Reframing the Story

 

Dr. Bertice Berry is a sociologist, author, storyteller, and inveterate volunteer who is currently devoting herself to making and donating masks. She and her family have made 9,000 so far.  She also records a daily story each morning, sharing it both on YouTube and Facebook.

In this recent story she talks about reframing the negative narratives we carry,  which can change what we see in others and what we see in ourselves. It’s a way of making peace in our lives, but it takes practice.

That video brought to mind something my family used to do years ago, when the kids were little. If someone cut us off in traffic or was rude in public we’d say, “What is her story?” and then everyone would volunteer random possibilities. Her baby was up all night or a stone was stuck in her shoe or she’s late for work (or as one of my sons liked to contribute) “her butt itches but she can’t scratch it.”  It didn’t just distract us from our annoyance, it was a playful way to consider other people’s perspectives. I hoped this practice let us feel closer, for a moment, to the oneness underlying all life on this planet.

We need to remember to apply empathy to our own troubles too. The stories we hold about ourselves and the world around us, often subconsciously, can drag us down. These tend to be stories about unworthiness. We live in a culture where worth has to do with wealth, status, followers, beauty, youth, and power. We live in a culture where the worth of others is denied by those who benefit from us versus them thinking. Get enough people to believe less of those who don’t share their skin color, religion, ethnic background, or political leaning and you’ve got a powerful diversion from real issues that affect us all. Instead of acting on climate, healthcare reform, systemic racism, and public health we’re baited to fear and mistrust one another.

Which reminds me of another Dr. Berry story about comic books, old china, and a man’s insistence on acting with honor even while his family was being evicted. His plea, “Please don’t take my integrity,” will stay with me the way good stories often do. Give yourself a few minutes to listen.

 

When I make time to watch Dr. Berry’s daily story I am always improved by her wisdom, her smile, and her closing “I love you.” She says it like she means it. Is it hard to believe someone means “I love you” when they don’t know you?  It’s not hard to believe some people hate people they don’t know, even express hate for every individual who looks, acts, believes, or votes differently than they do. Dr. Berry’s choice to love is so much better. So much healthier, wiser, and kinder. I love you all too.

Elf Trouble

My husband does not admit to disposing of the body.

I have just realized our resident house elf has a problem. Somehow its body is missing. This creature has lived on the tops of various picture frames ever since one of our sons wanted an elf-themed 7th birthday party. Although no one knew quite how our elf moved from picture frame to picture frame, we all knew then and know now that this isn’t a real elf, like the elves who (when it’s very quiet here) can be heard snickering and scuffling through the pages of their teeny tiny books and living their best house elf lives. Still, I’m shocked to notice only its decapitated head now rests on a picture frame.

I ask the spouse in a casual non-interrogating way:

“Where is the elf’s body?”
“Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
“How long has he been broken?”

Even under repeated (casual!) questioning he claims no involvement in disposing of the body. Says it’s no big deal. Says it has likely been broken for a few years.

A few years?

The last few years in this family have been rough, health wise. Far be it from me to fess up to more magical thinking than is psychologically normal. (None is normal, I’m told. That can’t be right.) But if there is a ever a time to indulge in some elf-sized superstition, it’s now. Why piss off the Elm Realm if you can avoid it?

But I’m not sure how to deal with this decapitated head. I consider a respectful burial. Consider letting it rest in a box with other sentimental things. And then I consult the son who had that elf birthday party many years ago. “Put it back on a picture frame,” he advised. “He’s still our elf.”

Maybe I need to redirect my superstitions toward the chipped-wing gargoyle in our flower bed.

 

 

First Time You Felt Brave*

 

I am fifteen. I do my best to avoid being noticed. I don’t dress provocatively or wear makeup other than mascara, barely even see other faces because I don’t wear my glasses. I do my schoolwork, work an afterschool job, date a boy who makes me feel safe. But inside I have large, loud opinions about social conditions, politics, religion. I don’t know anyone who talks about such things. My boyfriend wisely listens and agrees with the fervent opinions I share only with him.

