Wednesday, July 21, 2021

No way out except through

Something strange is happening here in England, watched anxiously by many of my friends in North America. Despite rising numbers of cases of COVID-19—largely, but not completely, disassociated from numbers of hospitalizations and deaths—the Conservative government has finally removed all legal restrictions that, to one degree or another, have imposed on residents’ lives for almost a year and a half. Many people are anxious, not yet ready to board a train or enter a shop where they fear they will be the only people wearing masks (although, anecdotally, people’s actual behavior is changing only gradually, if at all). This in a country where all adults have had the opportunity for at least a first dose of vaccination and, in the over-50s (the age group in which 99% of U.K deaths have occurred) more than 90% have been fully vaccinated.

The government’s logic is that infections are going to peak sometime—hopefully in mid-August, though as with all models, no one knows for sure—and that the longer a full reopening of society is delayed, the longer that peak will simply be put off, rather than squashed. If we don’t do it now, when schools are out for the summer (and thus children not spreading infection through schools) and many social activities can be done outdoors where the risk of infection is minimal, what is the alternative? Push it into colder weather and the dreaded “flu season”? But it is a gamble, some are saying a reckless experiment. There is another alternative: to live with restrictions forever, wear masks out of habit, and allow an unprecedented taking of government power in an emergency to lapse into permanence, as previous attempts to increase our safety and “security” have done. (See U.S.A., “Patriot Act.”)


I think the strangeness is due to a crucial preposition. We, that is to say I too, have long been in the habit of saying that vaccines would be our way out of the pandemic. I said this before the vaccines were invented, and I’ve been saying it since, jubilant with the (still remarkable) degree of effectiveness the vaccines show and the speed with which they were developed. But I am finally grasping something which, for all its failings, the British government seems to have grasped too. As Isabel Miller wrote in Patience and Sarah, there will be no way out except through.


As far as I can determine, no country and no locality has gotten everything right during this pandemic, nor am I aware of any that has gotten everything wrong. There has been authoritarianism, the weaponizing of science as a belief rather than educated guesswork, the inappropriate use of scientific experts to make decisions that elected politicians should be making, or blaming them when things go bad. Meanwhile, SARS-CoV-2 goes on mutating into new variants and spreading more easily, as viruses have always done. There is no way out of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is only how we will get through it, and how soon, and at what cost.


Around a disease which, exceptionally (compared to influenza, for example) affects the oldest people in society while leaving the youngest members almost completely unscathed, much of the rhetoric has revolved around protecting the lives of the old and otherwise vulnerable members of society. While it is true that the life of an older person is no less valuable than the life of a child, nor should it be seen as more valuable. Yet the uncomfortable truth is that such calculations have to be, and have been, made. The U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research estimates that "in poor countries, where the population is relatively young, the economic contraction associated with lockdowns could potentially lead to 1.76 children’s lives being lost for every COVID-19 fatality averted, probably because wellbeing suffers as incomes decline." It may not be possible ever to prove such a sobering statistic, but it would not surprise me: these costs—in contrast to the harm caused by COVID-19 directlyare disproportionately borne by other people in other places, whereas in rich countries, we have been focused almost exclusively on ourselves.


Accusations of selfishness? How many of those I have heard in the course of this pandemic. In the debate over mask-wearing, fierce in the U.S. and, now that masks are no longer a legally enforced requirement in the U.K., threatening to spill over here, sometimes I wonder if face coverings have become more a signal of where one stands in a political debate than a rational choice. If I don’t wear a mask, I am selfish and want to kill Grandma. If I do wear a mask, I am a member of a cowed population that no longer has to be told what to do, as fear has been so deeply instilled that I will voluntarily give up my personal freedoms. Both of these stereotypes contain grains of truth.


I can adhere to mandates in my locality, or bow to the will of a place I want to do business with, without necessarily agreeing with them. I can and do care about personal liberties—hard fought liberties that are supposed to be basic to societies like America’s, Canada’s, and Britain’s—and I will not accept that such a position is unique to the right. Indeed, in this country it is the only position that has been truly critical of government incursions throughout; the official opposition, the Labour party, has seen fit to criticize the government only for not mandating more restrictions, and for longer, possibly forever. In a recent poll, a majority of Britons responded—perhaps exaggerating, in the grip of pandemic fear—that they would be happy for many restrictions to go on until COVID-19 is controlled worldwide. In other words, for years. Almost 20% said they would support the astonishing (and wholly unscientific) measure of an evening curfew, while a quarter said that some businesses, such as nightclubs and casinos, should never reopen.


What is going on here? Leaving aside whether it is a matter of vice for someone to celebrate at a nightclub or casino, the people responding to this survey are, I presume, just not interested in going to casinos or nightclubs themselves. But it is a big leap from that to say that no one else should do so—or, rather more pertinently, that no one should make a living working there. This looking down at activities that tempt or employ people, in many cases, younger than ourselves is uncomfortably close to the age-old scapegoating of homosexual people. Most people are not attracted to their own sex, so it costs them nothing to condemn behavior they don’t happen to find tempting.


The vaccines were supposed to be the good news. And it is utterly absurd that anyone, for political reasons, is now refusing vaccines that the Trump administration did as much as anyone to develop swiftly and successfully.* (Despite all the other things the previous U.S. administration got wrong, this was not one of them.) Vaccines mean freedom. Vaccines enable, or should enable, people to dispense with mask wearing and social distancing and being unable to make a living or, indeed, enjoy most of the things that make live worth living. Yet sometimes, I feel I am living in a funhouse-mirror world, in which vaccinated people fear the virus as much as they did in 2020, while the foolishly unvaccinated skip merrily on their way. 


