The Old South Can’t Solve the New Covid

Recently, both the University of Georgia and the University of Alabama, unlike other colleges who’ve gone online, are dealing with Covid-19 outbreaks. It’s not surprising considering the South had the highest number of Covid infections this summer. Sadly, many southerners can’t afford to go to the doctor or hospital either. Nine of the ten poorest states are in the South. And, if these southerners are looking for federal help to cover their medical expenses, they probably won’t find it in their home state. Of the twelve states still holding out on Medicare expansion, eight of them are in the South. What’s going on Down South anyways?

There’s a lot to love about the South. I know because both my parents were born and raised there in Kentucky and West Virginia. It wasn’t until after they married that they moved north looking for work other than coal mining. I have such deep southern roots my great-grandfather’s name was Stonewall Jackson Lankford, named after the confederate general of Civil War fame. My grandmother was such a hillbilly she chewed tobacco, played the banjo, and regularly exclaimed, “Lord have mercy!”

I’m not sure when or why the South lost ground, economically and in other ways. When my mother went to Beaver High School in Bluefield, West Virginia, one of her older classmates was John Nash, the subject of the movie, A Beautiful Mind. Nash went on to eventually win the Nobel Prize in economics. My dad never graduated from high school, but his school was Big Creek High School. Big Creek was also the alma mater of Homer Hickam, the former NASA engineer who trained the first astronauts, and gained fame as the leader of the “Rocket Boys.” These southerners were not just open to new ideas, they were the ones instigating them.

When I taught history I told my students about the differences between the North and the South before the Civil War. The North was founded by religious separatists like the Puritans who worked hard to build a life in the New World. The South was largely colonized by British nobles seeking to extract tobacco wealth from the land. Georgia actually began as a penal colony. One part of the country industrialized, and the other part was more agrarian and wedded to a medieval economic system based on slavery. This history set the stage for the humiliating defeat the South suffered at the end of the Civil War. Parts of the South still seem in retreat.

I recently gave my mother a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, that wonderful classic by Alabama author, Harper Lee. I didn’t know if mom had read it before, she reads so voraciously, but, she seemed delighted with my gift. This week I visited her again, and asked how she liked the book.

“Oh, I loved it! I read it all in one day! I couldn’t put it down. She (Harper Lee) really got the way things were back then, the way I grew up (in the South),” mom told me.

Of course mom enjoyed this book: history and tradition are important to her. Lots of southern music is about tradition and the old ways: fishing in the creek and driving a beat-up pickup with a dog in the back. There’s nothing wrong with this, except sometimes the answers we need now, for example how to deal with this pandemic, can’t be found in the past. Country music star Eric Church gets this. I listened to a song of his the other day on my car radio:

“…Jails are full, factories empty,

Momma’s crying, young boys dying

Under that red, white, and blue still flying…

Stick that in your Country song…”

 

Image Credit:  Stonewall Jackson         Image Credit:   Eric Church

A Wind that Blows Nobody Good

On a trip to the coast recently I enjoyed watching the wind send ocean spray flying down the beach.  Not all winds though, are so friendly.  Just today the news reported that an inland hurricane, a derecho, packing 100 mph winds, had flattened crops and destroyed buildings and property in Iowa.  Last week, Hurricane Isaias unleashed wind and rain across the Eastern Seaboard.  And a couple of days ago, multiple tornadoes ripped through greater Chicago causing extensive damage.  As the old Jimmy Reeves song says, these were ill winds that “blew nobody good.”

Ill winds have been part of my history—and as a matter of fact, greater Chicago too.

I grew up not too far from the “windy city” in northern Indiana. When I was eleven-years-old on Palm Sunday1965, two tornadoes struck my little town. Twin funnels cut a swath of destruction killing 1200 people and flattening a trailer park just south of where I lived.  There were a total of 47 tornadoes sighted in the Midwest that Palm Sunday.  To this day it’s still considered to be one of the deadliest and most violent tornado outbreaks ever recorded.  Some people in our town were not even aware of the severe weather forecast. They were sitting in church pews celebrating Easter week when they heard the roar of the twisters.

