Healing Pandemics

I‘ll never say that again!  

I have taught creative writing over many years. When I ask at the first session why people who want to write don’t get around to doing it, the common response is “I don’t have anything to say.” They are wrong, but it takes a while for them to believe that they have unique offerings to provide. 

Over the last six months I have been sitting at the computer but not able to identify a fresh idea. It surprised me, then it frustrated me, and ultimately upset me. I began to understand that “nothing to say” had to be reevaluatedas I became aware of all the ways the Covid-19 pandemic has insinuateditself in our lives and touched every fabric of our being. We are not who we used to be. We are not who we want to be. We cannot put the clutch of our offspring under the span of our protection.

The last pandemic we experienced was the Spanish Flu of 1918. The scientists tell us they had predicted the current pandemic would appear in the near future – and it has. They also predict that future pandemics will arrive sooner than every 100 years and return visits of Covid-19 are likely to occur before we have caught our breath from the current one.  

In areas where we are not directly affected, we read about those who are impacted and realize the power of this virus. In areas where we are directly affected, we mourn the loss of loved ones, the loss of work, and the loss of stability. It’s not that my views are profound or unique. But I have 80 years on this disease. There is room for me to apply what I have learned so that the beauty of life becomes the beauty within life. There is a temptation to see only the pandemic, hear only loss, remember only  sacrifice. All of these tales are true, but there travels alongside the grim stories the quiet experiences of family, friendship, and memory. 

We have choices to make. We can see the world as a “no, but…” environment in which every experience is blunted by the overpowering force of a negative recollection, or as a “yes…and” experience, in which our negativity is muted by our memory bank of wonderful moments. 

It would be nice if the world were that clear. Make choices and live with the decisions. Unfortunately life is more a muddling through with a rusty knife rather than a sharp cut with a surgeon’s scalpel. Every learning deepens our experiences. Some experiences expand our resiliency while others dominate our actions through fear.

Covid-19 blankets every aspect of our lives. Our most effective weaponsagainst its destructive power are isolation and separation. SARS and Ebola are two earlier viruses that we feared would spread over the entire globe before we could contain them. We succeeded in containing them – but our respite was brief. What we feared has now come to pass. The effects of Covid-19 will live far beyond us, leaving shifts in our work lives, our health,and our personal lives.

 When I was a child we played with a fabric toy cylinder where you could insert one finger at each end. If you relaxed your hand, you could remove the toy from your fingers with ease. If you tried to jerk your hand out from both directions simultaneously, the grip exceeded your strength and you werestuck. There is a constant tug in our society between returning to work and stabilizing the economy on the one hand and, on the other hand, controlling the disease through isolation so that it does not endanger our well being or our health. 

The pandemic began late in 2019, although it wasn’t recognized as a global event until the Spring of 2020. We know relatively little about Covid-19, except we know it is extremely contagious. That is why our most effective countermeasures suggest there be six feet of separation between people, and no gatherings of groups in confined spaces. 

In carrying out these protective measures our economy has swung from robust to broken in just a few short months. Nations that had enjoyed full employment now hover at 25 percent unemployment.    All industries are interconnected. Stopping flights has virtually broken the airline business. Travel and leisure don’t currently exist. The entertainment field screeched to a halt. Movies, restaurants shut down overnight. 

We are a nation addicted to sports. Yet baseball leagues have been shut down, the NCAA tournament cancelled, the Masters golf competition pushed back several months, baseball postponed, and that pantheon of all sports, the Olympics, put off its games for at least a year. When schools shut down for the second semester of the year, college basketball and football were erased from all schedules, and millions of dollars in losses began to accumulate.

Couples that recently held two jobs are searching for any kind of work. Even taking into account unemployment insurance and other government relief, there is simply “too much month at the end of the money” as people exhaust their small reserves, and find themselves scrambling for money to cover such staples as medical help, rent, and food. 

Everything we touch and every place we look, politics plays a role by those in power seeking advantage over those who are more vulnerable. Television ads say we are in this battle together. We need to pool our resources, adopt a bipartisan approach, and work collectively to beat the destruction the coronavirus has caused globally.  

We have instead watched the President use politics and exercise power in commandeering equipment, allocating resources, and selecting unqualified appointees to play leadership roles. His leadership by example doesn’t exist. He refuses to wear a mask and encourages people to attend rallies without regard to the protection that separation provides. As Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The government has lied about statistics and manipulated testing, including the withholding of our true losses, resulting in unreliable findings. It is a jolt to observe personal gain overwhelm truth. 

The primary actions our professionals advise is to maintain six feet of separation between yourself and other people and, if you contract the virus, you need to be isolated so you do not spread the disease to those not infected. We have closed non essential businesses, shut down restaurants, eliminated gatherings of more than six, and limited shopping to essential items, such as food and medicine. We watch for reoccurrences of the virus, and go back and forth between opening businesses and closing them again in places where the virus spikes.

While we cannot control events in our lives – we can control our response to those events. Covid-19 affects every component of our being. On a worldwide basis the virus dominates the news. Healthcare, travel, the economy all impact who we are and what we do. The life we had planned has been interrupted and may never regain the traction we had designed.

