Because I could not stop for death
It was Emily Dickinson who wrote that. I thought of her lines a couple of nights ago when we gathered to remember, to laugh and pray and praise our dear friend and colleague, Peter. He was a young man who, as the phrase goes, "died too doon." And I've been pondering what that phrase means. Is there a time when we (or someone) can judge--"All right. You're old enough now. This far. No farther."
He kindly stopped for me –
Surely, Peter's passing was a shock and well short of the biblical "three score and ten" we are supposedly allotted. But then, what is "too soon"? Abraham Lincoln was 56 when he was assassinated. JFK was ten years short of that. Martin Luther King, Jr. 39.We'd probably agree, on these, but what about all those others? That guy Adolph, for example? Was he too soon or too late? But those are exemplars, not answers.
One way to put it might be this: "Too young" means way too soon to accomplish what a person might have accomplished had they been able to continue. Or too soon for the rest of us (jealously) fully to treasure their gifts.
I think that's a rather poor summation. But then, I'm not qualified to judge these things even though I seem to insist writing about them. When, I ask, should you to call a halt and when should you keep things going? Beats me. All I can do is love and remember and be grateful for the time we had with him here below.
Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet Feels shorter than the Day I first surmised the Horses' Heads Were toward Eternity –
I am just now sitting down at the computer after having watched the new film Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power, and I confess to being a bit awestruck. Lee has been my congressional representative much of my politically aware life. In 1998 She succeeded the iconic Ron Dellums as the 13th district representative to congress and has since become an icon herself. What I took away from the film was not so much information about her life or her ideas, but a sense of the experience of the woman herself.
I was treated earlier in the week to some biographical information via Joe Garofoli’s It’s All Political podcast on the subject. Before that I knew next to nothing about her early life, about her struggles with poverty and an abusive relationship. And, happily, there was her recent joyous wedding. If anyone deserves that, she absolutely does. Certainly others will glean much from those facts; but for me, who was here during all of her political life (though I wasn’t paying as much attention as I should have), it was the experience of vicariously reliving her growth amid enormously challenging circumstances, that I found so compelling.
From her courageous and unique vote against the much-abused post-9/11 war powers resolution (And hasn’t that been proven right over and over and over again on that one?) to her tireless work on behalf of her constituents– especially the unfranchised (children) and the disenfranchised (women and the incarcerated) and pandemic (Aids) victims, she has been a champion of values that represent everyone and everything American.
When she took her seat, she was virtually the only black woman in congress past or present. Dellums had his own challenges, of course, but at least he was male, and he was not a single parent. Lee had her own (to overuse the word) iconic predecessor in Shirley Chisolm, but Chisolm was gone by the time Barbara came along, so hers was a lonely position to say the least. Not that she started from exactly zero. Her work as a staffer for Dellums gave her some Washington D.C. presence, but not at all a prestigious one.
So what we have here is a hard working politician with compassion and integrity who has become a premiere voice for the downtrodden, one who can take her remarkable life and integrate her experience into legislation and actions that benefit us all. And she did it without seeking the star-power publicity and status that could easily have been hers. But then she wouldn’t be Barbara Lee, would she? She’s almost an anti-politician in perhaps the most political of eras. How fortunate I feel to be one of her followers.
It occurs to me that I have cruised through a significant minefield of calamities during my 7-plus decades of “going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.” Why and how I’ve remained relatively unscathed I’ll leave a higher power to determine, but once I’d compiled it, I was startled to find what an impressive list it is.
I was a war baby, born four days after Pearl Harbor and the day we last declared war on Germany (or any other country, I think). One evening as an infant in the crib in Pittsburg, California, an explosion shook the house. Or so I’m told. A chandelier above my bed fell on my, but no injuries.
My parents thought the Japanese must be invading. It turned out to be the rather famous explosion in the nearby munitions storage facility. Men were loading big shells on to a ship. Something went wrong and scores were killed. It turned into a horrible military fiasco. The surviving men refused to go back to work. They were court-martialed and convicted. All were black, doing the gritty dangerous work black men did (do). A few old men were recently pardoned, but that didn’t do much for the dead and deformed. That was the closest I came to battle.
