Covid-19, anxiety and other contagions

COVID-19, ANXIETY AND OTHER CONTAGIONS

As I wash my hands, I sing “Happy Birthday” to myself twice through – twenty to thirty seconds depending on the tempo. I take this common-sense and now widely-publicized step many times a day since the outbreak of Coronavirus. I do this to protect my personal health and the health of the countless others with whom I may share respiratory space and door knobs over the course of a day.

I notice an unexpected side-effect. When I actually listen as I sing, and take in the words of this common ritual song, I connect to a deep well of teaching from the Jewish tradition: God continually renews the work of Creation. That is, the Creation story as told in the Book of Genesis was not a one-time event, but is sustained by an ongoing Act of Goodness. This is a Goodness that encompasses all the wisdom and the limitations of life as it is, including illness, suffering, and death itself.

As I place “my” birth-day in this Meta-Story, I place myself in a timeless stream of life. Which proves to be an excellent remedy for the contagion of anxiety-triggering urgency. Urgency fed by news clips, shared posts, selectively-emptied store shelves, and a growing list of cancelled events. And by the genuine uncertainties, unpredictabilities, and unknowns of this biological threat.

It is under such a perfect storm of conditions that we find our resilience tested. 

We each have our particular set of challenges to resilience. A baseline of health, perhaps a mix of managed and  unmanaged chronic conditions. A mix different sets of responsibilities for and to others in our families, workplaces, and communities. Different stress loads and capacities to manage ourselves. Different contexts of meaning. Different conscious practices.  Different unconscious practices, aka habits. Different access to material, physical supports.

Family headlines are especially potent…a grandson’s sore throat and fever diagnosed as strep…an aging family member hospitalized overnight with stomach pain and sent home the next day with Tylenol…a daughter who works as a mental health clinician on a college campus that has closed down for the rest of the semester, which goes on into May. They wash through me, waves of disruption.

Yet, as I sing throughout the day, my triggered anxieties are periodically swept up and carried along harmlessly in that same unending stream. I am left relieved and grateful. And so it goes with the hand-washing.

…OTHER CONTAGIONS WE LIVE WITH

I am also left to reflect on how other contagions, barely recognized as such, have faded further into the background. 

I seriously doubt that the disappearance of news stories on harm to women, to trans people, and to people of color reflects an actual drop in incidents. And I see how challenged I am to stay actively and effectively engaged with the race and gender work of my heart. 

I took this challenge to stay focused as a call to poke around in my origin stories of contagion. How was I schooled to see the danger of catching something bad through unwelcome contact?

“Eeeww, cooties!”  Playground words that claimed separate space by taunting. In my kindergarten days that was one arena where gender equality held sway. Girls and boys each adopted the words freely to convey we considered one another dangerous, a source of something mysterious, bad – and contagious. All you had to do was stay with your group and you could avoid “catching” the condition, being cast out and becoming isolated and mocked.

On the playground, those words were an early exercise in solidarity, belonging, safety, superiority, and domination in one sphere or another. The stakes then might have meant hanging onto a patch of blacktop or possession of the monkey bars for the twenty-minute recess.

If you had asked me what was wrong with boys, I can only imagine myself inarticulately wrinkling my nose as if at something dirty and smelly.

That same vague “dirty and smelly” linked poverty and racism in my early childhood

I grew up in a Cleveland suburb, one convenient block from the Lynnfield Rapid Transit stop. A black and white police cruiser regularly sat for hours just past our driveway, ready to spring right or left onto the nearby boulevard in chase of – something. It was the 1950s, suburbia: segregated from despair, poverty, and color. 

Loudly enough to be shushed, I used to ask my mother about the poor people as the Rapid took us through trash-strewn gullies and neighborhoods of shabby, grey, tilted homes. I hit a rust spot in my imagination when I try to recall, or construct, her answer.

“Dirty and smelly” also defined the questionable wholesomeness of my female body.

By the time I was an early teen, watching the bodies of some friends developing faster than mine, I was caught between the brief, sterile explanations of female bodies and reproduction and the living realities of dealing with sanitary napkins and tampons. Especially on gym days. My sister called it “the curse,” (which Google informs me is still in common use.) By the time I was pregnant, at age 23, birthing had long been medicalized Nursing was clearly considered less convenient, less taxing, and outdated when compared to bottle-feeding. 

The messages about my own body, about the male gender, about poverty and about dark skin: most forms of contact were dangerous. Observing the norms I was taught about who it was safe to get close would surely protect me from catching…Something Bad.

It has taken a lot of focus and attention to bring these and other biases into my foreground and begin to unlearn them. Thankfully, several generations of scholars have revisited the stories of plain people and activists of the past, writing versions of history that are more complete and truthful than the “Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock” version I was taught.

Last night we had dinner out in our favorite Szechuan restaurant. It was unusually empty for a week-night at seven. Chinese restaurants are among the businesses most frequently cited as suffering from loss of business since the Coronavirus first appeared to jump species in China.