Unfortunately, the tornado season that year did not end with the Palm Sunday tornadoes.  A month later, a tornado was sighted again in my town, on June 6.

I remember this tornado even more than the Palm Sunday twins, because it was the day after my brother Sam died.

Sam and I were taking swimming lessons at the YMCA pool when he lost his life.  Though it happened a long time ago, I still remember how devastated my family was.  We gathered together in the little living room of our ranch-style house, crying and hugging each other. Then suddenly, we heard an eerie wail rise up from the street outside, a sound that had nothing to do with our grief.  Firetrucks were roaming the neighborhood and blaring their sirens.  They were warning people to take shelter because a tornado had been sighted.

I walked out the front screen door to see the firetrucks passing by, and then noticed my grandfather standing in our yard watching the sky.  I stood by him for a while, when another man strolled over and asked Grandpa what he thought about the weather situation.  Grandpa just shook his head as if he couldn’t take one more piece of bad news that day.

Eventually, he responded to the man, telling him he thought the weather didn’t look good, the sky was too green and the air too still.

This was the first time I’d heard about one of the more significant warning signs of an impending tornado: the wind stops blowing.  Apparently, tornadoes create a low pressure vacuum, something commonly known as the calm before the storm.  We were all thankful when we heard on the radio that our area was given the “all clear” by the National Weather Service.

After I married an Idaho farmer and moved out west, I had to get used to the never-ceasing winds that scour these high desert plains.  I’d get nervous when the skies darkened and the wind turned into a full gale.  One year a storm came roaring through the canyon near us.  The wind shook our trailer so much, a favored print by the French artist Jean-Francois Millet, fell from the paneled wall, and cracked the frame.

That wind storm almost sent me to the corner of the room cowering in fear.

I’m still afraid of extreme wind events, though today for an entirely different reason.  I know derecho’s, tornado clusters, and increasing numbers of hurricanes are all signs of the climate changing.  Just because we’re dealing with a viral pandemic does not mean this particular problem has gone away.  But unlike a sudden tragic death, we can do something about climate change—and that gives me hope.

 

Image Credit:  Palm Sunday twin tornadoes 1965       Image Credit:  Derecho

 

 

Science Doesn’t Care About Your Feelings

Who was my grandfather?

It was a family mystery I attempted to solve several years ago when I visited ninety-five year old Uncle Clay.  Clay was the only one left alive who could tell me if it was true, that my dad’s adopted father, Charlie Holland, was in fact my true, genetic grandfather.

“Hey girl?” Uncle Clay whipped his head this way and that, trying to use the pigeon-holed vision he had in his one remaining eye to see me.  I sat about two feet in front of him.

“I’m here,” I reached out and touched the loose skin on his bony hand.  “So Grandpa Holland had an affair while he was married to grandma, and then adopted the child from that affair, right?  Nobody knew dad was Grandpa Holland’s real son, but he is isn’t he?”

“Charlie …” Uncle Clay began then stared blankly into space for a moment, “okay…sure, sure.  It’s what you say.”

He might have been mostly deaf and certainly blind, but Clay’s acknowledgement of the truth of this story was good enough for me.  I wanted the riddle solved.  I wanted to believe Charlie Holland, the grandfather I’d known all of my life, was also my real grandfather in every sense of the word.

Ancestry-dot-com had not even entered the scene when I visited Uncle Clay back in 1998.  It would be some time before I, like 26 million other people (according to CNBC), used consumer DNA tests to find information on my heritage.  With a 99.9 accuracy rate, DNA testing is not wishful thinking, it is science and as such, these tests are not swayed by the emotional needs of their customers.   So it was with great disappointment that I eventually discovered I have Scotland and Ireland in me, but no Holland—either the country or the surname.  Uncle Clay had fudged the truth.  Of course, I set him up and lead him to this lie.

I pushed my frail, great-uncle (by adoption) until he told me what I wanted to hear.

