What is it like in our corner of the world here in East Tennessee during the Global Pandemic of 2020? This holiday season, we have had a ring-side seat to watch our bantamweight-level state battling it out with California–the most populous state in the union–for the highest per capita Covid rate in the world.
Here in Knox County, we have the triple misfortune of ineffective leadership at the county, state, and national level. Where are the public relations ad campaigns reminding Americans about safe practices? Why wasn’t each American sent a mask found to be safe and effective at keeping this respiratory virus from getting into our bodies? Early in the crisis our Knox County Board of Health enacted a mask mandate and some local businesses enforced it for their customers. However our county mayor, a wrestler by trade, voted against the mandate, and the county sheriff plainly stated he would not enforce it. Our city mayor cannot enact a mask mandate because Tennessee’s governor gave that power to the counties, not our major cities.
Only a few weeks ago, our Knox County Commission voted 6-4-1 to abolish our Board of Health. If the Commissioners vote similarly at their next meeting in January, the Board of Health will be defunct, and our public health decisions will be determined by the director of the Knox County Health Department who reports to the county mayor.
As politics, politics, and more politics reigns supreme over our public health issues, loved ones we knew personally, and loved ones we knew through their public service or music or acting or writing have died of Covid. Among the victims this year were legendary singer/songwriter John Prine and strapping 6-foot, 5-inch-tall, Broadway star Nick Cordero who was struck down in the prime of his life at the age of 41, leaving his devoted wife Amanda Kloots and their sweet baby boy who they called Elvis.
For us in South Knoxville, we mourn our dear friend Herb Cover who was a humble, kind, and gentle man (and gentleman) who always led with a smile. Although Herb was devoted to teaching special education at Dogwood Elementary School, it was his passion for music that he shared with his students and in so many facets of his life. He was a singer, songwriter, musician, and minister of music at his church.
As a young man, Herb started his music career playing in bands here in Knoxville. He started writing songs are soon as he could play an instrument. As he wrote on his songwriter’s page on ReverbNation, “I’ve played in many parts of the world, thanks in part to the U.S. Navy. Most of my career has been in Knoxville, Memphis, Jacksonville, and Washington, D.C.”
The photo below shows Herb accompanying the South High School Alumni Chorus on his guitar, along with pianist Belinda Carter Hammond. This 2015 concert was a tribute to our former chorus teacher, Harold Mays, who directed us in 2015 as he did when we were in high school many decades ago.
Herb was devoted to Harold Mays–who passed away in June 2018–and to the alumni high school chorus. He was at every event that his busy schedule would allow. In addition to singing with the chorus, Herb sang with the popular men’s octet that provided entertainment at South Knoxville events.
Herb and his wife LeeAnn fell ill with Covid in October, and Herb got seriously ill in early November. After over a month in the hospital, Herb died of Covid complications on December 14, 2020, at the age of 68, leaving his beloved wife LeeAnn, his son Travis, and his dear sister Nancy.
It has been hard to get our heads around so many Americans dying, often alone in intensive care units, deprived of the solace of family members, not getting to say good-bye to their loved ones.
It is heartbreaking that many of us feel we have been pulled up by our roots.
What do my roots mean to me? I am proud of all of my cultural backgrounds, but I feel most naturally kin to my Irish ancestors. My dear Irish grandmother was like a second mother to me. She was an excellent cook who was a short sprite of a woman with a round belly and a small lap. When we were little, she would slip us chewing gum (Dentyne) or peppermint candy to keep us happy during the Sunday sermons at our church. For Mamaw everything revolved around family, food, and church–nourishment of the body and the spirit.
A plant’s roots give it nourishment as it moves toward the light. Without roots a plant or tree cannot grow. Uprooted, it cannot thrive. For most of us, this virus has taken us away from many of the sustaining forces that bring us joy: gathering together without fear, singing together, experiencing live music, hugging our friends and loved ones, and seeing our relatives who live across the world, country, or even just across the city.
Mother Nature must have decided to intervene on our behalf. Knoxville and parts of East Tennessee had a white Christmas this year for the first time that I can ever remember. I mean a real White Christmas with six inches of snow at our house and the peace that seems to come with it. Somehow there is a great silence and serenity around a heavy snowfall that is infinitely profound.
Having snow on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day seemed to be a special gift to cheer us as we grieve dear ones that have died over the last year such as our friend Herb–as well as the loved ones who died during all the years of our lives that came before it.
To these loved ones, and especially to Mamaw who passed away in 1991, and my dear father who passed away in 2016, I say through the words of the magnetic Mexican singer/songwriter Natalia Lafourcade in her song, “Hasta la Raiz” (meaning “To the Root”):
I carry you within me, to the very root And though I may blossom, still you will be here . . .
I will carry you within me on this New Year’s Eve, and forward into the this new year of vaccines, a new President–and hope.
Keep me away from the wisdom which does not cry, the philosophy which does not laugh, and the greatness which does not bow before children.
Kahlil Gibran, (1883-1931) Lebanese-American painter, poet, and writer
These are the words of a man who left his home country of Lebanon and immigrated to the U.S. with his mother and siblings when he was 12 years old. Kahlil Gilbran is best known for his seminal masterpiece The Prophet, a book of poetic essays written in English which touched a chord with its readers from the time of its first publishing in 1923 to the present day. It is one of the bestselling books of all time and has been translated into 20 to 100 languages, according to which reference you heed.
Although his book is full of wisdom about how to live a fulfilled life, Gibran thought of himself as a painter and visual artist, not a philosopher.
What does Gibran mean by “the wisdom that does not cry”? His words speak to me clearly that he is referring to the puffed-up pontificators that love to hear their own voices and who care only for themselves. These pretenders do not care a fig for life-and-blood people and their lives. A man who sets himself up as one who is never wrong, who never makes a mistake, and who truly care or connect with others is not a man worthy of being heard. I grew up hearing that Paul wrote to the Corinthians in the New Testament: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” [1 Corinthians 13:1]. Such a man does not know or offer true wisdom.
And what about the “philosophy which does not laugh”? When I was an undergraduate College Scholars student at the University of Tennessee, we were asked to consider taking a special discussion course in which philosophy majors and psychology majors argued about important matters of the day. I took them up on their offer to take this course. I was curious to hear how scholars from each field of study approached issues that affected humankind. Sadly, however, I cannot say that I learned much from each class discussion because no matter what the topic, the philosophers were sure to state their case unequivocally broaching nothing that the psychologists brought to the table. The psychologists were not terribly persuaded by the philosophers either, but they were more genial about the debate. As for me, I was neither a philosopher nor a psychologist, but found that typically the psychologists’ opinions carried more weight than the philosophers who tended to weave spider webs in the sky.
Perhaps Gibran also found each philosopher he met thought they owned the market on truth and did not have a good sense of humor. In their defense, I will say that my husband majored in philosophy in undergraduate school, and he does indeed have an excellent sense of humor. Laughter is healing, it helps us live longer, and we certain need laughter to get through these long days of pandemic surges and the (hopefully) final days of the Trumpian would-be dynasty–at least for four years.
The final piece of Gibran’s trilogy is his hope to be kept away from “the greatness that does not bow before children”. Here he is fervently speaking to me about humility, innocence, and truth with a capital “T”. Tiny children are very truthful with their feelings and whims. They either want to do something or they do not. They will eat their food or they will not, they are interested in a particular person or they are not. A great man is one who from his height stoops low to place his ear close to listen to the infinite wisdom of children. Their eyes are bright with possibilities and visions of what can be. They do not yet know that human beings die, that disease eats at the soul of men and nations, or that justice is not a common occurrence in families or countries.
I have taught my granddaughter Penny the great wonder of trees. Before she could say more than a few words and we would pass a tree, I would carry her to the tree and touch its bark and say, “Tree.” Then I would say, “You can touch it,” urging her to touch the tree with her tiny hands and make a connection all her own.
Though she is not yet 2 years old, she now has a larger vocabulary. Two of her favorite words are “tree” and “leaf”. We were taking family pictures yesterday for Christmas cards and all she really wanted to do was touch the tree in her backyard and choose which leaf she wanted me to pull from the tree for her. It was her choice. Each time, I gave her a leaf, she was utterly delighted. She dropped it, and let me know she wanted another one. Again we would touch the tree, and again I pulled off a leaf and gave it to her. Simple joys are the best joys. Finally she picked up a dried leaf from the ground and claimed it as her own.
Experts tell us that trees communicate with one another. Well, Penny and I communicate clearly to each other too. I want my female grandchild to grow up choosing for herself who she wants to be. I want her to grow strong like a tree and withstand the storms of being told that being a girl is simply not good enough to compete, excel, and achieve. That a girl cannot grow up to be President or Vice President.
Well, at least on January 20, 2021, we will have finally put the lie to the idea that a girl cannot grow up to be Vice President of the United States. In my head, I find it hard to believe that my home country will elect a President who happens to be female–in my lifetime. Perhaps in Penny’s lifetime there will be such a President who towers like a tree above the others and bends low to listen closely to the wisdom of a child.
Children have much to learn from the adults who love them, but we have much to learn from them too. A fulfilled life is a balance, not white or black, but white and black; not male or female, but male and female; not the other or my tribe, but the other and my tribe. It does not have to be I get to win and you have to lose, we can learn something from children, and share the natural beauty and bounty of this world or we will find that soon there is no natural beauty or bounty for any of us to share.