I can start to place my learned history of race and gender in this context: contagion, “harmful or undesirable contact or influence.” And to continue to discern as best I can what is required for my actual safety, and what is required for an imagined safety.

I take to heart the timely fortune that I received at the end of our meal – whatever the contagion – viral or bias-related: face the facts with dignity.

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AND A FEW TIPS FOR SELF-CARE

Deep breaths are to the contagion of anxiety as hand washing is to microbial exposure

– Stay hydrated.

– Do one or two of the many things you already know to manage your stress.

– Say please and thank you.

– Offer a kind word and a smile.

– If you are in a high risk health category, check with your physician about appropriate cautions (yes, there is an assumption about health care access: that’s a whole different post.)

– Seek facts and guidance from trustworthy sources: your local public health officer and the CDC https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/about/transmission.html

Getting to Justice: stories to heal me, heal America Pt 2

Justice must be hard-won over and over again. In these chaotic times, our centuries-old dueling narratives are shaped by identity politics and intersectional disputes.  The heart of each narrative is how we identify with our social groups  – and the biases, assumptions, and expectations that hide within the cultural stories we inhabit.

There is both personal work and collective work to be done to establish that every single story bears seeds of truths, that no single story is The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth.  To the degree that we fail to understand this, we will continue to duke it out, trying to make the world over in our small image of justice.

 

Here’s my cultural story

I’m an aging Jewish woman. That’s how I think of myself. “Aging” has to do with the seventy-three+  years I’ve been traveling around the sun in this body, which is both slowing down and holding up. “Jewish” has to do with my tribe and a world-view that feels like home. How I see myself: as a wanderer, question-asker, wrestler with God, inheritor/innovator of tradition, admired/envied/despised Other, repairer of breaches, restorer of justice, story-teller, lover of wordless melody, cycler through a liturgical year, devoted learner.

Please note, however, that both “aging” and “Jewish” are merely adjectives that modify my primary identity: “woman.” And my particular story about woman: strong, container, crafty survivor, undervalued, physically and economically vulnerable, home to mystery, darkness of all kinds, holder of the keys to life. My particular family lineage story about women also conveys an implicit story about men: not trustworthy, and mostly, not necessary, albeit they are in (undeserved) positions of power and authority.

If you ask for more, I’ll tell you I am “a post-war baby.” That’s World War II.  Only from within the viewpoint of my generation is World War II understood. Otherwise it’s a natural question to ask, post-war? Post which war? My generational view elaborates on the aging self: we keep our troubles to ourselves. And underpins my Jewish self: highly assimilated, rising middle class, infected with a post-war surge of optimism that masked the extermination of six million Jews – a trauma so fresh it could not be talked about.

Rising middle class doesn’t get the explicit role in my story it deserves relative to its influence: the unearned gifts – and limitations – it has showered on my life. My 1950s neighborhood was well-segregated from despair, penury, and violence. I regularly rode the Rapid Transit downtown with my mother. And I regularly asked her about poor people as we traveled through trash-strewn gullies and neighborhoods of shabby, grey, tilted homes. I have yet to recall, or reconstruct, her answer.

If you are wondering about the limitations of my secure middle-class upbringing, here are I few I can speak to: the primacy of appearances, caution or paralysis in violating norms, condescension to the less fortunate, expectations of safety and happiness, reverence for the intellect, and low emotional intelligence.

 

Here’s how I haven’t consistently thought of myself until recently: white. 

I have only selectively thought of myself as white  – not as a key part of my identity. I noticed my whiteness and its significance as my working life opened up to include relationships with many black people. When I worked in Baltimore City for a mission-driven non-profit founded and fueled by black churches. When I came to head that non-profit and set out to make it look more like the city itself. When I then had to figure out how to address expectations, assumptions and biases about “professional behaviors,”  and foster respect, cooperation, even friendship across employee racial divides. When we chose how to challenge public policies that enshrined institutional racism. Immersion in black culture was humbling. I stumbled. I had many patient guides and teachers.

Through those years, and others, when I team-taught diversity work to business, nonprofit and business leaders, I often took my work home with me. Still, I went home to my white neighborhood, prayed with my white progressive Jewish fellowship, and thoughtlessly enjoyed the comforts of being on the white side of privilege. 

 

These days, I am uncomfortably white most of the time 

I am pricked by my whiteness as I follow the daily news, pray for justice, sign petitions, join a march, read the black press or black-authored fiction, shake and wake myself and my white world,  indulge in mourning either my lost innocence or my “guilt,” and go about my still-protected white-charmed life.

I still move freely through my days with vastly confirmed expectations that wherever and however I show up 1) I am not in immanent physical or psychological danger and 2) I feel I actually “belong.” It requires thought, effort, a willingness to be vulnerable. To choose to show up where I am in danger of being called out on my cultural story and ignorance. To stumble as the ideal ally I wish to be!

And that implicit family story about men that figures so prominently, the untrustworthy men in (undeserved) positions of power and authority? Those are white men. I am married to a white man, which affords me numerous comforts and protections beyond those of my own white skin. More discomfort, as close to home as you can get.

