Friday, July 3, 2020

Pandemic postcard #16: Happy Interdependence Day

" ... when it comes to creating a multiracial, multiethnic, multireligious, democratic society, we are still a developing nation." -- Vincent Harding to Krista Tippett, On Being, 2011 (rebroadcast this week)

I used to love the Fourth of July--then 2003 happened. That Independence Day was the first one after our country went to war in Iraq on false pretenses. I was in Casper, Wyoming, visiting family and attending a holiday celebration at the local events center. From the fireworks to the jingoistic music to the diesel-belching monster trucks, it all rubbed me the wrong way. Being in Dick Cheney's hometown didn't help.

Of course, many of us now view the Bush-Cheney era with a mild pang of nostalgia. Things were bad then, but we had no idea how much worse they could get. Tomorrow may be the most divided Independence Day in our 244-year history. Maybe the rancor was worse during the Civil War or Vietnam, but we didn't have 24/7 media saturation to amplify and magnify our differences--and of course, we didn't have a global pandemic.

Ironically, this is also a Fourth of July of more promise than we've had in a long time. A growing majority of us have finally decided to recognize and reckon with the reality that our country was literally built on the backs of once-enslaved people who are not yet totally free, by immigrants, and by indigenous people. The pandemic continues to be a huge challenge, but it is also making us creative and resilient, and the new surge of cases reminds us that science is in charge.

Eighty-five years ago, poet Langston Hughes was riding a train from New York to Ohio when he wrote "Let America Be America Again," his poem noting that for many, our nation's promise has yet to be realized. Eighty-five years later, every word continues to ring true--despite the civil rights victories of the 1960s, despite having had a Black family in the White House, despite the general civility with which most of us live our lives. We still have work to do, and the Fourth of July gives us a chance to commit anew to the cause.

Our break from Britain was a long time ago. Maybe it's time to rename this holiday Interdependence Day as a reminder that we need each other--that, in the words of the Rev. Theresa Soto, "All of us need all of us to make it."

Friday, June 26, 2020

Pandemic postcard #15: Turn, turn, turn ...

Tom always loved cars.
When Tom died two years ago this week, he left behind a fleet of three vehicles: a 1991 pick-up truck, a 1996 camper van, and a 2010 Prius. Tom always loved wheels of all kinds, and he had a knack for finding good deals. I'd lived without a car much of the past decade, I didn't even especially want to own a car, and all of a sudden I had three.

I had plans for the van and the truck, which I'll get to in a minute. I figured I'd keep the Prius, at least for a while--but when I went to start it a few days after Tom died, it was dead, too. I was flying to Denver the next day to see Tom's family, so I waited until I returned to call AAA. They were unable to jump the battery, so I had to have the car towed down the street to Tom's mechanic--but not until later that week, the earliest they could see it. Meanwhile, I worried and I wondered: Was this a dead 12V battery that wouldn't cost too much to replace, or was this the much more expensive hybrid battery? If it was the latter, did I want to keep the car? As it turned out, it was the 12V. The mechanic replaced it and I had him do an oil change as long as he had the car, only to learn afterward Tom had done one just 1,500 miles before. No big deal. The Prius was good to go.

At the Greenwood Car Show
Tom bought the lovingly converted Ford Aerostar camper van in the fall of 2016 shortly before he underwent a stem cell transplant to address a recurrence of multiple myeloma. He had taken a leap of faith that, come spring, we'd be able to hit the road, and we did. We took the rig to Ocean Shores, WA, a couple of times to visit our friends Marty and Cai; we went camping on Hood Canal; and we motored to Oregon to see the total solar eclipse with our friends Dale and Rebecca. Tom even ordered a special plate for the van and named it Ove. (If you understand, great. If not, this will explain. That was classic Tom.) But by the spring of 2018, Tom's brief remission had ended and he was too sick to travel.   

Before he passed away, knowing that I wasn't interested in keeping the van, Tom had arranged to sell it to Marty, who picked it up a few weeks before Tom died. On the very same day I'd finally had the Prius towed to the garage--it was Friday, July 13th, by the way--I got a text from Marty. He had been driving the van on the interstate at rush hour when the brakes and steering started to give out. I asked him to call me and--after he assured me he was OK--I told him it was fine if he didn't want to buy the van. Well, Marty did still want to buy the van. He said he'd get the repairs made and deduct the cost from the price he and Tom had agreed on. Marty is a good egg.

The pick-up truck was a short-bed manual transmission Toyota, somewhat beat up but still handy to have around. Tom had tried to sell it off and on, with no luck. It had become a communal vehicle for our household and that of Tom's first wife and her husband, who lived about a mile away. We traded it back and forth to haul stuff, so I was pretty sure that Grace and Jon would take the truck, and they did.

Which brings me back to the Prius.