My father was too old to be drafted, so I lost no relatives to that conflict which scarred so many, including my wife, whose own father was yanked from the family and left several children missing their father during their young years. He returned alive, but that gap in their childhood lives is still a gap after all this time.
Korea came a bit closer to home. I was in my early teens, but had a cousin in combat. He lived as well.
Then there was Vietnam. This iconic photo tells all you need to know about how that one was fought. (The pistol in the photo is actually firing and blowing the combatant’s brains out as the shutter snaps.)
As for me, I turned out to be 4-F (medically unfit for drafting) because of allergies, so the closest I got to the military was the two years of ROTC classes required of male students at the University of California and all other “land grant colleges.” Those courses were a joke, but the war, even here on the home front, was a horror. If you had family or friends (that’s everyone in case you didn’t notice), you knew someone who was called up, killed, injured, or whacked with PTSD. People were bitter and afraid and outraged not only at the so-called enemy but at one another.
As for me, I marched, sang, chanted. What became known as the Civil Rights Movement happened simultaneously, so society was fractured over racism and sexism as well as over the war, and I was in the midst of it all, but I was never clubbed, fire-hosed, tear-gassed, or dog-bit.
As I worked up this list, I realized my America, the harbinger of peace and prosperity, has been almost continually at war my whole life. In addition to the three biggies mentioned above, there have been all the middle-eastern conflicts (Afghanistan has lasted longer than Vietnam, which seemed impossible not so long ago. Like yesterday.) as well as the undeclared CIA “skirmishes” such as–but not limited to–the Chilean Allende assassination and the installation of the Shah of Iran.
If it isn’t armies, I guess, it is nature. Of recent note is the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989. Nothing compared to 1906, of course, but not insignificant either. 63 dead, a bridge knocked down, several freeways destroyed (some we never liked anyhow and never rebuilt, but still…)
And our now-famous California wildfires: There was the Oakland Hills Fire of 1991. 3000 homes erased in 12 hours. 23 dead. Our house barely escaped from the flames which came to within four blocks, but escape we did. None of our people were on the death list, but quite a number did lose the roofs over their heads and cars in their garages. Note the “Sold” sign in the photo on the left. We walked our neighborhood afterward and couldn’t tell where we were. With all the landmarks gone, the place was incomprehensible.
From that predominantly urban blaze of 1991, we go to multiple forest fires from one end of the state to the other as nature seemingly fought back against the incursion of human development.
And now we find ourselves in the midst of what you might call a “Vector War.” Vector as a term outside Euclidean Geometry is a new term for me. Turns out it is a medical label for an asymptomatic carrier of disease who runs around infecting people without the people or even the carrier knowing what is happening. The most famous was a woman nicknamed “Typhoid Mary,” an Irishwoman whose actual name was Mary Mallon. She immigrated into the U.S. in the late 19th Century and somehow picked up Typhoid Fever without showing symptoms, or at least any that were recognized as connected to typhus. She worked as a cook and thus was in a position to spread the disease far and wide. Since she was not visibly sick, it took some detective work to identify her as a typhoid “vector” and, sadly, forcibly quarantine her for decades.
A never-identified vector brought us what became known as the Spanish Flu, the number one killer virus of the 20th Century. About 1/3 of the world’s population was infected, maybe 50 million died, including my wife’s grandfather,, father of three. Age 26 at the time.
But that was their pandemic, I guess it was time for one of my (our) own. And here it came, and so far I’ve slipped by this one just as I have all the other adversities. I’m lucky enough to live in a time and a place where science mostly prevails over ignorance and (California) where people and officials recognize what to do to minimize the harm. Still, we’re at over 20,000 Co-vid dead nationwide and counting, and I’m statistically in one of the most vulnerable parts of the population, so it’s far from over (the disease threat, not the life) for me yet. And this lockdown is no fun even for us healthy organisms.
