Same

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!”

*****

Beyond Gratitude


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

I have a strong urge to kneel and kiss the floor right here in CVS . Or maybe to prostrate myself facing the pharmacy. I am weak with gratitude for the vaccine I just received.

Its development is a near-miracle which began with variolation techniques used to ward off smallpox as practiced by Turkish women back in the early 1700s, or earlier by healers in southern Africa, or perhaps as far back as 1000 AD in India and China. The miracles continue today thanks to researchers who brought us the first-ever mRNA-based vaccines in record time (researchers of many nationalities and immigration statuses).    

It took weeks of calls and clicks to schedule this appointment. Now I feel disoriented.  I haven’t been in a store for nearly a year. So much stimulus — doors that open to let me in, shelves with products, actual shoppers! When I sit down with the nurse to get my inoculation I have to stop myself from using the word “grateful” in every sentence.

Grateful isn’t large enough to express this feeling. I’m not aware of a term that can fully encompass the year all of us have been through. A word that includes our isolation and fear, our efforts to pull through and pull together while apart. A word that acknowledges all the ways we’ve been divided. A word that doesn’t forget a leader who, according to experts, could have averted forty percent of Covid-19 deaths in the U.S.  A word that incorporates fear, grief, exhaustion, fury, longing, despair, hope, uncertainty, and so much more.

I wait the required 15 minutes before I can leave. I watch others who are also waiting. They look at their phones or listen to the nurse talk about potential side effects. Every person here looks beautiful to me. Already I imagine our antibodies responding to this shot, better protecting the trillions of cells that make it possible for us to breathe, smile, crack awful jokes, hug, sleep, dream.    

As I walk to my car I recognize the heaviness in my chest as the weight of guilt for getting the shot before anyone anywhere who might need it more than I do. Still, I sit in the driver’s seat, tears welling in my eyes, and whisper thank you thank you thank you. Then I turn the music up louder than I should, start the car, and drive home.

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