 The news about Covid-19 follows us wherever we turn. Unfortunately there is a paucity of information over how we care for our emotional well being as we are isolated and confined. Fortunately we are more than just the disease, and more than just the fear. 

We are social beings. Some of our friends are of recent vintage, while others stretch back to our childhood. In times of stress, we want friends to be like comfort food, providing a familiar pallet that conjures up good memories and better times. And we are in a time of stress. Where our natural inclination is to seek out our friends, Covid-19 suggests we limit physical intimacy in expressing relationships. Fortunately there are other ways to express our friendships. Zoom is an excellent way, for example, for business meetings to take place, friendships to mature, social relationships to blossom.

There are many articles about the virus and steps to take while professionals in laboratories search for a vaccine. We don’t have the skill set to be helpful, so we wait. Unemployment is at record levels, due to the isolation instructions on what businesses may continue and which ones need to shut down. We are at the affect of the recommendations of scientists. So we wait.

In the first quarter of the 20th century, the world dealt with a pandemic that has been called The Spanish Flu. Epidemiologists estimated that 50 to 100 million deaths were caused by this form of influenza, and that the worldwide death toll occurred when the population was less than a third of what it is today. About ½ the deaths happened to young men and women in the prime of their lives. The virus struck with amazing intensity. Some two/thirds of deaths caused by the virus occurred in 24 weeks. And more than half of those deaths took place between September and December, 1918.

At the same time as the Spanish Flu struck the world, the United States was preparing for war. Soldiers were packed to their limits on boats sending our armies to fight in Europe. Close quarters killed almost as many soldiers as did the battles of our enemies. It took a while until the realization dawned on our scientists that isolation would reduce deaths; Even with that awareness, it was generally ignored since it was determined that moving troops was a higher priority. Similarly large gatherings continued to occur, with deaths following these gatherings.

 Woodrow Wilson had Congress pass a sedition act that made it punishable by 20 years in jail if anyone “uttered, printed, wrote or published any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the government of the United  States.” While we learned from the Spanish Flu that isolation is helpful in warding off the disease, implementation was ignored in many parts of America where the disease was most virulent. 

As we consider how we reduce coronavirus deaths today, we see similarities between Woodrow Wilson’s response and President Trump’s. For example, President Trump manipulated statistics about deaths relating to the coronavirus in hopes of understating the danger to our society and mollifying the fears that Americans are experiencing with illnesses and deaths reaching astounding numbers.

 Less has been written about the emotional consequences of complying with government regulations. The government is seeking a balance between maintaining adequate restrictions that protect us against Covid-19 whileallowing businesses to reopen at a pace that doesn’t set off another destructive round.

My body is extra vulnerable to Covid-19 because of my age and Parkinson’s– but I am more than just my body. We are encouraged to practice isolation and separateness as behaviors which combat the coronavirus. The practice may be effective, but it leaves us feeling lonely and alone. We don’t always recognize that this behavior is just a part of the range of feelings we are capable of expressing, but we are more than just our negative feelings.

We all have a family of origin and a family of choice. In the family of origin we are tied to together by blood. In the family of choice, we chose people that have become part of our lives. They may date as far back as 

Grade school or be as recent as a current introduction. People I went to camp with at age eleven are still friends today. Friends emerged from the neighborhoods where I was born and those where I chose to live.

Most of my family has passed on. Friends have died and I am left with bitter-sweet memories of our times together. Stories, humor, loss, and triumphs are details that help me recall my extended family and help me conjure up their smiles and tears, fears, bravery, bravado, artistry, talents and failures. For some I have photographs. For others I keep connection through the next generation of their families.  Together they form a memory box through which I can recall my life.

Before we write about specific examples, I want to describe the memorybox, what is put inside the box, and how the examples below enhance the benefits that can flow from the box. First, find a space in your apartment or house that isn’t devoted to ordinary living, storage, or kitty litter. If you have a location where you won’t be disturbed by meditation or concentration, grab it, announce it is yours, and use it mindfully. 

The rest of the box should be filled with memorabilia, poetry, quotations, letters you sent or received that have special meaning to you. The box itself should be kept near at hand, and decorated with symbols or icons that remind you of a time now past. A shoe box would approximate the size box I have in mind. An example recently came to mind. An acquaintance emailed me a request, asking if I could remember a story I had read to her class and used as a writing exercise It is one of my favorite teaching tools, and I was able to give her the book, author, and page. What felt so satisfying is that the message in the story touched other people, extending its life.

Your family is a rich repository of memories, some sweet, some painful, some touching. My Dad’s family had seven children. Six were women and he the only male. Sylvia, Belle, Lilly, Teddy, Mae, and Rose. Their husbands are harder to recall, even though we all met together at least monthly for family dinners. Sylvia died before I was born. Belle and Sammy had no kids of their own, and came to our gatherings less often. Lilly married Julie, and after Julie had been polite for an hour at these gatherings, Julie took the male teenagers to the local bowling alley where we played until dinnertime. Jack, who was deaf as a stone and married to Rose, would co-opt the easy chair in the living room, and sleep and snore his way through the afternoon and evening, ashes from his cigar spilling onto his shirt. Lou married Teddy and we often met at their home because it was centrally located and larger than most.

