Small mercies, great grace, and choices to be made

It was only slightly more than a year ago, March 2020 when our city, our state, and our nation entered a period of what many of us grew quickly tired of hearing was “an abundance of caution”.  Certainly, the steps taken since helped curb the spread of disease and death – sadly, some naysayers came to regret their misplaced beliefs. And almost as certainly, some of the steps we took as individuals, communities and nations were if not unnecessary, ineffective – based on tentative, evolving knowledge that still is far from final.  What worked, what didn’t – time will sort this out, perhaps.  But we all were frustrated and afraid for a very long time – particularly those who lost family and friends forever or came close to an abrupt end of their own lives.  And today, although some indicators here where I live are very encouraging, there are still vast populations of our planet that are struggling under waves of death, loss, and destruction that will not soon disappear.  We have collectively gone through trauma. 

When the vaccines started to be made available early in 2021, first to select populations then slowly widening circles of eligibility, my husband – who fell into a more at-risk category – was able to get his shots, and I was very grateful, and content to wait my “turn”.  Stories began to reach us both – rumors in some cases, personal experiences in others.  Friends with the same insurance coverage but less “eligible” than me had been contacted to receive their first shots; I received multiple, well intended but questionable recommendations to basically go somewhere and simply lie about my employment or status, as others had successfully done.  And, there were individuals in our circle of loved ones who were more at risk than me, still waiting.  You, as well, probably were faced with ethical choices – assuming you wanted to get the shots – and were in an area where there was even any supply. 

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During the year or so since we first entered varying stages of “shutdown isolation”, I had taken refuge by focusing somewhat on fitness, working out on a limited basis initially at home on the back patio with a few hand weights, then enrolling in a “trainer” session program at a  gym where the equipment was brought out on the sidewalk for individual use.  This blossomed over time into a tent workout area in the gym parking lot, then eventually limited access inside the gym itself.  There were friends who spoke to me, and others who did not speak aloud but their perspective was clear – I was taking unnecessary, foolish risks.  I was being selfish and egotistical.  Like so many issues in what seems like an eternity, our differences become exaggerated; chasms, not cracks, start to divide us. For me, going to the gym – albeit not as effectively as I had hoped (yet) – was a way to direct my energy toward something positive, safely. 

One of countless lines in our world, this is the one I stood in, with tentative Hope.

The San Francisco powers that be had set up a mass vaccination program at a local convention center, and someone at the gym mentioned that they knew of two members who had gone to the “stand by line”, who, like me, were not in an eligible category but “walked right in” with little wait and got their shots.  My frustrations at hearing from friends who were less eligible but vaccinated, other “I know the facts more than you” contacts who proclaimed I could go anywhere for a shot, and the encouragement to simply go lie was overwhelming.  It was a horrible circumstance, made worse by all the voices around me claiming conflicting facts and, in a sense, cheering their own status at the expense of the many eligible but frustrated people trying to book appointments, or simply even find a location with supply. The chorus seemed to be saying – hey, dummy, why don’t you have your shots yet? It was incessant; I could not complain for being healthy; but I decided to take a chance. 

On a drizzly cold March Sunday morning, when the “time change” took effect, I left early for downtown, discovered some nearby street parking (a rarity here), and walked to Moscone center, finding a long line growing longer by the minute even before the doors opened.  After an extensive wait through the line snaking around the building and ultimately through the doors – I was rejected.  I was ineligible; they no longer were allowing folks like me to wait for unclaimed doses.  The next day, the window of eligibility was widening to an even greater population statewide – but, still excluding me.  I felt defeated – I did not blame the outdated information, there was no one at fault – it was simply not my time.  That did not stop me from indulging in comfort food which had no effect on protecting me from COVID but sure was tasty, and also completely contradictory to my fitness efforts.  As I walked to my car, I was greeted by more texts, more advice, more insisting that I could go anywhere now to get a shot, everyone was doing it, etc. etc. etc.   I decided to drop my efforts and just hunker down, waiting (as the app proclaims) “my turn”, and finding some solace in the hope that my more at risk friends and essential workers were getting treated. 

I was very stressed out – it affected my husband and others around me.  It was not healthy to try to find a way to stay healthy, in this case.  I gave it a lot of thought.  It was a few days later before I was at the gym the same day as my contact who had encouraged me to attempt my failed efforts – I sat in the car, awaiting my “entry window” by appointment, and just said a prayer, honestly.  Prayer has different meanings for most everyone – I don’t know what I would like, but there are times that I believe it is something that brings me to a kind of peace, and acceptance.  Sitting outside the gym, I just acknowledged that there was nothing I could do; that I would go on, and wait, and let go of my expectations and efforts, as well as the frustrations I felt towards all the conflicting advisors telling me what I was doing wrong; just set it all aside, live my life daily, and trust. 

