I thought a global pandemic was enough: enough pain, suffering, fear, restriction, uncertainty, and dread. Turns out I was wrong. We now have violent riots (most of which, from all I’m reading in the news and hearing from eye witnesses, seem fueled by outside forces bent on division and hatred) topping off hundreds of peaceful protests, the national guard called into 20 states (as of this morning), a president ratcheting up the tension with deadly threats, and a whole lot of people being further exposed to the coronavirus. I don’t dare ask if attack monkeys are about to fall from the sky or dog-size locusts will soon sweep across the land.
In the world of cognitive dissonance, which is our world writ large lately, there is also this: the wind sweeping up and across the cottonwood tree in that way that tells me summer has landed. Three indigo buntings on the ground under the bird feeder. Carpenter bees floating above the windows. Moxie the dog pressing her jaw into the deck and falling asleep. The early evening shadows competing with the last long rays of afternoon across the grass, which is full of ticks, chiggers, and other summer pests.
There is all of this: “I can’t breathe” — George Floyd’s last words as well as the last words of too many others murdered out of hatred and bigotry — and all this summer air inhaling and exhaling us, day by day. I understand that I can’t fully understand what it is to have my life threatened because of race, to live with the weight of that for days, years, generations. But I can respect the rage and pain, and for all those suffering, I can, remembering a song Kelley Hunt leads us in at Brave Voice each year, breathe in the peace I’m so privileged to find right here and now, and breathe out love for all who are hurting. I can also do the usual things: march, write, give money, support people acting for the good, and keep educating myself on what it means to be an ally.
I can also embrace another slant of cognitive dissonance as I wish for the peace that surpasses understanding to take root everywhere right now.
Or Facebook Live. Or Youtube. Or any number of places to help us worship together while keeping physically apart and spiritually close. A church in Lawrence is doing by having people drive to their parking lot to watch a minister leading them while listening to the service on a radio station. The Kansas Zen Center leads meditation practice on Zoom. And if like me, you find the holy in the living earth, there’s plenty of opportunities for communion right now too with an explosion of blossoms to admire, gardens to plant, and trails to walk. The point is, we have options, people, so why is there any fuss whatsoever?
In the great state of Kansas, the state supreme court today will hear the case of Governor Laura Kelly suing a legislative committee that overturned her order that no more than 10 people meet in places of worship while we’re approaching the pandemic apex. A small committee decided the governor overstepped her authority in trying to keep Kansans safe on and beyond Easter Sunday. Petty politics aside, as Forrest Gump’s mother told him, “Stupid is what stupid does.”
Praying at home also protects those who protect us: the nurses, doctors, technicians, and others working so hard and putting their own lives at risk to take care of people with Covid-19. These people, who often can’t hug their spouses or children and have to tend the ill while wearing protective gear and putting in long hours, are put at far greater risk by people congregating in large groups where they’re much more likely to spread the virus widely. Listen to the wise words of my friend George Thompson, a doctor who is leading the call for us to worship safely.
I’ve been praying via Zoom with our Jewish congregation for over a month: attendance at our Friday evening Shabbat services is up, and these weekly services life us up. The first time we did this, close to 40 people (instead of the usual 10-15) showed up, families and singles lighting candles and showing off challah (if they made some) in their Brady Brunch-esque Zoom windows. A week ago, when our service ended, hardly anyone would leave the call, all of us staring at our screens with hunger to connect and love in our hearts.
Earlier this week, we held our first Zoom seder, Ken, Daniel and I set on the back deck instead of the laptop while Forest, who works at a grocery store and lives with 20 people, sat six feet behind. Within minutes, we had friends and family from Tucson, Winnipeg, Orlando, Brooklyn, and other locales taking turns telling our story of Exodus, singing prayers together, and during the meal, divided into break-out rooms where we could catch up in earnest. Two and half hours after we started, we ended the call with joy and renewal. Of course, it would have been more ideal to have been together in the flesh, but what we were living brought home the lessons of Passover in powerful ways.
As a Jew, I’m well-acquainted with the narrative of plagues from Passover and history of efforts to annihilate us (so goes the old joke that sums up every Jewish holiday, “they tried to kill us, we lived, let’s eat”), and in all those stories — especially Passover — there’s the core refrain of stepping up and taking action to protect the community and survive as a people.
Action is key here: it’s not like Moses just shrugged and went back to his habitual patterns and old life after the Pharoah refused to free us. Instead, he and other brave leaders packed up and headed out of Egypt, crossing the parting Red Sea to wander the desert for 40 years. They didn’t know how long they would wander before finding some semblance of home, and they had to adapt, making new definitions of community and home along the way.
We’ll likely just have weeks or months to wander through Netflix offerings and pace in our backyards before we can resume meeting friends for dinner in restaurants, going back to school and work, and even meeting in person at synagogues, churches, mosques, temples and the like. But the thing is, that like the wandering Jews, we’ll have moments of making do, doing without, and praying fiercely for our loved ones and beloved communities.