While all approved vaccines are excellent at reducing the risk of hospitalization or death, they are slightly less effective at preventing people from being infected altogether. And logically, the higher percentage of people in a population are fully vaccinated, the greater the percentage of those who are hospitalized will have been vaccinated. (If the percentage of the population vaccinated ever reached 100%, for example, by definition everyone who was nonetheless hospitalized would be a vaccinated person.) The difference from 2020 is that even people unfortunate enough to be hospitalized are usually spending less time in hospital, and are much less likely to be ill enough to be put on a ventilator. There are treatments to mitigate the effects of severe COVID that we did not have a year ago.


All of this is what the U.K. health secretary meant when he, correctly, compared COVID-19 to the flu. Labour opponents quickly pounced on the health minister for “thinking COVID is the flu” but this is a willful misunderstanding, which totally ignores the changed landscape that the vaccines have given us in 2021. Those who thought COVID was like the flu last year were tragically wrong, but it is entirely reasonable to make the comparison now. Influenza can cause and has caused deadly pandemics. Tens of thousands of people die with the flu every winter in this country alone (I don’t say “of the flu” because, as with COVID, we only know that people have died within a certain period of being positively diagnosed with the disease; we cannot know, in every case, if the disease caused their death). Some would argue that there are many worse ways to die than flu. When, earlier this year, COVID-19 ceased to be the leading cause of death in England, news reporters jubilantly stated that the leading cause was once again dementia. Hardly a reason for rejoicing. But the point is that, as much as none of us want to catch flu, we do not shut down society every flu season, destroying livelihoods and preventing people from attending their parents’ funerals or hugging their kids. We give booster shots to the most vulnerable, wash our hands, don’t commute into work sick. We can even cover our faces if we think it will keep us from touching them.


It is unfair that, as with COVID-19, some people are more vulnerable to flu than others. Flu is a real danger to the very young as well as the very old members of society, in stark contrast to COVID, which almost never affects children badly. As with everything about COVID, the risk is not zero, but it is worth bearing in mind when people start to panic about children too young to be vaccinated. Children are much more likely to be badly affected by disruption to their education, the inability to socialize with others, and even mask wearing than they are to get seriously ill with the disease. It has become a confession of faith that mask wearing costs little or nothing, but this ignores the importance of seeing others’ faces, not only for anyone who has a hearing impairment, but for the emotional cues that all sighted people rely on and that children need to learn. The fact that children have responded with such resilience to all we have imposed upon them should make us all the more determined to bring such impositions to an end.


Our little goddaughter’s daddy and I used to enjoy taking her to church; she doesn’t even remember church now. With churches’ reluctance to open up fully to in-person participation, how many children will never get back into the habit of Sunday school? A year and a half is not a big proportion of a middle-aged person’s life, but to children, it is colossal. The mental and spiritual costs will last much longer for them than for someone whom interventions have saved a year of life. That calculation sounds harsh, but there are no harm-free interventions.


I feel more optimistic than many other people who, like me, are fully vaccinated now. We were never going to get everyone in the population to be vaccinated, but we don’t need to. “Herd immunity” is not only elusive, but an arbitrary number. What we needed was a substantial reduction in the chances of getting severe illness, and we’ve got that. When we say we have to learn to “live with COVID,” we are not talking about 2020’s COVID, but a coronavirus that will run out of people to infect, because such a high proportion of the population has antibodies (9 in 10 adults in the U.K.) Obviously, it would be better if most of the population got antibodies through vaccination, rather than infection. 


Vaccination,” wrote Jonathan Sumption, “is an impressive achievement. It represents the best that humanity can do about COVID.” I do not go as far as Lord Sumption in my skepticism of what lockdowns have accomplished, but it is time for them to end, and never to return. Disposable masks litter the streets, the blue cigarette butts of our time. Society has taken a step back in terms of plastic trash, while record heat waves and deadly floods worldwide make clear the vast emergency of the climate. If humanity keeps abusing the planet in this way, one more coronavirus will hardly matter.

Mutating is what viruses do; we will never be free of this pathogen, as we have never conquered any other, with the single exception of smallpox. We have feared COVID rationally because it was new and not much was known about it. Now we know, and while there is a healthy place for caution around this disease, so is there around not using a cellphone while driving, or other things that are far more likely to kill us and, for that matter, other people. Yet how many people still do such dangerous things, routinely and thoughtlessly, purely because they are used to them?


I didn’t get vaccinated because of the (vanishingly small, though still existent) chance that I would become seriously ill if I contracted COVID. I still might test positive at some point. I got vaccinated so that I could be free of this fear. So that I could be part of a society in which, while not everybody is vaccinated, everyone vulnerable has had the opportunity to get vaccinated. So that I would not be afraid of catching the disease or communicating it to those people. So that I could travel, attend events, sing in a congregation, and do any number of other things which, frankly, I never imagined a free country could deny my right to do, even temporarily. That does not make me a conservative or a liberal (except in the classical sense). It makes me human.

*If you live in the U.S. and happen to know anyone who is, for whatever reason, reluctant to get vaccinated, you may be encouraged to know that people in their lives talking to them is a bigger factor in getting vaccinated than political affiliation. It may be tempting to be angry at vaccine-hesitant people or write them off as stupid, but it doesn’t actually help them get vaccinated.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

What a character

I've been thinking about what I liked about the unique character who was the Duke of Edinburgh, the late consort of the Queen. People have different views of the monarchy, but at their best, the royals represent something larger than themselves. The Duke of Edinburgh was an old-fashioned character in some ways, but his life was dedicated to an enterprise in which he personally was never #1. And he did it with a sense of humor. Both those things are something younger people could learn from--and most of us are younger than 99.

Like the Queen, he's from the World War II generation; he served in the Royal Navy. What must it have been like to take on a different career, supporting his wife's unique role, for the rest of his life? What she called "his forthright manner" was not always appreciated, but you could always count on him being there, and not just supporting Her Majesty. The Duke of Edinburgh awards are not much known in America, where he was always called Prince Philip, but young people in over 140 countries have participated; he was also an early supporter of conservation, the Commonwealth, and interfaith dialogue, despite--or rather because of--what appears to have been a deep Christian faith of his own.