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As I have written before, I know my upbringing, with elements of religion and some seed of faith – I differentiate between the two – is uniquely personal, and not everyone looks at the events of life and sees anything other than chance in the outcomes.  Nevertheless, if I had not taken the time that morning to silently pray, accept and let go of the vaccine monkey on my back – or, if I had remained in the car, sulking, for another minute – I would not have walked up to the counter and met a stranger.  My friend who had encouraged me to “line up” was chatting with another member as I signed in – I could hear him asking how work was going, and how they had not seen one another in months.  But it was the strangers comment that he was working 12- and 14-hour days, and that they were treating thousands daily, that let me realize this stranger was one of hundreds who worked at the vaccination center I had been turned away from days before.  Then, unexpectedly, my friend turned to me and said, “Hey Norm – how did your visit to Moscone go this weekend”?  Truly without regret, or intent, I just shared that I had been turned away, and that they were no longer offering “unclaimed” vaccines, especially now that a broader eligible population was competing for appointments and shots – and that I was, of course, not yet among them, but it was ok.  

There are moments of grace in our world.  It’s not a word you hear on the news; rarely are there stories about mercy, and miracles. We don’t always recognize these “gifts” – we don’t always see when someone acts out of kindness, we are blinded by the mountains of things demanding our attention – too busy to “see the invisible” surrounding us everywhere.  But for me, this moment was undeniably a miracle, one not sought or expected.  The stranger turned to me and said – how old are you?  I shared that my 63rd birthday was just a few days away, and that I was ok waiting – I could not complain that I am healthy, or that my needs took priority over others. To me, this was just a kind inquiry from one of the many hundreds of staff and volunteers here, and millions worldwide.  But he was not just one of the many – I honestly don’t know what his role was, or his background – but he asked me if I would like an appointment that day; he could add my name to the list, he had a few daily and I could just come around later and give my name at the door, and get my first shot. 

I am not ashamed to admit I nearly broke down crying.  This was a gift, and only moments after I had let go of my demands, my needs, and decided to just walk on in faith as best I could. 

This “heart of San Francisco” stands in the lobby of the vaccination center

That afternoon, my husband dropped me off – there was no line at the doors this time, and as he drove away, I read the handwritten sign – no more “non appointment” shots today.  For a moment I feared my trip was again in vain – but the stranger had said just give my name.  I explained to the attendant at the door who pulled out the list of additions – my name was not to be found.  I asked for follow up and showed the text I had received confirming my appointment – which led to a period of waiting, in silence, alone.  I once again had to just let go. A few moments later, a friendly administrator came by – trying to call my “gym angel” – to no avail. 

We do not always get what we want.  Certainly, we do not always get what we deserve – whether because of good deeds or bad.  It is a myth, I think, to believe that everything is for a reason – we have choices.  My choice, daily, mostly unconscious, is how I conduct myself with others; what I hold dear; how I show love to my husband and family; how I treat strangers.  I fail miserably a great deal of the time, and there are plenty who can attest to that.  But it is in those choices I grow.  I can’t pick the outcomes, only the kind of person I want to be, and try to take little steps toward that goal. 

Who is to say why things ‘work out”, or don’t?  Or even what is the best outcome – we just want to make what we can of our lives.  In my case, on that day – as the administrator rechecked her records, she did find my name, and my smile shone as I rode the escalator down to a crowded hall where hundreds, like me, waited for their time with a nurse, answered some routine questions, and then, felt a little prick.  A tiny sensation that somehow opened the doors to hope more than they were that morning.  As I ascended the stairs to the crowded exits, a familiar face greeted me – if only in cardboard cutout form.  And I walked into the daylight.  Two weeks later, as scheduled, I received my second shot; and, as I write, I am just past the two week “waiting period”.  I don’t physically feel different, or healthier; but I do feel an immeasurable sense of relief.  I held off posting on Facebook, knowing how frustrated I had felt and that thousands like me here were still waiting their turn, while others sat by their loved ones hoping they would recover; my gratitude was humbled because I had received a gift, undeservedly – perhaps that is a fitting definition for grace, in a way. 

Hey, Tony, thanks a bunch!! Glad you stopped by to say hi – but – no mask??

