Just six week ago my wife, Sharon, got the go-ahead from the Calaveras County Behavioral Health Services to expand an after-school arts program. She was given a grant to provide studio space, Monday through Friday after school, with free art supplies to high school kids living in our region. I volunteered to build large cabinets that would hold a wide variety of materials for painting, drawing, sculpture, and ceramics. All this happened before the schools shut down and Behavioral Health cancelled all groups and in-person interactions, except for emergencies.
Last week I went ahead anyway and built the cabinets, just a few days before the shelter-in-place order came for the whole of California. My friend Dick came from Berkeley to help and stay with us for three days. Another friend, Dana, former editor of our local newspaper, joined us. Each morning for three days, we met at the studio, bumped elbows, and went to work, routing, ripping, gluing, sanding and painting on coats of clear Varathane. Over lunch, eating sandwiches we brought from home and oatmeal cookies that Dana’s wife made for us, we ruminated on the latest news. Dana said he was reminded of watching the Butte fire (which devastated a huge swath of the county in 2015) on the horizon, advancing rapidly towards his home. But we are all in this now, each one of us reading those headlines and anticipating, envisioning, a viral conflagration.
I think it was very helpful to build those cabinets as a way of physically affirming the belief that there will be life after Covid-19, that one day the kids with return to the art studio and find paints, canvas, makers and paper in the plastic boxes neatly stacked on the new shelves.
But in the meantime, how do we live in the face of fear which is entirely rational, that cannot, should not, be denied? I started to write this blog post several times, wrestling with this question, looking for hope on days when there seemed to be nothing to support it.
I even started to write a handbook, “Things to Do During a Pandemic,” most of whick you’ve already heard or read a hundred times: wash your hands, practice social distancing, avoid travel, etc. But to that I now add: be kind to strangers. Grocery store clerks, the UPS guy, folks at the hardware store where I bought the stuff for the cabinets, they are all heroes for simply showing up at their jobs. We need to tell them so and whoever else we encounter who keeps to their essential post.
Did you despair when your school, your favorite restaurant, movie theater or meeting place shut its doors? I did at first. But now I take as a good thing, a sign that people are acting responsibly, out of concern for the collective good.
Also, please be kind to yourself. Do not ingest more shocking headlines on a daily basis than you can psychically metabolize. Yes, it is good to be informed. But the stress of anxiety, continually fed by the media, is debilitating and renders us less able to think clearly about what we need to do right now, right here, in this moment.
God save me from being a witless Pollyanna, indifferent to the human suffering that has already occurred and which will continue to grow exponentially, but deep down I feel there is treasure to be unearthed from the ashes of this pandemic. It will be there if we seek it. I have struggled to write about this but have been unable to find the words. Fortunately, an email from a wise friend, Karina Epperlin, came to my rescue today. Karina writes:
I take it all very seriously. But I must say, finally, we are out of the trance of everlasting expansion, waste, pollution, and sleepwalking. What a liberation… Maybe it is not needed to have words now. This is challenging and humbling all of us. The best thing is to stay awake, take good care of ourselves and others, provide calm leadership, accept needed sacrifices, be patient and flexible, and let fall away the unessential. This will teach us many things.
I encourage you to share your comments and experiences.
P.S. Stay tuned for a message from Sharon. This morning she made a remarkable observation about a manifestation of the collective unconscious in these times.