Monday, March 23, 2020

Wait ... What???

Waking on the second day of spring to loud scraping sounds, I peered out my window. I was surprised to see an inch of snow blanketing everything except the alley where neighbor kids wearing wool knit caps with pompoms were skateboarding. Spring … snow … skateboards … a double double-take. I should get used to surreal times.

Before our governor issued a Stay-at-Home order to control coronavirus spread, I went out to two grocery stores. On both trips I thought for sure I would be killed on the roads before I even had a chance to fight someone for the last box of  unsweetened almond milk. At least half the other cars made sharp lane changes as they whizzed past me so fast, if I had had my windows open, my short gray hair would have stood straight up on my head. I felt frightened by these drivers’ aggressive speed and wondered what feeling fueled their furious hurry.

Funny, in the 1980s my youngest sister drove our parents’ gigantic V8-engine 1965 Buick LeSabre whose ripped ceiling cloth hung down in our faces. Freedom and youthful fearlessness fueling her, she often whizzed through tunnels of parked cars in downtown Chicago. In warm weather with car windows rolled down and frayed ceiling silk tickling our faces and tendrils of our long brown hair curling in the breeze, I felt free and confident. 

Last week, after white-knuckling my steering wheel, I felt relief to be off the road in the crowded store parking lot. Inside the store, I was grateful to see that shoppers were not frantically racing carts down aisles and sharply cutting off other carts. Many people’s faces showed worry but people were polite and smiling. Another double double-take.

I love snail-mail. I come by this honestly, as my dad, aunt, and grandma all considered mail delivery to be the highlight of every day. They also wrote great letters, and I was blessed to be the recipient of many of them. My aunt the world traveler sent me postcards from everywhere, and I have tried over my adult decades to give the "I'm thinking of you" gift that she gave me. On my one or two vacations a year, I’d buy enough postcards to share the fun with my family and friends. Often, though, I came home with unsent postcards. These come in handy now in these days of social distancing when I cannot visit my mother in the nursing home, but the United States Postal Service continues. Using my little cache of leftover postcards, I have begun mailing my mom a series of ain’t-goin’-nowhere postcards to add a little personal touch to her days.

Since I have an inordinate number of leftover Indiana postcards, and I have no new news, trying to think of new news to write Mom each day takes me on sentimental journeys. Which is what my grandma called her 1980 visit to Peru, Indiana, her childhood home. Encountering friendly strangers in Peru, Grandma chirped, “I’m 85! And I’m on a sentimental journey.” We went inside what had been her family’s house in the late 1890s, and she told the owners where the fireplace and her mother’s hospital bed had been. She showed us her old elementary school with its huge grassy playground. At recess, the children ran across this field to watch the live animals in the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus’ winter quarters. In March 1913 the Wabash River overflowed its banks, the animals got loose, and according to Grandma, “a zebra chased the mailman.” Definitely my all-time favorite “Wait … What???”

Friday, March 20, 2020

Gladly (finally) accepting the gray world of coronavirus

That we’ve had three days of gray skies just fits, doesn’t it? Oddly, yet aptly, yesterday’s fog never lifted. The earth was gray from its roof to its roots, pre-morning rush to post-evening rush hour. That annoying gray fog just surrounded and sat on us like the coronavirus situation shrouding everyone’s vision for the future.

Like many people, I have felt afraid for my health and that of my loved ones, worried about financial loss, undecided about what is worth risking a trip to the grocery store, and just plain disoriented. Oh, and I’m afraid of boredom. Oh yes, also disappointed to not have a vacation trip to look forward to at this time or perhaps ever again.

I may have to stay home, but I don’t have to live in those fears and disappointments. The game changes more quickly now, so I’ll have to get used to disorientation and decide it won’t derail me. People’s suffering as I hear of it will sadden me, and I can lament and show compassion. But as I settle in to self-isolation, I can let go of the illusion of control and instead, hope and trust in God for my fate. Along with fluttering black and gray streamers now necessarily decorating my nest, I can hang red, yellow, blue, and green streamers. The colorful ones are what I choose to gaze at most often.

My move from agitation to acquiescence came through people’s posting bible verses on Facebook. Too many to remember, they had a cumulative effect, but I especially loved being reminded of Mark 4:41, where Jesus’ disciples were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this man that even the wind and the waves obey him?” Regardless of bioterrorism theories and which leaders of which countries do better or worse controlling COVID-19’s spread, and which conflicting analyses of coronavirus pop up on Facebook, and who speculates what will happen, my good God sits sovereign on the throne. I can trust His will. What calming truth!