I don’t know how to get along with my boyfriend’s family so I smile and stay quiet. I’m pretty sure something about me disgusts his older brother because he won’t even look at me. If I call and he answers, he drops the phone on the counter to yell for his brother. He’s never once said my name. My boyfriend’s father is 6 foot 5 inches, towering 14 inches over me. I’m not familiar with adult sarcasm so I wilt around him. I don’t like that my wilting makes me seem like my boyfriend’s mother, who expresses no opinions, not even on her face, making herself small and subservient.

One afternoon my boyfriend and I are out together. We stop at his house for a brief interlude with his proudly Irish great uncle who is visiting from out of state for the first time in decades. He is thin and whiskery as a stalk of wheat. I smile at him whenever he looks my way. He brings up a work-related incident that still angers him, quickly devolving into racist comments  He is the first person I’ve ever heard deride Black people. In the next sentence he uses the n-word. I bristle. My boyfriend looks at me with an expression I interpret as let it go. The great uncle continues, his mouth in a strange smirk. I have been taught to be polite. I’ve kept quiet to my detriment many times and will do so many more times. But this time I speak up.

My boyfriend’s family looks shocked as the quiet little blonde girl, the one who obsessively reads history, spews out all the Irish slurs she can think of. I say Mick and Paddy and drunken Irish, asking if he wants his people spoken about that way.  I ask if he knows what prejudice his ancestors endured when signs were posted outside buildings reading No Irish need apply or No Irish, no dogs, or, more commonly, No Irish, no dogs, no Blacks just a few generations ago.

There’s an awful pause.

I want to run out of the room but, unexpectedly, he agrees such terms are unfair. Then starts to justify his biases. I say it’s the exact same thing. He says no it’s not, I say yes it is. Prejudice is prejudice.

A longer pause.

Neither one of us knows how to extricate ourselves from the situation. Right about then, my boyfriend invents a reason we have to leave. We hustle out of the house. Once we get in the car, I laugh although I’m shaking. I say I have no delusion I’ve made any difference. I have no idea how to make a difference. The real me wants very much to know what can.

~

Now I live in a world where young people, everywhere, advocate loudly and persistently for a sustainable, equitable, compassionate future. They’re not standing up to one racist man, they are standing up to an entrenched history of brutality and greed. They are reshaping the future. I can feel it happening. I hope you can too.

*I’ve worked on an exhaustively hyperlinked post about ways to reimagine education during the pandemic but just can’t seem to muster up what it takes to finish it. So I’m posting this response to the writing prompt “the first time you felt brave.” I think our world needs a great deal more bravery (and love) than it ever has in my lifetime. Please respond with a story of when YOU felt brave. 

 

Compassion By Design

The weight of other people’s suffering can be palpable, whether someone weeping in the next room or someone in agony across the globe. How do we go about our own lives knowing others are in anguish at the same moment? This question has haunted me, especially in my growing up years. I suspect such questions weigh more on children than we imagine.

By the time I was eight or nine years old, my parents had cancelled their subscriptions to news magazines because they couldn’t deal with repeated questions like, “Why is that village burning? Who hurt that man? Why isn’t someone helping that baby?” Even the most well-intentioned adult would rather not think about such questions, let alone answer them. Try to explain war to a child. No matter how you skew it, the answer comes down to whoever destroys more property and kills more people, wins. Try explaining poverty or prejudice to a child. It’s impossible to morally justify the indifference and greed that helps to prop up “normal” life in the face of truly open, honest questions.

Starting in babyhood, most children express empathy as well as a sense of connection to the natural world.  Many children, including some we call “gifted” and some we call “neurodiverse” are more strongly motivated by the search for justice, mercy, equality, and truth than by more superficial adult concerns like polite behavior.

Even new arrivals to the planet demonstrate this. By six months of age, babies show empathy for those who have been treated unfairly. Concern for others starts on day one. When hearing recorded cries, one-day old newborns are more likely to cry when hearing a recording of another baby crying than their own cries. Newborns also show more intense and longer-lasting distress when listening to others’ cries. This effect doesn’t diminish. Studies show babies continue to react with distress to other’s cries at one, three, six, and nine months.

As children show us, this is quite naturally who we are. Kindness is the way our species evolved. According to anthropologist Douglas Fry, author of Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace,  for 98 percent of our human existence on earth we lived in small nomadic bands that did not make war, thriving precisely because our kind relied on cooperation and collaboration. The oldest and most longstanding child-rearing practices still support this way of being.