Today, almost a month later, I know there are many more still waiting for their chance to be in that line, or others like it.  Watching the news this week with my husband,  we silently viewed the drone footage of mass cremations outdoors in India; and we know there are many who still do not want to take the shot, or wear the mask.  We are not “through” with COVID by any means – and our communities, country, and planet will not I think ever fully put all this behind them.  Nor should they; we must grow through this. But somehow, I feel I am at a point of turning in my life.  All the time the past year plus that I spent fearful of losing my husband, other loved ones who did become ill, or leaving him and them without me in their lives – there was a lot of sleepless nights, of questioning what my priorities were, and reassessing what I believe.  There were moments of conflict with others that were exacerbated by our joint tensions; changes in relationships; realizations that things that seemed so very important before perhaps don’t really matter as much as I thought they did. 

I am changed.  When I registered this blog in late 2019, Wuhan was not even in the news; it was not until we were isolated in our home that I began posting, just over a year ago.  I have made 34 posts … I have a few friends that sometimes encourage me; I have followers who are strangers.  Someone asked me recently what my blog was about; perhaps if I had registered “The new Normal”.com I would be discovered, but that was not my goal.  I wanted to share, something undefinable – my growth; my discoveries, my questions and my uncertainties.  My humanity – in hopes that someone who might be in the place once was would find some “light” from my path for their own.  Instead, my sharing has been, in a way, a healing process.  We all need healing today, and we are not going to find it on our own.  We are all going through a process of renewal and discovery, separately and together, stumbling, holding one another up; I cannot pretend that I have more answers today, but somehow, I have peace that as I walk – as we all walk the path ahead, wherever it leads – I will find the steps. 

From the Nat King Cole classic – “Nature boy” – my education continues.

Friends, I hope you too will find your way, and reach out to those near you. For me, this is a period of deep reassessment – including my hopes for this blog. A journey, as I titled it, toward “authenticity”. I hope to see you again soon, and that in some way, for some one out there who happens upon my little thoughtful spot – you too, find and share hope. And, grace. Thank you to the “angels” who helped me get my vaccine – and were part of this lesson learned – I had to let go, to take hold – to have my hands open to receive, not reaching, only waiting. They probably will never see these words, and I probably would not know their faces again – but Alice, Bobby, Clarissa, Daniel, Winnie and all those healthcare workers reaching out around the world – you are my angels. See you soon, friends.

Free, for a limited time … after all, isn’t all time limited? Thanks for stopping by!

Look, up in the sky ….

Friends of a certain age would finish that phrase with “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, its SUPERMAN!”  And I have lots of fond memories of those shows, movies, and stories, ranging from good old George Reeves (who my Dad denied resembling), up through the recent expanded “Justice League”.  I’d sure love to have super powers – flying, laser vision,  et al would come in handy for day to day life – but that is of course all fantasy.  But recently, I have been looking up in the sky a bit more, and have some thoughts on what I see there –  starting with our recent trip to Muir Woods, less than an hour north of us in San Francisco. 

I was surprised to learn that John Muir really had very little to do with Muir Woods, but rather the famous naturalist was honored with the naming on his behalf by President Theodore Roosevelt, at the insistence of the land donor, a William Kent.   It was the first national monument created entirely by a donation, and Kent wanted to honor Muir, a Scottish immigrant to California, for his leadership in natural preservation and environmental concerns before the phrase was coined, and a co-founder of the Sierra Club.   I had never visited these world famous “old growth” redwoods; for my birthday in 2020, we had planned a trip north but the park, and most of life, was shuttered days before our visit.  It seemed like a promise kept having the chance to at last drive up a year later, surviving all the tempests in between. 

I had of course heard of the majestic redwoods of the Northern Pacific, and how these trees are among the oldest forms of life on our planet, predating humans by millennia – averaging in age from 800 to 1200 years, but some living for 2000 or more.   My grandfather Richard, a descendant of Oregon pioneers from the first wagon train to settle there, was a virtual stranger to me – but among the items I have from him was a poster from the “Pacific Lumber Company” in 1945, titled, “The Redwoods parallel in history”.   The lumber company itself, based further north here in California, was started in 1863 to provide wood during the civil war; in 1945, they issued this poster showing the “San Francisco Peace Conference” as the top of the chain of historical events over its “lifetime”.    That conference, held in this city where I now live more than 75 years later, led to the United Nations charter. 

My husband had wisely made the reservations for parking and tickets early in the day, but there were many cars in the lot already – still, as we proceeded down the path, seeing these giants stretching like fingers from the earth into the sky surrounding us – we had moments of complete isolation, silent except for the song of birds, the buzzing of insects, and the breeze far above our heads.  This was especially true in the aptly named “Cathedral Grove” where visitors are urged to respect the silence in the oldest trees of the Park.  No architect could create more a more majestic tribute to creation than this natural temple which the earth provided without mankind.  Rather than stained glass windows, the sky overhead drew my attention to that which lies beyond. 

