By Guest, Cassandra Israel (Greensboro)
First there was Confusion: some kind of disease was out there and it was killing people all around the world. And suddenly, life as we knew it stopped. It just stopped. A pandemic (what’s a pandemic?) was spreading like wildfire across the world. The world! We were commanded to not go to work. We had to keep and home school our children. We had forgotten what it felt like to teach (what is the formula for multiplying a fraction?) had forgotten what it felt like to protect (Sweetie, you need to give me a little bit of down time right now) and had forgotten what it felt like to endure kids in 24 hour increments. We had forgotten how, in times of great stress, the noise and antics of children can really get on our nerves. There was no middle ground anywhere. Confusion had us at war with ourselves.
Confusion. We had so many questions: How is this disease spread? Through touching items? How long did it live on surfaces? Were public restrooms safe? If I am buying takeout or getting groceries, do I need to disinfect the packaging before I eat?
How is this disease spread? Through breathing contaminated air? Does it spread via spit droplets? Mosquito bites? Yes, the mosquito theory was out there. It was just one of many illusions that caught hold. It didn’t help that politically we were dealing with facts and alternative facts. Because living in real time was so extremely draining, we were desperate to latch onto any reality, but our own.
After Confusion came Fear. Fear of being touched by an infected person. Fear of being coughed on maliciously. Fear of one’s personal space being violated by someone who stands too close. Hospitals, before a safe haven to go to when one was ill, became places to fear: we were terrorized by images of refrigerated trucks being swamped by bodies and terrorized by videos of people on gurneys, lining the corridors of hospitals, struggling to breathe without the aid of a ventilator, hoping, no praying, not to die.
For the first time, many of us experienced the fear associated with economic insecurity. Millions of people lost their jobs. For some, it was their only source of income. We found ourselves wondering if we needed to stash food. Or worse, we found ourselves going to food pantries for the first time as supplicants, literally needing help to feed our families. Fearful of the virus, we began to stockpile items that we thought could help defend us against disease: hand sanitizer; anti-bacterial soap; alcohol; and bleach. And, of course, for some unknown reason, we found comfort in hoarding toilet paper.
After Fear came Boredom: Pure ennui. We were stuck in our homes with family members - unable to escape because there was nowhere to go. We found ourselves staring at the television or perhaps ordering something online that would give us a tinge of joy. At times we were able to transform the boredom: we started new hobbies – knitting, baking bread, solving jigsaw puzzles – or returned to old pastimes that our formerly busy lives did not make time for – reading, playing and yard work.
In some hard and interesting ways we had to deal with ourselves. We came to appreciate the meaning of the anecdote about moving: you can change your physical location as often as you want, but there will always be one person, whom no matter where you go, will be there - you. We had our pandemic variant of this phenomenon: no matter how hard we tried to distract ourselves, we were always stuck with a feeling of malaise. A feeling that emerged from a cavernous place within. We had to search deeply to understand the depths of our ennui.
After Boredom came Isolation. We shut down. It took effort to mingle in masks in our new socially distant way. We felt strangely solitary even though we may have been near others. That’s what happened with zoom. We were alone, yet we were surrounded by the faces of other people – people who were not there. We developed a “zoom face” – a look that manages to exude interest in whatever is being said. This isolation had as its foundation a vast misery: a low grade depression that was easily dismissed by us as being inconsequential.
Confusion. Fear. Boredom. Isolation. My apprehension about Covid 19 intensified when my uncle, a Baptist preacher, casually referred to the pandemic as a plague. As in a biblical plague. His pronouncement caused me much distress: If this was a plague, were we being punished? Were we even aware of what we were being punished for?
I know that discussing celestial punishment may cut across the grain for some of you; it may not seem to be an appropriate topic for an audience of Quakers. However, regardless of where one stands in believing in the idea of retribution, it became clear that we needed, as a human race, needed for all of us, the whole world, to develop the capacity to learn how to survive the pandemic.
The most effective lessons were simple enough: wash hands, wear a mask, wait an appropriate social distance away from other folks. And yet, so many perished. I thought about the tens of thousands of senior citizens who had fallen to the virus and had died without the presence and comfort of loved ones surrounding them or perhaps had died after a video chat to say goodbye. Darkness, the child of Confusion, Fear, Boredom and Isolation, caused me to experience the waking nightmare of envisioning myself in their place, of dying solo.
To emerge from Darkness, I knew that I had to turn towards the Light. But, with my faith challenged, I could neither sense nor see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
What to do?
Pray my way to illumination.
Searching for a beacon, I started by dissecting my belief system. What did I understand about my capacity to conjure myself toward the Light? What did I know about my ability to act to shift the Darkness away?
And so I bowed my head, closed my eyes, and opened my heart to possibilities…
I prayed for sight, for the vision to see clearly thru the Confusion.
I pled for courage, for the ability to step into the abyss of Fear and know that my faith would be a ladder, a pathway out.
I wrestled with Boredom. Tried to center myself and eject out all of the negative energy that kept it alive.
And, I dared to open myself up to other souls, all of us sojourning alone in Isolation, finally becoming aware of each other’s True presence.
Those first months of the pandemic were unlighted. I searched outside of myself looking for a flare, something quintessentially unique and alien, that would show me a pathway forward.
But I found nothing.
To emerge from Darkness, I knew that I had to turn towards the Light. I found nothing until I looked inside to retrieve what had been there all along. I already had the words to comfort my soul – a signal fire to the Divine.
Searching for a beacon, I rediscovered a lesson that I have to keep learning over and over again: That lesson is this - Only thru prayer will I have the vision, the courage, the centeredness and the presence to find my way out of the Dark.
I learned this prayer starting at around age 4. My ma would kneel beside me at my bed and she recited it with me every night for years, until I could say it to her on my own:
Who art in Heaven
Hallowed would be thy name.
Thy Kingdom come
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us this day
Our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those
Who trespass against us.
Lead us not
But deliver us from Evil
For Thine is the Kingdom
Cassandra Israel is a Friend who believes that Silence is God’s preferred language and that all have an opportunity to hear it.