Historian Rutger Bregman, author of Humankind: A Hopeful History, says in a recent interview, “If I say most people are pretty decent that may sound nice and warm but actually it’s really radical and subversive and that’s why, all throughout history, those who have advocated a more hopeful view of human nature – often the anarchists – have been persecuted.”

Greed, and violence are not “human nature.”  We flourish best with gentle nurturance and ongoing cooperation.  Even our bodies are cued for compassion. In fact, research tells us our bodies pump out oxytocin when we’re stressed. Normally we think of it as a love hormone. It is. It prompts us to connect with and support one another. As we reach out, our bodies react with more oxytocin, helping us recover while strengthening relationships.

We are in a time of intense reexamination brought about by an unchecked global pandemic, systemic oppression, and ecosystem destruction.When we wall off our feelings of outrage, shame, and despair we’re walled off from ourselves.  It’s time to recognize the collective weight of suffering. Time to truly to listen to each other. This starts with the questions children ask, often the largest questions.

As Tobin Hart writes in The Secret Spiritual World of Children, our wide-awake presence in the lives of children “reminds us to listen for inner wisdom, find wonder in the day, see through the eye of the heart, live the big questions, and peer into the invisible. “

Hospitality To Strangers

 

Our home has never felt emptier. I’ve realized, over these months of isolation, just how much it means to me to welcome people here. What I miss most is family, especially our weekly Sunday family gatherings. I also miss out-of-town guests. And I miss old friends as well as new people we meet through house concerts, potlucks, and community meetings here. It feels as if we deny something intrinsically human when we shut others out, even though we’re doing it to protect one another from a deadly virus.

The importance of welcoming people, most especially the stranger, is emphasized by religious and cultural traditions around the world.

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Christianity. Hebrews 13.1

“The husband and wife of the house should not turn away any who comes at eating time and asks for food. If food is not available, a place to rest, water for refreshing one’s self, a reed mat to lay one’s self on, and pleasing words entertaining the guest–these at least never fail in the houses of the good.” Hinduism. Apastamba Dharma Sutra 8.2

“One should give even from a scanty store to him who asks.” Buddhism. Dhammapada 224

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress them, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” Judaism, Exodus 22:20

“Serve Allah, and join not any partners with Him; and do good – to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer (ye meet) and what your right hands possess: For Allah loveth not the arrogant, the vainglorious.”  Islam. Quran 4:36

“Charity—to be moved at the sight of the thirsty, the hungry, and the miserable and to offer relief to them out of pity—is the spring of virtue.” Jainsim/Kundakunda, Pancastikaya 137

 “The heavenly food is needed successively; be thou a server of the food and direct thou the people of the world to present themselves at that table and guide them to partake thereof.” Baha’I  (Abdu’l-Baha)

“A traveler through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him.” Nelson Mandela, discussing the southern Africa tradition of Ubuntu

A divide between welcoming people in and shutting people out has been amplified to the extreme in the last few years here in the U.S.

  • The administration’s travel bans and immigration bans, particularly on people from Muslim-majority countries.
  • Human rights violations at the southern U.S. border, including the detention of children and families.
  • A growing threat from white supremacist violence and terrorism.
  • A continued emphasis on eliminating people from food assistance and healthcare coverage, plus threats to allocate aid based on whether a state is red or blue, all during a pandemic.
  • A nation seeing more clearly, due to cellphone evidence, the deadly impact of racism. Week after week, year after year, we witness the deaths of Black, Latino, and Native people murdered simply for living their lives. George Floyd’s execution by suffocation leads to mass protests, and again, to us versus them behavior from provocateurs who break windows, burn buildings, and otherwise do everything possible to discredit protesters’ anger, grief, and demand for solutions.

That’s why the open doors of Rahul Dubey’s home on Swann Street, in Washington, D.C. means so much. On Monday, before the curfew went into effect, shield-bearing riot officers and mounted police used smoke, flash grenades, and chemical spray to rout peaceful demonstrators from the area around St. John’s Church, even clergy from the church patio, clearing the way for a presidential photo opportunity. About an hour later police began boxing protesters into the residential area of Swann Street, making it impossible for people to leave.