Then came a pivotal e-mail from Alliance biblique franรงaise with a COVID-19 prayer in French. The prayer for protection and provision is long, praying for persons of fragile health, for medical personnel making anguishing decisions, for business owners facing losses, for parents juggling jobs and children in tight spaces. The personal parts of the prayer, however, constituted a major attitude change for me. In surreal, inconceivable, emotionally charged times, I am forced to accept your presence surrounding me. I accept the silence you’re creating; it helps me hear you better. Isolation immerses me in loving dialogue with you. I welcome restrictions in my movements; they focus me on what is essential. This was the kicker: I accept my vulnerability to disease. It reminds me of your gift of health. It reminds me that suffering is part of life.

Oh, how I have taken for granted God’s gift of health. And freedom. Food. Family. And … Oh, the gift of time! Who am I to think I can control any of this? Resting in God’s control leads to my being able to rest in my nest. 

Philippians 4:6-7

Saturday, March 7, 2020

David McCullough's The Greater Journey ~ my review

I have some new heroes after reading David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. As the author says, “Not all pioneers went west.” Drawing from their detailed journals and letters, McCullough chronicles adventures of American pioneers in Paris for a century beginning in the mid-1820s.

Like our western pioneers, our eastern pioneers left security at home for unknown frontiers. Instead of traveling overland by wagon, they traveled tempestuous seas in cargo ship steerage, as the 1820s were pre-passenger-ship years. Instead of starting over in wilderness to build their own new life, Paris pioneers desired to be drawn into what was then the most sophisticated society on earth. Even then, Paris had the reputation of being the cultural, culinary, educational, architectural, and artistic center of the world. Back then, Paris was also where aspiring doctors went for the most advanced medical education. McCullough’s Paris pioneers did not dream of building log cabins, but careers. Journeying to Paris, they longed to learn. Most were captivated by the allure of Parisian life. Some stayed, some returned to America, some bounced back and forth, but for all, Paris itself was an education.

Americans Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel F.B. Morse, Emma Hart Willard, Charles Sumner, George P.A. Healy, Nathaniel Parker Willis, John Sanderson, Mason Warren, Mary Cassatt, Augustus and Augusta Saint-Gaudens, Richard Morris Hunt, John Singer Sargent, and Elihu Benjamin Washburne (among others) people the pages of The Greater Journey. In addition, Frenchmen Marquis de Lafayette, King Louis-Philippe, and Alexis de Toqueville figure in to the Americans’ stories. Reading personal details from everyone’s journals and letters, I could walk alongside them in their trials and triumphs. I especially liked relational aspects, who became friends with whom while in Paris. I loved, for example, that every day after Cooper finished writing on his Leatherstocking Tales, he visited Morse painting at the Louvre.

Eyewitness to history, I saw Morse’s transition from painter to inventor of the telegraph, American medical students on hospital rounds during Paris’ 1832 cholera epidemic, and Universal Expositions of 1867, 1889, and 1900. Artists and writers I had passing appreciation for came alive for me in new ways as I learned more about their experiences. My horizons were broadened by learning how theirs were in Europe. I saw ways the American Civil War affected people both at home and abroad.

One of my new heroes is Charles Sumner. While attending a lecture at the Sorbonne, he noticed whites and blacks mingling. The resulting epiphany, that the view of blacks as inferior was a learned—not natural—distance, fired up his passion as an abolitionist when he returned home. A little more than a decade later, Sumner paid dearly for his strong stance, as a fellow U.S. Senator bludgeoned him nearly to death on the Senate floor.

Another new hero is Elihu Washburne, U.S. Minister to France from 1869 to 1877, years encompassing the Franco-Prussian war and violent, fiery uprising and military suppression of the Paris Communards. What he did to protect and preserve hundreds of Americans, and Germans, during these tumultuous times was nothing short of heroic. My eyes were opened to the dark horrors of these years contrasted with the bright, shining example of Washburne’s sacrificial compassion and cool head. What a difference maker!

Stories, facts, surprises—The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris fascinated me. This book increased my admiration for the fortitude and perseverance it takes to perfect one’s craft and stay steady in the face of adversity and criticism. It also enlightened me about 1800s history in general and American-French relations in particular. And while I was reading this book, I got to be in Paris!