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

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

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