Mr. Dubey heard clubs, screams, and chemical sprays going off outside his home. He flung his door open and urged people in, telling them to find refuge anywhere inside. Police shot pepper spray through the window and tried, throughout the night to gain access. Inside over 70 people rinsed their eyes, helped each other, cleaned up whatever messes they’d made, and tried to understand the situation.

As Mr. Dubey said in a video by HuffPost, “When they felt they were safe, I can tell you the pride and security and intellect of this group of people, ranging from 20 to 50 years old, shone over and over for the 10 hours they were held captive in this house — as my guests…. They all delegated to each other and self-managed beautifully.”

“Every square inch of this place had a person in it,” Mr. Dubey said in a BBC interview. “They were all strangers. That was amazing. They didn’t know each other… From age to race to ethnicity to sexual orientation, it was amazing. It was America. I just gave me a lot of hope.”

The next morning, as his guests left, Mr. Dubey stood on the steps of his home, surprised again, this time to receive applause from protesters and onlookers.

“It’s not something that should be celebrated,” Mr. Dubey said. “I shouldn’t be getting attention.” Asked whether he would do it all over again, he said of course he would. “I don’t think what I did was anything special,” he said. “If it is, we have a ton of work to do in this country.”

History shows us countless quiet heroes who reach out to help others, often endangering themselves in the process. They open their doors to shelter people from persecution, even genocide. What separates them from others?

People who have imperiled their lives for months or years to help others can give us some insight. Svetlana Broz, author of Good People in an Evil Timesays it requires at least three attributes.

  1. The courage to think for oneself, resisting conformity even at the risk of one’s own safety.
  2. A moral core that inspires action.
  3. The capacity to empathize with those who are dissimilar.

 

In this spirit, try a thought exercise right now. Imagine as fully as possible that a crowd of desperate people are at your door. Their eyes and lungs are burning, they are afraid, angry, out of options. You have seconds to decide. Imagine you open the door and now your home is filled with these strangers, every available space taken up. They need food, water, aid. Can you do it?

Now imagine this. You are on the other side of a stranger’s door. You’re the one in pain, afraid and desperate. Will the door open for you?

Now, Reality Is Surreal

Ostranenie  

Stare at any one thing
long enough
it recedes into form
without meaning.
Roof edge beyond the window
becomes a floating angle, abstract
against cloud-clotted background,
rain layered foreground.

Say anything over and over,
word you love or word you loathe
it reduces to sound,
to nonsense.
As a meditation,
this nudges us
closer to edges,
toward wilder realms rarely visited.

But be wary of ideas
ranted over and over.
They lose something too,
lose the softness of grass on bare feet,
of hand touching hand. They become
strictures against the way rain speaks,
barriers to what nourishes
the ground we are.

Laura Grace Weldon

First published in Sisyphus Literary Magazine, issue 6.3

“Ostranenie” is a literary term coined by Russian writer and critic Viktor Shklovsky to describe how art takes reality out of context, making the ordinary seem strange.

Hermit Bars, Despair, and Collective Renewal

Butter and sugar combine quickly in the vintage Kitchen Aid mixer that once belonged to my mother. I drizzle in molasses, drop in cinnamon and allspice, add eggs one at a time. I’m making four batches, 140 cookies in total, for this week’s porch drop-off. I’ve never made Hermit Bars before and admit to choosing the recipe solely for its name. I am intrigued to learn it may have originated 150 years ago in New England, even more intrigued to find it may instead hark back to 13th century religious hermitages. These sturdy treats, packed with spice and dry fruit, are said to hold up well. And what better cookie to make when social distancing creates so many involuntary hermits?

I started baking for porch drop-offs in my small rural township over a month ago. I figured I had a good stockpile of flour, butter, and sugar. I had way too many eggs from our chickens. And I had to do something with my despair.

Because I have a diagnosis putting me at greater risk of mortality from Covid-19, I have been in isolation since March 16th. Other than walks outside, I am home with only my husband. I realize what a privilege this is when people all over the world face extreme risks to work, often in jobs offering low pay and even lower agency.

