“The truth is like poetry. And most people f**king hate poetry.” The Big Short
An entirely minor political poem of mine from almost five years ago is beginning to sound more predictive than sarcastic. Any sort of “Final Economy-Boosting Solution” is not the future I want to see.
And yet…we are living in a time when influential people suggest, for real, that elders should sacrifice themselves–should die– for the sake of the economy. Those voices are getting louder and much more alarming.
Yusuke Narita, an economics professor at Yale, has repeatedly advocated for mass suicide of older people. Today the New York Times offered this evidence.
“I feel like the only solution is pretty clear,” he said during one online news program in late 2021. “In the end, isn’t it mass suicide and mass ‘seppuku’ of the elderly?” Seppuku is an act of ritual disembowelment that was a code among dishonored samurai in the 19th century.
It may seem like one professor isn’t likely to have an impact, but Dr. Narita has over 569 thousand followers on his mostly Japanese-language Twitter account. He is also a popular guest on television, and friendly with several wealthy young Japanese entrepreneurs.
Japan’s economic problems have been blamed on low birth rates and longer-lived adults, a situation increasingly common across the industrialized world. Kill-the-elderly opinions may boost shock-based ratings, but rapacious capitalism has increasingly burdened young people with untenable work hours, low pay, exploding housing costs, and unaffordable childcare.
Dr. Narita’s fantasy of matricide may go back to his mother’s brain injury when he was 19, which left him with the unwelcome financial burden of contributing to her care. Maybe counseling would be a better outlet for his bitterness. Or actually working toward sustainable solutions to invigorate a country’s workforce by advocating for paid training and education, workplace policies friendly to parents, and welcoming immigrants.
Instead, on a recent show, he answered a schoolboy’s question about forced elder suicide by saying “If you think that’s good, then maybe you can work hard toward creating a society like that.” He has also speculated about making euthanasia mandatory.
How close are some in the U.S. to these views?
In the pandemic’s early days of March 2020, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick suggested the demographic most endangered by Covid-19 should be willing to lose their lives for the sake of the economy. “Let’s get back to living,” he said in a Fox News interview, “…those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves, but don’t sacrifice the country.” Conservative pundits agreed, including Tucker Carlson, Glenn Beck, and Brit Hume. Lt. Gov. Patrick doubled down in April, saying “I’m sorry to say that I was right on this.” At that time, 495 had lost their lives. As of today, 93,699 people have died in Texas from Covid. Across the U.S., the vast majority of Covid deaths have been among those 50 and up, with mortality increasing by age.
This doesn’t include those suffering with long Covid. The CDC says one out of every five people who tested positive for Covid experienced or continue to experience symptoms such as cognitive problems, dizziness, depression, heart palpitations, heart attacks, fatigue, pain, digestive issues, blood clots, strokes, shortness of breath, unexplained fevers, and more. As many as four million people are currently unable to work due to long Covid. The mean age of long Covid sufferers is 40.5 years old with the largest demographic hit aged 36 to 50. Sacrificing for the economy, at any age, doesn’t work here on a planet where all of us are inextricably interconnected.
Our privatized Congress really is making America great again. Who’d have thought the Productive Adult Initiative, complete with elder joycamps, would work so well? Consumer confidence is volcanic. Health care costs, barely a budget blip. For the first time trickle down works, a fricking waterfall, old to young.
No more elderly folks shuffling through store aisles, clogging the roads, saving for a rainy day. No feel-good stories about some couple married 70 years. And all those pricey assisted living complexes, now the place to be for young creatives. I mean come on, studio rent and chef-driven meals with services galore. What’s not to like?
Plus, you don’t have to go home for the holidays or write thank you notes to your Great Aunt Irena. Though you do miss her pastries, warm from the oven. And your children can’t remember her accent, or the handkerchief she used to wipe tears from her soft crinkled face. Sometimes you think answers to questions you forgot to ask might be the greatest wealth. But hey, nothing’s better than consumer spending power, am I right?
“Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” ~Desmond Tutu
It’s heartening to see people pulling together, even if many recognize they have few other choices right now. Parents, students, healthcare workers, and community groups are building DIY portable air filtering units to help prevent transmission of the devastating airborne pathogen Covid-19 as well as the colds and flu that spread so easily in indoor spaces.
