Shutdown Week 7: Unknowing

FeaturedShutdown Week 7: Unknowing

The first change I faced for the Covid 19 shutdown was the suspension of classes and groups for older adults at the Center for Life and Learning (CLL) in my neighborhood church. The cancellation announcement infuriated me. For an entire day, I thought it was the only shutdown announcement, the only group activity suspended.

The media had been continually reporting that people over sixty were more vulnerable to coronovirus than the rest of the population. Shutting us down was our best protection. My wounded ego jumped to the conclusion that we, as a group, would be thought of as weak, defeated and sick, putting a frame around the ageism I struggle to define in myself

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Mammoth Mountain Sky by Sharon Schock Sharonschock.com

 

and in the public square. I stuck myself in a cloud of unknowing.

It was mid-March. I bundled up to walk a long way around to the church for the last event before the shutdown, the CLL yearly Art Show.

How to express my agitation?  Old people were being singled out. Excluded.

That’s when I ran into one of the pastors on his way down the street to the Red Line.

“We’re cancelling services.” He said.

“Huh? How long?”

“Unknown. It’s all going to be livestream. We have to figure out Zoom for other gatherings.”

His worried expression hit me like a ton of bricks. He didn’t crack his normal smile, nor did he put a jokey spin on the situation.

“It’s serious.” He said.

“So, It’s not just old people?”

At the Art Show I gathered with friends and reported the news .

No Sunday services. 

I eavesdropped on other conversations. Eavesdropping has become one of the social distancing casualties I miss the most.

“They say we might have classes on Zoom.”

“What’s Zoom?”

“Some kind of computer conferenceing.”

“I’m not doing that. I’m sick of technology.”

“Me too. I don’t want to learn anything new.”

“Well, it won’t be for long. Maybe a week. Maybe two.”

We’re in the seventh week now.

I fell victim to the fear of the unknown and refused to learn Zoom for about six days. But I longed for the energy of the collective silence in my meditation group. Others did too and meditation became the first Zoom hosted by CLL.

About fifteen of us spend twenty minutes each Monday and Friday sitting in silence in our Hollywood Squares with our eyes closed. Afterwards we each say a few brief words. We know a smattering of particulars about each other.

What could I possibly miss that I can’t do on my own?

In The Cloud of Unknowing, a fourteenth century monk teaches when we know enough and we don’t need to know more, an opening through the clouds to the sun or the moon brings us to an endless, wordless, deeper knowing. Contemplatives call this love.

This is why I yearn to sit in silence with fellow meditators. We know each other through the clouds of our own wordless unknowing. I call this love.

Shutdown Week 6: Solitude

Shutdown Week 6: Solitude

The coronavirus shutdown forces me to sit in silent contemplation, doing my best to control the one thing I think I can—my thoughts.

American buddhists say people in the West are afraid of solitude, of being alone.              That’s not my fear.                                                                                                                                  I fear the future.                                                                                                                               When the threat of coronavirus is over, will I ever leave home again?                                  Will I ever chance gathering with friends or strangers in a group for a common purpose, a protest march, choir practice, church, AA meetings?                                                            Lunch even?                                                                                                                                        How would I fit into the world with no connection outside of myself and Henry the dog? What would be my purpose?                                                                                                             No wonder loneliness shortens life.                                                                                                     It will kill you, this lack of purpose.                                                                                          

Hmm. Two fast-walkers below my window dressed head to toe in black spandex, masked like bandits.                                                                                                                                        What are they talking about?                                                                                                           Are they planning to rob the bank on the corner?                                                                        Do they know the polar ice cap is melting and will soon spill over into Michigan Avenue? Perhaps they’re headed to Northwestern to get tested for coronavirus.                                      I hope they bow to the angels fluttering around the Emergency Room.

Down the street gardeners dig up winter to plant spring by the goldfish pond.                    Those goldfish swam around that manmade pond the entire winter. 

                     

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Out with winter. In with spring

Blackbirds jump from branch to branch on the budding leafless tress awaiting the gardeners’ departure.                                                                                                                       They swoop in for a scratch-around in the fresh mulch, but ignore the goldfish.           They’re not fishers.

The backup whistle on the garbage truck that normally blends in with early morning noise?                                                                                                                                                         It now pierces the street from the otherwise empty alley.                                                         Cars are so infrequent these days that instead of tires rolling over the road with a steady hum, their sound breaks the air with a hiss. hiss. hiss.                                                          Where are they going?                                                                                                                              If I had a car I’d be driving around too.                                                                                            I’d drive up and down the Drive to be close to my own wild lake.                                                The mayor closed the lake path and parks for good reason.                                                 Chicago loves to be out.                                                                                                                       We’d gather there, on the lakefront, congregate.                                                                     Spread the virus.

Those words are my thoughts from five minutes of meditation. This is how I talk to myself. How embarrassing. My interior life is a tragic waste of imagination—that grammar, those articles, prepositions and pronouns. The mundane. Oh, to be a poet.

On Being’s Krista Tippett hosted Stephen Batchelor, a Tibetan Buddhist on Sunday morning. His new book, The Art of Solitude, made a fitting subject for the Shutdown era. He said indulging in myself leads to inward wisdom and outward compassion. The integration of the two make me fully human. I’m game to be fully human, to be wise and compassionate.

But for now, I must get control of my thoughts.