Fast forward 18 months to early this year. I had moved from the suburbs back into Seattle, where I really don't need a car. The Prius stayed parked for weeks at a time. I walked to the grocery store every few days, buying only what I could carry. But I started camping again last summer so I thought, OK, I'll enjoy the car one more summer and then I'll see if either of my stepkids wants it.

And then the pandemic hit. And all of a sudden, I'm not riding buses anymore. I'm not walking to the grocery store as much; I shop less often, but I buy more when I do, so the car has come in handy. Pre-COVID, I preferred to fly or take a train than drive at vacation time, but now it seems road trips are the way we're going to travel for a while until we get a vaccine. I've taken two camping trips with the car this month and I see many more in my future this summer, at least. To everything, there is a season, and these days, the Prius is packed with my camping gear and my inflatable kayak, ready to escape as I get the time and inclination.

The car hit 100,000 miles this week. Its annual registration and insurance are due soon, and I will pay them. A Prius sips gas and is cheap to maintain, and I've learned that the hybrid battery may last another 50,000 miles, maybe more, before it must be replaced. At the rate I drive, that could be another decade.

This will probably be the last car I own, whether I decide I don't need it once the pandemic has passed or I decide to hang onto it as long as I keep driving. One way or another, I just wanted to say once again: Thank you, Tom.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Pandemic postcard #14: Yours forever more

My love, you would have turned 64 today. In a perfect world, you and I would be celebrating in a cottage on the Isle of Wight, "if it's not too dear," maybe after finally making that trip to Ireland that we talked about. Of course, I miss you every day, as do countless others.

Beautiful Human
A year ago, a bunch of us gathered at the ballpark to toast your memory and your birthday--the first one since you'd left us--as the Mariners beat the Royals, 8-2. Alas, there is no home game today. There isn't baseball at all, and no one is flying overseas. (I'll explain in a minute.) So I'm hopeful your family and friends will remember you by tuning into SPACE 101 (still going strong!) for a while and listening to the Mariners classic game on the radio tonight. That's what I'll be doing.

These things sound comfortable and familiar, but our world is not the one you left on June 30, 2018. For the past few months, we've all been facing down a viral threat. Some people don't even exhibit any symptoms, but others get gravely ill. Seattle was an early hot spot for this highly contagious disease. Nearly half a million people have died. Many millions have recovered.

For several months, much of the world was in some form of "lockdown," with people isolating much as we did after your stem cell transplant in 2016. No movies. No restaurants. No concerts. No sports. Millions of people lost their jobs as entire industries closed down. Many people who can do so have been working from home. Schools all went online, and some will remain that way this fall. "Stay home, stay safe" was the mantra all spring. Lately, though, many people have become frustrated or bored or angry at being told what to do, so we are slowly going back to business as usual, even though there is no cure and no vaccine for this new coronavirus. We take heart that most people who get it won't die. Life must go on. 

Still, the risks are real, especially for people in crowded factories and prisons and nursing homes, and for people who are already battling other illnesses and the people who care for them. Remember how we got married two years ago this morning on your 62nd birthday, and how we welcomed your siblings and your mom and your children into a very crowded hospital room afterward? That would be impossible today. In fact, it's possible that--had you been hospitalized in 2020 instead of 2018--you would have died alone. That is a thought I cannot bear, so although I continue to mourn losing you too soon, I am grateful you did not spend your final months in a time like we have now.

On top of this unfolding health crisis, a Minneapolis cop murdered a man named George Floyd on Memorial Day. It was just the latest incident of racist police brutality, but for some reason, this particular killing--caught on video--lit a fuse, igniting Black Lives Matter marches and vigils across the country and around the world. More than ever before, white Americans are starting to reckon with 400 years of systemic, structural racism. A small portion of Capitol Hill here in Seattle has become a staging ground for people who seek to dismantle this system. The man that most of us grudgingly call president believes they are terrorists and has threatened military action (while our mayor and governor defend the activists' constitutional rights). Meanwhile, although the skies and roads cleared for a while as people stayed home, climate havoc is another existential threat we refuse to take seriously.

Wow. That all sounds pretty grim. But I want you to know there are many reasons for hope in the myriad inspiring ways that people are facing all that besets us right now. Folks are looking after one another. People are seeing one another as fully human for the first time. People are exercising their creativity, their compassion, and their conscience in lovely, fruitful fashion. Musicians are playing concerts from home. Chefs are feeding the homeless. Teachers (and parents) are helping children learn. Healthcare workers are saints and angels and wizards and miracle workers, but you knew that.

Oh, and our trio of twenty-somethings? They, and their entire generation, are rocking the house. They're taking charge, they're calling BS, and they're not taking no for an answer. (And by the way, May graduated last week in four years flat despite losing you halfway through college and despite having her senior year disrupted by the pandemic.) You know me; as a journalist and a contemplative, I tend to favor objectivity and nuance, but I've come off the sidelines a bit, because the right side is clear. We are either on the side of dismantling racism and doing what we can to save democracy and the planet, or we're not. As Stephen Colbert famously said, "Reality has a well-known liberal bias."

