Redux

As we make our way through these bizarre days of virus quarantine, I think about what my grandfather experienced during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. He was in his last year of medical residency at what was known then as Graduate Hospital, a now defunct teaching institution affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in Philadelphia. That September, a Navy ship from Boston docked in the harbor and within days, 600 sailors were diagnosed, and the disease spread rapidly among the civilian population. With a significant percentage of doctors and nurses serving overseas in the Great War, massive responsibility fell to the student doctors and nurses, who, along with civilians, were left to care for the ill, often going directly into their homes. Philadelphia became the American city with the highest and most rapidly accumulating death toll in what was then the worst pandemic in recorded history.

Young Dr. Denney 2I never knew the strikingly handsome, and I suspect, brilliant young intern who bravely ministered to Philadelphia’s Spanish Flu sufferers in 1918 as a not-yet-fully-licensed physician. I only knew the gentle and kindly man who cared for me during my typical childhood illnesses, dispensing various colored stomach potions and cough syrups from his black leather bag. I never knew my grandfather before a stroke caused him to limp, and as a sick child, the most soothing sound in the world was his sliding foot and thumping cane coming back the linoleum-floored hallway to my bedroom. My parents told me he saved my life when I contracted a particularly vicious form of  measles when I was very young, insisting that I be admitted to the hospital over the protestations of others. People in my hometown still tell stories about how my grandfather treated them or a family member with skill, compassion, and frequently, a robust sense of humor.

Now, 102 years later, there are more ships docked at the harbor. This time, they’re cruise ships filled with potentially sick passengers and we call it Corona virus instead of Spanish Flu. Despite our constant access to every detail of what’s happening, despite our modernized sanitation procedures and our exponential increase of scientific knowledge, we’re still at the mercy of nature. For the majority of us alive today, this is new and unprecedented territory.

We’re just as scared and discombobulated as the citizens of Philadelphia were in September 1918, perhaps more so, because of the constant bombardment of information. I suspect, that in our easy-access-to-everything world of 2020, we’re probably less resilient and less prepared than our ancestors were for a pandemic. Most of us simply are not used to hardship of any kind, even if hardship is defined as staying out of our favorite restaurants and bars, giving up social events and remaining in the comfort of our homes, armed with Netflix and Amazon Prime.

But what gives me hope is the dedication of the health care professionals putting their lives on the line for us throughout these difficult days. Not just those who speak for the government and the news networks, but the unsung heroes–the doctors, nurses, and maintenance people who are in the trenches, swabbing the nostrils of the potentially ill and swabbing the surfaces of every item we touch. A nurse friend recently remarked that just constantly getting in and out of the haz-mat clothing is exhausting in itself. In all of those people, I see the legacy of my grandfather and those that fought this same battle in 1918. I see  the same brave willingness to place a gloved, yet comforting hand on a sick patient, and the indefatigable spirit of caring that defines who we are as humans.

spanish flu don't spit sign

 

Strange Times

I am not old enough to remember the scourges of  the previous century–the diphtheria, typhoid fever, and polio that put sinister quarantine signs on people’s doors and kept children away from swimming pools and playgrounds. But in this age of mass immunizations and state-of-the-art medical care, here we are.

Are we fanning hysteria or being proactive and sensible and where’s the line? This isn’t like a snowstorm or weather disaster where there will be a finite end to the event, albeit with damage and interruption to our daily lives along the way. This is way more than closed roads and downed trees. The one thing we know is that we don’t know what to expect and how to prepare, outside of washing our hands and obsessively using hand sanitizer.

This week, an elderly relative was hospitalized due to complications from the flu, not the famous virus. She was utterly debilitated, and her other chronic health conditions were significantly worsened by this strain of the flu. Her caregivers wore full haz-mat gear. She is a vital and active ninety-year-old, but she remains in the hospital, recovering. Watching this unfold definitely skewed my perspective.

We are told that for those who are healthy, the virus may cause a period of fever, discomfort and coughing. Nothing worse than what most of us have experienced many times in our life as a result of a cold or other run-of-the-mill viral infection. But it’s our inter-connectedness that comes into play. We are not alone, regardless of how those greedy buyers of mass quantities of hand sanitizer and toilet paper perceive themselves. We have an obligation to care for, and about, each other. And until we know more, we must protect those who are most vulnerable even at the cost of our own wants and needs.

Right now, on a tiny, tiny scale, my husband and I fret about what will happen to the concerts and events planned by the musical organizations with which we are involved. Those events are often attended by older people who are most at-risk and contingency plans are being discussed.  I cannot begin to imagine the implications for schools and colleges, athletic events, medical and care facilities, transportation centers, restaurants and stores. It is not an overstatement to say that our entire way of life may be impacted for the foreseeable future.

