The clouds darken. You can feel it in New York, where what normally is a beacon of light atop the Empire State Building was turned into the spinning red and white of emergency vehicles. We are all spinning in some way about an axis of uncertainty, anxiety, loss, and fear. The luckiest of us are holed up in homes fearing potential illness and pacing mentally and physically in a de facto house arrest with an unknowable expiration date. We know that for many others, the daily toll is far greater, death and sickness, lost jobs, missed rent payments, and on and on. Then there are those who are putting their lives at risk to make sure we have a chance of beating this thing, the medical professionals to be sure are heroes, but so are the custodians, truck drivers, mail carriers, delivery people, and supermarket and drug store workers.
This is a time of great challenge, an inflection point in personal lives and the life of our nation and larger planet. The choices we make right now, down to the personal decision to stay isolated and do our part in not taxing a healthcare system bursting at its seams, will shape what kind of society emerges. It is natural to wonder and worry. And since Americans have always been a can-do people, it is particularly frustrating when the only thing most of us are told we can do is to stay home.
It is hard to be separated from loved ones. Video chats are a help but are no substitute for a hug. The virus attacks our very biology. That we are all susceptible is a reminder that we are part of one species, that we are far more similar than we are different. But the virus is also attacking the network of social bonds that tie humans together. We are meant to live, share, laugh, love, cry, smile, sing, learn, teach, and hold hands, together.
It is remarkable, when you look back at history, what humans can accomplish under great stress. And I seek solace in that. We are in the midst of tragedy, more will follow, but we will remain unbowed. We have no other choice. We must fight, not only for our survival but for a better future. When we look back at crises from the past, we can see that many have led to innovations that made the world better, fairer, safer, juster. We need to keep that in mind.
And that will require reminding ourselves of our own humanity. It will mean turning to memories from the past in order to build the future. It will mean reminding ourselves that the human condition is a mixture of joy and sadness, hope and fear. But there is beauty in this world, and there will be beauty still when we emerge from this moment of trial.
I leave you today with another excerpt from my book What Unites Us. It is a story that kicks off the book’s very first essay, an early childhood memory that has flickered in my mind many times in recent days. It was a moment that captures the hope and loss of life. I hope you enjoy and share your own memories in the comments below…. Courage!
Excerpt of “What Is Patriotism?” essay from WHAT UNITES US.
When I was a young boy, we didn’t have much in the way of material possessions. But around 1940 or ’41, we got our first family car — a heavily used 1938 Oldsmobile that I can still see so clearly in my mind’s eye. Its previous owner had lived along the Gulf of Mexico, and it was thus considered a “coastal car,” which meant it was rusted, especially along the lower-left side. Its engine had also thrown a rod, blowing a big hole in the engine block, which had been patched. It was a bit of a rolling wreck, but I didn’t see it as anything but beautiful.
In my neighborhood, the notion of a family vacation was an unheard-of luxury, something you might see in the movies but never expected to experience yourself. Yet that year, as the Fourth of July approached, my mother had the idea of driving to the beach in Galveston to see the fireworks over the Gulf of Mexico. My father was a little unsure of trusting the new car to take his young family on the round trip of roughly 100 miles, but my mother was persuasive. When the morning of the Fourth arrived, I was giddy with anticipation.
A trip from Houston to Galveston these days is relatively easy. At that time it was a big deal. There were no freeways, so we took the two-lane coastal road, and I remember how hot the day was. The humidity must have been approaching 100 percent. All the car windows were down, and to help the time pass, my mother had us sing patriotic songs. First and foremost was “America the Beautiful.” She always thought it should have been made the national anthem, as it is less militaristic than “The Star-Spangled Banner” and easier to sing. I have inherited that opinion. We did sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” too, however, and there was a debate in the car about whether we should stop so that we could get out and stand while we were singing. We ultimately decided that we should probably keep going, our hands over our hearts as we sang. As proud Texans, we included several state songs in our repertoire (“Texas, Our Texas,” “Beautiful Texas,” and “The Yellow Rose of Texas”). I remember singing my heart out, and we repeated the songs over and over again, stopping to make sure my little brother and sister could learn the lyrics.
When we finally arrived in Galveston, it seemed magical. I can still taste the salt air and see the sun flickering on the rippling water of the Gulf. As we all sat on the seawall that had been built after the great hurricane of 1900, I thought this work of civil engineering was so marvelous it might as well have been the Great Wall of China. We played on the beach, and when the sun went down, we watched the fireworks. In retrospect, this was probably a modest show — low budget and low altitude — but I was transfixed. I had never seen anything like it. I oohed and aahed at the starlit night. I knew, after all, that “the stars at night are big and bright deep in the heart of Texas.”
We had no money for the extravagances of a hotel, so the five of us slept in the car, curling up every which way. As we drove back the next morning, we were all a little stiff, but for that moment life seemed perfect. I have often wished I could have bottled that day to taste its sweet innocence once more. I had no way of knowing then that the country would soon be engulfed in war, and that some of the happy families we saw strolling the beach would have fathers go off to battle and never return. I didn’t know that I soon would be stricken by rheumatic fever and confined to my bed. And I couldn’t have anticipated that my parents, whom I can still picture sitting contentedly in the front seat, would pass away relatively early in my life. All I knew then was that I liked the feel of the road and the sight of the scenery going past. I liked going places . . . and I still do.