I haven’t seen my favorite eight-year-old since Christmas Eve. Her parents are, again, being careful because of Covid case counts in our area. Although I miss her and her younger siblings so much I feel tearful writing this sentence, our occasional phone call lets me talk one-on-one with her in a way we rarely get to do during visits.
Today, our nearly 90 minute call started with guessing games. What Am I Thinking is her favorite. Some of today’s correct guesses turned out to be ladybugs, clouds, and atoms. Then we played Would You Rather, which simply consists of taking turns making up questions like, “Would you rather travel by hot air balloon or sailboat?” and “Would you rather be an elephant or a whale?” but she’s so darn mature these days that she tends to say, “I’d like to experience both.” This lasts until our questions get much sillier, like “Would you rather eat worms or garbage?”
She switched screens to show me her room which she recently cleaned and organized. Her large stuffed bear, who she’s named Friendly Bear, holds its own toy animal pal under one arm and a book under another. “I know you’ll like this,” she said, “because books are your favorite thing.”
We discussed which superpowers we’d choose. I said healing, so I could help heal the world. She said she’d like to be able to fly. “I’d fly over right now to hug you.”
We discussed what it’s like to talk to animals and trees. She and I agreed, they are very good listeners. “Especially when you’re sad,” she said. I told her I don’t hear dogs or trees answer in a way I can hear with my ears, but I sometimes I feel what they say inside of me. “Me too!” she said, “We’re just the same!”
Then she talked about how her mind likes to go so wild that she doesn’t notice time passing. She said, “I look around and say to myself, ‘How is this real? How am I real?”” and I said, “Me too! We’re just the same!”
I’m standing in line for my second dose of Pfizer vaccine in a bustling CVS. Everyone waiting joins in a jovial camaraderie. The man wearing a United Steelworkers t-shirt says he can’t wait to get the shot. “I’m retired,” he says. “I spend my time traveling to see my five grandchildren, that’s what I do. Until Covid. I haven’t seen them in a year. That includes a three-month-old granddaughter I haven’t held.” He shakes his head. “You can’t have a relationship with a baby on a screen.”
A woman with a soft accent takes off her coat and folds it over her arm. “I am so happy to get my second shot,” she says. “I feel so lucky.”
A man with a ponytail in his curly gray hair says, “I don’t know who I’m going to be seeing of my family, what with everyone divided over politics. I’ll keep quiet if that’s what it takes to sit down at the same table.” He doesn’t say what “side” he’s on. It doesn’t matter. We’re in this together.
I think about a report I recently read. It’s based on a national survey taken in late January of this year. Its focus is what Americans prioritize and what they think others prioritize for this country’s long-term future. The survey included Trump voters and Biden voters. Instead of asking only direct question about support or opposition to various positions, they also asked choice-based questions to get beyond what respondents believe they should say or think most people would say.
The results? Americans share long-term goals to a remarkable degree. Here’s a summary of their findings.
Across race, gender, income, education, generational cohorts, and 2020 presidential vote, there is stunning agreement on the long-term national values and priorities that Americans believe should characterize the country moving forward. Chief among them: high quality healthcare as a necessity, not a privilege; an overwhelming commitment to individual rights; and upholding equal treatment for all, but not necessarily equal outcomes.
Where significant differences in aspirations do emerge, they are almost entirely political in nature. The evidence suggests Americans mistake intensity of partisan disagreement on a small number of issues (e.g., immigration) for breadth of partisan disagreement across a far-ranging number of issues.
Collective illusions — significant gaps between personal and perceived societal aspirations for the nation — as an obstacle to progress. For example, there is a surprising level of support for action on climate change and conservation. However, Americans don’t recognize it. Climate action privately ranks as the third highest personally-held national aspiration out of 55 possibilities; yet, Americans believe that ‘most others’ would rank climate action as a much lower priority (#33).
Biden voters and Trump voters share a sense of urgency around 5 policy objectives. Voters from both political camps want improvement in the near-term on healthcare, keeping communities safe, helping the middle class, modernizing infrastructure, and criminal justice reform.
It’s the retired steelworker’s turn. Before sitting in the chair for his shot, he turns to us. “I’m leaving two weeks from today,” he says with a grin, “driving across Ohio to hold the baby girl I’ve been missing.”