So, we are doing all we can to avoid becoming either sick or becoming vectors, which is probably the hardest thing of all to circumvent. How do you even know if you are spreading microorganisms everywhere you go if you feel fine? Answer–don’t depend on that feeling fine feeling. Go for masks, gloves, distance, and staying home. Those seem to be the best answers we have to keep from either getting or giving.
In the meantime, I keep writing to keep heart and soul moving forward and keep walking (masked, gloved, and separated, of course) to encourage the body to stay safe and whole.
In the meantime, such words as these from the sage/poet Rumi feed the soul:
[Is it reality when it is such a temporary thing, I ask myself? Temporary? I answer. Sure, for those of us who survive it.]
I thought it would be worthwhile to take a peek over the wall to see where we came from. Sure enough, history nearly always shines some light into the dark corners of our present circumstance, and COVID 19 is no exception.
1660s, “period a ship suspected of carrying disease is kept in isolation,” from Italian quaranta giorni, literally “space of forty days,” from quaranta “forty,” from Latin quadraginta“forty,” which is related to quattuor “four” (from PIE root *kwetwer– “four”). So called from the Venetian policy (first enforced in 1377) of keeping ships from plague-stricken countries waiting off its port for 40 days to assure that no latent cases were aboard.
[Governor Brian Kemp of georgia and the citizens under his stewardship might have profited by checking with those ancient Venetians. He maybe wouldn’t have been so surprised to find that one can be asymptomatic and still be contagious]
Also see lazaretto. The extended sense of “any period of forced isolation” is from 1670s.
So it seems the word and the practice have been going on for quite some centuries now. It had a rational basis, of course. Keep the accursed from me, and I will be safe. As always, religious zealots bring God into the discussion. The Almighty, naturally and constantly needs to punish us for our wicked ways, and there is always a long list of victims and sins to choose from as long as they aren’t our own.
It only made good sense that an evildoer from another village, city, ship, nation was responsible for our misfortune. We all know, for instance, that HIV was a punishment for homosexuality? and I read yesterday of a group that wants to group up and retaliate against China. I heard another pundit, however, opine that actually CoVid might have started in Europe rather than China, which might have given that little campaign second thoughts in earlier days, but all should be fine now that we have labeled NATO a bunch of stingy moochers who don’t deserve our protection. But that is just the disease part. There is also the biblical part.
I hadn’t noticed before that “Quarantine” has the seed of the word “forty” in it. Thus we are duplicating, via Christ’s forty days in the desert, Christianity’s Lenten season–the period between Mardi Gras and Easter. Maybe that’s where our president gets the notion that it will all be over by Easter. I don’t know for sure. Can’t read anyone’s mind, especially that one.
But somehow the whole term got tangled up with marriage and divorce:
Earlier in English the word meant “period of 40 days in which a widow has the right to remain in her dead husband’s house” (1520s), and, as quarentyne (15c.), “desert in which Christ fasted for 40 days,” from Latin quadraginta “forty.”
It’s always been true that women suffer more in a divorce, but to equate widowhood with the plague? Sometimes I think we are a despicable culture full of despicable customs which we can neither understand nor explain. But the law is the law.
And, finally, as English so often does, we found a way to turn a noun into a verb so it can enjoy more of the action.
1804, from quarantine (n.). Related: Quarantined; quarantining.
So, there you have it. Now that you know, you can, as I do, feel much more sanguine about this imposed isolation, this condition our esteemed Attorney General today termed “draconian,” a cure worse than the disease. (Is this an echo of something I heard from Pennsylvania Ave recently? Surely not. Billy Barr is a bright guy who is capable of forming his own ideas, as long as they are cleared by the Pontiff.)
I am particularly glad that I am congenitally incapable of widowhood. Forty days is not a long time when it comes to settling real estate transactions. Got to leave now, though. I feel a sneeze coming on.