We should stoop low and bend a listening ear to the voices of children–and heed their great expanse of wisdom.
Nothing compares with this dye’s ability to capture the blues of nature—a midnight sky, early dawn, or an impression of the sea. It can also define a mood—of melancholy, of mystery in the dark hues, or joy and vitality in lighter variations. Indigo is a dye that demands discipline to use.
Four years ago my husband Kurt and I were waiting for a movie to start at our local theatre, when a promo for “Indignation”, a 2016 film based on a novel by Philip Roth. The movie’s trailer was intriguing, but it was the word indignation that struck me. I decided the word captured the mood of a great number of people in the United States at that time which was five months before the 2016 presidential election. Here we are four years later, and only four days before our 2020 presidential election, and our pot of indignation has only grown–and overflows.
If our country has become an IndigNation, what does the word indignation mean? I researched the definition in both the American Merriam-Webster dictionary and the British Oxford English Dictionary. Merriam-Webster defines the word as follows:
Indignation: anger aroused by something unjust, unworthy, or mean.
Breaking down the root words in this definition, mean in this sense is defined as “lacking distinction, of inferior quality, lacking dignity or honor, characterized by petty selfishness or malice, causing trouble or bother”. Yes, that sums up the zeitgeist for those of us who yearn for change in our nation’s leadership.
Interestingly the Oxford English Dictionary describes indignation slightly differently as:
Anger or annoyance provoked by what is perceived as unfair treatment.
Oxford English Dictionary
The OED’s definition as the perception of unfair treatment sounds as if it captures the mood of the portion of the country who prefers to see our current president re-elected. During his campaign rallies, our current president’s supporters appear incensed with the unfairness of having to share their country with anyone who does not fit their idea of what an American should be. And our current president is oh, so adept at stoking fear, hatred, and division. It is indeed his nom d’être, his reason for being.
At this unsettling and chaotic time in our nation’s history, when we have a viral pandemic and no federal strategy on how to deal with it. With winter coming on (in more ways than one), polls tell us a majority of Americans are indignant, angry, frustrated, and afraid of what all this means for their future and the future of the ones they love.
As I sat in my theatre seat in 2016, I toyed with the notion of changing the public conversation, changing the tenor of the whole cacophonous mess by adding a strategic “o” to indignation and turned it into IndigoNation. If only our nation’s healing could come about so easily.
What would an indigoNation look like? Where for starters it would have a rich history originating from the natural world because the word indigo refers both to the plant (originally grown in India) and the rare dye used to make fabric the rich, deep color of blue found on Isaac Newton’s color wheel between blue and violet. Only royalty or the very rich could afford this rare and sumptuous dye for their clothing and textiles, until the 16th century when large amounts of indigo were imported to Europe.
An IndigoNation would be beautiful to behold as blue is the color of the sky and sea. Indigo blue signifies depth and stability, and also trust, loyalty, wisdom, intuition, inspiration, confidence, intelligence, faith, sensitivity, sincerity, and truth.
Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.
Wassily Kandinsky, “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”, 1912
The color blue is considered beneficial to the mind and spirit and is known to slow human metabolism, producing a calming effect. And in ancient times many believers looked to the blue sky above us symbolizing the ideal destination of everlasting life: heaven.
And then there is the Duke–Duke Ellington and the Jazz classic “Mood Indigo”–originally titled “Dreamy Blues”.
You ain’t never been blue; no, no, no,
You ain’t never been blue,
Till you’ve had that mood indigo.
That feelin’ goes stealin’ down to my shoes
While I just sit here and sigh, ‘Go ‘long blues’.
“Mood Indigo”, Marshall Parish (lyrics), Duke Ellington, Barney Bigard, & Lorenzo Tio (composers), 1930
We think of the blues as sadness, loneliness, and absence, but with blue there is a depth of feeling that shimmers beneath the surface as waves in the ocean–waves of change: receding, ebbing, flowing, always moving. Blue is ultimately inspiring and passionate, substantive–not simmering on the surface, but churning onward.
An IndigoNation would be vibrant with life: Art, music, laughter, dance, color, sensuality. A nation with open arms instead of closed minds would be more willing to embrace change than to fear it, and consider the possibility that the differences between tribal groups is typically only skin deep. We are the same underneath: we want life, liberty, and a decent chance to pursue happiness.
An IndigoNation would not be controlled by its basest elements of fear and hatred.
A healthy country is not based only on the rights of its citizens, but also on the responsibilities of its people. A citizen may have “free speech”, but not be free to–as the proverbial example goes–yell “fire” in a crowded theater. Citizens may have the right to exercise their right to practice their religion, but not to decide that everyone else in the country must follow that religion. Citizens may arguably have the right to bear arms, but they do not have the right to kill people they disagree with.
And a healthy nation would understand that taking common-sense measures, such as wearing a mask and social distancing, to safeguard the lives of the people around them is not a loss of freedom but a responsibility to protect each others’ ability to live and not die alone in an ICU hooked to a ventilator.
What sort of country do we want to live in? A nation dominated primarily by love or one primarily consumed with hate?
As the singer, award-winning actress, survivor, and icon of the possible, Cher said yesterday in a Zoom meeting:
Stand and be counted, or sit and be nothing.
Let us decide to be a nation defined by our connections to each other, not our disagreements. As young people in the 1960s declared: Let’s make love, not war. Or in the words of Cher’s hit song, with her then-husband Sonny Bono, from 1965:
I got you to hold my hand I got you to understand I got you to walk with me I got you to talk with me I got you to kiss goodnight I got you to hold me tight I got you, I won’t let go I got you to love me so.
I got you babe I got you babe I got you babe I got you babe I got you babe
For most of us, our world has gotten smaller over the last seven months of the global viral pandemic. Many of us stay home most of the time. We work from home, eat our meals at home, do not see many of our friends or family in person, and are putting off gathering in large crowds for the duration of the COVID pandemic.
Other people refuse to wear masks, question social distancing measures, and protest efforts by public health officials to keep them safe. College students have been reported as attending COVID “parties” where they actively seek to contract the disease from someone who has tested positive. Why? In Texas a college student believed the virus was a hoax, attended a party to prove his point, and ended up contracting the disease. Outcome: this 30-year-old man died from the virus. At the University of Alabama students attended COVID parties that included a pool of money: The first person to get the virus gets the money—along with health consequences that could last a lifetime. Of course, the majority of college students are not so stupid as to play Russian roulette with such a deadly disease–for their own sake, but also because they fear they will bring the virus home to their higher-risk family members: their parents, grandparents, anyone who has asthma or COPD or diabetes or obesity or any disease that weakens the body.
During this time without social engagements, I have had more time to reflect, more time to go outside, to sit in my backyard, look up, and watch the clouds slowly float by. It has been reassuring to note that in the middle of chaos, fear, and fraying of the American social fabric that some things remain the same: The clouds, the old-growth trees in our neighborhood of century-old homes, the love of my family, and the occasional kindness of strangers.
Here in my hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee, on Monday night, the Republican-led Knox County Commission voted 8-3 (with two Democrats and one Republican voting against the measure) at the end of a marathon eight-hour meeting (at 2:00 a.m. Tuesday) to diminish the power of the local Board of Health. The eight commissioners were angry that the Board of Health introduced a mask mandate in July in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID. Local media reported that hhe Commission’s resolution has no legal standing to end the mask mandate, but the county sheriff has made it clear his officers will not enforce the rule. The mayor of the city of Knoxville issued an executive order requiring masks in city buildings, and city police are enforcing the mandate when called upon to do so by local businesses.
My husband and I feel confident shopping only in businesses in which wearing masks are mandated. Of course, some customers refuse to wear masks, nonetheless. Our nearby cooperative grocery store, has hired a security guard to ensure all customers wear masks. It is truly a sorry state of affairs when wearing a mask to keep others safe has devolved into a political nightmare of epic proportions.
How serious to take the virus and how to act accordingly has divided our country, state, county, city, and families. I have never lived through a pandemic before, but I had imagined the great influenza pandemic of 1918-19 was not as politically charged as the reaction to the contagion we are dealing with now a century later.
However, I discovered that 1918 was a mid-term election year, in the middle of Woodrow Wilson’s second term. His Democratic Party was fighting to hold control of Congress. President Wilson himself contracted the flu when he negotiated the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I.
The first wave of the influenza outbreak occurred in the spring of 1918 at an Army training camp in Kansas. The second wave erupted in September 1918 at an Army and Navy facility near Boston where the disease quickly moved into the Boston civilian population. In October more than 195,000 Americans died of this disease that was heretofore unknown. Rumors and conjecture about what how the disease spread and how it started mixed with the election posturing to make a toxic stew of finger pointing and shifting of blame.
Due to quarantine efforts, candidates could not campaign in typical ways due to the banning of large gatherings. Sharing his frustration with the New York Times, the Democratic candidate for the governor of New York, Alfred E. Smith, vented his frustration about what he called a, “Republican quarantine against Democratic speeches.”