I will never forget that when his young grandsons had to attend their mother's funeral, it was their grandfather who said "I'll walk if you walk." There he was again, walking behind the casket, following a beloved woman.
In our time, one's own personal happiness is supposed to be the greatest good. We may sacrifice everything for this, but it is not at all clear that we thereby avoid misery. Certainly the Duke of Edinburgh seems to have enjoyed being himself.

When they celebrated their golden wedding anniversary, he said, "The main lesson that we've learnt is that tolerance is the main ingredient of any happy marriage. It may not be quite so important when things are going well, but it is absolutely vital when they get difficult. And you can take it from me that the Queen has the quality of tolerance in abundance."

We can learn from that too.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Rush to judgment

 I have to admit, I rarely feel much emotion when I see an obituary for someone I didn’t know. Even people I liked. When I read that Christopher Plummer had died, for instance, I didn't feel sadness that a 91-year-old actor had passed away peacefully. I thought about the movies he'd been in and that I'd liked. An obituary is an opportunity to reflect on someone's life.

So I can’t say I felt sad when I heard that Rush Limbaugh had died, but did I feel anything else?

Rush Limbaugh was a man known for hateful and vitriolic comments, the kind that diminish people. Limbaugh caused immense pain to gay people, ruptures within families, much of the coarsening of America’s discourse. 

His leaving the world does not undo any of that damage. Only we can decide whether his legacy is a less kind world.


In the past several years I have seen a lot of evaluating of the souls of other people, most notably when they die. There was a certain amount of “dancing on the grave” when Osama bin Laden was killed, but I also saw it for a number of public figures. Margaret Thatcher. Antonin Scalia. George Bush. John McCain. Each of these people did things that other people found revolting, but where does it stop? 

I see something very corrosive happening in our righteousness. Left or right, we are all human and we could be wrong. 

The way we react to human beings’ suffering says more about us than it says about them. In the Christian tradition, we are responsible for evaluating the state of our own souls.

That is the moral place reached by people I admire most, in my own and in other traditions. Is that where I am? Not by any stretch, and nor am I to judge anyone else for not being there.

But what if each of us is to be judged by the best thing we have ever done or said, rather than the worst?

What if we are to be judged by the repentance of our hearts?

We don’t know these things. For myself, I can only hope.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Ain't that good news?

In a year that’s been filled and continues to be filled with much death and destruction, we are starting to get the best news the world could hope for. In the past couple of weeks, results have been announced from the phase 3 trials of two novel coronavirus vaccines, and from the phase 2 trial of a third vaccine. 

And what are too many people tweeting and fussing about? Who paid for the vaccines, who does or does not deserve credit for them. WHO CARES? This is the best news the world has had all year—yes, more important than the U.S. election. 

But of course, the whole world cares about both. And I’ve been trying to talk friends, from more than one country, off the ledge about all the terrible things that have been going on since the election, and what it means for democracy. So I’m here to tell you why, despite the pandemic getting worse and not better, this really is the beginning of the end, for a whole host of good reasons. 

First: vaccines. The efficacy rates reported, >90%, are far higher than needed to gain herd immunity in a population, if we are able to vaccinate at scale. Importantly, these vaccines have also been shown to be safe in older people, who of course are among those who need protection from COVID-19 the most. We should all be thankful to the thousands of volunteers, many of them in their sixties and seventies, without whom we could never have these findings on safety and efficacy. As I write, the first of these vaccines is being considered for approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the UK's MHRA. 

Second: The election. You know who won? The process. This was impressive. In the midst of a pandemic, where it was a challenge to enable people to vote and where many thought turnout would be driven way down, a far larger percentage of people voted than in the previous 120 years--that is, since before American women gained the right to vote. Some states, like Pennsylvania, had no previous culture of large-scale mail-in voting, yet with the eyes of the world on them, election officials and poll workers just calmly did their job. Wearing masks, night and day. There weren’t even many glitches or problems of the type that routinely happen in U.S. elections, much less the fraud and violence that some alleged and/or feared. 

Who else won? A much larger group than Democrats. I call us “people who wanted Biden to win.” That’s a crucial distinction, because there is evidence that a significant proportion of people who aren’t Democrats, who in fact might have voted for Republicans further down the ballot, couldn’t stomach another four years and cast their vote in the presidential election for Biden. (Not to mention, there are people around the world who wanted Biden to win, although they can’t vote.) 

Now I don’t Tweet or watch U.S. television, but I see posts about Twitter and what people are seeing on MSNBC and other networks. You wouldn’t know Democrats had won the presidency, still less the House of Representatives, from some of this fussing about why Democrats didn’t win even more House seats. Do these guys not know how to win? In fact, had the votes in different states not been counted in various peculiar orders (and had there not been all those mail-in ballots, for which we have the post office to thank for WORKING in spite of all obstacles), it would never even have looked close. 

Joseph Biden, Jr. ended up winning the popular vote by 6 million votes. That’s a big margin. Yes, tens of millions of people still voted for the loser (or, as I will hereafter refer to him if I have to at all, Loser with a capital L). Some people, and not just Americans, are hung up on that. But this was a turnout election. If we insist, as we did, for months that this was the most important election of our lifetimes, and as a result achieve record turnout, then people are going to turn out on both sides who don’t normally vote. 

Let’s break this down a little bit. In case you want to skip around, (1) are the good things that happened, (2) is why we should stop worrying about bad things that aren’t going to happen, and (3) is what we—again, worldwide—need to do next. 