After I found out about my ancestry through DNA analysis, I called an old friend of mine who I don’t see very often, just to talk and catch up.  He confessed how disappointed he was with DNA testing too.

“I know I’m a quarter Cree Indian—I don’t care what their test says,” my friend was adamant.

He and I both grew up in the 60’s when claiming Native American ancestry was counter-culture and cool.  Paul Revere and the Raiders sang songs with lyrics like, “Cherokee nation, Cherokee tribe, so proud to live, so proud to die…”  A movie came out in 1971, Billy Jack, starring a handsome lead actor who played a part-Indian, Viet Nam vet with some serious butt-kicking skills.  Obviously, my friend had been taken in by these romanticized images of being a half-breed.

“But your DNA tests show your ancestors were from Europe.  Surely you’re not going to argue with the science?”

But he could argue, and he did. “I’m not too big on science anymore,” he said as easily as disclosing he didn’t like broccoli.

I was dismayed and surprised by this comment.  If he didn’t trust or believe in science anymore, why didn’t he get rid of his cell phone, computer, and car?  Conveniences like these were given to him by science.  My friend had become very religious though.  He told me he preferred to trust his feelings rather than some DNA laboratory.

This summer I thought about that long-ago phone conversation when I read a New York Times op-ed entitled:  “The Religious Right’s Hostility to Science is Crippling our Coronavirus Response.” Some lies are harmless and maybe even make us feel better:  Grandpa Holland is, and always will be, my grandfather.  Other stories we tell ourselves though, can be absolutely deadly.

 

Image Credit:  Grandpa Charlie Holland        Image Credit:  Ancestry Dot Com       Image Credit:  Billy Jack

Corona Summer 2020

There’s an old jazz standard entitled “Summertime” and it’s most well-known and oft repeated line is: “Summertime…and the livin’ is easy…”  I love this song, but in the age of coronavirus, the livin’ isn’t easy, it’s complicated.  Many of us during this season of picnics, pools, and patio parties are struggling with what we can, and can’t do now that the pandemic seems to be spiraling out of control again.  I found ample evidence of this conflicted state of mind when my husband and I took a trip to get some needed medical testing done in another state.

Summer trips are usually a time to explore, have fun, and play, but the only game we played on this trip was dodging the spiky corona ball.

We drove through the corner of three different states and each had its own rate of infection, and consequent policies and restrictions.  It made me crazy, and I longed for some consistency.  Recently, Dr. Anthony Fauci, infectious disease expert, spoke about the consistency issue.  He told a skeptical senate committee the best way to fight the pandemic was with a coordinated and collaborative national effort—not disparate states creating their own policies.

I wish I could have stuffed some of those senators in the car with us on our road trip. Then they could see how scatter-shot our response to Covid-19 has been.  At our Utah motel we had a “touchless” check-in and were asked to schedule pool time.  But in Wyoming the pool was completely unrestricted and overrun with families having a party.  The geology museum was closed in Wyoming though, and another plus, the convenience store clerk wore a mask.  In Montana most of the motel staff went without masks, and the bars downtown were swarming with people.  This, despite social distancing signs posted everywhere.

Actually, what really caused my head to spin on our trip was how few people wore masks.  There was no need for a screaming Karen to have a melt-down over her “right” to go without a mask—because no businesses required them.

In general, I’d estimate less than 30% of the people we saw on our trip wore masks. 

I became a little paranoid around all these bare faces, worried someone might spew a virus bubble my way.  I started running and shunning people—in the grocery stores, on the sidewalks, down a bicycle path.  I was rude and weird-acting—more than usual anyways.

Ironically, probably the closest I came to actually getting an infection was at the hospital where my husband was being tested.  I walked right into a big, masked nurse coming out of the ladies restroom. I was as startled as she was, and we both let out a breathy yelp.  She blew so much air at me I could smell her morning coffee through my mask.  I hoped she was neither saint nor sinner, a church choir member or a bar-hopper, two kinds of known virus-spreaders.