Plus, filtration helps to mitigate the damaging health effects of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) present in common products such as carpet/furniture/flooring, cleaners, room deodorizers, disinfectants, personal care products, solvents, paints, pesticides, dry-cleaned clothing, copiers, aerosol sprays, and other materials present in the home, school, stores, and elsewhere. VOCs can cause eye, nose, and throat problems; headaches; impaired coordination; nausea; damage to liver, kidneys, and central nervous system; and many are suspected carcinogens.
One way of assessing indoor ventilation is by ‘air changes per hour’ (ACH) — the number of times that all the air in the room has been replaced (ideally, by outdoor air). CDC and ASHRAE guidelines note typical ACH rates.
Hospital operating rooms are expected to stay at 20 or better ACH.
Hospital airborne isolation rooms are kept at 12 ACH or greater.
Hospital patient rooms are often around 6 ACH.
Classrooms are typically well under 2 ACH.
Home ventilation is often less than 1 ACH.
A recent study found indoor space with air exchanged five times per hour can cut the risk of Covid transmission by 50 percent. Another study compared classrooms without ventilation to those with controlled mechanical ventilation. It found better ventilation could reduce the risk of Covid infection in schools by 40 percent with two to four air changes per hour, and nearly 83 percent with six air changes per hour. And this study shows that 12 air changes per hour from air filtration may approximate N95 protection.
In active response to this data, people are putting together inexpensive filters to better equip their communities to ward off infection and other effects of trapped indoor air. Many are building inexpensive Corsi-Rosenthal box fan filters (C-R Box) which arose from an online collaboration between Richard Corsi, dean of engineering at University of California, Davis and Jim Rosenthal, owner of an air filtration company in Texas.
Fortune interviewed Joseph Fox, chair of the indoor air quality advisory group with the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers. Dr. Fox said, “These Corsi-Rosenthal units use MERV-13 filters, which can only remove 60% to 80% of those particles, (but) the fan on the C-R box is much bigger and can clean more air. All you care about in the end is the total rate at which the air is cleaned. So, what the C-R box lacks in efficiency, it makes up for in airflow.” A peer-reviewed study found the C-R Box performed better than standard HEPA air cleaning units.
These models are about ten times cheaper than commercial air purifiers. There are many resources online, including what air filter brands to avoid and how to use a round fan when square models aren’t an option. Here’s more science plus additional how-to’s from the collaborative Edge Collective.
Better air filtration shouldn’t be left to community members. It should be a priority in new builds and renovations, guided by more stringent building codes to protect public health. It should be part of a robustly-funded countrywide initiative for schools, daycare centers, public buildings, senior facilities, libraries, shelters for unhoused people, and other gathering places. But right now, the DIY filtration movement is led by students, teachers, parents, and other concerned community members.
A group in Philadelphia is building units for classrooms and speaking up at school board meetings to spread awareness.
Arizona State University students are building boxes to donate to area K through 12 schools. They’re also teaching younger students how to build the boxes themselves.
These box fan filters are a project elementary school-age students can do together. In Kansas, the Wyandotte County Health Equity Task Force offers guidance for doing this with groups of children (school classes, scout groups, 4H, and others) including how to incorporate it into STEM curricula.
Alex LeVine designs similar filtration boxes using inexpensive illuminated computer fans lively enough to feature in many businesses.
Andrew Noymer, an associate professor of population health and disease prevention at UC Irvine, said in an interview with the LA Times, “When cholera ravaged Europe and North America in the 19th century, people ‘revolutionized sewage’ by creating the modern sewage system. They could have just said, ‘Boil your water.’ But they didn’t do that. They gave people clean drinking water.” He went on to say, “Ensuring clean air indoors is the 21st century equivalent.”
“Breathe deep today, and continue walking toward that which will enlighten, no matter what burdens you are carrying of shame, grief, or fear. No one can buy their way or push their way ahead of everyone else. We are all in this together.” ~Joy Harjo
I was on my way home after a medical appointment, wrapped the quiet sort of reverie that comes from driving a long-familiar route. The car ahead of me applied its brakes and went around a slow-moving obstacle just over a rise in the road. I expected a farm tractor, bicyclist, or carcass of an unfortunate deer but couldn’t confirm till I made it over that hill. When I did, I saw what I could only describe as a contraption. It looked like the square hood of an Amish buggy (common site around here) stretched over a small metal frame. Attached to the back was a hand-lettered sign with words nearly too faded to read.