And that is the source of my title for this reflection, friends … look up in the sky … what do you see?  After a year in which many of us have felt torn between being beaten down by fears, disappointed by unmet hopes, and faced with crises of all kinds in our personal as well as shared lives – perhaps you, as I, have looked up and asked ourselves what is the meaning of all this.  As I have written before, my own history has been undeniably shaped and influenced by the teaching of the faith in which I was raised … a faith which, at times, has led to great pain, perhaps not as often as great hope and comfort.  Our world, filled with an unending variety of cultures and beliefs over the far lesser period of history than the redwoods have witnessed, has birthed many faiths – and by that term, I deliberately try to disassociate the desire to understand that which is beyond understanding from the structure of religious practice.   Some have lasted, evolved, and changed over hundreds of years – others, disappeared without much left to document their impact other than ancient writing, illustrations and practices.   At their best. the tenets of faith have brought peace, comfort, and hope;  but it is after all we humans who can take what we believe to be true and use it to oppress, crush, and control, as well. 

I am blessed with a wide variety of friends (I take them where I can find them, folks!).  I appreciate that they do not always share my perspective, history or understanding – really, more of a lack thereof – in matters of belief.  As I have grown old – surely, not as old as a these redwood sentries standing silently around me – but feeling the passage of time a little differently than a decade ago, I am realizing that letting go of a desire for certainty brings me a greater peace than insisting I have answers.  I certainly know and understand how the tendency of organized religion to excoriate “outsiders” – including those, like me, who do not conform to their concepts of wholeness, normalcy, or any other measures of acceptability – proclaiming the power of love, practicing the principles of hatred, exclusion and condemnation.  

I respect that people in my life that I love believe – or, as some might say, choose not to believe whatsoever – differently than I do.  We do not have to all be “right”, and I dare say none of us are.  Certainly, in the faiths that celebrate,  as in this season what Christians call “Easter”,  Jews celebrate “Passover”, and other faiths holy days –  there are vast differences in beliefs.  For those who hold these beliefs dear, many do not know, or seek to understand, why the history behind the evolution of those beliefs bring into question aspects of their practices which they would prefer to accept rather than open a Pandora’s chest of uncertainty.  I have always respected the line in “Inherit the wind” where a potential juror questioned by the agnostic defense attorney in a case regarding the teaching of evolution in public schools says “My wife tends to the religion for both of us”; the attorney replies with the question “In other words, you take care of this life, and your wife takes care of the next one?”   It is so much easier to not ask ourselves why we believe – just to somehow hold on, clinging onto the buoy we have found in an ocean of uncertainty, pretending we can keep our head above the crushing waters.  I have found that neither pretending certainty nor ignoring doubt gives me any kind of lasting peace.

Because this is a time of holy reflection for so many in our world – in different faiths – I offer you a personal observation from my own history.  More than half my lifetime ago, as I struggled with trying to find a way to conform to the expectations of others, and the teachings of my church and those who truly did love me, but like me, had a less than complete understanding – I took a trip to Israel with a noted scholar of both the Jewish Old Testament writing and faith, and the Christian New Testament history and traditions. It was a wonderful experience, unforgettable in many ways; it gave me a sense of the sweep of time and belief over centuries and cultures in the small corner of the globe that reverberates still today. We visited “both” traditional sites of Christ’s tomb – one, buried in an ancient Greek Orthodox structure, the other a Protestant site oddly positioned adjacent to a parking lot; and, many other sites of various sects and incidents throughout the history of that conflicted land.  Not surprisingly, both were empty (I had to go there).  We also visited the Holocaust memorial; and, farther from Jerusalem, the crumbled remains of a pagan temple with the signs of the zodiac in mosaic, and a crumbling yet still striking crusader castle from the struggle for control of the “Holy Lands” against Islam.  We were diverted from one area – Jacob’s well – because of safety issues relating to Palestinian acts of defiance nearby.  Centuries of faiths gaining and losing power, leaving relics behind, each one proclaiming its unique, undeniable right to control.  The devotion to those sites – and the bitterness between rivals – has not lessened over centuries. 

