The Ones Who Don’t Go Forth With Us: Everyday Magic, Day 1026

Olive and Steve (used with permission)

For many of us, it’s been a Wednesday onward of seemingly infinite relief as we’ve watched a new president and glass-ceiling-breaking vice president sworn in and a swirl of executive orders signed, legislation planned, and leadership installed to address the Covid crisis. As we cross into this new land, I feel such hope, but then I remember that not all of us get to cross over.

Over 415,000-plus Americans and 2,100,000-plus humans on this planet died from Covid. Many struggle for breath and life in this very minute, and many more are newly exposed or still sick. The toll is staggering — 98.4 cases million worldwide at this moment — and it’s not an abstract number to most of us anymore.

I’m thinking about Steve, a prince of a husband, scholar, and teacher fiercely beloved by his family, colleagues, and scores of students around the world. He taught history at Pittsburg State University in Kansas where he specialized in African and Middle Eastern history and changed many students lives for the better. To me, he was the husband of my friend Olive and always a gracious host, fascinating conversationalist, and man crazy in love with Olive. Steve died of Covid complications the day after Christmas, breaking the hearts of so many who loved him, including Olive, his five adult children and seven grandchildren.

I’m also thinking of Myron, an old friend of my parents, who I re-united with two years ago at the Manalapan Diner (N.J.), the mainstay diner where I grew up. We kept in touch since, and in early January on Facebook, Myron shared his best wishes for a better 2020, hopes for the vaccine returning us “to the old normal,” and a fireworks GIF. A few days earlier, he feared that thousands more would die because of the disorganized and disjointed Operation Warp Speed not getting the vaccine out. He was continually and compassionately articulate, resilient, and caring. The day after the inauguration he was so looking forward to, Myron died from Covid, leaving behind his children, grandchildren, and many friends and family.

So much could and should have been done to slow the stem of this virus, including acknowledging its deadly potential a year ago, basing messaging on science and not on what would benefit a person or party or profit, implementing a mask mandate, and coordinating federal, state, and local distribution of PPE, medication and equipment, and lately, the vaccine. We need only return to those daunting statistics to see the truth of how a county with 4% of the world’s population ended up with 25% of the world’s Covid cases.

On Wednesday in our house, we spent hours glued to the TV, sobbing into the cat, laughing at the sudden lightness we felt, and cheering on all we witnessed: Kamala Harris taking the oath of office in her brilliant purple suit on a cold January day, Lady Gaga belting out “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Amanda Gorman talking truth to power in her inaugural poem, Garth Brooks leading us in singing “Amazing Grace,” Joe Biden speaking from heart and the the podium as the newly-minted president.

We go forth. But without Steve, Myron, and so many others who wanted to be here, whether they voted for Biden/Harris or not. We remember, a necessity for healing as President Biden reminded us on Tuesday night at the Covid victim memorial. We go on but with missing shapes, textures, and colors in the mosaic of who we are and were.

What is a Bad Year? What is a Good Year? Everyday Magic, Day 1024

A friend told me that during her Christmas Zoom with family scattered far and wide, she realized how lucky they were: no one had Covid, lost their life or their job, and all had warm homes with ample food and holidays delights within easy reach. The next day I saw a line rush by on Twitter: “You didn’t have a bad year if the worst you experienced was not being able to go on vacation.”

So who is having a truly bad year? One of my coaching clients found in her research that about one third or more of us are comfy and cozy with adequate employment and health (although these numbers are in flux). The rest of Americans are struggling with what the headlines sum up as unemployment or underemployment, food insecurity, and inadequate or non-existent healthcare — all of which push them into situations where they face greater risks of exposure to Covid.

No surprise, that people who face greater economic disparity, are communities (Black, Latino, Native American, and others — more here) with the highest percentages of coronavirus. Overlapping with this, anyone who tends to have a low-paying or minimum wage job — such as people working in restaurants, hotels, gas stations, etc. — can’t work from home….that is, if they’re working at all. The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on young people and people in the service industry (who are sometimes one and the same). My daughter, who left a serving job a year ago, says that 80% of her server friends are out of work, which mirrors statistics I’ve seen.

Then there’s the pain we can’t measure with statistical data: those grieving beloveds lost to Covid as well as those living with long-term health impacts from the disease. When the pandemic came home to roost in March, I remember so many conversations with people about how strange it was to have something largely invisible wreaking such havoc. Now, for just about everyone I know, it’s all too real. A dear friend lost her husband last Saturday after weeks of him being intubated. One of my old high school pals’ mom died, isolated in a nursing home with no family to comfort her, a few weeks ago. Friends in Minnesota, family in Wichita, pals around town tell of how it was the sickest they ever felt or not so horrendous but very strange (and still no sense of smell and taste has returned) or they’re relatively over it, but now they have asthma for life. I know people who are long-haulers, meaning the virus comes back to send them to bed every few weeks or months. There are other stories any of us, some of those stories our own, could add to this list.

But it’s not just the pandemic making 2020 an agony of year for many people: there’s the record-number of fires in California and Colorado and many western states in between. Although my friends out yonder aren’t struggling to stay inside with all the windows sealed because of dangerous air quality right now, many of them know and see the impacts. Amazing ecological writer Barry Lopez, who died this week, lost his home to the fires after years of writing about climate change and its personal and collective impacts. There are thousands of people rebuilding or trying to rebuild after losing everything. It was also one of the most active and destructive hurricane seasons ever (more here) with so many people losing homes, businesses, and even their communities to flooding.