The dark-haired woman is next. She says “I hope I don’t cry. This has me all emotional.”
Then it’s my turn. I find it hard to contain my exuberance. “I expected trumpet fanfares with each shot!” I say to the pharmacist. What does she do? She bursts into song.
The World Health Organization reports 2,462, 911 souls have been taken by Covid-19 so far. WorldoMeter reports 2,479, 882. By some accounts we have already passed a half million deaths in the U.S. Each death the loss of a uniquely precious being.
There are many, this last pandemic year, who have fervently pushed for life to “return to normal.” Under that noise is another sound, the human community wailing. Each new grief amplifies our losses. Everywhere, keening.
The largest share of deaths, here and around the world, are our elders. What has been taken cannot be fathomed. A proverb from Mali reminds us, “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.”
We haven’t yet begun to address what brought us such a toll, including the greed underlying disinformation, mismanagement, and structural inequality. I hope, as we do, we center on regenerative justice for people and for all living systems.
We haven’t yet begun to fathom our losses, let alone how to honor those lives. I hope, as we do, we tell stories, we create, we cherish. I hope we, in the end, make this about peace.
Re-member us, you who are living, restore us, renew us. Speak for our silence. Continue our work. Bless the breath of life. Sing of the hidden patterns. Weave the web of peace.
I clicked on an article titled, “Study finds our galaxy may be full of dead alien civilisations,” thinking, Wow, a career in space archeology would be fascinating.
Researchers used an extended version of the Drake Equation, which determines the odds of extraterrestrial intelligence existing in our galaxy, to consider factors necessary for a habitable environment. They speculated that intelligent life may have emerged in our galaxy about 8 billion years after it was formed. (Here on Earth, humans emerged 13.5 billion years after the Milky Way was formed.)
And then I got to the passage about “the tendency for intelligent life to self-annihilate…”
What? We know about the fall of empires but did we know science says our species’ selfishly destructive ways are likely take us all out? According to the article,
“While no evidence explicitly suggests that intelligent life will eventually annihilate themselves, we cannot a priori preclude the possibility of self-annihilation,” the study reads.
“As early as 1961, Hoerner suggests that the progress of science and technology will inevitably lead to complete destruction and biological degeneration, similar to the proposal by Sagan and Shklovskii (1966).
“This is further supported by many previous studies arguing that self-annihilation of humans is highly possible via various scenarios, including but not limited to war, climate change and the development of biotechnology.”
This is staggering to consider, especially while we are living through (well, hopefully living through) a tangled knot of crises including a pandemic, climate change, widening inequality, and political unrest. I’m pretty sure we don’t want to leave a dead planet relevant only to space archeologists, even if we currently seem to be heading that way.
I take refuge in hope. Here are a few of the many reasons why.
Crisis has saved us in the past. After all, the Renaissance followed the Black Plague. And there’s much earlier evidence that crisis leads humanity forward. It appears a near-cataclysmic moment in the Upper Paleolithic period led to the preeminence of modern humans. Environmental degradation reduced our kind to near-annihilation. We emerged from this crisis only because we developed new collaborative practices such as trading with strangers and loyalty initiation rituals, engendered to create grudging trust. It took a near-extinction level events for humanity to socially evolve in the Paleolithic. Imagine how our response to this pandemic might move us forward.
A recent survey by World Economic Forum indicates an overwhelming desire for change. Out of the more than 21,000 adults from 27 countries who were questioned, 86% would prefer to see the world change significantly – becoming more sustainable and equitable – rather than revert to the status quo. Even on an individual level, 72% say they prefer their life to change significantly rather than go back to how it was before the COVID-19 crisis started. Numbers are somewhat lower for the U.S., but a majority support initiatives to combat climate change.
How to bring about real change? That’s a huge topic, but here are a few hopeful glimpses.
Increasing momentum for positive social change is happening around the world, especially among young people. Otto Scharmer, a senior lecturer at MIT, points out these movements differ from earlier student moments because they emphasize a change in consciousness, collaboration with people of all ages, and using technology in new ways to shift awareness toward solutions. Dr. Scharmer explains that this activates an axial shift in learning and human development, moving away from closed to open presence.