As I reflect on that visit now more than half my lifetime ago – and today, as I stare up the seemingly endless length of the towering trees surrounding me in this chapel of nature – I realize that there are many in this world, many of my friends even in my daily life, who have abandoned, discarded and in some cases would if it were within their power would eradicate the concept of faith in something beyond. They see only the destruction and pain that history records. The words that are holy and sacred to some, are for them the names used to curse and hold in contempt.  The practices and teachings, used as weapons to pronounce judgement are wounding for them; at times, they have wounded me, as well.  It is so hard for us to see the little acts of grace, the kindnesses between strangers, as acts of God, through the pain and despair that seems to pile up daily. I cannot tell my friends they are wrong, and I am right, that I continue to believe we are as much spirit as we are physical beings, or that there is a reality beyond that which is measurable, observable by “science”;  our knowledge on this earth is insufficient to capture all truth, and much of what we experience, we know alone, in a silent place in our deepest consciousness, where no one treads and where the light is often hard to find.  I am not a good example of a person of faith; I serve better as a disciple of worry, fear, and uncertainty – yet I still, somehow, believe in that greater source of power – of life – and yes, love.  That which is eternal, and unknowable – but is present, when I look up in awe at these trees, or see it in the beauty of a brief smile, or an emerging seedling, or a faded petal – or in the slumped body of another child of God on the streets around me.  It does not make sense – but perhaps faith lives apart from that which does.   I can only say that my sense of that love, that grace, that power – in whatever limited understanding of “truth” that my mind can encompass – carried me through.  Carries me, still.  Gives me a glimpse beyond, and some sense of peace, and hope. 

I have not been a regular attendant at church for many years; the hymns of my youth were old even then and are mostly not sung today. In fact, being an old man now, I admit I crankily abhor the dependence on other methods of “worship” and entertainment in church gatherings, and the ignorance and lies that are often spoken as truth to congregations of people who trust in their leaders to know better than listen to something deeper speaking to their souls. But I believe there is a value in the tradition of people of faith, as they understand it however imperfectly and incompletely, to gather in churches, mosques, synagogues; to break bread together; to mourn together, laugh together, and pray for one another.  These practices are the real love in action, where each heart In offering the small glimmer of light it struggles to keep burning inside gathers with others and creates a greater light, a common hope.  

In 1984, director/screenwriter Robert Benton created a film, more of a reflection of the lessons of his rural Texas depression upbringing than a memory, that touched on these elements – struggling, flawed, desperate individuals and families dealing with poverty, racism, unfaithfulness and grief – uncertain lives, abandoned and rejected individuals looking for a moment of hope, coming together.  I remember seeing it in Hollywood, and marveling at the depth of compassion shown by these otherwise unexceptional everyday people, just trying to get by, trying to make sense of a world that did not work, did not always show that love, or justice, or hope, prevails.  It features two hymns that I remember from my childhood in the Methodist church – “Blessed Assurance” at the beginning, before an act of violence ends two lives and sets in motion events affecting those who remain.  And, at the end, as a communion service closes the film in a small church where the choir sings “In the garden”, and the minister reads about love from Paul’s first letter to the tiny, outlying church of believers in a radical new faith in Corinth –  we realize suddenly that there are people in the service that weren’t there a moment before; that somehow, they are together even though they are not in that moment. The last two faces, passing the sacred elements to one another as the light fades, are those whose deaths began the film, joined together.  If you have not seen it recently, or before – it is worth a visit one quiet day. Here is that final sequence from Places in the Heart …  

Today we too are faced with the challenge of survival, and at times, it seems overwhelming. Threats surround us, bury us, choke our hope and our joy. It is so much easier to give up on facing the big questions in life.  We can’t really come up with answers as much as make peace with the uncertainty.  But in believing, as I do, that there is a greater source of love, perhaps our goal should be – at least, for those in our little circles of life, coming in and out seemingly randomly – to try to let that love come through us without putting up more barriers.  For Easter this year, Steve Hartman of CBS “On the Road” shared some reflections on faith – how it is shared in this time, how it survives, why it matters still, to many.

The sentries of time in Muir Woods have endured centuries on earth in a way that you and I will never know; staring up at them, knowing they have witnessed more sunrises and sunsets than I can count, leads me to reconsider my own perspective and priorities. As I look “up in the sky” at the vast expanse beyond these ancient witnesses of our world and hear the hymns that the birds sing to ears more able than my own to understand their joy – I truly sense the presence of that greater love that lies beyond daily perception.  I feel it as I hold my husband’s hand and begin another year of life; I believe that greater love brought us together, to what end, I may never know. I believe that same love is reaching out to each of us, even though we cannot see it or prove it or measure it or hold it.  I cannot say what you should look for as you raise your eyes – but I hope you will keep looking, and that in time, we shall all see what is hidden, and know what we have longed to understand.  One day, we all will know – perhaps, gathered together, in a tomorrow beyond anything we can imagine.  I hope to see you there, and smile, again.