Everyone in isolation handles it somewhat differently. I know people who are playing board games, watching movies, hiking, laughing arguing, and deepening family life. I know people who are relaxing after too many years of overwork, gladly getting more sleep and cherishing their newly unbusy time. I know people who are de-cluttering their homes, participating in Zoom dance groups, writing, drawing, repairing, working with renewed zest. Not me. I’ve been wretched. For weeks I struggled to keep up with editing work, barely able to write, and for the first time in my life not even reading much. I was afraid my old enemy, depression, was coming back. I felt best when I was sewing or cooking, doing anything I could to feel useful. But without our usual weekly Sunday family gatherings, there weren’t many excuses for staying the kitchen. Unless, I realized, I baked for my community. So I posted this on our rural township’s Facebook page.

Dear Litchfield neighbors,

I have a 25 pound bag of flour and plenty of other baking supplies. I’m hoping to donate baked goods weekly till my flour runs out or we’re freed from self-isolation, whichever comes first. This week I’ve made Apple Walnut Bread. It contains apples I dried last autumn, eggs from our chickens, some white as well as whole grain flour. I have 15 loaves to give away.

If you’d like a loaf, just email me your address and how many people are in your residence (so I know what size bread to drop off).

You don’t have to be in need, this is simply a friendly offer to sweeten the day for a few people. I’ll post a comment here when I have the loaves spoken for. I’d like to drop them all off tomorrow (Wednesday) early afternoon. My husband or I will leave them on your front porch unless you instruct me otherwise. I may ring your doorbell, but just wave so we can maintain social distance.

cheerfully, Laura

I wasn’t comfortable with any of the laudatory comments my post elicited but I was heartened to see that my offer made people feel better, especially when so many comments mentioned their renewed faith in humanity. My email filled up with requests. The next morning I was indeed cheerful as I chopped, mixed, and baked. And that afternoon we dropped off foil-wrapped loaves at all sorts of different homes. A tiny house with a rotting porch and friendly sign on the door. A newly built home with no one home. A sprawling home flying a large Confederate flag. A carefully tended ranch with a large Trump-Pence sign. A beautiful farm with little lambs out on pasture.

Although we’ve lived in this township for nearly 23 years, we simply haven’t gotten to know many people. Perhaps it’s because the houses are farther apart than in our previous neighborhoods. Perhaps because we homeschooled. Perhaps because of other encounters in our first few months here that made us wary, starting with a veiled death threat.  But as the baking donation weeks have gone by I’ve started to feel closer to my community.

And also, as I’ve baked muffins and loaves and cookies, my mood has leveled off. I’m starting to catch up on work. I’m back to writing and reading and happily tending seedlings nearly ready for the garden.

I’ve also gotten some perspective on despair after talking with my friend Maureen. She told me she’s been inert and ineffectual, retreating into herself. She also said she was feeling on a deeper level all the loss she’s been through in the past few years while at the same time feeling guilty about her grief because so many people are going through far worse.

I realized I’d been feeling the same way, not depression at all but some kind of collective mourning. All that our species is going through can’t help but ask us to more intensely feel our own losses. Perhaps feeling our own grief more fully — seeing it, naming it, letting it walk with us –may help us on a collective level.

Maybe the different ways we react rise from wise inner promptings, helping to heal what has felt unbalanced in our lives while, on some level, we process the world’s larger fear, loss, and terrifying uncertainty.

As I pack up today’s Hermit Bars, I am grateful that offering homemade sweetness to strangers restores sweetness to my life. And I choose to believe everyone who claps for healthcare workers, or shops for neighbors, or sends cards to nursing home residents, or donates food, or adopts shelter animals, or plays music from balconies, or supports local businesses, or abides by social distancing to keep others safe is remaking a more connected and compassionate future for us all.

Stories: Now More Than Ever

“I believe with all my hoary heart that stories save lives, and the telling and hearing of them is a holy thing, powerful far beyond our ken, sacramental, crucial, nutritious; without the sea of stories in which we swim we would wither and die; we are here for each other, to touch and be touched, to lose our tempers and beg forgiveness, to listen and to tell, to hail and farewell, to laugh and to snarl, to use words as knives and caresses, to puncture lies and to heal what is broken.”    ~Brian Doyle   

In this surreal, frightening time we are pulling together in profound ways. Although so-called differences are trumpeted by those who profit by dividing us, a magnet of connection guides us toward one another. Even now when we can’t hug, can’t even gather together, we are moved by one another’s stories.