 

Yet, I am not uncomfortably Jewish enough.

Meaning I am aware of how much more attuned, and motivated I am, when it comes to racial justice than anti-semitism. The trauma of the Holocaust that could not be talked about in my childhood is much more difficult for me to be uncomfortable with, read about, wrestle with, than racism.

Anti-semitism is not something Jews will ever “solve.” It takes non-Jews, whether motivated as religious believers or secular moralists.

Just as it takes legions of white people to dismantle ways of doing business that perpetuate racism, to hold space for the personal and societal telling of stories, for reconciliation and healing, for policy and procedural changes, for changes of heart.

And I am still left with my own bias: it’s white women I depend on. White men are my “Other,” and late to the party. “They” have a lot to lose: “their” unchallenged narrative of reality, based on an individual’s hard work and unbridled capacity to pull oneself up by the bootstraps. That’s my cultural narrative speaking.

 

These are a few broad strokes of my cultural story, what’s yours?

Understanding that the biases and expectations I have expressed live in my cultural stories brings me to a vital and wakeful noticing, and changes how I see myself, and even how I see the white men I Other, including the one I am married to. I hope it helps me to be a more intelligent, self-questioning and awake ally.

If I am ever going to really live in this body, the only one I have, I have no choice but to continue my personal work here, that includes engaging with you in the collective work of dismantling barriers, reconciling hearts, and pursuing a just world.

Together we must both bend with and shape that arc of the moral universe whose end remains beyond our sight.


Banner photo taken at the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Read Part 1: Stories to heal what ails me, what ails America

 

The morning after: a 21st century creation story

As I write and post this week, election results are unknown. Regardless of outcome, many challenges and opportunities await us. We will feel them with differing senses of urgency.

We wonder: are we, individually and collectively, up to what is being asked of us? 

Here’s why my answer is, unequivocally, YES.

YES, even though we are tired and may wisely “unplug” to recuperate.

YES, even though the work to come is demanding, daunting, and unending, and I tremble in my bones.

BECAUSE from our deepest roots we are fashioned to create, and to create together.

We create as effortlessly as we breathe, as continuously as our hearts beat. We are forever engaged in materializing our feelings, thoughts, and ideas, our hopes, expectations, visions, and fears.

We shape the material world with our hands and with their extensions, tools and technologies of all kinds. We put foods and spices together and call it cooking. We put words together and call it story-telling, or news, or nonsense, or poetry. We put wood and stone and metal together and call it building. There is no end to this.

Sometimes just walking around my local super-market, I am overwhelmed at the number of products to choose from. In a kitchen store, I find a new gadget and wonder if someone woke up in the middle of the night seized with excitement about designing a cutting tool that turns a zucchini or a beet into lovely spirals with which to top a salad or frittata.

We filter what we see: we perceive selectively. We fill in blanks. Early in life we use the material that has been given to us – the gifts and limitations of our parents as caregivers, the security or the chaos of our circumstances – to create a story, a life, in which we have as much safety as we can construct. We include, we distort, we omit. We write in heroes and villains, friends, allies, and enemies.

As we grow up, we continue to elaborate on these stories. We live them. We project them more or less onto whatever landscapes, encounters, and personalities make up our days.

These are our personal creation stories: our family origins.

The smaller, the more fixed our stories, the more we live in a trance state, a default state defined by habit, the less freedom we have.

The same is true of our cultural stories, our group identities, our biases, our views of what is “normal” speech, body language, and behavior.

When we are lucky – we can join this kind of tribe: we begin to wake up and see how our stories have become unconscious and self-perpetuating mechanisms that drive our lives and our communities. We begin to question our habitual ways of responding to the world. We wake up to the ways our personal and cultural stories have become prisons. We break out (commonly with the help of others who live their lives outside of our story), and tell a new – and often bigger one, with previously unimagined possibilities. And then we can change the institutions and systems built on those old stories, and create together for the common good.

We listen attentively to one another’s stories. We take them in. Together we cry, together we laugh.

Can you catch the scent of freedom here? get hold of the thread of what it might mean to be a conscious creator of your own life, an artist of your soul? a collaborative architect of your community? an awakening builder of our world?

We are a growing tribe, on the move and gaining strength.

So take heart. Offer comfort and kind words. Receive solace. Share the Kleenex around if need be, in grief or in relief. Let us strengthen our personal resolve and our shared humanity.

Then: take one step. Start anywhere:

There is no better morning to wake up. Today: question just one perspective, break just one habit, open to just one new possibility.

No better morning to make something whole in yourself.  Today: pick just one limitation that bugs you. Take your first few steps down a path that embraces both self-acceptance and self-improvement, so that this limitation is no longer an obstacle, just something that shapes you in a particular way, like a tree shaped by wind.

No better morning to practice. Today: be willing. Persist. Move with the movement of life.

No better moment to claim your place in the human tribe.


Photo credit: Up in Arms, by Linda Carmel, at Hillsborough Gallery of Arts, Hillsborough, NC