Even the name of the outbreak that killed around 14 million people around the globe became political. In the U.S., many people called the disease the Spanish Flu due to a misconception that the disease started in Spain. This mistake was made possible since the countries fighting each other during World War I suppressed coverage of the flu in order not to give their enemies an advantage. Since Spain was neutral during the world war, Spanish authorities reported on the disease more openly which led many people to assume that Spain was responsible for infected the world with this new contagion.
Although early reporting on the disease came from Spain, most researchers do not think it started there. The Spanish referred to the disease as the French Flu. Scientists to this day do not know for sure where the 1918 influenza originated, but France, China, Britain, and even the United States have been investigated as possibilities.
Deciding who is to blame and announcing a handy foreign scapegoat, has been a feature of past wars, calamities, diseases, and “natural” disasters through history. If the other is outside our borders, psychologically speaking, it is easier for our tribe to rally round, band together, and demonize the enemy.
What do we do, however, when the enemy is within our borders? What do we do when the weakness of our national leader has been the fox in the hen house by not marshalling a national strategy to keep the American people safe: to ensure adequate levels of personal protective equipment for medical staff; to quarantine people in their homes until the levels of outbreak were low enough to open businesses, bars, churches, and schools; to administer a national testing, tracing, and isolation program; by rallying all levels of government and the military to ensure that effective and safe vaccines, when identified, can be distributed widely, safely, and quickly–with front-line medical staff and the most vulnerable receiving the vaccine first. None of these measures have been developed or implemented.
Instead our current president seeks to shift blame on China, where COVID is thought to have started, by calling the contagion the Chinese Flu. Perhaps this naming effort has not been embraced by our country or the world because COVID-19 is a coronavirus instead of a flu; it is much more contagious and deadly than influenza; and it does not stop infecting and spreading in warm weather as influenzas typically do. And, of course, wherever viruses originate, they know no party or country allegiance and attack their victims indiscriminately. We are connected to a global world where a contagion in China can very quickly move around the world, most notably by air travel.
What does this all this chaos and disorder mean for the most vulnerable in our society: the poor, older people, women, and most of all, our children? Historically children and women have been the collateral damage of war, disease, poverty, and social unrest.
My own father’s life is a case in point. When he was 4 months old, his mother died, according to her death certificate, from insanity caused by pellagra psychosis. Pellagra is an extreme form of nutritional deficiency–from a lack of Vitamin B-3, also called niacin–which causes dementia, diarrhea, and severe dermatis. Between 1900 and 1940, the illness afficted over 3 million people and killed more than 100,000, mostly Americans in the South. This Southern scourge killed 7,000 people at its peak in 1928. No other nutritional deficiency has killed more Americans than pellagra.
We do not know if Daddy’s mother was suffering with pellagra-induced mental illness while she carried him, or whether bringing the pregnancy to term took the last bit of her body’s resources and she succombed to the disease.
According to her death certificate, she died in 1935 the George Maloney Home. Having never heard of such a facility, my husband and I researched archival sources the and found that the George Maloney Home was the Knoxville’s workhouse for the poor. The inmates at the Maloney Home were the poor of the surrounding area who were forced to work in the fields as slave labor. It was not clear exactly how people were consigned to this fate, and it is equally unclear why Daddy’s mother, whose death certificate said she was mentally ill, died in a workhouse while the death certificate lists her husband’s address as a house in South Knoxville.
In the wake of his mother’s death, my father could have been raised by his mother’s Mormon relatives in Kingsport, Tennessee, but his father would not hear of it. Instead Daddy was reared by his domineering grandmother who lived with her two sons: Daddy’s father Hodge and his alcoholic brother. The photo of Daddy’s grandmother (at left, with him on her lap) reveals an austere, intimidating woman. There is something about seeing his tiny sailor hat, sitting at Daddy’s side, which is heartbreaking–as well as the tentative look on his face.
When Daddy was 5 years old, his grandmother died, and he was reared in extreme poverty by his illiterate father, who worked as a butcher at a packing company, and his uncle who may or may not have been a bootlegger.
Children are the loose change in the pockets of the adults around them who often make devastatingly poor decisions.
And heartbreakingly I know many women who were sexually abused as children, many by family members. As for me, an older neighbor boy told me that we were playing “doctor” in our next door neighbor’s basement. I was only 5 years old and had been taught never to make anyone uncomfortable, so I went along and ended up feeling ashamed, hurt, guilty, and profoundly dirty. When we are young and things we do not understand happen to us, we feel it is our fault. I have never lost the shame of that day, but was far luckier than the girls and boys who were abused by a family member or the priest or pastor of their church–which promises another layer of grief and betrayal.
What could I do to make difference? My answer was to rear two sons and teach them that no person—whatever his or her background, color, gender, immigration status, level of poverty, nationality, religion, sex, or sexual orientation—is disposable and worthy of contempt.
Racism and sexism are a form of death–and not just for the people who are denigrated, but also for the soul of the people who allow hate to control their hearts–or for the people who allow hate to define their government.
What can we do now? We can vote for the candidates currently running for election throughout our country who seek to bring us together, heal our social fabric, and enact legislation to protect the American people rather than fomenting more division and hatred. It is quite clear from last night’s debate, exactly which party–the Democratic one–and which leader–Joe Biden–stand for unity, community, and caring for the least, as well as the most powerful, in our sick and broken country.
Every day dragged by a month ago as we waited to find out if we had tested positive for the virus plaguing our country and world. Every day I waited for a phone call to tell me that my life could at the very least return to the watchful, careful precautions my husband and I have been taking since mid March to ensure we do not become infected with Covid. Those were better days, my friend, by a long shot than the nine days of hell waiting for the testing verdict.
Yet, we have been luckier than most, however, I know that. We were exposed July 19, and as of August 1, we had no symptoms. So supposedly if we made it to August 1, without symptoms, we would be fine even if we did not hear from the tests we had on Saturday, July 25. Yes, tests results here in this country can take so long as to be of little practical use. But when we learned we had been exposed at an outdoor family event in July, we quarantined ourselves, nevertheless.
During my wait for our testing results and in the time since, I have been trying to keep my mind off the fear and mayhem, by listening to music, sitting in the backyard with our cat Cadi Kitty, watching engrossing movies with my husband Kurt, and (of course) reading.
I slept and dreamt that life was beauty.
An excerpt from the novel “The Pull of the Stars” by Emma Donoghue, published July 21, 2020, by Harper Avenue
Sitting in my backyard among the dappled blotches of light and shadow, I am reminded of the possibility that life is beauty as imagined by the main character in the book I am reading. It is also easy to see that life is a call for forbearance as The Pull of the Stars tells the story of a nurse in an Irish maternity ward caring for pregnant women infected with influenza during the 1918 pandemic.
Four years before 1918, the world had been torn apart during World War I as Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire (the Central Powers) fought against Great Britain (which included Ireland), France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Japan, and the United States (the Allied Powers). Twenty million soldiers and civilians were killed and another 21 million were injured during the war.
So a hundred years ago, not only did millions of people die in a senseless war, but millions of soldiers and civilians died during the pandemic as well. According to our country’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 500 million people, or one-third of the world’s population, became infected with the influenza virus in the pandemic outbreak of 1918-19. The number of deaths from the virus, which has been diagnosed as a H1N1 virus, was estimated to be at least 50 million around the globe with about 675,000 people dying in the United States.
I had no idea how this 1918-19 pandemic affected my own family, and I still do not know how my mother’s Tennessee kinfolk from 100 years ago fared. But a few years ago I was able to find my father’s long-lost maternal relatives in Salt Lake City, Utah, and learn how the influenza outbreak affected his mother’s family.
How did we lose touch with Daddy’s mother’s family? Daddy’s parents Roy Hodge Allen of Knoxville, Tennessee, and Darcus Nickaline Montgomery of Kingsport, Tennessee, married in February 1934. After a few months of married life, Darcus was pregnant with my father.
When Daddy was born in April 1935, Darcus’s family said she was too ill to hold him. However, she had chosen names for him: Roy after his father Roy Hodge (who went by Hodge), and Rotha after a Mormon elder she admired named Joseph M. Rothe. Darcus’s parents, John and Cordelia converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1900 three years before Darcus was born, and Darcus was devoted to her faith.
Four months after Daddy’s birth, his mother died of pellagra psychosis, a severe nutritional deficiency that afflicted many poor Southerners of that time. Daddy, known as Rotha for most of his life, was reared here in Knoxville by his father’s side of the family who pronounced his name as Rothie. Although he saw his mother’s relatives a few times as a teenager and once when I was a small child, we lost track of Daddy’s mother’s family.
How did we find Daddy’s family? Because his mother’s family were Mormons, followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we were able to find my two cousins Jeanie and Linda, whose family members moved to Salt Lake City from Kingsport, Tennessee decades ago. A year or so before Daddy died in 2016–as his health began to fail, my husband Kurt and I began to search for Daddy’s family so we could tell him as much as possible about his mother and her family. Because Darcus was a follower of the Latter-Day Saints, tracking down her family was easier due to their reverence for family genealogy and ancestral history. In addition to our own genealogical work, we filled in many gaps from the work of Jeanie and Linda, as well as Jeanie’s grandmother and Darcus’s sister Eutaw Regina, and Linda’s father, Darcus’s brother, Steve.