By the end of our trip, when we finally crossed the Idaho state line, I felt relieved.  Home is safe, right?  Then I checked the local news on my IPhone.  When we left Idaho, the infection rate was running over a hundred a day.  The news on my cell said for the past several days, corona infections had climbed into the 200’s.  As I write this, Idaho’s infection rate was over 400 yesterday.

But it’s summer, and after we unpacked from our trip I drug our big cattle tank into the back yard and filled it with water.

For a few moments, floating in the tank, I was able to relax.  I thought then, the livin’ this summer hasn’t been easy, but maybe the fall will be better.  Who knows?  That’s the thing about the coronavirus, we just don’t know.

 

 

Image Credit:  Road Trip    Image Credit:  Not Feeling Well by Diana Hooley     Image Credit:  Cattle Tank Dip by Diana Hooley

A Way to Cope, a Way to Rest

People find all kinds of ways to cope during difficult times. The plague of coronavirus coupled with the anger and divisiveness that’s rocking our nation currently, has sent many people to their therapists seeking help.  My daughter, who’s a mental health counselor, says her online client load has tripled.

I’ve benefited at different times in my life from therapy, but one of my mainstays for good mental health, something that is both free and easily accessible, has been meditational prayer.

I learned to pray going to church as a young girl when God was a magical, white-bearded being that looked and acted a lot like Santa Claus.  My every wish was his to grant.  If I just prayed hard enough and long enough, always humbly on my knees, I would be blessed with getting what I wanted.

As I grew up and changed, so did my prayers.  They became less about God doing my will, and more about me finding answers within myself.  And, in order to gain this understanding I had to inventory my thoughts and feelings in an honest, nonjudgmental way.  I talked to the “god within me” to help sort out my life—and found in the process not only comfort, but clarity.

For example, when I first married a desert farmer, I had a bad case of buyer’s remorse.  It wasn’t that I didn’t love my new husband, I just missed my home back East, the spreading oak trees and grassy lawns, the friends and neighbors I’d known growing up in a small town.

One time I felt so trapped and isolated living in a trailer in the neck of a canyon, I threw open the trailer door in a rage, and started walking.

I wasn’t watching where I was going, I just stomped out into the sagebrush, tears of frustration rolling down my cheeks. I ranted and swore at God about how I’d become this lonely farm wife.  Love or lust had kidnapped my life plans.  I lamented a languishing college degree and lost career.  I didn’t like living on a farm.  I didn’t want to plant a vegetable garden or sew curtains.  I just wanted some television reception, which seemed near impossible, a shaky antennae the only conduit for a few radio waves that managed to find their way to us.

When I was done praying, I felt better. I stood there a moment staring at the canyon wall in front of me, my eyelashes still moist from crying, and noticed some kind of trail going up the side. From a distance it looked like a path animals might use, maybe the deer I spotted out the window this morning, or the coyotes I heard baying at night.  Suddenly, I wanted to follow this trail, just to see where it led.

When I got to the top of the canyon wall I was sweaty and hot from climbing, but the view of peaceful farm fields along the Snake River was magnificent.  I experienced an incredible sense of calm, and knew then that everything would be okay.

Dr. David Rosmarin from the Harvard Medical School discussed prayer and praying in The Wall Street Journal recently.  He said research shows prayer calms the central nervous system and the “fight or flight” instinct. Prayer, much like meditation, rests our brains because it turns off our anxiety switch, and turns on our ability to self-reflect.  Praying is a time when we can be thoughtful, rather than reactive, about our life.

I’m a very relaxed pray-er.  So much so that I’ve had to be conscious about people nearby who might think I’m a little crazy, muttering to myself.  Mostly though, I pray alone, walking outdoors where the natural world almost always puts me in a spiritual space. Praying is especially doable during the Covid-19 pandemic. You may be six feet apart from everybody else, but when you pray, you get very close to yourself.