All of this is to say that there’s a big gap between those of us who are healthy, homed, and moneyed enough, even if we’re also holding the weight of collective despair, fear, and anger, and those of us living on or over the edge of poverty, home or food insecurity, grief and heartbreak. How we define good or bad is often a personal and idiosyncratic thing, but one thing we can likely all agree on: it’s been a year like no other, and the totality of 2020’s pain and suffering hurts any feeling person’s heart.

Many say that humans are at their best in the worst of times, and that seems true too. I’ve seen — and likely you have too — so many altruistic acts of love, such as Meg Heriford’s commitment to transform her diner into a place offering free, hot meals (good ones too) to anyone in need along with pantry boxes and blankets (see the Washington Post article on her here). People I don’t know have reached out on Facebook to support me and others. Those I see on walks in the wetlands wave and say hello, clearly smiling under their masks. Most of us have given more contributions to more good work this year than in the last decade altogether. Just the other day on a 3-hour call (don’t ask) with AT&T customer assistance, I had a heart-to-heart with a service rep in Indonesia who wanted to make sure, in addition to fixing an account issue, that I was staying safe and had eaten a good lunch. Tenderness is afoot.

Yet here we are, on the cusp of 2021, and where I am, the sky is clouding over and preparing to likely paint the world in snow. I welcome the peace, I’m grateful to be warm and well-cared-for, and I’m enthralled with and in love with all the goodness innate in us also.

Who is That Masked Poet?: Everyday Magic, Day 1010

I never felt like much of a vigilante before, but lately, I can’t help myself. After shopping at our very safe food co-op where everyone was wearing masks except for one young family, I eyed said family in the parking lot, right next to where I would be returning my empty cart. “Should I?” I asked myself, followed by, “Why not?” I gingerly walked over to them, standing 10 feet away of course, and cheerfully said, “Hey, please wear masks next time. The numbers are going up, and we want everyone to stay safe.”

One of them looked away like this masked poet with messy hair in old bike shorts and a tie-dyed shirt was crazy, and the other shot hate rays from her eyes. I shrugged and headed back to my car, once again unsure if speaking up is going to change anything in a world where so many people are actively embracing stupidity, carelessness, ignorance, denial, or something else that eludes me. But then that’s the job of being a masked poet: speaking up and spreading awkwardness, then speeding away quickly.

Not that I always have the nerve to say something: when traveling through Missouri to get to a relatively safe harbor in Arkansas (writers’ colony where I would inhabit thoroughly disinfected rooms without having contact with other humans), I had to stop at numerous gas stations, thanks to a small bladder and a whole of iced ice. Did I see anyone working anywhere who had a mask? Of course not, and the only exception to the maskless were three women coming out of a bathroom. I wanted to shoot my fist in the air and yell, “Right on, sister!” Furthermore, the good working people of quick shop world looked at me like I was from outer space because of my mask. I got back in my car and pumped more sanitizer on my hands.

Coming back through Kansas, I still didn’t encounter any people donning masks, except for the employees at a very mechanized Taco Bell, who passed my burrito to me through a plexiglass contraption, which I appreciated. But at least the older woman I saw stocking cigarettes in southeast Kansas smiled at me and called me “Honey.”

Then there’s the grocery store encounters that led me to write to two national chains, one for a store where half the employees wore their masks pulled down under their noses, and another where the manager had his mask hanging around his neck. My polite but pointed conversations with them didn’t go so well, and in one case, I had to ask a woman, much older and likely much more at risk, to step back when she got face-to-face with me. At least one of the chains (Aldi’s) took my complaint seriously, and we had a prolonged conversation about how people working there needed more education (my point — I didn’t want any of these front-line workers fired).

I know masks are a hassle, and I struggled mightily with my glasses fogging up until I found some tricks that worked for me (the right-sized mask for the face, and making sure the top of the mask is tight and secure), but I’ve noticed I’m actually getting used to wearing a mask. Back in March (many years ago, it seems), I rushed through grocery aisles just throwing anything in my cart in an effort to get outside in a hurry and get the mask off. Now I’m relatively okay with my nose and mouth under layers of cloth.

I also realize those of us who aren’t front-line workers only have to endure little bouts of maskfulness. My son Forest, who works 40 hours each week at our food co-op, has to wear his mask for eight hours at a time. People working in hospitals, doctor offices, clinics, restaurants, manufacturing, and so many other industries have had to seal up half their face as a way of life.

Although I’m mostly home, just edging out once a week, I’m astonished at what I keep seeing. Some of my friends say it’s just too much for people to accept that the old normal isn’t coming back around for longer than they can endure. One friend equated our relationship with the pandemic to grief: we keep cycling through all the stages, and some people are especially at home in denial or anger. Whatever the case, I’m dumbfounded as to why everyone isn’t building their mask wardrobe.

There’s a well-worn saying among many of us about speaking truth to power, and while asking people to wear masks isn’t quite a same, it feels like something, if we can do it without evoking defiant reactions (which I’m surely not often successful in), is worthwhile. After all, given all we’re learning about the truth of what helps prevent the virus (masks!), we do have the power to be what my people call mensches: decent humans. Let’s mask up and use our power!

Walking With Courage, Vulnerability, and Tenderness: Everyday Magic, Day 1,001

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 you A 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.

Listening to History, Looking Out for the Herd: Everyday Magic, Day 1000

Denise & Judy Back When We Could Go to Pastry Shops

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.”