Daddy’s mother, Darcus Nickaline Montgomery, was born in 1903, to Cordelia and John Montgomery and grew up on her family’s farm in Carroll County, Virginia. In the 1800s the Montgomery family held a large tract of land in the county. But with each successive generation, the family land was subdivided in order to give each child, usually their male children, a farm of their own. Even as a youngest son of a youngest son, Darcus’s father John, inherited in 1897 a good-sized farm of 35 and 3/4 acres in the rolling hills of Virginia–which is still fertile farm country today in the 21st Century.
Cordelia and John Montgomery’s first child, a son they called Adrian, was born in September 1897. Their second child, daughter Rose Elizabeth, was born on January 31, 1899, and died that same day. Son Robert was born in 1901, followed by Daddy’s mother Darcus in September 1903. Darcus’s beloved sister Eutaw Regina joined the family in September 1905, and they were by all accounts devoted to each other. Three years later in 1908, their sister Luva Vera was born, followed by brother Stephen in October 1910, and sister Willie Hazel in 1913–who died three years later on her birthday in 1916. Sometime around 1915 the family moved to a newly developed town Fries, Virginia, that had grown up around a new cotton mill. Their little brother Clarence was born two days before Christmas in 1916, and when he was nearly 2 years old, influenza hit the family in the fall of 1918.
By the 1920 census, teenaged Darcus and Eutaw worked as spinners at the cotton mill, so it is possible they were already working at the mill when the new flu came through town. My cousin, Eutaw Regina’s granddaughter, Jeanie, told me the story of how my grandmother’s family experienced the flu epidemic of 1918 in Fries, Virginia.
Influenza hit the area hard and killed so many people that the flu wagon would come through town each morning to collect the dead bodies. My grandmother Darcus’s younger sister Luva, who they called Luvie, was 11 years old and had a heart condition so naturally their mother Cordelia was doubly concerned when Luvie became very sick with flu symptoms. Cordelia was sitting by her daughter’s bedside when Luvie made a noise as if she was trying to speak. It was what they called the death rattle, and Luvie was dead. When a person died in 1918 in Virginia, it was the custom of the families to use a wooden board to lay out the body of the loved one to stiffen it, so it would conform appropriately in a coffin. Cordelia placed the body of her beloved youngest daughter on her wooden ironing board.
Over the few years they had lived in Fries, Luvie had played with a little boy who lived next door to them who, as luck would have it, also had a heart condition. When she fell ill with influenza, so did he, and he died just as quickly. Soon their next-door neighbors were knocking at the door to ask if they could borrow the wooden ironing board so they could lay out their much-loved little boy.
I had assumed that Cordelia Montgomery–who would eventually have 10 children, five girls and five boys–would have become somewhat immune to the deaths of her children at this time before vaccines when infants and toddlers and older children died like flies of one childhood illness or another. By the time she lost Luvie to the flu, Cordelia had already lost two daughters: her second child Rose Elizabeth who died the day she was born and her eighth child, Willie Hazel, who died at the age of 2 in 1916 when a doctor prescribed too high a dose of medicine for a staph infection and she was poisoned. Cordelia had also taken in her oldest son’s little girl after he was divorced, and this little girl also died young. However, my cousin Jeanie told me that Cordelia never became inured to the death of her girls, and was devastated by Luvie’s death. She cried aloud with her grief and suffering. I can only imagine how bereft she was when she heard that my grandmother Darcus, age 31, had died 4 months after giving birth to Daddy. Of 11 children Cordelia bore and reared–6 girls and 5 boys, Cordelia had only one daughter, Eutaw Regina, who lived to reach old age.
In the year 2020, a hundred years later, here in the U.S. we do not lose so many of our children to childhood diseases such as measles, chicken pox, smallpox, tetanus, diphtheria, tuberculosis, polio, and streptococcus. However, it is not as if women in this country do not still lose babies in childbirth. And many Americans live in abject poverty and their children die in numbers not seen in other countries where health care is a given for every citizen living in a civilized, Westernized land. We do not have that luxury here, because we have a patchwork of health-care “opportunities”, and many families with children fall through the cracks of our loosely constructed safety net.
People are dying now of our new scourge, Covid-19. Currently 6.1 million people have been infected in the U.S., and at least 183,000 have died. These are probably conservative numbers because so many people get the virus and die without actually receiving a Covid test or proper diagnosis. Life is definitely not beautiful for people stricken with Covid who are breathing on venilators or who die alone in an ICU because their family are not allowed to be with them for fear they too will contract the virus. There are only so many ventilators in our country and only so many ICU beds, so we must ration them carefully since we have no national plan for keeping our people safe. What a travesty.
As for us, Kurt and I finally got our Covid test results back. After 9 days I had received no answer. When they gave me the test they said it was expected back in two or three days because mine was the “fast” test. Yeah. I called them 9 days later, and they finally were able to tell me over the phone that I tested negative. Kurt, who was promised he would hear in five days or so, got a call six days later and was also negative.
Phew! We were both glad to have dodged the virus we were exposed to in July. However, the virus is still out there, alive and hopping from person to person. It cares not whether we are ready for the virus, whether we have efficient and effective testing protocols, whether our schools are open with safe practices in place. The virus doesn’t care if bars are open, if parties are held on college campuses, or large numbers of people gather indoors for church services, weddings, or funerals. The virus does not care whether a political party decides to invite its top donors and most excited supporters to sit side by side as their leader reads a 70-minute speech. The virus will, however, by its nature be ready and willing to exploit the possibilities of superspreading events and lack of sufficient protocols and practices.
Last week my nephew Zach sent me the following quote that resonated for me when I first read it.
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself only, what am I? If not now–When?
Hillel, ancient Jewish sage, born 110 BCE, died 10 CE
This succinct Jewish wisdom comes down to us so clearly through the centuries. When Hillel says, If I am not for myself, who will be for me? I hear him saying, “If I do not take essential precautions and refrain from other actions to care for myself, then how can I expect others to risk their lives to save me?” For example: Yes on correctly wearing masks, washing my hands the appropriate amount of time, using hand sanitizer when I cannot wash my hands, and in general using common sense. No to gathering indoors especially, but also outdoors, in close promixity with people outside my family bubble, having sit-down meals in restaurants, or gathering for maskless get-togethers of any stripe. It is not just or in any way justified to ask nurses, doctors, and other health-care professionals to risk their lives to care for me if I have not taken common-sense steps to take care of myself.
When I read, If I am for myself only, what am I?, I clearly hear this salient truth: If I care nothing for my fellow human beings, and care only for myself, then I have no true honor, virtue, or humanity and am therefore a what not a who. I would then be an unhappy, pitiful creature, not a member of the human family. I would follow in the footsteps of a person of supreme selfishness such as the man who now leads our country with only his selfish whims and desires to guide him.
When I read, If not now–When?, I am certain that the time for action is today, our present day, our own present moment in time. When else do we have besides now?! We must stand up for the voiceless, especially for the children and adolescents who rely on us, the adults, to make their world safe enough for them to grow up in it. We must stand up for our country, so we can continue working toward a more just, less unjust, union. We must stand up for ourselves, and as they say on airplane flights (not that it is safe to fly now during a pandemic!): put the mask on yourself first before you put the mask on anyone else. For if you do not care for yourself, no one else can help you.
Who am I doing my best for? My two grandchildren who are beautiful and mean life to me. They need me to do my best for them, as my strong Virginia great-grandmother Cordelia tried to do the best for her five daughters and one adopted (grand)daughter, only one of whom actually made it past young adulthood. But still, she persevered. And so will I. And so should you.
When my husband Kurt and I were having lunch a few months ago, my Honest Tea bottle offered up some truth with its white tea and mango. Its interior lid quoted a Pashto saying, “Do not be so sweet that people will eat you up, nor so bitter that they will spit you out.” That is the rub is it not? How much should we wrestle for our independence and freedom versus the needs of those around us–those we love and care for, as well as the collective groups of people who share our neighborhood, city, state, region, country, and planet.
I will freely admit that I have never stood up for my individual needs as much as I am obsessed with caring for the needs of others. My altruistic, other-focused perspective sounds like a wise choice, especially since I am a woman, because it is definitely what is expected of me. No matter what culture of people I have ever experienced, read about, or observed, women are expected to care for the needs of others more diligently than their own. We do not want to be spit out or found wanting.
Pashto, the language of this proverb, is the language of some of the people in present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pashto–along with French, German, Russian, and Spanish–is one of the world’s languages that is built around grammatical gender, meaning that the nouns chosen to express ideas contain feminine or masculine verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and so on. Chinese, English, Korean, Japonic, Native American, and Turkish languages do not have this grammatical gender expression. Modern English expresses gender in its pronouns (e.g., he, she, his, her).
It is interesting to me that a language in which words have male and female meanings, should have an aphorism admonishing the wise person not to be too sweet nor too sour, but suggesting that a person should seek to strike a balance in between, to achieve the harmonious center.
The majority of men I know do not seem to wrestle with striking a balance between their individual needs and the needs of those around them. Certainly our nation’s president is not the least bit concerned with anyone else’s needs. For him all roads lead to him, his re-election, and continuation of the power he wields to ensure: (1) he is shielded from prosecution by the Attorney General of his choosing, (2) that governments and people seeking his favor will stay in his hotels and resorts to enrich his bottom line, (3) that he will be worshipped by his fervid fan base, and (4) he will not be seen as a loser from Queens, New York. Losing is not something he can abide.