Protecting the herd, ensuring the survival of our most vulnerable, requires us to put our faith in staying put and our butts on our couches. Just like with so many other aspects of our lives, we are called to pray in new ways as if our lives depend on it because they do.
Amazingly enough, we are arrived at the last day of March, a month that has lasted at least 1,283 days in fear, panic, and dread years. But here we are, and as April — what T.S. once called the cruelest month — approaches, we know we’re in for a far longer, harder, and more unimaginable month with the virus likely peaking over the coming weeks.
Walking — our new and only in-person social life of late — with our son Forest through East Lawrence the other day, I asked him what the word was for the world looking one way while it’s also a drastically different world at the same time. We were ambling past heartbreakingly beautiful manifestations of spring — magnolia trees loaded with pink boats of blossom, tender green just-leafing trees, and a gala of daffodils, hyacinths, and even some early scout redbuds showing off like the main attractions they are. Forest thought for a moment, then said the word I was looking for was dissonance, that anxious tension from two disharmonious elements.
The numbers of people with Covid-19 are rising exponentially, more and more people are dying, medical supplies are running out, and the map in the New York Times I check (with bated breath) every few days looks like the country has a bad case of chicken pox and rampant poison ivy all at once. At the same time, the birds are singing in overlapping and ever-shifting harmonies even if some of their song is about holding onto their territory and driving out invaders. The peach tree in our backyard blossoms in its usual aching beauty. Spring seems far more beautiful and far-reaching in its volume, and even the soft glow of the air, maybe because I’m paying more attention or, more than ever, this is the renewal I need each morning when I wake up, to paraphrase Rumi, scared and empty.
We’re in a time when there’s likely not enough anti-anxiety meds or slow meditative breaths to lift any aware person completely out of feeling some of the vast uncertainty, fear, and suffering happening throughout the world. There’s obviously only vague maps and best-guessed timelines ahead, although we humans cling to patterns and answers. Yet when I pass people on walks in the wetlands or through various neighborhoods, all us carefully keeping at least six feet apart, there’s a tenderness, even among strangers. “Hey, how are you doing?” people will call out, or they’ll just smile and send wishes to stay healthy.
“You can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability,” Brene Brown tells us. We are growing our courage to get out of bed, unsure what bad news will land today and what beloveds of ours (including ourselves) might be threatened, hurt, or just very afraid. We find our feet and begin walking through our days, our hearts open and trembling like the vulnerable and courageous creatures we are.
So it’s step by step — the living room to the kitchen, the front door to the backyard, the trail a few feet or miles away, and of course, wandering through what fear, foreboding, or other difficult emotions grip us while we make a meatloaf, pet the dog, call our mother or child or friend, to try to fall asleep. It’s movie by movie, dishwashing by dishwashing, laundry by laundry. But wherever we are in our internal landscape, we can always take the next baby step with courage, vulnerability, and tenderness.
For the month of April, I’m so happy to share with youA Prompt A Day,a daily writing prompt (poems, film clips, songs, and more), plus an optional penpal matching service. It’s offered on a donation basis — for free or up to $30. More here.
It only took a few seconds of looking at the NYTimes map of the pandemic Saturday night for me to start hyper-ventilating and crying. At that moment, I didn’t yet realize I needed perspective, big-picture, deep-time, and wide-angle views to not just calm myself at the moment, but forge a more informed path forward. After taking a Lorazepam, drinking some water, vowing to self-isolate from regular bouts of Coronavirus news, and breathing slowly, I called my friends Judy and Denise. Both poets with miles of life experience winding through great wisdom, they gave me the gift of such perspective.
“I think of us as part of the herd, and now we have to do what keeps the herd healthy,” Judy said. Although we’re socially distancing, we’re actually coming together to support our collective health and life, giving each other a wide berth to ensure our safety as we roam the sometimes narrow trails of our homes and yards. I think of a Washington Post article I saw last week about staying home and apart not primarily to protect ourselves (although of course that’s essential) but to protect others who might be far more vulnerable that we are to Corvid-19.
“Think of what our parents and grandparents went through with World War II and the 1918 flu pandemic, which started in Kansas” Denise reminded me. We talked about the very long arm of what we know of human history — all the wars, pandemics, and natural disasters that patchwork a large story of perseverance. “Humans are wired and evolved for resilience,” Denise added.
Since then, I’ve been pondering the histories of my ancestors — the pogroms and the Holocaust that killed many but not all, the wars that turned daily existence into insecurities of scarcity, danger, and loss — as well as the generational stories of others I know. What was it like for one of my German friends who was born in early 1945, just in time to be piled in a wagon with many household items, because her family’s home was now destroyed? How was it for my grandparents to live through WWII, even though they were safe in Brooklyn, not knowing if Hitler would take over the world or if their relatives back in Poland, Russia, and Romania would survive (they largely wouldn’t)? During the 1918 pandemic — one the most deadly pandemic in human history — was it so much like living in a war zone that many were enveloped in fight/flight mode for months?