 

Image credit:  Coronavirus Prayer    Image credit:  Trailer House    Image credit:  From the top of the Canyon by Diana Hooley

A Reckoning on Racism at a Resort

I was floating in the heated pool at the Sun Valley Lodge when I heard protesters in the parking lot shout, “Black lives matter!!  Black lives matter!!”  The irony of this situation was not lost on me.  And yes, I felt some “white guilt.”  In my defense, my stay at the Lodge was a birthday present from my husband.  How many people, especially poor minorities, can afford to stay at a resort?

But, as George Floyd’s death demonstrates, money and what money buys is apparently not the biggest issue for black men, staying alive on the streets of America is.

When I got out of the pool I visited with a family, an older man, his wife, and their daughter vacationing at the resort too. They told me they saw the protesters, about 70 people, almost all of them white, like us. I wasn’t surprised by this demographic, since it was Sun Valley, Idaho. They said the crowd at one point knelt, in a show of solidarity with African-Americans battling institutional racism.  The teenage daughter of this couple told me she joined the protesters in taking a knee.

“I’m sorry,” her mother began, frustrated and looking at me for some kind of support, “but don’t ALL lives matter?”

“Mom,” the daughter moaned, “you just don’t get it.”

“What don’t I get?  What don’t I get?” she repeated, her head whipping back and forth between her daughter and me.

I was dripping on my pool towel and getting a little chilly. The mother said she’d read in the Wall Street Journal that much of the crime committed in America today was perpetrated by minority men, especially black men.

“No wonder the police profile,” she glanced at me smugly while her daughter stared stonily into space. Her husband seemed unusually preoccupied with the mountain scenery.

Did I want to step into this cauldron of family drama with my own, no doubt provocative thoughts?  No.  I just wanted to dry off and enjoy the rest of my birthday present at the Lodge.  The world has a way though, of pulling you in.  You can’t bury your head in a bath towel for long.  And besides, I thought the daughter needed to know someone was in her corner.

“I think,” I began hesitantly, “‘Black lives matter’ underlines or puts an exclamation point on ‘All lives matter.’”  What I mean is, there’s racial injustice in America, and tragically, not all lives do matter.”

The daughter looked hopeful and nodded her head vigorously. The mother looked chastised, so I threw her a bone. “Some people feel like you do, that the police are justified in racial profiling. But stereotyping, having preconceived ideas about a whole race of people, is racism, pure and simple. And there’s no excuse for police bullying or brutality.”

I mentioned that we can see bigotry and racism at work when African Americans make up only a small portion of the population (I later found out 13%), and yet comprise the majority of those wrongfully convicted.  According to sentencingproject.org, black men are five times more likely to go to state prisons than whites, and where George Floyd lived, Minnesota, ten times more likely.  I thought about turning the tables on the mother by asking how she’d feel being profiled for staying at this spendy and exclusive resort while the rest of America struggles with unemployment due to Covid-19.  But then I’d be speaking my own issue.

The mother sat thoughtful for a moment, and finally said, “I don’t know too much about the number of innocent black men in prison.  I guess I haven’t read anything about it.”

“That’s what these protests are about mom!” the daughter cried plaintively. “They’re about awareness!  Waking people up to what’s going on!”

I could tell this discussion would continue for a while, and I was beginning to shiver, I was so wet and cold.  I finally said my goodbyes and padded barefoot to the locker rooms.  As I walked away though, I couldn’t help but smile.  That daughter, she was what America would become, the next generation–and suddenly the future didn’t seem so bleak.

 

Image credit:  Sun Valley Lodge    Image credit:  Peering through the flag   

Cutting our Coronahair

Hair is important, and with this pandemic we’re all overdue for some corona hair care.  Some of us are suiting up (masks and gloves) and braving the newly reopened salons.  Others, meaning me, are more cautious.  I’d rather do my hair-cutting at home.  But hair-cutters and stylists are artists, and who among us can live up to that challenge?

Like most people, I’m a hapless headmower at best.  I didn’t let my shortcomings deter me from cutting my husband’s hair though.  His hair was nearing “man-bun” length, an iffy proposition if you have a bald spot on top.