By now, you likely know of people affected by Covid-19. I’m starting to. A friend’s wedding is cancelled and they plan to marry in front of a justice of the peace, sparing their friends from contact. Another friend’s new restaurant may go out of business. Each day he cleans the smooth black counters he had installed, hoping customers might again stand there to order before his creditors call in their loans. Many friends are out of work, scrambling to figure out how to pay for food and housing. An ER nurse friend is sleeping in her sister’s basement to stay away from her own son, who is receiving chemotherapy treatment. She does Facetime chats with him every evening. He holds up drawings he’s done, graphs he’s made of his temperature, lists of things he hopes to do in the next few days. She keeps her voice cheery till they’re done, only afterwards letting herself cry. One of my writing students is at home struggling with a cough and high fever, unable to get a test for the virus. She endured a difficult childhood, and in the last few years has started to write her memoir in light of what she now knows about trauma, epigenetics, and narrative history. Every person affected by Covid-19 has a story much larger than these few lines can tell.

Nearly every day I share stories with a stranger thanks to Quarantine Chat. Recently I talked to an older gentleman in Canada who is staying at his fishing cabin. When we talked he’d just come in from what he said would be the last ice fishing of the season. He reported that, once again, he didn’t catch anything. I asked how often his ice fishing was successful. “It’s always successful, in that I get outside for a few hours of peace. But it’s 100 percent unsuccessful if you mean catching anything after decades of trying,” he said. His good cheer couldn’t help but cheer me. I’ve talked to people in Spain,  Russia, Israel, and many U.S. states — a graduate student, business owner, graphic artist, stay-at-home dad, insurance broker, teenaged musician, police officer. We talk about what we can see out our windows, how our plans have changed, what worries us most, what we’re having for supper. It’s like any conversation, except it’s easier to get past the superficial.

Yesterday’s call was with a retired veteran who said he was really struggling with anxiety, especially for his two daughters. I asked if he had a family story, maybe even from generations ago, that made him feel he and his kids would get through this. He told me about his grandmother, who was the first Black woman in their city to become a bus driver. He called her a “little powerhouse of a lady.” He said she was a woman of faith who also took  “no guff” from anybody. Once, he said, she was robbed as she was walking to the side entrance of her apartment building. She never carried a purse, but pulled a worn Bible out of her coat pocket and told the desperate young man holding a knife, “Take this, it has all my treasure inside.” He grabbed it and ran off, assuming she had money stuffed in its pages. She turned and hurried after him. When he threw it down after rifling it through, she picked it up moments later. The police declined her offer to dust it for finger prints. The veteran said he had lots of stories about his grandmother and realized he hadn’t told them to his daughters. “I see her in my girls,” he said. “They’ve got her fight and her big heart.”

Stories press the doorbells that open us to the meaning inside tragedy, courage, and compassion. The prickle of tears you feel at the story of another person’s sorrow is your empathy. The  rise of something larger than pride when hearing a story of kindness is your willingness to give of yourself. And laughter at someone’s funny story, well, that’s as human as it gets.

Share some stories going on around you. Every story helps.

Mutual Aid In The Time Of Covid-19

“Hope has never trickled down, it has always sprung up.”    ~Naomi Klein     

Last night, after reading frightening coverage about this country’s abysmal preparation for Covid-19, with potential death tolls estimated to reach 1 to 1.5 million Americans, I dreamed about a family member just outside my window who couldn’t hear or see me calling him. Even in my dream I wondered which one of us wasn’t alive. I also dreamed about rotting food that grew into a malevolent presence. (And I dreamed about pastel-colored baby llamas…)

I woke up to cancel and respond to cancellation notices for all sorts of workshops, events, and get-togethers. Tentatively my classes for April are still a go-status, but I realize that may change. So much is changing.

Like nearly everyone else, I’m taking in more news than I normally do. I’ve heard experts say this pandemic is the event of a century. I’ve heard experts say this will be generation-defining. And of course there are people like conservative columnist David Brooks whose piece in the NYT is titled “Pandemics Kill Compassion, Too” with the subtitle “You may not like who you’re about to become.”  He writes about the ugly history of epidemics, where people blame and refuse to help one another. Of course there aren’t many accounts of how neighbors and faith communities actually helped one another in those times; history rarely tracks the experiences of ordinary people. Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Paradise Built in Hell, describes how ordinary people DO react. Here’s part of my post about this.