Denise and Judy reminded me that most generations have to deal with something overwhelmingly threatening; this is ours. Yes, it has its distinctions just like any disaster, but there’s a lot in common with past threats. We don’t know when it will end, who it will sicken or kill, what our economy will look like, how the herd will change, and then there are dozens of ifs that can wake up a person at 5 a.m. We don’t have control over ending this quickly, although we can do our part to hasten that ending. We don’t know a thousand and one things about the time ahead or the time we’re in right now.
I don’t mean to minimize suffering, death, mourning, and terror around the world. At the same time, despite this age of collective anxiety and fear (surely bred into our bones from past generational traumas, and reinforced by viral wolves at real doors), we go on like so many other species still vital. Just like the herd of shy deer edging the woods where I live, the squirrel families racing across the roof, the crows landing in the field to find something tasty or shiny.
We have history on our side and the herd to tend, so tend it we will, extending care and affection (without touching), attention and intention toward those we love and those we don’t even know, guided by what’s imprinted in our DNA about the herd and history. I leave you with this call to courage and love from Valerie Kaur of The Revolutionary Love Project: “This pandemic will test who we are, as a people. Will we succumb to fear and self interest? Or will be double down on love? Will we let social distancing isolate us? Or will we find new ways to reach out, deepen our connections, step up community care, and tend to the most vulnerable in our communities? I believe this is is a time to love without limit.”
I know you’re crazy-scared about the coronavirus. How could anyone paying attention not be when the closings and cancellations fall like dominos. Just in the last day, many universities in your state cancelled in-person classes, events on your calendar vanished in a wisp of precaution, and your synagogue called off services. In an age when even a minyan (Jewish term for the minimum number of Jews to be present for formal worship) is a risk, it’s hard to turn away from the ticker tape parade across the frontal lobe that keeps blaring, “The world is ending!”
Actually, it’s just the world we know in the ways we expect it to be based on how it’s been rollicking along for a while. Your son was videoconferencing with his friend in China last night, who lives one province over from the virus epicenter, and they were laughing and catching up. A Facebook friend in Italy posts about the beyond-imagined new normal and how they’re hanging out at home, watching movies, making food, taking short walks, and worrying about loved ones with the virus.
Moreover, this moment — while certainly unique in most or all of our lifetimes — is another one of many ongoing overwhelming threats to human life and activity along with climate change, poverty, hunger, homelessness, and so much more. While we’re in an expansive rift, let us also mention the reality that we are all exceedingly mortal and can control only a fraction of what happens to us.
Telescoping in to what might be in your purview, it’s not a good time to think about your retirement investments, and yes, some of your gigs are called off, but please don’t go down this rabbit hole because you, along with a lot of people you know, are likely going to be fine and will have the resources you need. You have good health insurance, you live in a lovely home in the country with fields and woods to traverse, and you can afford to stock the pantry. You’re also abundantly outfitted with books, art supplies, sewing projects, movies, and animals. Oh, and you have the phone and internet, and already, you’ve been visiting deeply with lots of friends more even if the conversation is often punctuated with “I’m scared too.”
So many people, close around you and scattered around the world, do not have such a safety net. You can pray, send good wishes, and contribute money here and there, but consider what else you can do. Your son’s idea to contact neighbors and make connections so that, as needed, we can run errands for each other is a good one. It’s also important to contemplate little, quiet fundraising efforts for people who will lose most of their income. What else can you do? As for everything and especially this thing, more will be revealed in time.
So why, little trembling darling, are you still so anxious? Of course, telling yourself you need to be less freaked out right now so that your emotions don’t diminish your immune system isn’t going to get you anywhere either. Panicky urgency should not be given the keys to drive the bus right now. Instead, I want you to consider this:
Right now, no one you know is sick and suffering with this virus, and while that’s likely to change, it would do you good to dwell in the present. Speaking of which….
Right now, the pale blue-to-white sky is as soft as the warming air. The peas and carrots you planted in the garden on Sunday are germinating in that rich dirt after rain saturated everything. The fields are just on the verge of going from washed out tans and browns to scribbled-in exuberant green.
Right now, you have a cat asleep near your feet and a dog asleep (although looking at your quizzically) by your side. They fear nothing.
Right now, there are deer in the woods walking gingerly up the hill. There are happy rabbits regrouping with their buddies for the spring. Hibernating turtles stir underground. Early spring birds sing across the airwaves. Here we are in an unfurling world beyond the reach of headlines and soundbites.
What we worry about happening usually bears no resemblance to what happens. If and when you or loved ones get sick, as a zen master pal of yours said today, you’ll be okay even if you can’t imagine what okay is or how it might play out. Or you’ll not be okay, and that’s okay too.
Most of all, know that while you can’t do anything to stop a viral pandemic, you can do something about your airspace in the pandemic of fear. When you get scared, get off your bum, walk outside, and take a long, deep breath. Go hang some laundry and feel the wind lifting and dropping all around us. The world is infinitely larger than the scaredy cat meowing inside you. Take another breath. Then another.