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Alone on Oak Street Chicago 11:00 am April 27, 2020

_________________________________________________________________________

Before Coronavirus We Were Dying of Loneliness 

On Being: Stephen Batchelor: Finding Ease  in Aloneness

 

 

Shutdown Week 5: Masks Unseen

Shutdown Week 5: Masks Unseen

Until the beginning of April, the Center for Disease Control, health departments, doctors, scientists and pundits advised us to wear a mask only if we had symptoms. Then the message changed. We learned there were people with coronavirus who have no symptoms. A cloth face covering is recommended for everyone now to prevent us from giving it to and getting it from each other.

All of a sudden everyone wore a mask. For about ten days. 

On a mid-April Saturday, Henry studied the sudden arrival of daffodils, marking his spot. IMG_1713We’d walked less than a half a block before I breathlessly yanked my homemade mask off. The lightweight cotton had turned into a heat chamber about to asphyxiate me. I wasn’t the only one. Everyone’s mask was askew or nonexistent in the warmer weather. And that was the end of widespread mask use in the neighborhood.

The inconvenience of non-essential work has come upon the privileged. A neighbor can’t get her dishwasher fixed because our building management has deemed it a non-essential repair. I tried to replace a light bulb in the lamp by my reading chair and it broke off, leaving the guts screwed in place and me holding the glass bulb. The maintenance man said “no”.  Even though I played the old lady card, it’s not essential that my aging eyes have light to read. “Watch TV,” he said.

We’re not exactly on Cormac McCarthy’s Road, or settling into deprivation. But ordering groceries online has taken a turn. There are no delivery times available for the old stand-bys. I’m told to “check back later.” The store with the only coffee beans I like isn’t accepting online orders “at this time”. “Check back later” has taken up residence on my computer screen.

My computer screen is where I go to church. It’s livestreamed. Only it’s not exactly live because the preacher last Sunday admitted to recording the sermon. When the artificial worship service came into view the livestream accentuated all the elements of church I despise–the dead symbols, rituals, robes. And then the preacher delivered a walloping good sermon about “thriving in belief”. 

“For now, caring for our neighbor by sheltering in place is believing in the unseen.” he said. 

That’s me. You’re staying home for me. And I you. I believe this unseen selflessness will protect me, and you.

Do I like this virtue being forced on me? Not one bit. I’d rather make my own choice. I know what those protesters are up to. This is America. The government can’t tell us to stay home. It’s the Screwtape Letters in action. The master devil is telling his student to tempt us into saying God is on our side while tricking us into believing only in ourselves. If Granny gets sick and dies, it’s not because we gathered together in church, at a barbecue or a cocktail party. It’s God’s will. 

That’s me, too. Belief in the unseen reveals my secret selfishness and depravity. And it allows me to self-correct, sight unseen, to receive the virtue. I don’t know how that works. I simply thrive in the belief. 

Shutdown Week 4: Shame

House sparrows have been chirping at my window. They’re abundant on my city street and in the spring they emerge from their winter hiding places looking for food. Last year for the first time, European starlings appeared. Sometimes I think I hear robins and cardinals but starlings mimic the sounds of other birds. They’re trying to trick me into putting bird seed out for the more colorful birds, not knowing I love them equally. 

Gutsy red-winged blackbirds abruptly premiered on the railing of my balcony, sucking the breath out of me. Their distinctive one-second long, loud musical trill called me from the breakfast table. Jet black bodies shouldered with red and yellow feathers held on fearlessly as I moved closer to the window. For years I’ve had black furniture with red and yellow highlights, imitating red-winged blackbirds. 

A friend called from Florida to say Happy Easter as I was tethering Henry for his morning walk.

“It’s Easter?” 

“Yes! It’s Easter,” and we laughed in that old familiar way, like we just discovered each of our days slips from one to another like egg after egg slipping into boiling water. We starting talking about the Shutdown. I extended Henry’s walk farther along Lake Shore Drive sensing a longer iPhone conversation.

“I can’t watch the news. Can’t talk about him,” she said.

I understand, of course. It’s what we all say and like all of us, she ended up talking about it anyway—said the Democrats need to present an answer to the question “why” to win in November. 

“The Democrats have moved their convention to August about the same time as my book release,” I said. “Let’s go to Milwaukee and sell books out of the trunk of the car, a trunk show!” We’ve had such adventures in the past, but plans cannot be made until the Shutdown is resolved. 

The outside world has been a physical threat since St. Patrick’s Day. At first I was in danger of someone sneezing on me. I’m in the vulnerable group. Now others are in danger of me sneezing on them. I may be an asymptomatic coronavirus carrier. 

Henry and I ended up sitting in the bus stop sheltered by an unexpected spring warmth. IMG_0871Walkers have taken to the street lately because the sidewalks aren’t wide enough to keep the reqiured social distancing. A woman in an ominous medical mask, six feet into the street, walked by and gave me a long evil eye. I’ve been wearing a cowgirl bandana for my mask and I neglected to re-cover my face after it slipped down when I was on the phone. Shaming eyes have replaced smiles and waves on the street. Watch out if you forget your mask. You’ll need to mend your wounds with a Brene Brown Ted Talk on shame from the daggers shooting out of your neighbors’ gaze.

The Stay Home battle cry presents no threat though. Settling into social isolation, I watch masked neighbors from the window.

And I pray for a visitation from the woodpecker I heard the other day.