I miss you, Tom. I miss your sense of humor, your solid presence, and the fact that you lived fully until the day you died. Our time together was too short, but it equipped me in many ways to deal with what we're facing now. You'd be proud of how I traveled to Mexico earlier this year, pre-pandemic, and earned my certification to teach English as a foreign language. (I am "intrepid," you'd say, and you'd be right.) I'm looking for new work now, some way to be useful. Please know that although I am alone, I am not lonely, and on most days, I believe the best is yet to come.

Yours forever more,


Friday, June 12, 2020

Pandemic postcard #13: Anti-racism as a practice

There is no anti-racist certification class. It's a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world. It is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it.  -- Scott Woods

It's been another monumental week in America as we wrestle with our trio of pandemics: COVID-19, the recession, and our collective awakening over racism. So many of us now feel the urgency of taking a hard look at the complacency and privilege we have enjoyed for so long. Until two weeks ago, I sometimes thought my anti-racist studies were done, that I had graduated and gotten that certification of allyship. Now, I finally understand that anti-racism is a lifelong practice I must undertake together with every other white person.

We will now--hopefully--be giving this issue its due for some time to come. So just as we can't revert to lax hygiene routines, we must now figure out how to make anti-racism a daily practice. I want to define and pursue that practice for myself. You should, too. No one else can do it for you.

For some people, anti-racism will mean being a physical presence in the streets, calling the structures of power and abuse to account. For others, there will be a more inward journey of reading, writing, reflection, and learning. For many of us, it will mean increasing our support of black-owned businesses and black artists. Perhaps the key thing I've learned this past week is that addressing white supremacy must be an embodied journey--one we inhabit not only in our heads, but in our hearts and in our souls, for privilege and racial harm are deeply lodged in our DNA. (Thanks to the conversation between Resmaa Menakem and Krista Tippett from last week's "On Being" for this knowledge.)

Last Friday night, there was a Black Lives Matter protest at a large park near me in Seattle. I didn't attend, but I wound up there on my early morning walk the next day, as I do on many days. The names of people of color who'd been killed by police were chalked every few feet around the half-mile path around the park. I said their names aloud as I circled the loop in a kind of walking meditation. It felt like a start in what I need to do. Writing this post is another step.

Although I've been reading rafts of essays about racism and privilege and white supremacy over the past fortnight, few statements boil the issue down as well as the passage from Scott Woods that I quote at the top of this post. (You can read the whole 2014 essay it comes from here.) If you're viewing this blog on a desktop, you can scroll down to see a 3-D collage I made in 2016 at the end of a year in Wellspring, a program of deep spiritual reflection I've done twice through my church. It's centered on "a palette of practice" that features the tools and values I try to use regularly in my life. The collage hangs on the wall over my desk, so I see it every day. I took my Sharpie this week and added the words "Bail out your boat."

God of our Being, Spirit of Light and Life, help me see and address my privilege every day. Help all my white brothers and sisters begin to reckon with this reality, one step at a time. After 400 years, we may finally be getting a chance to set things right. Let's not turn away now.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Pandemic postcard #12: Fresh air for everyone

For a few days this week, life felt like normal. I heard late last week that some Washington State Park campgrounds were opening June 1 and I immediately reserved three nights this week at one of my favorites, Twanoh State Park on Hood Canal. Fresh air, beautiful views, a chance to hike and paddle and escape the news for a bit. It was all good, and I was grateful to see many families out enjoying themselves, too--at an appropriate distance, of course. Camping is perfect for that.

Twanoh State Park day use area
Twanoh State Park's day use area was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, and I thought I might write this week about how I hope Joe Biden and Congressional candidates are thinking of a 2020s version of the Works Progress Administration to create jobs for people whose work has disappeared for good in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Then I heard about another family that went camping in my state this week. The Peninsula Daily News reports that a multiracial family of four from Spokane was harassed after they stopped to buy supplies in the community of Forks. Some yahoos apparently accused the family of being "Antifa" as they emerged from a sporting goods store. Several vehicles with armed occupants followed them and apparently cut down trees across a road to trap the family in their campsite. (Cheers to the local high school kids who fetched a chainsaw to remove the trees.) The Clallam County Sheriff's Office is investigating the incident, and the Forks Chamber of Commerce executive director apologized to the family.