(1) Most incumbent presidents are reelected. Furthermore, no challenger has upset an incumbent by this large a margin since Ronald Reagan defeated President Carter in 1980. In an era of great polarization, such as the U.S. is enduring today, this was a big win for Biden. No, it was not a landslide but it’s probably as big a margin as can be won in a national election these days. This did not come down to Biden winning by a few votes in one state. 

While not a wholesale repudiation of the Republican party, it certainly is a repudiation of the Loser. We know this because of the gap in Congressional races that some Democrats are complaining about. The only explanation for Republicans doing better down ballot than at the presidential level is ticket splitting—something that doesn’t happen as much in U.S. politics as it used to. In other words, a crucial slice of the electorate that normally votes Republican, that was happy to elect Republican senators and representatives, just could not stand the Loser. Why is this not a good thing? 

But while Republicans in the Lincoln Project are on the right side of history, they didn’t save us. Americans of color did much of the work, and the Loser’s inept handling of the pandemic in “blue wall” states finished him off. The sun had not even risen on the day after Election Day and I was already seeing down-in-the-mouth moaning about “how could you?” (a large percentage of white voters) vote the wrong way again. But there’s another way to think about this: We needed all those votes. Black voters in Georgia went for the Biden-Harris ticket 90%; in the Navajo Nation, it was 97%. Those votes mattered. Some of the communities that have had the most to put up with in American history, and this year in particular, did not give up on democracy, but showed up and made their voices heard. Our democracy was saved by people who weren’t recognized at all at the founding of the country, and who, for practical purposes, didn’t achieve voting rights until relatively late in the twentieth century. 

They could have given up on a democratic republic as the imperfect invention of men who failed to recognize their very humanity (Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, etc.) Instead, they heeded the call of Stacey Abrams, Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, and many others to take power into their own hands and exercise the right to vote that has long been fought for. We—and I don’t just mean those who live in the U.S.—owe it to those people to take seriously what we have learned from them. To take seriously the responsibility to make that imperfect invention more perfect, to fully include all the people mentioned in Joe Biden’s victory speech and so many others. 

(I almost wrote Keisha Knight Pulliam there, but she was the little girl who played Rudy on The Cosby Show. Oops!) 

Instead of wringing our hands wondering why we can’t convince more of our white fellow citizens to vote the way we do, we need to thank our neighbors of color—above all black women and Native voters—for saving our butts. And we need to start actively helping life be fairer for them. That starts at the community level, wherever we live. It doesn’t just happen every two or four years. 

But, and I’ve seen a lot of fretting about this too: What about the Senate, what about President Biden not having enough clout to do all the things we want him to do? As Perry Bacon, Jr., an African-American journalist with FiveThirtyEight, said soon after the election, there are two big crises happening in America and worldwide, neither of which has much to do with whether Congress and the president can work together. First, the pandemic—just taking a different tone will help, and President-elect Biden is already taking a different approach, meeting with both Republican and Democratic governors, for example. Second, doing something about improving the race situation. Again, the president can instantly send a different message and set a different tone, but those issues have to be resolved at the community level. Your town, where you live. 

I know people who look from outside at a map of the States and rage about all this "red." They vow never again to visit a place full of voters for such a terrible person. Well, if they ever get another chance to visit the U.S. I hope they’re prepared to hold it between Chicago and Omaha! Seriously, we need to look at the big picture. Not only Philadelphia but its suburbs went for Biden, and in a big way—a 50% increase over Hillary Clinton’s margin in 2016. Biden did better in South Dakota, which is suffering terribly from the pandemic, than Clinton did, and much better in Minnesota. Middle Tennessee is more “blue” than it has been in many years. Even absentee ballots from the military, which typically skew Republican, increased Biden’s winning margin in the crucial state of Georgia, rather than eating into it. I guess it really does matter which candidate respects the troops. 

If after all this, you still wish the Democrats had done better or you have energy left—good! Use it to help win the two Senate runoff elections in Georgia on the 5th of January. I guarantee you that Stacey Abrams and everyone who worked so hard to organize and turn out the vote in Georgia are not whining and complaining. They’re fired up! 

Jimmy Carter was just waiting for this day.

(2) But, say my worried friends, the Loser is about to stage a coup d’état. Or millions of armed Americans are going to come out of the hills. Or Vladimir Putin will somehow prop up the Loser, even though he’s not Putin’s useful idiot anymore. These things don’t even make any sense. Granted—it’s disturbing that even a fraction of Americans believe the bullsh*t that the election was crooked or stolen in some way (a fraction that’s already declined since the election). All these lies are bad for democracy—very bad, which is why it was so important to defeat this guy. But we did defeat him. 
And all the efforts by media, I don’t care if it’s social or The New York Times, to keep us glued and worried about how somehow we’re still all doomed is not going to take away my relief about this fact. Come the 20th of January, Biden is going to be president. 

I don’t know about you, but the main reason I voted for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris is so I would not have to worry about the U.S. every day anymore. I haven't lived there for 20 years. I’ve had to deal with anger and anxiety over what the Loser was doing to America and the world for four years now, and d*mned if I’m going to do it for two more months, or even one more day. He LOST. He never had the votes, he never has had magic power to destroy democracy in spite of all our efforts, and we have got to stop giving him attention as if he had. 

It is important to remember that while everything he's up to now may be venal, if not seditious, it is also ridiculous. Some of the things he and the rest of the treasonous gasbags have done, not just since the election but throughout his administration, are illegal. The State of New York is certainly preparing charges, and state charges are unaffected by pardons, the future Department of Justice, or anything else federal. But all his graceless and corrosive antics now, from failing to concede to baseless lawsuits that keep getting thrown out, are just fundraisers. He's bilking a few more bucks from those still gullible enough to believe in him, before his creditors come (and they are coming).