“Remember,” I warned him, “I’m not Brandon (understatement of the century).”  Brandon is my husband’s normal barber.  He not only washes and cuts Dale’s hair, he also takes a hot towel and gives him a fantastic head rub and face massage.  I tried to imitate Brandon’s quick, efficient motion: snip, snip, snip.  When divots and gouges began to appear on the back of my husband’s head, I knew I needed to take a break.  I paused my scissors a minute, and surveyed my work.  Suddenly, an image appeared in my mind from long ago when I was young and idealistic, that time I decided to cut my own hair.

It was my first summer home from college and I was restless. I wanted to travel and do something big, something that would make a difference in the world. Some missionaries had recently visited our church and asked for help (of the money kind, but I took their request literally) with their Navajo mission in Arizona. I prayed about it, and thought I felt God’s call. When I told my mother I was driving to Arizona the next day to help these missionaries, she was shocked.  She didn’t want me to go.  She knew how impulsive I was, and worried that I’d get myself into trouble. But what could she do?

I believed God wanted me to go to Arizona. To place an exclamation point on my decision, I cut my long, luxurious hair.

The 1920’s beauty icon Coco Chanel once said, “A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life.”  Her words certainly applied to my situation.  External stress, like pandemics can cause people to radically change their behaviors, but so too can internal conflict.  I remember looking in the mirror before I left for Arizona, scissoring through long shanks of hair.  I felt I was divesting myself of my vanity. It also felt congruent. Altering my looks was a symbol of the new life I was about to embark on. I whacked off probably twelve inches of hair.  I didn’t cry though. That would come later, down in Arizona, when I realized just how foolish I’d been.

One thing good that came out of my youthful Arizona adventure, I got to meet several interesting Navajos.  But living in the Arizona desert is lonely. I spent four months there, and came away definitely schooled in the differences between my Christian culture and Native American traditions.

And speaking of hair, though I might have looked like a concentration camp survivor, the Navajos, both women and men, had gorgeous thick, black hair.

I was reminded of their beautiful hair when I browsed the web recently, and saw a couple of Indian men playing The Sounds of Silence with a pan flute and some other instruments.  The music was haunting and wonderful, but my eyes were drawn to their hair, and the lengthy braids that framed their faces.

When I’d finished barbering my husband, I thought I’d done a pretty good job. Somehow I was able to feather out all the hair notches I’d made.  It was a nice, short summer cut.  But I wondered about Dale growing out his hair, what he’d look like with a long braid running down the side of his face.

Image Credit:  Mona Lisa’s Hair           Image Credit:  YouTube Sound of Silence 

The Upside of Emotional Eating

Liver and onions?  Really?  A friend told me about this women serving a dinner of liver and onions to a man on their first date. The woman, she said, was from Oklahoma, an Oakie from Muskogee—as if that explained the meal choice.  I wondered later if liver and onions was “home” food for Oklahoman’s.

Living with our current viral pandemic, we all feel like eating comfort food. Some of us are “hangry” (hungry and angry both) stuck in our homes the past several weeks.

Others are more hanxious and full of hension.  My daughter messaged me a selfie with her head tilted back and a can of Cheez Whiz above her mouth.  Her finger was ready to push the can’s nozzle.  She wrote under the picture that after weeks of homeschooling her kids, she was now mainlining Cheez Whiz.

Really, it’s unremarkable and so characteristic of humans to turn to food in times of duress.  We’re programmed to be emotional eaters.  Food, like certain smells or an old song, can take us out of the misery of the here and now and transport us to another time and place entirely.  Food is our history, our culture. When my husband takes a bite from a slice of berry pie, he sees his Mennonite mother bent over her berry patch pruning raspberry stalks in early spring.

My father who looked Italian—but wasn’t, made the best spaghetti sauce ever, for a West Virginia hillbilly.