I've read it said that we are in a pandemic within a pandemic. Many people have been gathering to protest the murder of George Floyd and ongoing racial violence. Others have been congregating at stores and restaurants that are opening up again. A few weeks from now, we'll know whether being in closer proximity to one another brings new spikes in COVID-19 cases. We'll also get an indication whether the present indignation that people feel over police brutality is going to last, or whether it will fade again, just as it has so many other times. But the ferocity of this near-fortnight of protests--set in relief against economic uncertainty, government ineptitude, and a growing realization of long-term inequity--may make the issue stick this time.

I want to keep living my life as best I can, and I want to remain conscious of the privilege I have as a white person. This week, that included camping and stopping at a couple of small-town businesses--and avoiding one that I know has been inhospitable to outsiders of all kinds. I hope to see more families of all kinds camping this season, especially since many longtime youth camping opportunities are on hiatus. A change of scenery and new perspectives do us all good, and camping is an affordable way to get away, even if just for a night or two, in uncertain times. It might be a long, hot summer, no matter what the thermometer reads. We need nature's cure now more than ever.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Pandemic postcard #11: Sitting with sadness

You'll have to excuse me: I've had a hard time coming up with anything meaningful to say this week, the week we passed 100,000 deaths in the U.S. from COVID-19, a week we saw naked police brutality that claimed the life of yet another black man, a week we saw his city wracked by grief and more violence that is escalating as I write this, a week when we saw yet again that the emperor has not a stitch of decency.

I'm sad, and I'm just going to sit with that sadness. 

So in lieu of a new message, allow me to send you back to this post of mine from April 2018 that is resonating with me again, and recommend two things I discovered online this week. (Apologies to those who avoid social media, but it's been a cornucopia of useful things. That said, I look forward to this week's tech sabbath!)

On Facebook, writer Luis Alberto Urrea is making posts in a series he calls Operation Uplift. He gives us a cue ("Chapter 68. Kindness. An unexpected blessing. A touch of grace. A gift. A moment’s peace. A touch of Zen. A safe feeling. A quiet shelter. The color of joy. Hope now") and one of his own photos, and people post their own words and pictures on the theme. The name is apt: I always feel a little better after I look at the latest chapter (and better still if I contribute).

On Instagram, Los Angeles creative director Lisa Hennessy is posting a lockdown journal of doodles, many with poignant written reflections about the absurdity and humanity of what we are all going through. I found this by accident and I am glad I did. I also followed her bio link to her values-based branding agency with the impossibly apropos name of fernweh, German for a longing for distant places and for exploration. That makes me feel sad, too, except it is somehow a happy sad, knowing that however distant the world may seem right now, it is still out there waiting for us.

See you next week. Prayers for Minneapolis and for us all. And try to remember--even in the worst weeks of this hardest time--that joy is "the happiness that doesn't depend on what happens," that we can be grateful in every moment, if not for every thing. (Brother David Steindl-Rast)

Friday, May 22, 2020

Pandemic postcard #10: Holiday in Pandemia

My church had its annual Coming of Age service last Sunday. It's one of my favorites, the culmination of a year when our ninth-graders spend a year thinking about life's big questions. Of course, the service was online, and it was still wonderful. "Joyful but realistic," one woman described it in our virtual coffee-hour gathering afterward.

From Easter and Passover and Ramadan to Mother's Day and graduation season, we've checked off nearly all the spring boxes. I love the congratulations-and-stay-strong signs honoring graduates all over my city, and it's been fun to listen to online commencement speeches by everyone from President Obama to Awkwafina to ... Donald Trump? And now it's Memorial Day Weekend, the unofficial start of summer. On Monday, when we pause to recall those who have died fighting for our country, let's remember the most recent casualties: the doctors, the nurses, the cashiers, the meat packers, the beloved grandparents.

It doesn't feel like summer. The steam heat in my apartment came on again yesterday amid a Seattle cold snap. The ballparks are empty, from the biggest stadiums to the forlorn sandlots, now given over to dogs and their people playing fetch. Concerts and sleep-away camps have been canceled. And yet ...

Italy? Mexico? Seattle!
I am not sure where or even if I might travel this summer. Except for a few recent forays to state parks open for day use, I haven't gone beyond a two-mile radius of my home. Still, it's been dawning on me anew that I live in a place that people from all over the world visit on vacation. Now that we can venture out a bit, I want to spend some time in my bigger backyard, the Emerald City. I want to wander through a nearly deserted Pike Place Market, see the murals that have popped up at Pioneer Square, and maybe hear a busker play in Georgetown. I want to spend some of my unemployment pay at local restaurants and shops in Ballard and Columbia City. And if I'm feeling really brave, maybe I can meet a friend for a socially distanced picnic or a cup of coffee, or even go to a movie once the neighborhood cinemas reopen. I would totally do that.

In many ways, the new normal is feeling pretty old. Since the pandemic is going to be with us for a while, we might as well try to have fun, safely and responsibly and with thanks to the people who are willing to serve us. We ought to be realistic ... but joyful. This is our life right now, all of it.