I recall the gatherings – laughing, yelling, fighting over everything from food to kids and how the gatherings slowly began to fade from view as we began to age. As the families started to die off or become too frail to travel, the group slowly began to evaporate, too light to remain planted on the earth and too heavy for the survivors to carry on the family meetings. The final venues where we met and chatted was the funeral home. 

It took many years before I understood the relationships I chose not to pursue. It has left a longing to hear perspectives from the next generation and their memories of those gatherings. Some of that generation is no longer alive. I wonder how those still alive would tell the stories of our clan. I know there have been marriages and divorces, some have relocated to other parts of the world, and as we grew apart, there no longer was a center that tied us to each other.

As I was writing, one name morphed into another, one incident into the next. I looked at photographs, wedding pictures, memorabilia that traveled with me on this journey. It offered dreamlike recollections. The object was not to be accurate – but to be truthful. I pried at connections that still had energy. I could see the trajectory that work had taken, that family had followed, snippets from my own hobbies and curiosities. Would different decisions have led me into new territories, or would I have molded these new decisions into patterns of my life that would have told the same story, but in a different voice. 

The same questions could be asked about the relationship that has evolved between my brother and me. He is 8 ½ years my senior, and was my hero during the few years we shared the same apartment, and eventually, the same room. 

Given the age disparity he was the initiator of what we did and where we went. We played records from his collection (It was Spike Jones – not Bach) but it gave us time together and for me to be exposed to writing, poetry, and music. We listened on a phonograph that you hand wound to play 78’s or a clip you could insert that would then play 33’s.

One year when I was about eight or nine years old, I was at the park near our apartment. Some older kids “borrowed” my basketball so they could play while we watched. I ran home in tears, told Steve what happened. He got dressed, went back to that park, got the ball back. All in a day’s work, I suppose.

Steve went to Clark University and I was in grade school. I never really saw him after that departure. He lived at home when he went to medical school, but most of his time was spent being trained at the hospital or medical school. From school he served in the Army and then settled in California. Three thousand miles was too big a distance to bridge. We spoke on occasions, but the magic had flown away. Four years ago we moved to Eugene, OR and suddenly the distance shrank. We have met a few times, make periodic phone calls, and pumped back into life a shadow of the time we previously shared.

Different forms of spiritual practice are incorporated into life’s activities for millions of people. If you have been meditating for a long time, no instruction is needed. If you have not meditated, there are many texts that provide all the information you would need to begin. There is no required time you need to sit, although the more consistently you choose to meditate, the easier you will find getting into and staying in meditation.

One goal of meditation is to quiet the mind. Quieting the mind can bring an inner harmony in which the stresses of the day can be let go, an inner peace can prevail, and you can be energized by the experience. Meditation seeks more than calm and wisdom. It brings us into connection with compassion, love, and generosity.

It is easy to spend a lot of our time bemoaning the past or anticipating the future. We need to find time to be in the present. Meditation is an opportunity to quiet the mind, an experience that sounds simple but can be hard to achieve. If unplanned thoughts intrude on your meditation, just label the thoughts as they appear – and then let them go. That is helpful in meditation and in our current experience of living within the pandemic.

 Other activities that you can explore would be T’ai Chi, Qi Gong, and yoga. They tone your body, provide you with a discipline to follow, and can be practiced alone or with others. If you use the internet you will find many free examples to follow as teaching tools. I urge you to explore several of these disciplines before selecting one that you find most appealing.

 I use the term of finding a discipline as a way of understanding who we are at the core of our being. We spend so much of our lives letting the world see the self we want to present that we do not see and can’t imagine we have other selves, other parts of our basic values, other parts of our belief pattern. Often who we are at our core is well hidden even from ourselves, appearing only in emotionally powerful moments.

 Many years ago I worked with a teacher who provided a demonstration of what my core self felt like, the very essence of me without makeup or enhancement. I stumble over words as I try and describe the level of peace that surrounded me. My teacher, in her words, said that orchestras tune their instruments to middle A on the oboe. Each instrument is part of the entire orchestra and at the same time unique and complete by itself. My teacher helped me to discover how I could feel one with every element of the universe and at the same time be complete within myself.

 We are challenged all the time to grow our core, discarding barnacles that have attached themselves to us, but which hide rather than enhance the most complete picture of ourselves we can create. Who we are is unique and yet when the sky is filled with snow, we recognize the common identity we all share of being one among a billion snowflakes.

 In living through the coronavirus, the disease affects us both in similar ways and in ways that are particular to each person. Both lives are lived simultaneously. Each enhances our ability to address the virus, whether it is embracing our fears, pleased with the courage we can muster, or observing the strengths and weaknesses that help define us. It is not just that we need others – we also need to recognize that others need us.

 George Kaufman

( c) July 2020