Memorial Day

Memorial Day weekend is a little different for us this year. We’re on day four of our Covid isolation. No dragging the chairs out of the basement for the long-awaited first trip to the outdoor pool. No picnic for friends and family. My husband will not leave early tomorrow morning for a parade and solemn cemetery performance with his drum corps. Instead, there were frantic phone calls and emails yesterday to plan parade logistics, since several leaders of the corps are also Covid positive.

It’s not so bad, really. Thanks to the miracle of vaccines, our symptoms are mild, almost non-existent. The downside is that it’s so easy to shrug off a sneeze or two or a slightly hoarse voice. We were business as usual until those two lines showed up on the test I took almost as an after-thought on Thursday morning. And then there’s the guilt—contacting the hairstylist and the choir director and the other people we may have unknowingly infected. My friends in the medical profession tell me Covid’s like wildfire right now, partly because people just don’t realize they have it, assuming it’s allergies or a minor cold.

But we’re comfortable at home where there are always chores to do, and Giant Direct brought me exactly what I ordered at the exact time promised. We sit on our porch and enjoy the birds in the backyard and the antics of our dogs in hot pursuit of squirrels and chipmunks and marvel at the gigantic snapping turtle that has taken up residence on a bed of grass clippings behind our shed. We have been forced to slow down and stop the madness, at least briefly, and yes, even for us retired folks, there is still plenty of madness.

I think about the Memorial Days I experienced growing up. Small town parades were a Big Deal. The grown-ups wore little red poppies sold by the veterans’ organizations, and we stood along the sidewalks to honor those who had fought in two World Wars, Korea, and Viet Nam. We could finally wear our flip-flops again, and the snowball man and Mr. Softee returned, clanging their bells in the summer evening twilight. Decoration Day meant the re-opening of my grandparents’ “verandah”–the covered porch where we spent many an evening eating produce from my grandfather’s garden and watching the lightning bugs dance or reading books on rainy afternoons.

But this year Memorial Day takes on an even deeper meaning after the horror and tragedy of this past week. This morning we streamed the service from the National Cathedral which became our virtual church home during the pandemic. The Dean of the Cathedral, Randy Hollerith, preached, and as always, connected scripture to the reality in which we live. As he listed the statistics from recent mass shootings, a child began to cry somewhere out in the congregation. This was serious wailing, not just a disgruntled sniffle or two. His or her sobs reverberated throughout the massive vault of the cathedral, as piercing as the solemn notes of taps sounding over a silent cemetery on Memorial Day. And all I could think of were the tears and screams of those nineteen children and their devastated families. That child cried for all of us.

Indelible Images

The images are too pervasive, and I can’t get away from them, much as I’d like to.

The woman standing in front of the pancake mixes and bottles of syrup in the local grocery store announcing, “Well, now, we can’t even have Aunt Jemima anymore. It has to be ‘Pearl Milling Company’ because someone had to throw a tantrum and pound their fists on the floor because Aunt Jemima hurt their widdy-biddy feelings.” She said it with a sneer in her voice and loudly enough that anyone within close proximity could easily have heard her. At literally the same time in another grocery store a few hundred miles to the north, a young man was murdering people because their skin was black.

News coverage about the mass shooting in Buffalo, was immediately followed by a political ad. It showed the candidate and his family, including grandma, dressed in cheery plaid jackets and all happily carrying firearms as he reassured voters he would fight for their second amendment rights.

The wooden signs on a property I’m forced to see every time I leave my development. “Diversity equals Marxism.” “Families united under God.” “No more CRT.”

The horror of a young woman shot to death while her toddler sat in the car, apparently because her neighbor was angry about a property dispute.

The shootings that occur almost every day in the community where I live.

And now, these beautiful innocent children and their teachers. Again.

I was still teaching when Columbine happened and then Nickel Mines and then the assassination of a principal at a neighboring school district. I watched events unfold at Sandy Hook on my classroom TV. I was still teaching when we first learned the word lockdown and practiced code reds. Students would carefully lay their instruments on their chairs and huddle behind my desk, giggling and restless, while I turned out the lights, pulled the shades, and pushed an official red folder under the door listing the students who were with me. As if that would stop anyone.

Now that the first twenty-four hours of horror are over, I can already sense those who steer the wheels of power turning away from these brutally murdered children. I heard it in the carefully worded statements from the governor of Texas, pinning the blame squarely on the lack of accessibility to mental health services. Point taken, but he neglected to mention that this individual was able to legally buy assault weapons that would destroy a human being from the inside out in a state that says he’s not yet old enough to drink. I heard it in the blathering of one of their senators, insisting that arming our teachers and turning schools into fortresses would solve the problem.

I guess I’m naïve, but I didn’t grow up in a world like this. Never could I imagine that the lust for power would take precedence over human life. But that’s our reality. The monstrous leviathan of political influence is driving this country into oblivion, and it’s utterly terrifying. I know the country has always been governed by what happens in the smoke-filled back rooms, but never to the point of condoning the murder of innocent people, over and over again. What’s changed, I suppose, is we now have the technology to ensure that the right messages, regardless of their truth, reach the right people. Holding onto a senate seat and doing everything possible to destroy the opposing political party, regardless of what’s best for the country is all that matters. Soon the propaganda machines and lobbyists will start spewing, “Yes, but they’re going to take your hunting rifles,” and we’ll just keep on murdering each other, wringing our hands, and offering thoughts and prayers.