The narrative that we still have to worry about the Loser, that the Republican party will remain in thrall to him or he’ll be in a position to run again, is as much a fantasy as his tweets about winning.  A lot of media want to keep pushing the story that he has a future after this—in TV or as a Republican “kingmaker.” That’s because he’s been perversely good for ratings for them. But none of that is going to happen. He is facing bankruptcy and will be lucky to stay out of prison. 

Again, if you still have energy, don't look at headlines about the outrageous actions of fools and worry that these things might actually happen. Focus on the Georgia runoffs, which will determine control of the Senate, and getting through the pandemic until the cavalry arrives.

(3) Finally, where do we go from here? As we’ve heard ad nauseam, America is still deeply divided, and the ink hadn’t dried on the last ballot signature before I started seeing posts despairing of the “half of us” who are these terrible supporters of the Loser. Wrong. Seventy-three million is a lot of people (all of whom did not have the same reasons for their votes, any more than the rest of us did). But it’s 22% of the population, somewhere in the 30s if you consider only the voting-eligible population. His support isn’t and never was “half” of Americans.  

When people fret about this “half,” what they really mean is they despair of their neighbors who voted the other way, and don’t know how they’re supposed to live with them anymore. The divide between urban and rural Americans is deep and deepening, but it’s only part of the story. Gender is a big part of it, as is race, always. And education. By that I don’t just mean the growing tendency of college-educated Americans to vote Democratic; that’s not a solution, as the college-educated percentage of the population is only in the 30s too. I mean critical thinking skills, so people can evaluate sources and know what to believe, whether from cable news or Facebook. The ability to tell fact from fiction is a long-term project; it’s not going to be fixed, in America or elsewhere, even in a generation. But we can do it. 

There’s a difference between saying it was good that a trauma has happened, and that there’s something we can learn from it happening. Like COVID-19. It’s here; what, if anything, can we learn from our reactions to it? 

The past four years have brought to the surface some aspects of American life that were not new or created by one person. A young political writer originally from Ohio, Clare Malone, has written a piece that includes many good observations, and in an interview about it she mentioned “the talk” that black families have, something with which many white people were previously unfamiliar. In the midst of terrible events, there’s a chance for more of us to become aware of things of which we were previously ignorant. But awareness is one thing—doing something positive with that awareness is another. 

We should not be too disappointed that we still have to fight. Gay people like me should certainly be used to this. If America has never yet lived up fully to its promise to all people, one election is not going to change that, no matter how consequential. But things do change. It’s well known that Biden went out on a limb for same-sex marriage before most other leaders of his party, including Barack Obama. We could see Biden’s evolution, on this or another issue, as just one more example of flip-flopping; but haven’t we evolved ourselves? I know I have, thank God. 

The prayer of St. Francis has really been in the zeitgeist lately. Our cousin Kim prayed it in her communion meditation the week after the U.S. election. And Malone mentions the prayer “that I may not so much seek… to be understood as to understand” as “the journalist’s prayer and the prayer of our time.” She is skeptical that the tensions and divisions will be healed, but also notes that cynicism is a choice, and a boring one at that. And she provides these astonishing insights: 

It can be painful to realize your brother is a chauvinist, your cousin is bigoted toward religious people, or your mother is a racist. And that pain can drive us into the harbors of the like-minded. 
It’s harder to grapple with how to convince people to change the way they think about things, or to just go on letting them think what they think, not allowing their humanity to be defined by their worst beliefs. That’s a radical act of acceptance, and some might say a radical act of love. It’s not an easy thing. It might actually be the hardest thing.  

Happy Holidays, and may we all look forward to a much happier New Year.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

A Canterbury tale

Francis Bacon told the tale that “if the mountaine will not come to Mahomet, Mahomet will goe to the mountaine.” I’ve been thinking of the many Muslims around the world who had saved up, some for many years, to make that once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca called the hajj. But this year, for the first time in memory, the hajj was canceled. I can hardly imagine the loss and disappointment that many of those would-be pilgrims must feel.

We are very fortunate. We have not experienced anything like this loss, let alone the illness or economic hardship that countless other people in the world have suffered as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve been blessed to travel so much in our lives already and, many times in 2020, we’ve thought how fortunate we were to be on the road in 2017-19 instead. I know of people whose travels and lives were disrupted, sometimes with great severity. And, perhaps like you, I know people whose loved ones have died of the disease.


So we know how fortunate we are. Here in England, we made it through several months of near-lockdown while carrying out our work (Trish never dreamed her part-time grocery store job would make her so “essential”). Though still far from the old normal, things are starting to open up now, and—here, at least—we’re cautiously optimistic that the curve remains flattened and the first wave under control.


Despite all this, I’m feeling deprived in the second half of 2020 in a way I didn’t during the spring. That’s because, apart from some activities and meeting with friends that everyone had to stop doing for a time, we really didn’t have plans disrupted during lockdown. We’d had a long-overdue catch-up with friends in Devon in February, and then in March everything kicked off. But we had no travel plans that month that we had to defer or cancel. Nor for April, May, June, or July. I don’t remember the last time we spent this long continuously in a single country, England or otherwise.


Our second half of the year, though, was not meant to be spent here. We were booked to spend a significant chunk of it in Toronto, which we so enjoyed in 2018-19. And of course, from there we were meant to visit family and friends in the U.S. We would also by now have expected to host my mom and dad on a visit from America, and, in an ordinary year, no doubt others as well.


But no one’s year is ordinary. None of those trips are happening, and for good reason. One of my aunt’s friends pointed out, wisely, that a pandemic on this scale is a once-in-a-century event and we should all just take a year off. Not, of course, that we can all afford to stop working or learning or taking care of our families, but we can’t expect anything to go back to normal this year, and we should probably stop trying. I suspect minimizing the disease and rushing to reopen things too soon have made things worse in some places than they had to be, but that’s not the subject of this post.