On the other hand, women in our culture struggle mightily with how to balance their own needs with those of their family, friends, and community. I know I have struggled during this pandemic to keep myself safe while meeting the obligations asked of me by my family.
Despite the competing forces currently pulling our nation and even our families apart, there is a middle ground that seeks balance between the poles of extremism. I have pitched a tent in that moderate location–the metaphorical equator between the inhospitable North and South poles. My neat equatorial analogy falls down, however, as I live in East Tennessee. If I am the equator between the two opposing political Republican/Democratic poles, then living at my equatorial home is too close to the sun and also rather inhospitable–especially during the very politicized COVID-19 virus ravagingin our country and the state of Tennessee with 4.3 million people recorded as testing positive and nearly 150,000 deaths to date.
Being a moderate who believes this virus is unpredictable and dangerous, I believe we should all take prudent measures to protect ourselves and others: wear masks, respect social distancing, not open schools until the viral curve has been flattened and brought under control, and refrain from gathering togther with people outside our family bubble until we have a vaccine that is widely distributed and available. This is not the sort of belief system exercised by everyone in our nation or by my state, city, or everyone in my family. Thus, the conundrum becomes how to balance the competing interests of the individual (staying alive and healthy) with my obligations to my country, state, city, and family.
Perhaps a way forward was suggested by our visit to Portland, Oregon, a year ago when Kurt and I visited our nephew Zach. Recently Portland has changed considering since a year ago. The city has suffered intense conflict between protestors who support the Black Lives Matter movement and Homeland Security forces sent to the city by our current president.
A year ago, however, we found Portland to be an inspiring city full of natural beauty. While we were there, we visited the Lan Su Chinese Garden that was built by 70 craftsmen from Portland’s sister city of Suzhou, China. After a year of construction, the Lan Su opened in September 2000 with the defining motto: between lake and mountain lies true meaning.
In Ancient Chinese philosophy, balance is the source of tranquility, harmony, and happiness, as in the concepts of yin (dark, negative) and yang (light, positive) as present in nature. What seems to be oppositional on its face, in Chinese belief, can actually be complementary. As explained in the Lan Su online Visitor’s Guide:
Yin and yang are seemingly opposing forces, like dark and light or masculine and feminine, are interconnected and yield balance and harmony. The reflection of the sky (yang) is mirrored in the water here on earth (yin). The willow branches (yin) caress the stone (yang) below them.
Lan Su Chinese Garden, Portland, Oregon
Balance, order, harmony, tranquility, happiness, and health depend on compromise. Our country’s future depends on detente, a French word meaning easing of tension, hostility, or strained relations. Detente was a word we used to hear a great deal about in the early 1970s when President Richard Nixon was trying to broker a lasting peace, and avert nuclear war with the Soviet Union, through an agreement with its then-leader Leonid Brezhnev.
I was just a kid at that time, but even I understood that nuclear annihilation was MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction. The Soviet Union dissolved during the 1970s and 1980s and in 1991, after its satellite states gained their independence, what was left officially became the Russian Federation, or what we call Russia. The name may have changed but the wish to control power on the world stage has not. Russia seeks to undermine the remaining superpower on the world stage: the United States. And what better way to neuter America than to foment its destruction from within by encouraging division, hatred, and racism.
For the future of our country–and the world–we should abandon our Mutually Assured Destruction of either/or thinking and adopt the notion of and. We should discourage divisive thinking of North versus South, Black versus White, male versus female, immigrant versus non-immigrant, Native American versus non-Native American, Democrat versus Republican, red state versus blue state, rural areas versus cities, and farms versus towns.
We should be Black and White because we are black and white. We should be cities and rural areas because are towns and farms. Within each red state (except maybe tiny Wyoming) there are millions of people who vote blue; and within each blue state are millions of people who vote red. Does it really make any sense to destroy our country, our livelihoods, and our lives to spite the tribe on the other side of the railroad track? Do we really want to go down with the ship, fighting with each other?
Succinctly, we should be the American people who wear masks for the duration.
During my adult life I have traveled fairly extensively and wherever I go, I take photos of posters, signage, and graffiti that show the whimsy and idiosyncratic nature of public communication. Here are a few photos from my collection.
Posted in the London subway (called the Tube by the locals), in June 1993:
I know the Brits had the the English language before we Americans got involved, but it is difficult to agree with the statement that this poster can promise anything on its own.
Also seen in the London Tube, June 1993:
Not only do the English authorities let you know what they want you to do, they tell you why you should follow their directive as well. Beware pigeons, you have been warned.
A poster from an exhibit in the Museum of London, June 1993:
The British suffragettes were not only tough, strong, resilient, and dedicated to winning the vote for English women, but they also did all this with great flair, according to the Purple, White and Green exhibit at the Museum of London.
Photographed at a Knoxville, Tennessee, furniture store, possibly 2011:
Yes, Norma Jeane Baker would probably never have become Hollywood legend Marilyn Monroe if she had followed the expected behavior of women in the 1940s and 1950s. There is that saying about breaking eggs to get an omelet.
Observed in St. Martin, an island in the Caribbean, 2006:
This is one of my all-time favorite photos of serendipitous signage. My husband Kurt and I were taking one of our few real vacations–as opposed to him working in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Central America, South America, or Africa and me coming along with him on the business trip. We were driving through the French side of St. Martin (one side of the island is French, the other side is Dutch) when I saw this building and told Kurt we simply must get this photo. He drove back and snapped this shot, and I must say that there is a great deal of truth here. Happiness is very much a self-service proposition. You must bring your own peace of mind to the rodeo because expecting other people to make you happy is an appointment with despair.
Posted in Costa Rica in March 2007:
Costa Rica is a country of great natural beauty that is known for protecting its wildlife and ecological diversity. It also takes seriously its responsibility to keep its waiters safe when they are crossing a road to serve food. Yes, this sign really was posted beside a road in Costa Rica.
Posted in Costa Rica in 2007:
Costa Rica warns drivers to slow down for monkeys, dogs/wolves(?), and children at a road crossing.
Observed at the Knoxville Zoo, 2015:
Ok, people with diarrhea, out of the splash area! Really? This was a problem at the Knoxville Zoo? Wow.
Posted in South Knoxville, probably 2015:
We are putting it out there, people. Not just at Halloween, but year round, this parking place is reserved for a very special woman–and her broom. And her toad.
Posted in Downtown Knoxville:
Spelling was not one of the strong points for the city government official who commissioned this sign. It is centeral to our detour mission to move you on your way, Knoxville drivers.
Uncovered after my podiatrist removed the bandages from my foot surgery in July 2016:
My podiatrist had quite a sense of humor.
Observed in a retail shop in 2016:
Whatever you are choosing–whether it be a washer and dryer, pair of shoes, cell phone, partner in life, or political candidate–choose the best you can can possible afford, and you will not go wrong.
Posted on a Seattle trash can in September 2016:
They were deadly serious about the problem of domestic garbage being mixed with park litter in Seattle. Probably a $2,000 fine would deter most people.
Displayed in a Seattle bookstore in September 2016:
As Donald Trump was running for president in the fall of 2016, someone at this Seattle bookstore gave his or her interpretation of how this book should have been titled.
Seen on the wall of a Seattle bookstore, September 2016:
I recognized a few of these authors’ faces (such as Maya Angelou, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Betty Friedan, Ernest Hemingway, and Sylvia Plath, and maybe J.D. Salinger), but not many. As an avid reader, I would have thought I’d know more of them! How many can you name?
Painted on the side of a Lexington, Kentucky, book and coffee shop, in September 2017:
This sign is, perhaps, even more relevant to our present day struggles in June 2020 than it was in 2017. However, the need to unlearn fear and hate has probably been an issue throughout human history. The antidote? Hope and love, two emotions that have been in short supply in our public discourse this year.
Posted outside the Boone Tavern, Hotel, and Restaurant at Berea College, Berea, Kentucky, and seen in 2017:
Plants need to breathe–and so do humans.
Seen in a Salt Lake City, Utah, women’s clothing store:
Yes, the great actress, style icon, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, and all-around beautiful person (inside and out) Audrey Hepburn says it best. She advocated pink, laughing, kissing, and being strong when the chips are down. And she believed that happy women are the prettiest women, tomorrow is another day, and that miracles happen. Audrey Hepburn knew a thing or two about miracles because she nearly starved to death during World War II, yet she survived, thrived, and eventually became the mother of her two beloved sons. Audrey would have said the pinnacle of her life was not her Academy Award or her hit films, but her sons. It was her relationships with people she loved, as well as the children around the world that she helped through UNICEF, that were truly important to Audrey. What an inspiration she was, and still is.
May we heed the message of these signs and decide the world is not black or white, but that we all dwell here in this human condition of gray. May we decide that fear and hate will not bring prosperity or healing to our land. May we decide that our thorniest problems are seldom solved with a yes or no answers, or with all or nothing solutions. May we, like Audrey Hepburn, be gracious to ourself, place the oxygen mask on our own face first, and then share our joy and affection with the people we love and share simple kindness with people around us.