I am not one to over-react. To be honest, I never get flu shots because thirty-four years of touching germ-laden violins has given me a pretty healthy immune system. My husband and I hope we don’t have to miss the St. Patrick’s Day parade or the symphony or anything else on the calendar this month. I am washing my hands more frequently, and I may pick up a few extra pantry staples on this week’s grocery run. We are erring on the side of common sense infused with a healthy dose of caution. But if a government entity tells us to stay home, we will. I hope the pandemic is short-lived, but if nothing else, in this era of bitter and hateful division, it reminds us of our common humanity and that we are so very much all in this together.

It’s Our Turn

It really is, you know. Now is the time for the Baby Boomers and those traveling close behind who are retired or have more flexibility in their schedules to keep things going. It’s our turn to make sure the symphonies, the regional theaters, the dance companies and choirs, the Scout troops and the civic and philanthropic organizations—all of the non-profit entities that enrich our lives and communities, survive. Because those organizations lift us up, and Lord knows, we need that right now. Those of us of a certain age must get in the weeds, get our hands dirty, and make it happen for the next wave coming after us.

People ask what my husband and I do all day, besides dealing with pets. We sit in front of the computer writing grant proposals to fund a drum corps or promotional materials for a choir. We make calls and send emails to obtain copyright permissions for music to be performed and surf the web to find the best chairs and risers for a church concert series. We develop succession plans for the artistic director of an organization and write copy to update website pages. We spend a lot of time figuring out the best way to sustain organizations we care about—whether that means asking people for a fifty-dollar program advertisement or a five-figure endowment. Sometimes it’s frustrating work and we don’t get paid and that’s okay, because it’s our turn.

It’s easy to be resentful and whine that younger people don’t do their share, and that’s because it’s not their turn yet. They’re overwhelmed with just getting through the day, meeting the constant demands of jobs and family. Even without kids of my own, I didn’t have the time or energy to do this kind of work when I was teaching, and yet I still participated in and benefited from organizations for which others did the grunt-work.

So, I’m not sure we should wring our hands too much because our boards of directors are not filled with thirty-somethings. I think, when the time is right, they will serve because like us, they loved being part of the Youth Symphony or the choir or the theater. Or they loved being in Girl Scouts or playing volleyball at the YMCA or taking art lessons or participating in any of the hundreds of opportunities available in this community alone. Choose what you love or what changed your life—for us, it was music– and work hard for it when the time is right.

Recently, my husband and I attended the Harrisburg Symphony’s spectacular performance of Porgy and Bess. I thought of all that went on behind the scenes to make it happen—everything from the people who raised the money to the staff who cleaned the restrooms. Thousands and thousands of hours of work, much of it unpaid, just so we could sit there and hear a world-class baritone sing, “Bess, you is my woman, now.” We cannot lose those moments, or shy away from the work needed to sustain them.

Decluttering

The bed in our guest room serves as the staging area for items destined for rummage sales and Purple Heart pick-ups. The ten-year-old sweater that’s sprung a hole, the electric can opener that only works on Mondays when there’s a full moon, the pants that alas, have become too tight in the waist. (mine, never my husband’s.) I love the British tradition of Boxing Day when that which was replaced by Christmas gifts is boxed up and donated to those in need. Sometimes I think of January as Boxing Month. Once the halls are no longer decked, I look around my home and take stock. Things that have been quietly minding their own business gathering dust on shelves or hiding discreetly in closets for years are vulnerable to my annual New Year’s purging.

I am of the when-in-doubt-throw-it-out persuasion and of course, my husband is of the opposite school of thought, but that’s a topic for another post. Where I get stuck is with those items that remain in a sort of purgatory, with “yes, buts” attached to them. The twenty boxes of family slides that there is no point in digitizing, but might I need them as fodder for my writing? Same with a collection of teenaged diaries. Can I really send them to the landfill? Or picture albums from my first wedding, but they contain the last photographs ever taken of my mother. A dingy army footlocker in the basement belonging to a beloved uncle who served in World War II. Orioles stuff, oh, so much Orioles stuff from Wheaties boxes featuring Jim Palmer to a carrier of full classic coke bottles emblazoned with Cal Ripken’s number 8 jersey. Maybe if we keep it long enough, it will bring their mojo back?

Kitchen shelf 2

 

Yes, I know it’s called E-bay or contacting a reputable antique dealer and moving on. There are certain things I’m ready to do that with—the Norman Rockwell collectible plates from the 80’s and 90’s, the pressed glass tumblers belonging to my grandmother that I will never, ever use, those old wooden skis that simply moved from leaning against the basement wall of my husband’s family home to the same position in our basement.