Author Rebecca Solnit takes a close look at disasters including earthquakes, floods, and explosions. She finds tragedy and grief, but something else too, something rarely noticed. During and after these horrific crises there shines from the wreckage something extraordinary.

People rise up as if liberated, regardless of their differences, to act out of deep regard for one another. They improvise, coordinate, create new social ties, and pour themselves into work that has no personal gain other than a sense of meaning. Such people express strangely transcendent feelings of joy, envisioning a greater and more altruistic community in the making. Even those suffering the most horrific misfortune often turn around to aid others and later remember it as the defining moment of their lives. This is a testament to the human spirit, as if disaster cracks us open to our better selves. As Solnit says, “The possibility of paradise is already within us as a default setting.”

Solnit wasn’t writing specifically about global pandemics, but already this greater human spirit is happening all around us. In my own networks I know of:

  • employees offering to handle a heavier workload so that co-workers with health problems can stay at home
  • healthcare workers taking on more shifts to deal with a massively increased workload
  • families looking after other people’s children due to school and daycare closures
  • nursing mothers vowing to share breastmilk if fellow mothers are too sick to nurse
  • neighbors offering to do errands and yard chores for elderly and/or sick neighbors
  • faith communities matching volunteers with people requesting help

And community members are getting together online to organize all sorts of mutual aid well beyond their own close networks. Here’s what my friend Mark, activist and generally awesome person, posted yesterday.

And here’s an example from an apartment dweller:

The next few months will likely test us, maybe test us severely.  Through whatever we suffer, this pandemic may help us see we are interconnected beyond our own fingertips, beyond our own borders.  May we rise to our best selves, creative and caring, no matter what. May we keep up one another’s spirits as the people of  Siena, Italy do — singing from their homes and apartments during the mandated quarantine. 

 “To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand Utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”   ~Howard Zinn

Kiva

In the long chill of our worst financial times I used a permanent marker to write affirming words inside our checkbook cover.

           abundance   ease   hope   purpose   prosperity   gratitude   plenty   

I also started a tradition of making a donation each time I paid our bills.  I figured we weren’t truly in trouble until we couldn’t help someone else. Sometimes it was for a local fund-raiser, but mostly it was one of many carefully vetted charities aligned with our ecological and social concerns. Each donation wasn’t much, but I made them.

I’ve kept up with that tradition and started another a few years ago thanks to a non-profit which offers a way of making the same donation do a world of good, over and over again.  It’s based on microlending. Muhammad Yunus, who won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his work, popularized microloans worldwide.  These are tiny loans to the very poor, often in combination with other services such as healthcare, savings accounts, networking, and peer support. For decades, such loans have made a difference to people with limited access to financial services, particularly for women.  Initially hyped as the solution to severe poverty, research shows the economic effects are more modest — resulting in the start-up or expansion of small businesses, more reliable sources of food and transportation, better educational opportunities, and higher overall wages. The improvement in individual lives is significant when nearly half the world lives on less than $5.50 a day,  with a quarter living on less than $3.20 a day.

Anyone can get started making microloans as small as $25 through Kiva,  lending money to people a state away or continents away. When they pay the money back, you can loan it over and over again. You might loan based on what means the most to you; perhaps to women in agriculture or refugees establishing businesses or people working in the arts. Each loan request is accompanied by a snapshot and information. For example right now Tuli, from Samoa, makes elei printed materials and needs a loan to buy more supplies. Lidia, from Uganda, runs a restaurant and needs a loan to help her buy more plates, saucepans, and staples like maize flour. Safarahmad, from Tajakistan (who paid back a previous Kiva loan) is applying for support to begin a beekeeping business. Norma, from the U.S., seeks a loan to buy equipment to expand her housecleaning services.

Kiva loans, overall, have a 96.7 percent repayment rate of loans to people in 77 countries. Since 2005, Kiva has crowdfunded more than 1.6 million loans. A billion dollars alone have been loaned to women.

I got started with $25 and, adding what I could over time, I’ve built up my Kiva account to the point where I’ve made 52 loans (and counting).  It’s astonishing to be able to offer others a portion the abundance I realize I’ve always truly had.