Our primary entertainment these days is streaming movies and TV shows, so we are always on the lookout for something we will enjoy watching. A few weeks ago my husband Kurt suggested we rewatch one of our favorite movies, Safety Not Guaranteed, a 2012 independent film starring the infinitely talented Mark DuPlass–who also produced the film through the production company he started with his brother Jay, Big Beach DuPlass Brothers Productions.
We decided the title of this movie should be the headline for the lives we now lead–starting with Spring 2020 and going forward–as we navigate the global coronavirus pandemic.
Sidebar: Some countries have highly organized plans that have worked to keep their people safe, alive, and solvent.
Interesting fun fact: The countries with the best coronavirus responses just happen to have one thing in common: they are led by women.Forbes magazine published an article explaining that the women-led countries of Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, and Taiwan have had the best outbreak responses. Meaning, they have been highly successfully at not only to keeping their people alive and healthy, but also with protecting their citizens’ livelihoods during the quarantine and after.
Sad, non-fun fact: We are not one of those countries. Our once lofty nation–formerly the world’s remaining superpower–has the distinction of being the country with the most people who have contracted the virus (1.77 million or so reported at present) and the most people who have died from it: which as of Friday, according to the CDC, was over 100,000. Also, we have around 20 percent of our people are either unemployed or underemployed. We have no national plan, just non-leadership coming from our federal government with seat-of-the-pants, ad hoc regulations, tweets from our non-planner-in-chief, and daily changes according to which way the wind happens to blow.
Some of the states (such as California, Oregon, and Washington; seven Northeastern seaboard states from Delaware to Massachusetts; and seven mostly Midwestern states including Kentucky, Minnesota, and Ohio) have banded together to come up with regional responses that makes sense. However, people in the majority of states (including our own state of Tennessee) dwell in a limbo land of state, county, and city directives that are often conflicting and inadequate. And we do not have enough testing, tracing, and isolation procedures leading us to the primrose path of a vaccine-for-all, which is perhaps 18 months to three years from now, according to: (1) whether we get lucky in enough labs throughout the world to find vaccines that work and are safe, (2) the virus doesn’t mutate too much, (3) we can produce tons and tons of the vaccine around the world, (4) we can distribute the vaccine to hundreds of millions of people in this country with the attendant vials and shots, and so on, and (5) we can get most people to take the vaccine. Yes, we have a pretty good number of anti-vaxers out there who are against all vaccines on principle. Phew! It makes my head hurt thinking of the obstacles we face.
Sooooo Safety Not Guaranteed could indeed be the title for our lives now. And the movie is perfect for our times as well. It is a love story, a romantic comedy, and a sci-fi adventure rolled into one–which is certainly how my life seems to be currently unfolding.
The movie’s plot: Mark DuPlass plays Kenneth Calloway, a man who purports to have built a time machine, and who places an ad in a local paper for someone to time travel with him. Because who would want to go alone, right? His ad reads:
Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.
Safety Not Guaranteed, written by Derek Connolly
Hard-bitten, narcissistic magazine writer Jeff (played by actor Jack Johnson) notices the ad and receives permission from his editor to surreptiously research a story on Kenneth–and he will have one of his interns write it for him, of course. One of the two interns assigned to the project, Darius Britt (played by Aubrey Plaza), befriends Kenneth and offers her services to travel through time with him. She is snarky, intelligent, thinks well on her feet, and has an immediate connection with our leading man.
The time travel basic training that Kenneth puts Darius through is worth the price of streaming alone (the movie can be streamed on Vudu, Amazon Prime, YouTube, iTunes, and Google Play). The acting, writing, and directing are all first-rate, and hey, folks, (spoiler alert) there is a happy ending.
But for me the takeaway from the film is that we must provide our own structure for a world that no longer makes much sense. In such a topsy-turvy world, you are best served by staying out of the way of as many uninformed bystanders as possible since many of them do not have any idea what is really going on. And you are infinitely fortunate if you can find a fellow traveler who believes in you and wants to be your partner through this time-travel adventure called life.
The movie also reminds us that we do not always have all the information about other people, that it is easy enough to brand someone a loser or a lunatic who may be a guy who has actually created a time travel machine in his garage (metaphorically speaking, that is), and, not only can people surprise us with their ingenuity and humanity, but we can often surprise ourselves as well.
So I leave you with some words to live by in this ever-changing world in which we find ourselves:
Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, if he gets angry, he’ll be a mile away–and barefoot.
Sarah Jackson ~ first recorded in the Lincoln Star (Nebraska) in 1930
Also: stop, drop, and roll, if you suddenly find that your clothes are on fire. You’re welcome.
Although it is true thatevery time in human history is fraught with wars, panics, poverty, hatred, violence, and small-mindedness, it is also true that every time in human history has been visited by humility, kindness, creativity, courage, honor, inspiration, and human love and affection.
As Charles Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way . . .
Charles Dickens, English novelist, (1812-70)
We certainly find ourselves in the 21st Century in a similar flotsam and jetsam with a world-wide pandemic in a time of rollercoaster highs and lows, thrown about in our tiny personal sailboats in the midst of gale-force winds. We are tossed, blown, weary of the uncertainty, fearful of the future, and fearful of the virus killing and maiming and pillaging our bodies, our lives, our country, our collective piece of mind, and our livelihoods.
How to go forward? To what end? This morning I read an article in The Atlantic magazine’s electronic version entitled “You Thought You Were Free, but History Found You”. In this article, Caitlin Flanagan had written a 2020 commencement speech that no one would hear which she dedicated to her two sons and her godson, all graduates of the Class of 2020. She outlined the playing field for these students who are graduating without graduations, entering a workforce with few job prospects.
She wrote that history in the form a world-wide crisis found her father, Thomas Flanagan, when he was a student in 1941, having finally arrived at college from the strictures of his Catholic upbringing, where he could pursue his passionate love of writing. But within months after he arrived, the Japanese attacked our country at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, killing thousands of Americans, and within a blink of an eye her father was on a destroyer in the Pacific in the middle of a world war.
Honor and service was a big deal to the people who lived in the generation before my own. In the introductory moments of each episode of Band of Brothers, the HBO series about the paratroopers of Easy Company who were dropped into Europe just ahead of D-Day, American veterans were interviewed about their experiences during World War II. One veteran noted that two young men in his hometown committed suicide because they were turned away when they tried to enlist just after Pearl Harbor. I cannot imagine young men killing themselves because they could not fight in a war.
When I was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, World War II veterans were the foundation of every civic and church organization and another war, the Vietnam War, was going on. Since I was a small girl, I did not particularly understand anything about Vietnam, except that there was a family down the street whose son was killed in the war. I recall seeing a picture of him framed in the family’s living room, and the pervading gloom of tragedy seemd to engulf their home.
By the time I was old enough to study the history and politics of the Vietnam War, it was over and our country was dealing with the fallout and social unrest that fighting an unwinnable war caused.
There is a case to be made that every war is unwinnable in that so many things are lost when we engage in killing other human beings on such a grand scale. But there is something seductively black-and-white about taking sides with our fellow comrades in arms, sharing goals and values. Even though veterans of any war may wrestle with their dirty hands and unsleepable nights, there is something grand about being part of a great endeavor larger than ourselves. Seeing strange shores, getting out of your one-horse town, having foreign adventures. That is the romance of war for many young men: getting on with life on such a large canvas.
History bites us on the butt, whether we are young, old, or indeterminate. Whether we think great thoughts or whether we just want to slide through our days doing as little as possible. Big events come barreling through our lives smashing furniture, but it is just as hard to deal with the tedium of daily existence when everything is the same, same, same every day.
For many people throughout the world, this COVID-19 pandemic has been a combination of both: a global disaster punctuated with isolation and tedium. For others, this virus is no worse than the common cold, and they cannot understand why everyone is getting all worked up about it. No matter what beliefs people hold regarding the seriousness of the virus, our shattered economy and lack of honest, intelligent, coordinated leadership is leaving us flapping like loose shirts in the breeze.
Some days I feel incredibly grateful that I have a safe home, a large yard to garden, and a job that I can do from home. I pitch my tent in how lucky I am that, despite my self-employed husband losing nearly all his work for the foreseeable future, he is home and we face this crisis together. I have two grandchildren who share their fresh-faced innocence and their pure love and affection with me. I have dear friends and family that I talk to often. I have books to read, food to eat, and music to hear. And I can feel powerful as I dig out that dreaded monkey grass and plant a new bed of flowers, all covered with mulch as if nothing untidy could ever happen in my world.
But I also feel the loss of a shared future, a collective future, a future, as the Brits say, full stop. I read everything I can about the coronavirus and its impact. I read about petty little white men peddling their tiny little ideas about the virus: everything will be fine, we are going to be back to normal any day now, next week, next month. We are all fine; testing is perfect, in fact, anyone can get a test whenever they want one; we have all the personal protective equipment we need for our doctors and nurses and EMTs; our cities and towns and states have all the taxes they need to pay our firefighters, police, teachers, and trash pick-up guys. There is nothing to see here. All good; all dusted.