I can see him now, standing at the hot stove, stirring and taste-testing his bubbling sauce.  He’d cook shirtless with a tomato-stained tea towel thrown over a bare shoulder.  Dad cleaned out the fridge when he made spaghetti sauce, and caused not a few complaints from my brothers when they found bits of canned corn in their spaghetti dinner.  Still, I loved dad’s home-made sauce.  Just writing about it makes me want to grab my face mask and drive to the store to buy a couple of cans of tomatoes.

I read a poem online this week that had to do with food during a pandemic.

The poem was written by J. P. McEvoy in the fall of 1918 when the Spanish flu was killing thousands of Americans.  McEvoy colorfully captured what having the Spanish flu felt like: “When your food taste like a hard-boiled hearse … you’ve got the flu, boy, you’ve got the flu.”  I don’t know what a hard-boiled hearse tastes like, but I do understand the connection between food and fear.

While I was going to school to get my doctorate, I lived in a tiny apartment, one of several, in a large old house.  I used to lay on my bed and look up at the crumbly ceiling and the spider web hanging down in the corner. One morning I woke up and happen to brush my hand across my chest.  I felt a small raised area just under the skin.  I sat up, suddenly alert, and performed a more thorough exploration.  I definitely had a breast lump. Soon the doctor was called and a diagnostic mammogram scheduled at the hospital.  When I found out I didn’t have breast cancer, I was ecstatic.  In fact, the doctor told me I didn’t have any breast disease at all, but a reaction to a spider bite.  Imagine that.

When I left the hospital, I got into my car and drove to a ritzy restaurant downtown.  It was time to celebrate.

Food works in all kinds of situations: sad, bad, or happy. 

After I ordered a three-course meal, appetizer and dessert included, I tipped my waitress generously.

 

 

Image Credit:  My dad, photo by Diana Hooley    Image Credit:  Spanish flu

 

Remembering an Easter Story During the Coronavirus Plague

When I was a little girl my parents didn’t go to church much, but my grandmother did, and she encouraged me every summer to attend Vacation Bible School (VBS) at the neighborhood church.  It was there that I heard Agnes Gibson, or Sister Gibson as she was called, tell wonderful Bible stories using a teaching tool called Flannel Graph.

The Flannel Graph board was mounted on an easel, and as Sister Gibson recounted the Bible story, she’d press paper cut-out Bible figures on the clingy flannel-covered board. 

This Easter, as we all deal with what feels like the coronavirus plague, I’m remembering Sister Gibson telling our VBS class the Passover story of Moses and Pharaoh.

“What do you think happened next?”  Sister Gibson was a Socratic teacher, always asking questions.

“Whatttt?”  The gap-toothed children in her audience (including me) sat with our mouths opened wide.

Well, she told us, Pharaoh still wouldn’t let the Israelites leave Egypt, even after all the plagues God sent to torment the Egyptian people. Sister Gibson covered her flannel-graph board with cut-out Egyptians, arms over their heads and legs lifted as if running for their lives.

“Will God be able to change Pharaoh’s mind?”

We didn’t know, but God was really angry with Pharaoh.  I suspected God would have to do something even worse to make the Egyptians obey him.

He’d already plagued them with “boils” which sounded a lot like the mumps to me.  Then, he sent a lot of bugs called locusts to eat all the trees and shrubs in their yards.  Sister Gibson carefully placed a paper cut-out of Moses wearing a long bath robe and holding a big cane called a staff on the flannel board.

“God told Moses he was going to have to punish Pharaoh again.  But the Israelites could escape this punishment if they stayed in their homes and marked their door.  The Angel of Death would pass over them and not kill their first-born son.”

At the time I’m sure I considered this a good reason to be born a girl.  I remember thinking how lucky I was to be female because I’d never get drafted and have to go to Viet Nam like my cousin Bobby. Sister Gibson finished telling her story as we children raptly listened.  She pressed a cut-out of a sad Pharaoh, head hanging down, on the flannel board.  In the end, Pharaoh was forced to obey God and let Moses and his people go.

As I sit here writing, I’m thinking of how many parallels there are between the Passover story and our current Covid-19 crisis.  Moses told the Israelites God wanted them to shelter-in-place to avoid the ravages of a new (novel) plague he was sending.