In the spirit of those Muslim pilgrims, I thought I’d make a pilgrimage of my own. Specifically, now that travel restrictions within the U.K. itself have been lifted, where have I never been in this country? Which is how Trish and I made our way to Canterbury, a site of pilgrimage at least since medieval times, as described in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.


For most of two years, we traveled around the world with only a 40L backpack and a day pack each. As we learned, the amount of stuff you need to carry for two years isn’t much more than what you need for a week. The funny thing now is, I pack the same bag for any length of trip. So now, packing for a two-day getaway, Trish said it looked like I was taking this enormous bag of stuff!


I was excited, though. We were going somewhere, doing something new, and that is not to be taken for granted in 2020. Although Canterbury is little over an hour’s drive from London, neither of us had ever been there, making it the first new place we’d been since Ecuador.


We weren’t going to be able to forget it was the plague year, though. A few days before, we’d run around our house in Twickenham shutting windows, because a tremendous hailstorm was throwing down; it made the national news. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see frogs or locusts next, but what in fact happened was that, as we drove closer to Canterbury, blinding sheets of rain would suddenly lash down and threaten to flood the road, only to stop as suddenly. The rain washed out our plans to take the riverside walk from our bed and breakfast—but at least we could stay in one. The staff had made many alterations to comply with government guidance on safety, and were obviously happy to have customers back. They asked if we were nervous about our first trip post-lockdown. We said we were not.


Breakfast room. From one particular seat, you can see the cathedral.

We’d assumed we would have to book meals out, like our visit to Canterbury Cathedral, in advance. Everyone has to be conscious of how many people are inside at one time, to maintain social distancing, as well as contact details in case of track and trace. So imagine our surprise when, venturing into town that evening, we discovered a street food fair was going on.


We love these things. It reminded us of many places we’ve eaten all over the world, though with obvious changes: entrance and exit, one-way signs, hand sanitizer everywhere, masks on the staff. If we’d known, we wouldn’t have bothered booking a restaurant.


The next day, the weather was forecast to hold until afternoon, so off we went on a 3 ½ mile hike I’d looked up in a big book of British walks. It was the first time we’d walked anywhere other than from our front door since March and, apart from a bit of a walk with our friends in Devon before lockdown, Trish’s and my first hike together since the Galápagos Islands. As she wrote many times in her own blog, Trish “isn’t a hiker,” but fortunately there wasn’t much climbing and it wasn’t too warm. Given the humidity, in fact, it was just as well the clouds persisted throughout the day.


There were blackberries to pick and eat along the way, as we walked past the castle and up along part of the North Downs Way.


I thought we’d have more of a view from Golden Hill, whence pilgrims once caught their first glimpse of Canterbury, but we just came down the London Road and through Westgate—the same way we’d come in the car.


Trish arrives at Westgate

Proud of ourselves, we’d managed to miss the rain. We continued round to Northgate and outside the city walls before making our pre-booked time at the cathedral.


City walls

Canterbury Cathedral is the cathedral of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of the Church of England, and thus the mother church of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Its origins, though, go many centuries back before there was any such thing, to A.D. 597. The cathedral we see now is 11th-century, with the east end in a 12th-century Gothic style to house the shrine of St. Thomas of Canterbury. It was this shrine that drew Chaucer’s and many other pilgrims. 


The interior, almost all to myself. Brilliant

Thomas à Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had clashed with Henry II, to whom is attributed the exasperated saying, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Eager followers of the king promptly murdered Thomas in the cathedral. To this day, Henry’s saying is a classic example of “Your wish is my command.” The ruler didn’t have to command his subordinates to rid him of the priest; they heard what they heard. This is why it's so dangerous for a powerful leader just to throw around irresponsible remarks.


The Pilgrims' Steps that led to the original shrine

Thomas à Becket has the distinction of being venerated as a saint in both the Catholic and Anglican traditions. Yet even in death, his conflict with the secular power continued; Henry VIII summoned him, without success, to face charges of treason in 1538, and when Thomas failed to appear, that was the end of the shrine. Today a candle burns on the original site.


There's also a shrine to saints and martyrs of our own time.

While I wandered around the crypt, Trish noted the scaffolding on the outside of the cathedral, where they’re noticeably cleaning it.


The gift shop sells teddy bears and rubber ducks dressed as archbishops. I don’t know if that’s weirder, or the fact this one was wearing a mask. 


It was also weird to have to wear a face covering in a house of worship, as has been required in England since they reopened for public services. I, myself, hadn’t been physically inside a church on a Sunday since March.


Afterwards, we were happy to see the street food fair was still going. We got some lunch, just before it started to rain again.


Social distancing, paper straws

Holed up in Canterbury, I reread some of Chaucer’s Tales and thought about what a privilege it is to travel, to go places and see other people. I hope I’ve never taken it for granted, but surely none of us will, after this year is over. Even before the pandemic, Trish and I remarked many times how glad we were to have done all that traveling before her health problems, before circumstances changed and some things became no longer possible. 


Some of the more colorful bohemian characters, real and imagined, have lives filled with love affairs, each in turn portrayed as the love of their life. I am that way about places. I remember the lift in my heart when the skyline of Chicago would come into view, knowing that I was going to live there. The love I felt in the botanical gardens at Oxford, my first foreign city in my first foreign country. Toronto is my adopted city; I always feel at home there. These are all places I found when I was young.


Some people say that middle-aged feelings are deeper and richer than young feelings. Either that’s not true, or I’m younger than it says on the paper. Middle-aged feelings are certainly different—the outlines less clear, the edges less sharp—but I don’t feel more deeply. Canterbury, the young man at the tea shop told us, wasn’t known as a student town when he was growing up there, but it is now. Perhaps for this reason, for me, it evokes Oxbridge. The punts on the River Stour.