I am not a proponent of the Marie Kondo method where you touch each item and examine its relationship with your inner child before deciding its fate, (I mean, who does that?) but it’s hard, sometimes, knowing when to let go. And yet, there’s only so much room in our homes and in our lives. Becoming a little less encumbered with stuff, allows us to see things we’ve missed, clears our heads as well as our spaces, and gives us breathing room.

Sometimes we find another way to bring an item back to purposeful life. My husband has happily taken possession of the tablet I had to have which sat on my desk, unused, ever since I got a smart phone. The diamond from my mother-in-law’s engagement ring now rests in a beautiful pendant worn by my godchild. And at the extreme end, the proceeds from the sale of my father’s massive collection of railroad memorabilia helped to restore a classic steam locomotive which will, after nearly twelve years, finally make its debut in Colorado this summer.

But those instances are the exceptions. More often, we’ve got to figure out for ourselves when something no longer tells our story or the connection’s been lost to whatever made us cling to that book, vase, or set of candlesticks in the first place. At the same time, we are allowed to say, “I must keep this item because it’s important to me no matter how it’s seen or valued by others.”

I was reminded of this when a friend recently described moving her elderly father-in-law’s new wife from her tiny apartment into his home. My friend and another family member filled plastic tubs with the contents of jam-packed kitchen cupboards, while the older woman sat alone in another room, patiently sorting through hundreds of recipe cards for the meals she’d cooked over the years, deciding which she would take with her and which she would leave behind.

Tiny Stars

Outside the beautiful church where we sang one of our Christmas concerts lies a sad mound of raggedy sleeping bags and blankets that serves as a bedroom for those who have no home. There is a tendency to avert your eyes as you drive by, to use that “if-I-don’t-see-it, it-doesn’t-exist” mentality which is so easy for those of us who are blessed with more than we need. And yet, a chorale member saw to it that one of our recordings was included in a fund-raiser CD which to date has raised $20,000 to combat homelessness in this city. Not as much impact as being out there with coffee and sandwiches every night, but it was something. It was a step.

Today, for the first time, someone invited us to talk about an issue that has upset us greatly for almost a year. I don’t know that all of our questions were answered or that the situation was resolved, but it was a kind and gracious gesture coming from a person on whom I have hurled anger and blame. In the wall of frustration and bitterness that I’ve erected, a sincere apology and a willingness to listen cracked open a door.

In the midst of the terrible war of words coming from the mouths of our leaders, someone from a totally unexpected place stepped out and said, “This is wrong, and no political gain is worth this behavior. This is not who we are or how we treat each other, regardless of our beliefs.” What he wrote may not change anything, but it was a powerful and courageous symbol of hope.

On a much smaller scale, after a nightmare customer service experience with an online company, I reached a lovely woman who went to extraordinary lengths to resolve my problem. When we finally ended the call, we were on a first-name basis and I thought she was going to invite me to her mid-western home for hot-dish. I shuddered when I saw the line at Kohl’s spiraling back the aisle, but the smiling cashiers were working as quickly as they could, I had a nice chat with the gentleman in front of me, and no one held up the line trying to use counterfeit Kohl’s cash or outdated coupons.

I don’t know that any of us will ever see a star in the East or have enough oil to keep our lamps miraculously lit for eight days. But when a tiny star pierces the darkness in an unexpected place, it still sheds light, perhaps all the more brilliantly because it’s singular and catches us unaware. I think many of us feel blanketed by darkness for so many reasons—some terrible and life-changing, some because of the burdens we carry, and some simply because of the world we live in right now. If you’re lucky enough to glimpse one of those tiny stars, cherish its light, see what it illuminates, and maybe take the occasional poke at the darkness yourself.

Wishing everyone a season filled with love, celebration, and tiny stars.

 

 

 

 

A Perspective on the Demise of Midnight Mass

I realize I’m a curmudgeonly dinosaur, but I miss late-night church on Christmas Eve. I know, I know, everyone’s exhausted and has obligations the next day, and no one wants to come out at that hour anymore, but I still miss it.

I was about seven when my parents decided I was old enough to go to midnight mass with them on Christmas Eve, and I could barely contain my excitement. After the starkness of Advent, I was awestruck walking into the candlelit church, bedecked with garlands of real pine and laurel and with banks of brilliant poinsettias filling the chancel. That child-like joy has remained with me over the years, and I don’t think I have missed a Christmas Eve late service ever since.

There is something about going to church in the middle of the night that makes the mystery of Christ’s birth all the more meaningful. Once a year, we make the effort to say this is special, this is a wondrous event that pulls us out of the realm of the mundane. In the church where I grew up, at the stroke of midnight, the service paused as the baby Jesus was gently placed in the manger. To me, that was Christmas, and everything else was just window-dressing.