Nope. None of the above is true. We do not have a normal to get back to any time soon, and all the states–like Georgia and my own home state of Tennessee–led by tiny little white guys who govern with so much ignorance cannot pretend that opening up a few malls and restaurants and beauty salons will make the majority of us feel safe enough to go out and take our chances on a virus that not only slays the elderly in nursing homes, but causes strokes and attacks the organs of formerly strong, healthy people in their 30s and 40s. Yep, that’s the reality of how our particular version of history is upending our personal stories.
I grasp at truths and occasionally go for a ride on them. For me I agree with George Bernard Shaw’s assessment of how to go about living:
This is the true joy of life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright, (1856-1950)
Yes! It is about me not being a selfish little clod of ailments and grievances. It is about me being a force of nature, fighting each day to make a difference in the lives of the people around me. It is about me being an eager foot soldier in that particular fight.
My dearest, darling girl, I am writing to you during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 when you are just 14 months old. And let me tell you, my sweet girl, you are the light of my life. When you see me, you smile and reach out your arms to me, then you attach yourself to my shoulder and neck as a baby monkey attaches itself to its mother and you hold on for dear life–for several minutes, mind you–as if your life depends on it! All the while I kiss you and tell you I love you and hold you close to let you know that you are always welcome and safe in my arms and that I will keep holding you, that you need not be frightened that I won’t. And on our weekly Penny days, we will go in my car and have adventures!
Before each adventure, we must spend a few awkward minutes as I try to get you into that detestable carseat that never seems to fit you properly. The drill: I place you in the carseat then hand you your favorite play-in-the-car toys–the stuffed animal sloth baby; your “car keys” and remote key fob that beep; your two hair brushes, one orange and one black (and you hilariously try to brush your hair always with the back of the brush instead of the bristles); and one of my lipglosses, tightly closed. You are patient during this time as I snap the four-points of the carseat locks, phew! Then I can get in my seat, turn on the car and our music, and off we go!!!! Wheeeeeeee!!!!!!!
Just a few weeks ago we walked around the Island Home neighborhood of South Knoxville with your grandpa Kurt and your great aunt Lisa who is continuing her cancer treatments. Lisa’s four months of chemotherapy and radiation from late October to mid February were brutal, and she was not able to see us much during those months. But now she is having immunotherapy shots which do not cause her to be nauseous and ill as she was before. She says she is in pain all the time, but her painkillers help, so she was able to walk around with us on this mild day in early March. You look up at her in wonderment as she talks and talks and talks. Perhaps you think she sounds like me, but you are confused because she looks different.
Although you recently entered your wary-of-strangers period, you hold Lisa’s hand (along with mine, of course) and look up at her as if you are trying to understand what it all means. I can tell, you sweet darling girl, I too am struggling to understand what it all means these days. People are dying of a new virus that strikes in widely diverse ways: some people get pneumonia and die gasping for breath, some people shake with chills and fevers that are worse then even the flu that I had when I was a freshman in college. Some of the people who have shared their experiences of the virus online say they could not imagine they could feel any worse and actually live. And yet other people have mild symptoms or none at all. This disparity of experience is what makes the virus so dangerous: people can have it for days with no outward symptoms and, if they are around other people, they can infect them and each person’s immune system dictates how bad the virus will be.
I fear for your future, my darling girl! Your father has asthma and is in a high-risk category, meaning my dear, that he could die more easily than other people if he should contract the virus. Your great-aunt Lisa is also in a high-risk category because she has a weakened immune system due to her chemotherapy treatments. Your great-grandmother–my mother, who your father calls Mamaw–is 84 years old in a few weeks. No one has been able to get her to stop going to work at the family business. At least we were able to get her off the cash register which she was still working behind until a few weeks ago. But she goes to work each weekday, except Wednesday which is her day off, and exposes herself to the germs of her co-workers as well as the people who come into buy things. In her defense, we can say she had a stroke a few years ago and maybe that made her more stubborn than before. It also made her less mentally agile too. At her age, if she gets the virus she has a good chance of being one of those people who ends up in the intensive care unit of our local hospital where none of us will be allowed to visit her. And if she should die, we would not be able to hold a funeral for fear of spreading the virus. But we must not dwell on the things that could happen and the things we can do nothing about.
It does indeed sound mad, my dear sweetie, but many people in our family are not taking this virus very seriously at all. Luckily your father is able to work from home; what a relief that he stills has a job and that he can work from home. Although your mother is highly educated with a master’s degree, it is quite lucky that she quit working at her full-time job in the fall of last year to devote more time to her children, so she is safely at home and able to care for you and your adorable older brother Lincoln—who has always been sooooooo dear to my heart! Ah, how I love him, and you!
You may wonder what Lincoln, who is 15 months older than you and is now 2 and a 1/2 years old, has been doing during this time of death and dying in our country. Well, before the outbreak, he had been attending a wonderful Montessori school for about a year, but his school has been closed to keep the virus from spreading. When we saw you and your brother a week or so ago, every time you picked up a toy he took it away from you and emphatically said, “No sir”. We, the adults in the room, would laugh and negotiate with him that he must allow you to have the brown bunny we brought you, that he had his own blue bunny. And really it was ok if you had the red toy when he had the green one, and so on.
Your mother Tracy explained that she and you father had said, “No sir,” to Lincoln about something he was doing and now he has extended this emphatic dictum to you in no uncertain terms. Although it is crazy funny to hear Lincoln hand down his “No sir” judgement in your general direction, and all the adults (Kurt, Tracy, and me) in the room try to get him to see that are plenty of toys for the both of you, you seem to be mostly unbothered by his inability to share. I say mostly because occastionally you complain, but most often you plow forward as if Lincoln’s efforts to control you do not exist at all.
When I carry you into our house, I set your feet on the floor because you have been walking for a few weeks now, my dear! You were here last Friday and when you got in the house, you immediately and very clearly said, “Cat”. You are fascinated by our cat Cadi Kitty who tolerates you pretty well. I showed you that I can point my finger at Cadi Kitty and she sniffs it approvingly, demonstrating that you can stick your tiny finger in front of Cadi Kitty’s nose, and she will bend her nose toward it. Sometimes kitty will allow you to touch the fur near her tail but, for the most part, you toddle toward Cadi Kitty like a little drunk man because you are still getting used to walking on your legs instead of crawling. Of course, kitty walks or runs away and takes shelter in another spot, then hides under or behind a piece of furniture. It isn’t your fault, Penny dear, cats are just very wary of small children. If we had a dog, well, it would be another matter.
And , oh by the way, my darling, it is not clear at this point what you shall call your grandfather Kurt or me. When your parents asked Kurt for his preference in this regard, he agreed that Papa was a heartwarming choice, but neither you nor Lincoln have taken up the charge and called him that. Of course, the only clear words I have heard you say are cat, ki cat (for kitty cat), and mama, ao as you get older you may choose to call him Kurt or Papa or granddad or Poopsie, who knows! As for what you shall call me, I thought about it long and hard when Lincoln was young, and came up with Mimi which isn’t really such a great choice at all. A friend of mine’s grandchildren call her Gigi which I think suits me very well because I love things that are, or sound as if they are, French! But you may choose to call me Anna or Yaya or Boobala, who knows?! I would prefer that you and Lincoln come up with your own name for me, as long as it isn’t terribly depressing name such as Granny or something equally sad.
On a far more important matter, we have the misfortune, my darling girl, of having a president of our country who is the worst possible leader for such an unprecedented health crisis. If all goes well and you live through this pandemic, you will study him in school and shake your head in wonderment that he was the president in charge of our collective lives and livelihoods.
You may wonder that he was elected to lead our country since he got 3 million less votes than the woman who won the majority of votes cast in 2016. This appalling state of affairs was set in motion at the founding of our country. Apparently the slave-owning states in the late 1700s and 1800s did not have enough population to control their destiny among the non-slave-owning states, so they insisted on certain concessions to be part of the Union. First the slave states wanted slaves to account for three-fifths of a person so their power in Congress, based on population, would be greater. Then they wanted elections for the president of the country to be based on something called an Electoral College where the popular vote would not elect the highest office in the land. Instead the people would vote for “electors” who were aligned with each of the two presidential party candidates. These electors would vote for whoever won the vote in their state (although each state had a different view of how to apportion the electors’ votes). This sounds convoluted, and it is. Under this crazy system, twice in this new century, two losing candidates have become president with unfortunate consequences for the country both times.
My dear girl, the first popular-vote-losing president in modern history took our country to war in 2003 over false pretenses which cost the lives of many American soldiers as well as untold numbers of people in Iraq. To this day, 17 years later, Iraq is still an unsettled mess. Our second popular-vote-losing president is the one who leads our country now. Before he ran for president, he hosted a reality television game show of sorts in which contestants vied to win a job in his company. He fired the contestants he did not like in a very dramatic manner. On the show he played the part of a successful businessman, despite all his bankrupt businesses. He was very sure of himself so many people in the country found him to be compelling when he decided to run for the presidency in 2016. In school you can study all the sad decisions made by many people–especially the voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (the three states who m ade the difference in the Electoral College) who voted for this reality show host who had not done anything in his life that wasn’t in his own self-interest. But the main thing we have to hope for now is that in the fall of this year, we will elect a new leader who actually cares for the people in our country and who makes decisions that help everyone in the country not just the people in his tribe who voted for him. Life would be so different with a real leader in charge, but that is enough about that depressing man!