Maybe on a better day

I’ve written before that my regrets are things I didn’t do (and one of those was not buying 9 doughnuts for a pound). If you get an opportunity and you want to do something, take it. Never defer an opportunity thinking you will do it another time. You may not.


When we came back to the parking lot, there was a couple struggling to make sense of the payment machine. Trish offered to help and we could see, from their language selection on the screen, that they were German speakers. After some struggling back to English we realized that they were trying to pay just after having arrived, whereas this was one of those automatic machines that reads your license plate and charges you when you leave. When I explained they seemed embarrassed about it, but it’s not obvious; I’d only dealt with this type of machine in one other place.


After the German-speaking couple left for their rainy afternoon in Canterbury, I realized what had just happened. Some visitors from another country—although for all I know, they live in Britain—had needed help in an unfamiliar city, and we’d helped them. The same thing that happened to us hundreds of times in the two years before COVID-19, across more than two dozen countries. I had missed that experience, being on either side of it. I hope to have it again.


  “This world nys but a thurghfare ful of wo,
                 And we been pilgrymes, passynge to and fro.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Poems so far

In a previous post, I shared a poem introduced on Radio 4’s Today programme. BBC staff were taking turns reading poems that had meaning for them, a moment in my day that I also found helpful. 

A rare, clear view of Great Britain from the international space station
In turn, I started passing on poems to others in this world of quarantine. Many I heard on the radio, some new to me (like that first one), others well known. Some were shared with me by friends, and some are just among my favorites. Some resonated with a particular time during the lockdown: the psalm by Ian Sowton, a poet and fellow congregant at Holy Trinity, Toronto, was read during Holy Week*, while “For the Fallen” seemed appropriate for the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE Day).

Almost all of these poems are available publicly online. In a few cases, I have not included a link because the link I found did not actually get the words right, and I went by the book in my hand. It is not my intention to abridge anyone’s copyright here. If you also find poetry helpful in getting through tough times, and have the ability, I encourage you to buy books (preferably including some contemporary poets who could use the income) or make a contribution to the Poetry Foundation.

Quarantine comes from “forty” (days) and although these abnormal times are far from over, I now have forty poems. As people in various countries start to move, tentatively and (please God) safely, into whatever the future is going to look like, I hope some of these will move, entertain, or just connect you to others, as they have me.
1.     Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare ["Let me not to the marriage of true minds"]
2.     "On Time" by Kahlil Gibran
3.     "These Are the Hands" by Michael Rosen 
4.     “Heavy” by Mary Oliver. This poem was sent to me by our lovely cousin Lezlee.

5. "Fern Hill" by Dylan Thomas
6. "The Stolen Orange" by Brian Patten
7. This poem was for the 250th birthday of William Wordsworth. It's from a special illustrated collection that my aunt Janet gave me in childhood. The illustrator is Krystyna Orska.

8.     "Endymion," Book I"  by John Keats [A thing of beauty is a joy for ever]
*9.   "Lazarus" by Ian Sowton

10. Sonnet 29 by Shakespeare [When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes]
11. "Return" by Mary Dorcey (b. 1950, Ireland). This is what my mom read at Trish's and my civil partnership ceremony.

At last, the train will lurch in,
twenty minutes past the hour, the
dark flesh of the hills, heaved behind 
before us, the narrowing fields,
the layered clouds, drifting
beyond us, lit for some other advent.
And everything will conspire
against me: luggage and children
crowding the aisle. A white-haired
woman, home from England,
Awkward with haste, will labour
her case to the door, her floral
print dress, a last check between me
and my first glimpse of you.
And there you are--by the turnstile
I will see you come through, though you
miss me; your brilliant eyes in flight
along the carriage windows.
You will wear your red, linen shirt,
the sleeves turned back, and snatched
From the hedges as you drove,
a swathe of flowers in your arms.
(Such a trail strewn behind us--a trail
of departures and pardons.) And my
blood will betray me--the old response,
I will hesitate, as if there might
still be time to change course,
or simply, not wanting to be caught
waiting for your gaze? The sky
will shift as I step out, a handful
Of sun thrust down on your hair.
On the narrow platform, our hips
will draw close, we will not mind
how they stare--the aggrieved faces--
such a fuss for a woman!
And in that moment, your laughter,
the heat of your neck at my mouth,
it will all be behind me again
I swear, as though coming home,
as though for the first time.

12. From "The Siege at Troy" read by Seamus Heaney
13. "The Darkling Thrush" by Thomas Hardy
14. "A Free Praise Song for the Pandemic" written and read by Christine Valters Paintner
15. "The Sun Rising" by John Donne. This poem was sent to me by our friend Kim in Australia.
16. "Yr Arwr/The Hero" by Hedd Wyn (b. Ellis Evans, d. 1917 at Passchendaele). In times this strange, we need a poem that contains both lilacs and a dragon.
17. "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" by William Butler Yeats
18. “You Bet Travel is Broadening” by Ogden Nash. One of my favorites. Incredibly, it was once possible to make a living as a poet in the U.S.A.

Doctors tell me that some people wonder who they are, they don't
know if they are Peter Pumpkin-eater or Priam,
But I know who I am. 
My identity is no mystery to unravel, 
Because I know who I am, especially when I travel. 
I am he whom the dear little old ladies who have left their pocketbooks on the bureau at home invariably approach,
And he whom the argumentative tippler oozes in beside though there are thirty empty seats in the coach. 
I am he who finds himself reading comics to somebody else's children while the harassed mother attends to the youngest's needs, 
Ending up with candy bar on the lapel of whose previously faultless
I am he in the car full of students celebrating victory with instruments saxophonic and ukulelean,
And he who, speaking only English, is turned to for aid by the non-
English-speaking alien. 
I am he who, finding himself the occupant of one Pullman space that has been sold twice, next finds himself playing Santa,
Because it was sold the second time to an elderly invalid, so there is no question about who is going to sit in the washroom
Philadelphia to Atlanta. 
I guess I am he who if he had his own private car
Would be jockeyed into sharing the master bedroom with a man with a five-cent cigar.