But like so many things in mainline churches, all has changed in an effort to keep getting those elusive bodies into the pews. I suspect God doesn’t care when you worship, and it’s better to be practical and offer services when people are willing to come. The first time I attended the midnight service in my current church, the ushers wore tuxes. Now, sadly, we struggle to get enough ushers to volunteer. After years of decreasing attendance at the late service and threats of mutiny amongst the choir members, the decision was made to move the service earlier, and it looks like that will stand for the foreseeable future.

Last year, we fulfilled our commitments at our home church and then attended a midnight service in a nearby town. The sanctuary was filled to capacity and it was a glorious celebration. I shed a few tears for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it just felt so good and so much like the Christmases I knew growing up. When we looked at church websites to find a late service for this year, there were few listed, so I’m not sure if we’ll get to one or not.

In the meantime, my husband and I have been rehearsing with the choir of a church where a friend and former teaching colleague is the director. We’re helping to sing their cantata because it might be the last time I get to do this. My friend is fighting a deadly form of cancer and he’s tired and the treatment has taken its toll. I’m there partly because I want to sing and partly in case he needs a back-up conductor.  He’s still very much himself, though, full of snarky remarks and loving his music schmaltzy and over-the-top. But as we sang Dan Forrest’s gorgeous arrangement of Silent Night, and I watched my friend’s face glow with pride and emotion, I thought this cantata service may well be my midnight mass this year–a wondrous event that pulls us out of the realm of the mundane. Everything else is just window-dressing.

St. John's star

 

 

 

Quiet Season

This weekend I have been reminded of the beauty and peace to be found in quiet. In dialing back and dialing down from the hype and the shouting and the constant bombardment of, well, almost everything these days.

A good friend joined us for a lovely and simple Thanksgiving dinner accompanied by the view of the creek and wildlife outside our Ocean Pines home. We are at the stage in our lives where holidays don’t always involve complicated meals planned and prepped for days for a crowd around a dining room table laden with china and crystal glassware. Not that I don’t occasionally enjoy hosting meals like that, but I’ve discovered  turkey tastes just as good eaten from Corningware plates using unmatched kitchen silverware.

Assateague pony (2)Ocean City, minus the crazed summer vacationers, gratefully sets aside all the trappings of a resort and reverts back to its charming small-town self. Walking the pathways and beaches of the nearly deserted Assateague Island looking for ponies feels far more productive than rushing to spend money on more stuff we don’t need. Sitting in a nearly empty theater watching Tom Hanks work his magic in the movie about the life of Mr. Rogers was a profound testimonial to the power of gentleness and remaining quiet, of taking the time to listen and really hear what others are saying. There is a scene in the movie where Mr. Rogers asks the troubled man with him to “close your eyes for a full minute and think about all the people whose love brought you into being.” I suspect everyone in the theater did the same thing.

st Paul's by the sea (2)On Sunday, we attended our home-away-from-home church a block from the boardwalk. It is a small church with a dwindling congregation and yet there is always a moving and powerful message from the rector and a warm welcome from the parishioners who know us as “the singers.” I am grateful to be part of a denomination which cherishes the quiet anticipation of Advent instead of rushing headlong into Christmas. Our sanctuaries are unadorned with greenery until that final Sunday before Christmas, and we sing beautiful Advent hymns rather than Christmas carols. I love my over-the-top Christmas trees and the excitement of the season as much as anyone, and yet, the older I get, the more I appreciate the feeling of expectation, of saving the best for last.

We’ve been coming to the beach at Thanksgiving for years. When we were both teaching, it was a brief respite from the crazy schedule of concerts and school obligations that filled our Decembers. The days when we decorated Christmas trees late at night and tried to cram in pre-internet shopping whenever we could. Our lives are considerably less frenzied now and yet, perhaps more than ever, given the social and political climate in which we live, I need to watch the ducks floating by on Manklin Creek while a heron soars into the sky on its majestic wings. To see the rough-coated ponies of Assateague meandering down the road, stopping to nibble some grass, flicking their tails in the late afternoon sunlight. To hear the eternal sound of the ocean waves lapping the shore as a hardy and brave surfer emerges from the icy cold water in his wetsuit. To curl up on the sofa and read the stories of Wendell Berry for the first time.

Tomorrow, we go home to rehearsals and appointments and getting the Christmas tree and stressing about everything we read and hear on the news. We go back to texts and emails and to-do lists. In the midst of this over-commercialized time of year, in the midst of angry words coming at us from all directions, in the midst of unrealistic expectations of Hallmark-movie-perfect holidays, I remind myself to hold fast to quiet season at the beach—to the beauty of nature undisturbed and being still long enough to hear the voices around us.

Assateague ocean