And I must sadly report that the governor of our state of Tennessee has been such a limp rag during this crisis that his only early advisory was for people to pray. While our governor was advocating prayer, the governor of our companion state of Kentucky took early action to save the lives of his people. Now at this point, on March 31, 2020, as published in the The New York Times, there are more than 1600 reported cases of the virus in Tennessee and only 400 or so reported cases in Kentucky. Our state has 6.77 million people and Kentucky has 4.468 million. For another comparison, Texas has 28.7 million people and over 3000 reported cases. So you can see that Tennessee, with its 6.77 million people and 1600+ cases, has more than half the cases of Texas with 28.7 million people. Gee, thanks Governor Bill Lee, for doing so little that many people in our state will die due to your lack of vision and poor leadership. Sheesh! Don’t get me started!
You may ask what we do every day now that your grandfather Kurt and I spend every day at home, sheltering in place. Normally Kurt would be out of town at least half of each month with his work as a self-employed consultant providing training as an independent contractor. But Kurt’s work has been cancelled until July, so as it rains outside, I can hear your grandfather typing a letter on his typewriter in his office upstairs.
If he isn’t tapping on his typewriter, he is playing his guitar or mandolin. Just like your beloved mother who plays the piano, Kurt is a musician! I do not play an instrument, my love, but I do sing to you as often as possible. Besides singing to songs on my Apple playlist, when I give you a bottle, I sing “Sing A Song of Sixpence”, an English nursery rhyme dating to at least the 1700s. The version I grew up hearing from my Irish grandmother and German-Irish mother is different from the one shown on Wikipedia. It goes like this:
Sing a song of sixpence A pocket full of rye Four and twenty blackbirds Baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened The bird began to sing Wasn’t that a dainty dish To set before a king.
The king was in his counting house Counting all his money. The queen was in the parlor Eating bread and honey.
The maid was in the garden Hanging out the clothes When down came a blackbird And snapped off her nose.
You naughty, naughty blackbird I need my little nose To sniff the lovely soap suds When I wash the clothes.
I’ll get a sugar cookie And hang it on a tree If you will find my little nose And bring it back to me.
Our family’s version of the traditional English nursery rhyme
While Kurt is upstairs, I am in my office downstairs writing to you. During these last few weeks of staying mostly at home, weather permitting, I fight the weeds in my flower beds, tend my small kitchen garden, or go for a walk holding hands with Kurt. Before this crisis, we ate a great deal of our meals in restaurants, but now restaurants are closed except for curb-side pickup. We try to support our favorite restaurants, Farmacy (a restaurant owned by our friend Bettina) and Benefit Your Life (a gluten-free restaurant in West Knoxville) by picking up a meal at their door and eating it in our car. But a restaurant meal doesn’t happen more than once a week, so we cook alot, with grocery store shopping being our main forays into the world.
I go to my part-time job at the family business around once a week to take photos that I place on social media. I talk with girl friends occasionally on the phone which allows us to share experiences of how our lives have changed since the lock down–and occasionally we laugh which is quite welcome since there is not much to laugh about these days. And let me make it clear to you, my sweetheart, that we never in all the world thought we would be living like this, buttoned up in the house as the COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) wages its war on humankind. Older people are most at risk, but even a few children as young as you have died as well. Ever so sad, the deaths, no matter the age of the people involved.
Up to this point, the hardest part of living in this time is the unknown and unknowable aspects of it all. Will we catch the virus? If so, will we have a mild version of it or will we get pneumonia and need to be hospitalized? Will our loved ones get the virus, and we will not be able to see them for fear of getting sick ourselves? Will people we love die and we cannot celebrate their lives by giving them a funeral? If we get ill with the virus, where can we go for medical attention now that our primary care physicians’ office has said they are not going to perform coronavirus testing and will see people mostly by teleconferencing? Will our hospitals in Knoxville have enough ventilators for all the seriously ill people who will be fighting for each breath? Will our governor stop being an inmitigated disaster and more strictly define essential business and ban all large gatherings to save lives, including church services and funerals? When will our friends who have lost their jobs go back to work? When will Kurt go back to work? What about our friends who own small businesses who are suffering with little income or none? Will there be enough personal protective equipment to protect the medical professionals who are fighting on the front lines of this pandemic? Will the decisions that need to be made to save our people and country be made in a timely manner or at all? If we get sick and need urgent medical care, will we be able to afford to pay the medical bills even though we have health insurance? What about the people who have lost their health insurance because they have lost their jobs?
Yes, my dearest darling, this is a harrowing time. But I will tell you that my great-grandmother Cordelia Nichols Montgomery lived through the horrendous influenza outbreak of 1918, even though she lost her beloved daughter Luva Vera to the flu at the age of 10 in Fries, Virginia. Earlier Cordelia also lost her first baby daughter Rose Elizabeth who died the same day she was born on January 31, 1899. Cordelia’s much-loved husband John died at the age of 53 of hepatic carcinoma, the most common form of liver cancer. And she lost my grandmother Darcus at the age of 31, four months after my father was born in 1935. In fact, of her four daughters, Cordelia had only one daughter, Eutaw Regina, who lived and thrived as an adult. Fortunately Cordelia had five sons who all lived into adulthood, she came from a line of strong women, and she had her faith to console her in hard times.
So my dear Penelope Rose, you have ancestors who endured hardships and lived on. What else is in your favor, my sweet girl? Even though it is not a wise choice during a pandemic, your nearly 84-year-old paternal great-grandmother Arzelia (yes, it is a singular name for a decidedly unique woman) still works five days a week and, until a few weeks ago, she worked a cash register in a thriving business. Your great aunt Lisa is now fighting her second battle with cancer and still manages to weed her yard, walk around the neighborhood, and bring enthusiasm and her positive nature to everything she does. Your mother and father are devoted to you and your brother–and my dear girl, you have two–count them–two sets of grandparents who adore you and your brother and live in the same town as you, which is not a done deal for everyone these days.
Here is my prayer, my sweet darling, that I can live as long as possible so you will have my unconditional love for as long as I can give it. I sense that we are made of the same fiber: We are both passionate, independent, fiercely affectionate, and interested in everything around us. We want to know things for ourselves.
I am now reading a book that is a tribute to a relationship between a feisty woman named Bobby and her much-adored granddaughter Bess who was the light of her life, as you are of mine. Bess Kalb, who is a writer for the Jimmy Kimmel television show, wrote this book entitled Nobody Will Tell You This But Me, in the voice of her grandmother. They were soul mates, my dear Penny Rose, as I hope we will always be. Anyway, when I discovered this book I could not stop reading it and have nearly finished it. I am reading the digital version now with two copies of the book being shipped to me on Friday. Yes, it is that kind of book, and I must share it with as many people as I can. Bess suggested on her Twitter page that people buy her book from their local bookstore. For us, sweet girl, that bookstore is Knoxville’s independent downtown bookseller Union Avenue Books. It is a wonderful bookstore that you and I must visit–after the pandemic crisis is over!
One of the stories that I highlighted in my digital copy of the book is the story of when Bess, a very sensitive girl, would cry every day the babysitter tried to take her to nursery school. So Bess’s mother called her own mother Bobby who lived in another state and asked if she, Bobby, could take Bess to school.
I hung up and got on a plane. She didn’t even finish her next sentence.
We walked into the school, took the elevator up, and when the doors opened you squeezed my hand so hard it almost fell off. You looked straight ahead like I was marching you off the plank. I crouched down to hug you goodbye. You started breathing fast, and your little heart was beating right through your coat and tears started streaming down your cheeks at full force. Big, round tears, I thought someone would call the police. So I took your red face in my hand and looked you in the eye, and I said, ‘Angel, I’ll be right here. Right outside this door. I’m not going anywhere.’ You stopped crying. You knew I wouldn’t lie to you. You didn’t even ask me to promse, you just wiped your eyes with your two hands and walked right in.
Thank God I had The New York Times in my handbag.
Two minutes later–maybe one minute–I heard a little knock on the door. That was our code. So I popped my head up so you could see me through the window on the door and gave you a big, wide smile. ‘Everything’s okay! You’re all right. Grandma’s here.’ You nodded and headed back to the circle of kids. Then five minutes later–knock-knock-knock-knock-knock!–and I popped up through the window and smiled. Then ten minutes, twenty, thirty, and so on. But all day, unless you were napping, you’d give a knock and there I’d be, smiling like a showgirl, letting you know it would be all right. I’m here. You’re safe.
I didn’t get through a single article.
It happened all week. By Friday, you didn’t knock. That’s when I cried.
Nobody Will Tell you This But Me by Bess Kalb, published by Knopf
My dearest, darling girl, that is exactly what I want for you: I want to be here for you, smiling like a showgirl, for as long as possible. So that you will know: Everything’s okay. You are alright. Gigi is here!
May you always be ever so yourself for all of your days! And may I be there cheering on the sidelines, encouraging you every step of the way!
He who owns a rood of proper land in this country, and in the face of all the pomonal riches of the day, only raises crabs and chokepears, deserves to lose the respect of all sensible men. --Andrew Jackson Downing