I changed my ways after that and never again took anything that was not mine. I’ve been faithful in my friendships and my vows to my husband. My imperfections come mostly from anger, jealousy, self righteousness. I do my best to be the kind of person I want others to be and admit that I fall short of my high minded ideas more often than like. I’ve crossed a few lines and felt the sting of culpability after that fact but there are some things that I can never do.

Murder is the ultimate sin and for me it takes more forms than the obvious one of killing another person. I have witnessed the destruction of an innocent individual’s reputation and I believe such is a kind of murder in its own right. It is a foul thing to do and I abhor such an act. There is also a form of emotional murder that abuses with words that kill someone’s spirit, leaving them to feel as though their souls are dead. I have seen parents and spouses who taunt a person that they should love until the victim is emptied of all joy.

Our country is presently engaged in a debate over abortion that I view as being cloaked in dangerous semantics. The pro choice side speaks of rights, women’s health, protection of individuals. The pro life advocates see the taking of the life of an unborn child as murder of a human being. I’ve thought long and hard about this issue and I have come to the conclusion that abortion is not a form of birth control but is indeed murder just as my church teaches.

One often used argument in favor of abortion implies that pro life supporters are willing to endanger a woman’s life over that of her unborn child. I learned long ago from the priest who taught me that the stance of the church is to save the mother in such situations which are generally somewhat rare. Nobody has ever said that a woman must sacrifice her own life and I know this because I have heard many such discussions in my high school theology classes as well as with the priest who baptized me.

We are presently concerned about a virus which poses the possibility of killing a significant portion of the world’s population unless we keep it at bay. Everyone is working hard to do everything possible to contain the spread of the disease. Worldwide society values life including that of our animal kingdom and our earth itself. Somehow many have convinced themselves that an unborn life is not worthy of our concern. They proclaim that a being unable to take care of itself without human intervention is not really a person. Such logic flies in the face of all that I believe and it pains me to think of the millions of babies that have needlessly died. To me the evil that has perpetrated this crime is as bad as the one that found no harm in slavery or the genocide of millions of people based solely on physical traits or beliefs. How can we twist the truth to the point of making villains of those who would protect the unborn and heroes of those who see fetuses as little more than cells? 

There was a time when I had a laissez faire attitude about abortion. I felt that it was wrong for me but I was unwilling to publicly take a stance. I viewed the issue as one that should be decided quietly by each individual. To my horror I have watched as our laws have become more and more lax regarding how and when abortions may occur. I have heard people argue that it should never really too late to end a pregnancy right up to the moment of birth. I have seen that by my silence I have been complicit in the growth of the acceptance of abortion as a good and humane way of allowing women to enjoy control over their own destinies. When I said nothing I allowed the popular attitudes to lean in favor of an act that I believe to be harmful to all of society. The genie is so far out of the bottle that I worry that we may never be able to put it back. I helped in the crossing of a very dangerous line because I was unwilling to stand up for something that I believed to be wrong. 

I still do not wish to judge others but I think that I need to let those who make our laws know how many of us there are who firmly believe that abortion is an abomination. It is my duty to work to find viable alternatives for women who find themselves bearing an unwanted child. They need those of us who abhor abortion to support them in compassionate and practical ways. It should be my duty to help end this barbaric practice with kindness, love, and workable solutions. I can longer hide behind silence. Acting as though it doesn’t matter one way or another is the line that I no longer want to cross.