Cooperative behavior is not only natural, it’s contagious. When people benefit from the kindness of others they go on to spread the compassion. The tendency to “pay it forward’ influences dozens more in an enlarging network of kindness. And even more heartening, the effect persists. Kindness begats more kindness, blotting out previously selfish behavior. It doesn’t seem to matter how people are exposed to kindness. They might read about altruistic behavior, see it in a video, or witness it in person. It also doesn’t seem to matter if the person offering kindness was similar to them, or if the help was material (like money) or non-material (like comfort). We are influenced not only by the people around us but also what we’re exposed to online and in the media. Time to pay closer attention to our influences, amplifying the kindness that’s so intrinsic to our human nature.
Social justice makes us happier. Interviews with nearly 170,000 individuals across 28 countries show people whose countries emphasize social justice are happier, more pleased with their lives, and show greater trust in one another. Greater social justice demonstrates that people have value, which is crucial to psychological well-being. It also builds confidence in communities which, in turn, improves our relationships with others. It may help reduce prejudice as well. Social justice is shown to benefit the economy, including its gross national product. Countries with higher social justice showed higher GDP. To build a stronger economy plus a happier, healthier population, countries need to prioritize social justice policies. (Studies in the United States also show people experience greater happiness in states that spend more to promote the public good such as parks, libraries, public safety, and infrastructure.)
Covid-19 as well as climate change brings into sharp focus what we need to do to restore the environment. Emergency physician James Maskalyk and Dave Courchene, founder of the Turtle Lodge International Centre for Indigenous Education and Wellness and chair of its National Knowledge Keepers’ Council, explain.
“The answer is already here, and has been known for thousands of years. It is in the wisdom and sacred teachings of Indigenous people across the world. They have the deepest connection to the spirit of the Earth and its history, and from this intimacy, healing can occur.
This is neither speculation nor fantasy. A 2019 study from the University of British Columbia, looking at biodiversity in Canada, Australia and Brazil, found more species of birds, animals and amphibians on land managed by Indigenous people, even greater than in national parks. In the same year, a collaboration involving 50 countries and more than 500 scientists, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), concluded that human activity and the resultant lack of biodiversity allowed for five new diseases to emerge every year with the potential to infect humans. They noticed that Indigenous land, though it faced the same pressures, was eroding less quickly. Capturing their knowledge, and expanding their stewardship, was cited as necessary for a healthier world.
No one created the problems that threaten to overwhelm us from malice. Not the plagues, nor climate change, nor extinctions. They have occurred as side effects of a system whose rapid growth is both encouraged at all costs, and blind to natural limits.”
New and resurgent solutions are democratizing how we produce, consume, govern, and solve social problems. The maker movement, collaborative consumption, the solidarity economy, open source software, transition towns, open government, and social enterprise are just a sample of the movements showing a way forward based on sharing.
The sharing transformation shows that it’s possible to govern ourselves, build a green economy that serves everyone, and create meaningful lives together. It also suggests that we can solve the world’s biggest challenges — like poverty and global warming — by unleashing the power of collaboration. At the core of the sharing transformation is timeless wisdom updated for today — that it’s only through sharing, cooperation, and contribution to the common good that it’s possible to create lives and a world worth having.
And herein lay the engine of the sharing transformation: When individuals embrace sharing as a worldview and practice, they experience a new, enlivening way to be in the world. Sharing heals the painful disconnect we feel within ourselves, with each other, and the places we love. Sharing opens a channel to our creative potential. Sharing is fun, practical, and perhaps most of all, it’s empowering.
You may be activating change right now by the content of your conversations, the ideas you see taking hold around you, the way you stay informed, the way you raise your children and treat other children, how you interact with others, how you choose to spend your money as well as not spend your money, the way you earn money, the causes you advocate and believe in, and how you interact with our living planet. You, like so many change-makers, may already be living through deeply felt, personally lived ethics. That itself causes rippling change. Torchbearers of the last century who brought about so much good could do so because awareness shifted and deepened. A side benefit is depriving alien archeologists of the chance to explore a ruined planet!
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it. ~Arundhati Roy
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.
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.
“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.
“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