Sitting in the ER

Sitting in the ER, waiting to hear my name called, with a female tag team wrestling match playing at high volume on the TV hanging behind me and the people across from me wearing their masks on their chins was not the way I expected to spend last night.

I know no one expects to end up in an emergency room. It’s a reminder that things can change slowly, or in the blink of an eye. This trip turned out to be less serious than we feared, which was a great relief. My wife had a fall in the yard and did not end up with a broken rib or anything requiring admission. Scrapes and bruises, and she will have several days of hurting like hell, but we were in and out in three hours. This morning we hit the pharmacy to get her prescriptions filled as soon as it opened.

The fact that I was in a room filled with people in medical distress, some of unknown origin, and I had to ask the people sitting across from me to put their masks on was difficult to understand. We are at over 600,000 dead from this pandemic, it’s finally, after over a year, starting to recede, and the emergency room has signs saying that masks are required. If there were ever a place where wearing a mask would be a no-brainer, I would think that an ER would be it. Most people were masked up, but a few were sporting the below-the-nose option, and a couple were bare faced.

There is nothing, including wearing a mask, that is an absolute one hundred percent guarantee of protection against the virus. Masks do tilt the odds in favor of avoiding infection, and, more importantly, helps reinforce the fact that we’re all in this one together against a threat that is no respecter of any of our occasionally arbitrary lines of division. I’m more than willing to mask up when necessary. It’s one way to express both commonality with and concern for my fellow humans. Like I said, a no-brainer. I’ll probably continue with many of the hermit aspects of life that were necessary during the worst of the pandemic due to my deeply ingrained introversion, but it will be nice to have options again.

Time to Ask

Now that we are beginning to ease the restrictions that have been necessary to bring the pandemic under some kind of control, I hope some thought is being given to taking advantage of this rare opportunity we have now (but in a very short time will not).

My career before retirement was in education, and I see school systems rushing back into the same patterns as before COVID. The same structures, the same curriculum, the same set of priorities, likely the same tests. I understand the temptation to get back to some kind of solid ground after over a year of uncertainty; there is, however, a rapidly disappearing chance to avoid stepping back into essentially the same routine as before. There are questions that can be asked now that can’t be reasonably asked six months from now, when all the old structures and methods are back in place.

Are we teaching the things we should be, given the fact that the children in school now will enter a world none of us can predict with any confidence, and is changing at an ever-increasing rate?

Are we acknowledging the shift in the cultural landscape that has occurred, in some cases during the depths of the pandemic?

Is our methodology well suited for the kind of learning these children need?

Are we asking what role the schools should play in the various communities that exist now (physical, electronic, global) and what roles could be better filled by other existing or as yet unformed organizations and structures?

These and many other questions can be asked now, and may well have been considered during the last year and a half, but it concerns me that all of us were (and still are) so much in survival mode, trying to find some kind of footing, that questioning of this type may not have occurred. If not, now is a good time, and a year from now will not be.

Similar things can be said, of course, about business, religion, politics, and other areas.

I must say I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing what artists have been up to. As a community they, more so than others, are used to stepping back for a different look, asking questions others have not yet thought about, and tackling things that have not been tried before.

Four Hundred Souls

I didn’t finish Four Hundred Souls. I was a little over halfway through when it was automatically returned to the library; there were a dozen people waiting, so there was no possibility of renewing. I’ll be getting back on the list so I can finish the audiobook. It’s not the kind of book that can be skimmed; it deserves careful attention.

The premise is both simple and brilliant. Four hundred years of history, told from the perspective of Americans who were first enslaved and then marginalized and oppressed, is divided into 5-year segments beginning in 1619, the year of the first official record of a slave ship arriving in what was to become the United States. Each 5-year segment is written by a different person, and the larger divisions of the book, ten in all, each end with a poem. Ninety writers contributed to this work, edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain. 

Some writers concentrate on the period itself; others use an event or person to act as a starting point to make a connection to more contemporary issues. The pieces are beautiful, and maddening, and insightful, and horrifying, and more. I thought about skipping some segments so I could get through the whole book, but that would have been wrong. There are so many layers, so many stories, such richness in the history of this community that speeding through it was not an option for me.

The thing that bothers me about this book (aside from the obvious question of how we ever thought that buying and selling human beings was anything short of abhorrent) is this. I recognize many of the people referenced in the essays. Not all, or even most, but quite a few names were familiar to me. On the other hand, the names of the contributors, the essayists and poets who created this piece of work, were unfamiliar, and I recognized only a few of the readers. That is a gaping hole in my knowledge of literary culture, and the reason that gap exists is not surprising, given the central messages of this book. 

It’s clear, even though I still have half of the book still unheard, that the overwhelming majority of people who talk about “Black America” or “the Black experience in America” don’t have the first clue about the subject. This is, of course, because it isn’t a subject at all, but the stories of a culture initially defined by the limits imposed on it from outside. The fact that these limits have been and are political, religious, and cultural makes their existence and the efforts (still going on today) to maintain them in some form or another all the more damning. Within those limits a rich and varied community came into existence and grew, becoming more complex all the time. Only by painting with the broadest possible strokes can one talk about the Black Experience as a single entity, and this book paints in minute detail.

There is much I did not know about the period leading up to the mid-1800s, which is as far as I got before the audiobook disappeared. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that I’m looking forward to the rest of the story; the attitudes and actions of those who held the jailers’ keys do not bear the light of history well. I do think I need to hear the rest of it, and I can recommend the book, not as pleasure reading, but rather important and necessary. 

On the Brink

Stepping into the unknown, in this moment and all the ones to follow, is what we do, willingly or not. What was, is no longer. The world is here and now, full of possibilities, and each moment we stand, poised on the brink of discovery, facing a new chance to learn, or create, or reach out. Our most important choice, our only real choice, is what we do with this precious gift as it is offered to us, and offered to us again. And again.

 (Thanks, Jenny, for planting this seed so long ago).