Sunday, March 29, 2020

Coping with the Quarantine, One Laugh at a Time

Mindfulness is made easy these days, as I'm forced, like so many, to take one day, one hour, at a time. I pay attention to each thing I do and know I can't make plans for next month or even the summer. I must live fully in the present. I must be grateful to have electricity and adequate food and people who call or write to see if they can help.

I refuse to worry or be depressed or bored. My emails are filled with useful distractions from the news, everything from scenic views to cat cartoons to ideas about freezing eggs (for reasons unknown). I take delight in little things, like the afternoon sun coming through my bathroom window as I wash my hands for the thousandth time, trusting I am germ free.

I watch waterfalls on Youtube as I meditate, then read blogs like the one by Mark Forsyth, who cites a book on the history of toilet paper.  I follow the news from Rome and listen to a Jesuit podcast from St. Louis University, my alma mater, and listen to Andrew Cuomo. A local newsletter keeps me abreast of recent burglaries. My next-door neighbor comes by with three boxes of Kleenex and we are thrilled. I phone a neighbor isolated in a nursing home (no visitors allowed now). We find restaurants eager to deliver dinners to our door. My days have become full of little surprises. There is no time for boredom.

I receive emails from Richard Rohr reminding me that my life is not about me, that I am not in control of my life, but I already know that, don't I, from this experience of quarantine?  I then read in a blog from Maria Popova, quoting a philosopher, that self-love is the key to a sane society and I smile.... I forward an article about baseball to a friend in Virginia, and he reports on his reading.... I think about Etty Hillesum, a radiant spirit who faced the Holocaust, and find to my surprise that two Jewish friends never heard of her.... A former student in Alabama sends me an article on Boethius, whose Consolation of Philosophy was once an indispensable spiritual guide....A cousin in Chicago writes to see how we are in Florida. I keep finding, to my delight, that I am connected to everyone else, as we all face the crisis together.

I get the best help from humor, trying not to feel guilty by making light of a world-wide tragedy. But the quarantine experience itself calls out for therapeutic laughter.  A recent joke sent to me:  Our cleaning lady is now working from home but is sending us instructions.  Another: Gas/petrol is cheaper now, but there's no place to go.

An newspaper article reminds me that we need laughter to relax the brain. For comedian Erica Rhodes, comedy is a means of survival. "How's everybody not doing?" she asks.

She reminds us that sickness and death and an uncertain future are no laughing matters, yet how did my parents survive the Great Depression without comedy?  Is laughter merely escapism, like looking at cat videos?  How much grim news can I take in?

Dogs, I think, are having a great time now, with all the walking going on around me, and people are getting more exercise than ever. People are praying, reading, doing crosswords as never before, and reaching out to elderly neighbors. For those old enough to remember WWII, they know it's hard but that we will survive, and that a bit of gallows humor is essential.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Sky is not Falling

It may seem like the end of the world if you watch the news extensively, hearing stories about how the pandemic is spreading.  But it is crucial to step back and see that fear and isolation do not have to equal loneliness and despair.

A friend forwarded a poem by an Irish priest, Richard Hendrick, "Lockdown," which reminds us that in Italy, people sing to each other through open windows so that those living alone hear family sounds and that elsewhere churches and temples are opening to help the homeless and sick, and people are learning to turn inward to read, be quiet, create, and contact one another.

We are forming a community of hope. People everywhere, writes Fr. Hendrick, are slowing down and reflecting, seeing how connected we all are despite the quarantine.  "There is sickness, but there does not have to be disease of the soul... .There is panic buying, but there does not have to be meanness," he writes.

It seems to me essential to limit our exposure to the media and take one day at a time, doing everything "quietly and in a calm manner," as St. Francis de Sales wrote in the 17th century. His advice: "Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever, even if your whole world seems upset."  Right now, the whole world does seem upset, until we reflect on what Fr. Hendrick's poem says.

The present crisis also reminds me of the words of the Jewish writer Etty Hillesum, writing in her Amsterdam apartment as the Holocaust was about to carry her off to Auschwitz. "I am not alone in my sickness and fears, but at one with millions of is all part of life."  She knew, as Richard Rohr recently wrote, that when we see our suffering as part of humanity's "one universal longing for deep union," it helps prevent selfishness and loneliness.  We are all in this together. We know that most people are undergoing the same hardship, or worse, and this "makes it hard to be cruel to anyone."  (Rohr)

Suffering has the capacity to teach us many things, mainly that we are all part of one reality--and that compassion and love are the only ways to deal with this crisis. We realize in these difficult times that we are not really alone but connected--and that we have great inner resources.

Of course, we can distract ourselves with reading, music, and entertainment, but deep down, we are aware that we are not in control.  For believers, this means we turn to God, who, says Rohr, is with us in suffering.  Etty Hillesum knew this in 1942. She writes (in An Interrupted Life), speaking to God, "there doesn't seem to be much you can do about our lives. Neither do I hold you responsible. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last."

How do we help God? By loving others, reaching out to those living alone, doing whatever chores we can for the elderly, offering hope--and by being grateful for each day as we move toward a solution of the pandemic, since we know it will end.  When it does, I believe many people will be spiritually stronger.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Being Quarantined

According to the brilliant and breezy British language expert Mark Forsyth, the word "quarantine just means forty." It's a shortened form of the Italian phrase meaning 40 days, as in Lent, as in the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert. It was first used in English in 1470 in reference to the Lenten experience, not to the plague.

This otherwise minor bit of information caught my attention because of the current coronavirus pandemic as well as my own semi-confinement due to pain and physical therapy in my home. In both cases, it seems, not being alarmed is the key.

It is very easy for me to become discouraged by my spinal stenosis and its effects on my legs.  I often fail to take in the comments of my therapist that I am doing well, making good progress. It seems like a hopeless battle at times.  Seeing others walk briskly down the street when I am seated at home, unable to walk very far, is upsetting--until I realize how much worse my situation might be, until I realize what fine attention I receive, and until I reflect that I am connected spiritually to a number of friends (and countless strangers) who are disabled.  I am not alone.

Most of them keep going, fighting the good fight. I am learning, after many years of good health, that my body has its limits but my mind and will are strong and can give me the positive energy I need to remain hopeful.  As Rilke wrote, "Just keep going; no feeling is final."

So it is with the constant media attention to the virus. As with the SARS epidemic, this, too, shall pass. We will endure, even with the inept "leadership" from the Trump administration.

So, as schools and games and conferences are cancelled and people quarantined, it is good to remember that fear makes everything, including our bodies, worse. And like the forty days of Lent, the present ordeal is only a temporary reminder to be patient and hopeful and to put our attention elsewhere.