Though God didn’t send us the coronavirus, the message of staying home to be safe certainly resonates.

There are other Bible stories that take on new meaning in the time of Covid 19.  Old Testament Jews had several rituals related to being clean and cleanliness.  Both foot-washing and hand-washing were routinely practiced.  They didn’t wash their hands for 20 seconds through the “Happy Birthday” chorus, but still, good hygiene was a part of their culture and faith.

Maybe the most significant Bible story I heard at my grandmother’s church, and the one that has such an inspiring message for us today, is the Easter story.  As we grimly watch the death toll climb from Covid-19, it feels good to consider the story of how Christ conquered death.  Whether you believe in the resurrection or not, the message of life after death is an undeniably hopeful one.  The greater meaning in this story for me though, is that fear and sorrow eventually pass away.  The Israelites were finally freed from their bondage.  They made it safely out of Egypt, leaving despair behind.  I believe we will too.

 

Image credit: Flannel Graph        Image credit:  Moses and Pharaoh        Image credit:  Shelter-in-Place

 

 

 

 

 

Retreating from Coronavirus

Circle the wagons!  We’re in retreat!  This wagon (me) has been circling and circling my living room the past couple weeks, building tension as I try to wait out this coronavirus. The social isolation has gotten so bad, I’m envious of the cow herd in the pasture. At least they get to hang out together.  As for this human—honey, I’m STILL home.  It’s like I laughingly complained to a friend: I just don’t get out enough.  But retreating doesn’t have to be a bad thing.  I can view it as running from crowds and disease—or see it as moving toward myself and my own inner landscape.

For centuries religious aesthetics retreated into monasteries to meditate and refresh their spirit.  As Easter approaches, I’m remembering the story of Christ, how he retreated into the garden of Gethsemane for just such a purpose.

One time, my husband and I took a trip north, and just for fun, I reserved a room in the guest house at St. Gertrude’s Monastery in Cottonwood, Idaho.

We’re not Catholic, but I thought it might be interesting to spend the night in such a unique setting.  The cathedral was impressive, but it’s the atmosphere at St. Gertrude’s that I remember. The nuns seemed busy, yet I saw several contentedly going their own way, either praying alone in the church sanctuary or wandering the pine-covered hillside above the Cathedral.  No one spoke at breakfast the next morning.  It was a time for contemplation.  When we finally drove away from St. Gertrude’s, I resisted the urge to turn on the car radio. I just didn’t want to interrupt the quiet.

If I look at this retreat from the coronavirus in a positive way, I can see lots of opportunities for learning and growth.

For example, there are many, many, projects I’ve put off doing because they take time and focus. For the past few years though, my inner metabolism seemed permanently set in a buzz mode. I’ve rushed through one experience after another.  I guess I could blame my pace of life on the freedom of retirement.  Retirement’s the time to go and see and do.  But as a former teacher and professor, I know the value of slowing down and paying attention. The big battles I fought in the classroom had to do with keeping my students attention long enough so they could get their assignments done.

This was my nephew’s learning problem.  He was labeled attention deficit and took medication so he could calm down and focus on his school work.  Still, he struggled throughout his schooling, eventually dropping out altogether.  When I got the bad news he was in trouble and going to jail, I was understandably upset.  What could I do?  How could I help him, I wondered?

I considered that maybe, since my nephew would be forcibly confined and without the noise of the outside world to compete for his attention, he might be motivated enough to read a book.  So I sent him some great young adult novels, full of adventure and interesting story lines.

“Aunt Di,” he eventually wrote me, “I love all the books you sent me.  I really like reading now.  It’s awesome!  I started reading Ready Player One (by Ernest Cline) last night, and can’t put it down.  Thank you so much!”

Though my nephew can’t physically go anywhere, with reading he’s now traveling far and wide. It’s a lesson for all of us in this time of retreat.  A full life can be had even sheltering-in-place.  It’s all a matter of perspective.

 

Image credit:  St. Gertrude     Image credit:   Ready Player One