Blinkers on, I passed carefully on the 55-mph road, trying to decipher the sign. It said something like “Walking To California.” And there, pulling the cart, was a man. I didn’t get a good glimpse, but enough to see he looked dusty and road-weary. He had at least another 45 minutes of walking before he’d get to a place where he might buy food or drink. If he stayed on this route he’d have many days of walking a two lane road passing little more than farms, struggling businesses, and homes built on former farmland.
“Pull over,” my heart told me.
There wasn’t any place to pull over. I drove on slowly, waiting for a turnoff where I might wait for him to catch up. But then what? I wanted to ask if he’d like a homecooked meal and a shower. Surely his cart could fit in my trunk. My husband was home, so I didn’t pause to worry about the lone woman and strange man thing, instead I thought about what I had in the refrigerator.
As I looked for a place to stop, half of me argued with the other half. My heart told me it takes rare courage to do what this man is trying to do. I wondered what fueled his quest. Maybe a pilgrimage of sorts, or an outgrowth of loss, or a creative venture, or a personal challenge. Maybe a quest to answer for himself what Einstein called the most important question facing humanity, “Is the universe a friendly place?”
“Pull over!” my heart kept saying.
But my mind’s voice reminded me this traveler might also be carrying Covid-19.
My husband and I have medical conditions that make us more vulnerable to the virus. We continue to be careful during a pandemic that has not gone away. Although media and government sources assure us it’s safe to get back to normal, stats show the last seven days there were nearly three thousand Covid deaths in the U.S., a 911-level loss of life per week. As of September 18th, there are now 464 deaths per day, which will move the weekly toll even higher. These numbers can’t possibly hint at the suffering and grief on a planet that has lost 6.53 million souls to this disease since early 2020.
In the last two and a half years, my husband and I have lost irreplaceable time with family members. We have not hosted our beloved house concerts here, or eaten once inside a restaurant together, or gone into any building without a mask. That is, until last week. All this time I’ve been completing editing jobs at home and teaching writing classes via Zoom. But my newest series of classes are, per the regulations of the institution offering them, in person. I walked in the first day wearing my KN95 mask. I set up the room and greeted the first few students. But about ten minutes before class started, two older students told me they couldn’t hear me with my mask on. I dithered for a moment (dithering is one of my most practiced abilities), then took off my mask. I reasoned I could leave the doors open for ventilation and the classroom, posted as large enough to hold 100 people while we were only 20, was roomy enough to confer extra protection. I’d also gotten the most recent bivalent booster. We’ll all be safe, I told myself. I’m still not sure about that.
Now I was considering this additional risk.
I thought of pulling over to offer this man help that didn’t involve an invitation to our home. I could offer him whatever I had in my wallet, although a quick assessment showed I had only two dollars. Okay, I could ask him if he’d share his story and a cell number so I could offer to call local media to help him get coverage. And contact area churches to see if they might want to alert congregations along the way who might host him. Heck, I could simply say hello, welcome him to this part of Ohio, and listen to what he had to say. By this time I was nearly home. I decided to brainstorm solutions with my husband, then drive back along the same route until I spotted the man.
I was convinced at this point that I had a soul-deep need to respond to this traveler. This urge, as I understand it, is deeply embedded in who we are as a species. I mean, come on, it’s there in belief systems 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.
But, despite my strong conviction, my husband informed me I was nuts. He made rather pointed arguments to support his contention that one does not stop to talk to strangers on the side of the road, let alone bring them home, pandemic or no pandemic. I briefly wondered if I’d married the wrong man, although our differences make our lasting partnership work. Maybe he was right. Maybe it was foolhardy hubris for me to think I should do anything other than let a stranger live his life while I live mine. I didn’t get in the car and head back to greet the traveler.
I believe there are essential friendships never made and significant soul promptings never answered because we don’t make time, or don’t feel ready, or harbor fear, or simply let life’s everydayness block us from what might be. We never find out how these unexplored connections might answer one another’s deepest questions. I still regret not listening to my heart.
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