19. "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost
20. "There Will Come Soft Rains [War Time]" by Sara Teasdale. I've loved this poem for more than thirty years, but it never sounded quite like it does now.
21. "Atlas" by U. A. Fanthorpe
22. "Adlestrop" by Edward Thomas
23. "This Is Just To Say" by William Carlos Williams 

24. "Quarantine" by Eavan Boland
25. "Praise the Rain" by Joy Harjo
26. To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell. This is an oldie, but I was reminded of it by a rabbi on the radio who paraphrased Marvell:"The laptop's a fine and private place/ But none, I think, do there embrace."
27. This is a song by the Indigo Girls. Written by Emily Saliers:

"All That We Let In"

Dust in our eyes our own boots kicked up
Heartsick we nurse along the way we picked up
You may not see it when it's sticking to your skin
But we're better off for all that we let in
We've lost friends and loved ones much too young
With so much promise and work left undone
When all that guards us is a single center line
And the brutal crossing over when it's time

Well, I don't know where it all begins
And I don't know where it all will end
We're better off for all that we let in

One day those toughies will be withered up and bent
The father son, the holy warriors and the president
With glory days of put up dukes for all the world to see
Beaten into submission in the name of the free
We're in an evolution, I have heard it said
And everyone's so busy now but do we move ahead
The planets hurling and atoms splitting
And a sweater for your love you sit there knitting

Well, I don't know where it all begins
And I don't know where it all will end
We're better off for all that we let in
You see those crosses on the side of the road
Or tied with ribbons in the median
They make me grateful I can go this mile
Lay me down at night and wake me up again

Kat writes a poem and she sticks it on my truck
We don't believe in war and we don't believe in luck
The birds were calling to her, what were they saying
As the gate blew open in the tops of the trees were swaying
I pass the cemetery, walk my dog down there
I read the names in stone and say a silent prayer
When I get home, you're cooking supper on the stove
And the greatest gift of life is to know love

Well, I don't know where it all begins
And I don't know where it all will end
We're better off for all that we let in

28. "A Pint of Plain is Your Only Man," also known as "The Workman's Friend," by Brian O'Nolan. I was once on a writers' pub crawl through Dublin, and the actors recited this. 

When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of night –
A pint of plain is your only man.
When money’s tight and hard to get
And your horse has also ran,
When all you have is a heap of debt –
A pint of plain is your only man.
When health is bad and your heart feels strange,
And your face is pale and wan,
When doctors say you need a change,
A pint of plain is your only man.
When food is scarce and your larder bare
And no rashers grease your pan,
When hunger grows as your meals are rare –
A pint of plain is your only man.

29. “On Nurses” by Roger Robinson

30.  More Mary Oliver: "Wild Geese"
31. “A Poem on Hope” by Wendell Berry
It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old,
For hope must not depend on feeling good
And there is the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight.
You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality
Of the future, which surely will surprise us,
…And hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction
Any more than by wishing. But stop dithering.
The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them?
Tell them at least what you say to yourself.
Because we have not made our lives to fit
Our places, the forests are ruined, the fields eroded,
The streams polluted, the mountains overturned. Hope
Then to belong to your place by your own knowledge
Of what it is that no other place is, and by
Your caring for it as you care for no other place, this
Place that you belong to though it is not yours,
For it was from the beginning and will be to the end
Belong to your place by knowledge of the others who are
Your neighbors in it: the old man, sick and poor,
Who comes like a heron to fish in the creek,
And the fish in the creek, and the heron who manlike
Fishes for the fish in the creek, and the birds who sing
In the trees in the silence of the fisherman
And the heron, and the trees that keep the land
They stand upon as we too must keep it, or die.
This knowledge cannot be taken from you by power
Or by wealth. It will stop your ears to the powerful
when they ask for your faith, and to the wealthy
when they ask for your land and your work.
Answer with knowledge of the others who are here
And how to be here with them. By this knowledge
Make the sense you need to make. By it stand
In the dignity of good sense, whatever may follow.
Speak to your fellow humans as your place
Has taught you to speak, as it has spoken to you.
Speak its dialect as your old compatriots spoke it
Before they had heard a radio. Speak
Publicly what cannot be taught or learned in public.
Listen privately, silently to the voices that rise up
From the pages of books and from your own heart.
Be still and listen to the voices that belong
To the streambanks and the trees and the open fields.
There are songs and sayings that belong to this place,
By which it speaks for itself and no other.
Found your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.
Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground
Underfoot. Be it lighted by the light that falls
Freely upon it after the darkness of the nights
And the darkness of our ignorance and madness.
Let it be lighted also by the light that is within you,
Which is the light of imagination. By it you see
The likeness of people in other places to yourself
In your place. It lights invariably the need for care
Toward other people, other creatures, in other places
As you would ask them for care toward your place and you.

No place at last is better than the world. The world
Is no better than its places. Its places at last
Are no better than their people while their people
Continue in them. When the people make
Dark the light within them, the world darkens.

32. For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon
33.  “[in Just]" by e e cummings

34. “Happiness” by Raymond Carver
35. This Lime-tree Bower my Prison” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
36. "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe
37. "Siren Song" by Margaret Atwood
38.  Untitled" by Rainer Maria Rilke [Do you still remember: fallen stars]
39. “Atlantic Crossing” by Rod McKuen. Many years ago, Josh made a beautiful print of this poem for me on a watercolor background. It’s one of my most treasured objects from that time in my life. Now it sits on my desk and I look at it every day--same meaning, different time and place.
40. “The Point” by Kate Tempest