The Birds at My Window

I grew up in a family of backyard bird-watchers. My grandfather hung feeders on poles high off the ground that aligned with the windows of what he called his den—the room with the old-fashioned typewriter and a worn green leather recliner smelling faintly of Old Spice after-shave. He’d crank the casement windows open, and I would help him fill different kinds of seed feeders and dab peanut butter into logs with holes drilled into them. He taught me to identify chickadees and male and female cardinals and different kinds of finches, and in the spring, we’d listen to their calls.  My mother kept feeders although she was a little less diligent, so hers were more prone to squirrel reconnaissance and destruction.

This year I moved one of the suet feeders outside a window near our kitchen table. The nuthatches and downy woodpeckers convene there for morning coffee hour–nibbling at the seed-encrusted block of fat and chatting amongst themselves. A crowd of obnoxious starlings shows up in the late afternoons, and I’m occasionally greeted with a view of a spread-eagled squirrel balanced on the pole. The terriers are happy to dispatch all unwanted encroachers.

The feeder is positioned in the window right above the small TV where we watch the news, and I can’t help but notice the contrast between what I see on the screen and what I see outside my window. In fact, I’m not sure I could watch the news without knowing those birds are right outside, doing what they always do – eating and chattering and sipping from the birdbath, now warmed with a heater. They are a source of comfort and reminder that nature is still there in the midst of the terrible chaos of the world.

Some days I think my jaw can’t drop any lower in shock and horror with what I’m seeing. It’s all I can do to watch the innocent people of Ukraine having their lives and country destroyed by a tyrant consumed with greed and lust for power. Almost worse than what I watch is what I hear—the barrage of lies, cruelty, and manipulation of the truth that has become our new normal. The mass consumption of disinformation, fueled by the rants and blathering of social media, is not only tearing us apart but creating an epidemic of rude and selfish behavior everywhere from stores and airline flights to school board meetings. Last night, when I heard shouting during the President’s speech, I thought perhaps hecklers had gotten into the House Chamber, but it came from two of our own elected representatives.

Each morning, this curmudgeonly retiree stares out her window to hold onto some balance and perspective. An entire flock of red-winged blackbirds gathered under the seed feeders this week, so they’re officially back in the neighborhood. I saw a bluebird inspecting the house in the front yard for possible occupancy and the finches are hitting the thistle seed especially hard—maybe it takes extra calories to start turning yellow? In another month, I’ll replace the wire suet feeders with red plastic bowls of sugar water and start checking the migration maps for the hummingbirds’ progress. As I provide food, water, and shelter for these beautiful creatures, I long for the innocence of the days when I learned about wild birds at my grandfather’s side. But the fact that the birds I watched as a child still return with each passing season gives me hope, and I am grateful for their song.

What I’ve Learned from Quarantine, Part 2

I wrote about what I learned from quarantine way back in the spring and thought I’d revisit, now that we’re closing the books on 2020.

I am incredibly grateful for my health.

I never dreamed the new reading chair I bought in fall of 2019 would get so much use.

Our twenty-three-year-old, no-repairs-ever-and-still-going-strong dishwasher should be in the appliance hall of fame.

I don’t know if it’s a result of the pandemic or my age or having endured a year of the ghastly festering wound that is American politics, but my tolerance for artificiality and spin is at its lowest ebb. Speak honestly, be real, and please, lose the buzzwords.

My new bread machine is significantly more advanced than its 90’s predecessor but still has a tendency to want to hurl itself off the counter in a frenzy of over-enthusiastic kneading.

Sitting back and watching the world on a screen instead of living in it is frustrating, and yet, I’ve learned a lot from being a quiet observer.

There are wonderfully kind and knowledgeable Comcast customer service representatives. Seriously. So many are working so hard trying to get it right.

Much as we love supporting restaurants with take-out orders, it’s just not the same eating the meals at home at your own kitchen table.

I am very much a creature of habit. In a world where familiar structure and routine have been upended,  I find myself clinging to those habits even more fiercely. That being said, I’ve also learned to appreciate  new and different ways to accomplish something that I may have resisted in “normal times.”

I always feel awkward in zoom meetings—not knowing when to talk or accidentally interrupting someone who decides to talk at the same time. Meanwhile, the cat is lurking on the back of my chair or padding across the keyboard.

Technology, love it or hate it, has flat-out saved our butts this year. Same to be said for streaming TV.

I am determined to use the calendar on my phone instead of my trusty pocket planner even though I could write things down in half the time it takes me to text in all this stuff and scroll through the start and stop times. And there will be no stickers, ever.

Even though I will forever miss them, I am relieved not to be shepherding elderly parents through a pandemic. I know friends who are on that journey and cannot imagine their pain and isolation.

I’ve learned so much (including South African slang) from my online writers group of Chicago-based ladies who have very different backgrounds from mine.

When this is over, I may need a 12-step group for addiction to online Scrabble and Solitaire.

I greatly miss in-person worship. But the view from the virtual pews of other churches, especially the Washington National Cathedral, is reshaping my faith in surprising ways.

Sometimes I need one of those signs found in senior facilities that remind residents what day it is, what activities are planned and when happy hour starts.

You’re never too old for new life, even if it’s in the form of a puppy. (Check back with me in a month and see where I am on this.)

Wishing all of us some form of new life in this next and has-to-be-better year.