Sunday, April 26, 2020

The Role Models Who Guide Us

            One of the difficult things about this time is that many of us are hard-wired to help others, and of course the best way we can help right now is to stay where we are. There are important ways we can offer assistance, from donating to relief organizations, to making masks for essential employees, to donating blood. Another way we can help is by paying attention to the lives of individuals who guide us toward the better angels of our nature.
            A few weeks ago, my high school commemorated the one-year anniversary of the death of our late principal, Derrick Nelson, who died from complications while donating bone marrow to a teen-age boy in France. This past week, our school initiated a quarterly award honoring students who selflessly help others. It’s named the “Lift While You Climb” award, in honor of a statement Nelson once made. He said, “We have an obligation to our fellow human beings that if we are in a position to help someone, you do it. You lift as you climb. If you can do that, you have contributed more to society than anything your bank account can produce and, ultimately, contribute more to your own well-being.”
            I think of Nelson and his words while reading the stories of medical professionals who risk their lives in emergency rooms around the world. Lacking in sufficient equipment and in experience with a virus quite like this, our doctors, nurses and other medical staff are using skill, instinct, collaboration and heart as they serve on the front lines of this crisis. Last week, I read a doctor’s diary of life in a New York City ER, and I strongly recommend it. The author, Helen Ouyang, describes what it looks like to stare down a virus as it rages around you. She feels the stress every day, yet keeps coming back to do the job, then takes the additional step of sharing that experience with us.
            More than 50,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S., and we mourn those deaths in our own thoughts and in our collective grief. Some of us have lost loved ones, while others know students or colleagues who have lost family or friends. My family is actually mourning the loss of a dear friend who died last week from a different cause. One of my childhood friends, Scott Salinardi, died suddenly last week of a heart attack at his home. Scott was a man who had all of the qualities needed to succeed in any field – intelligence, personality, optimism, compassion, insight and connections, to name just a few. After graduating from the University of Chicago and dabbling in some initial jobs, he chose to devote his working life to serving developmentally disabled adults. Working alongside his father, Richard (a leader in serving the developmentally disabled for five decades), Scott helped run an organization called Lifestyles for the Disabled. He found productive working environments for hundreds of developmentally disabled adults on Staten Island, from cooking to horticulture to education to journalism. When not raising his four daughters with his wife, Sherry, Scott was working all around his hometown, making it possible for so many adults in this borough to feel fulfillment and pride in their lives.
            Scott was 45 when he died last week; Derrick was 44 when he passed away last year. Many others have died far too young during this time of COVID-19, and others, like Scott and Derrick, have left us too early for other reasons. Losing a loved one can feel paralyzing and helpless; living through a pandemic can feel like a true onslaught of despair. And yet, these stories of service can make it much harder to give up. We ask ourselves: If Derrick could give so selflessly, if Scott could make service his life’s work, if doctors can risk it all to aid those in need, then who am I to give in to the despair?
            We walk through a different world right now, one that requires us to keep our distance. But we still have the ability to walk together in all the ways that matter. And we have role models to show us the way.    

Monday, April 13, 2020

Walking Through the Unknown, Book in Hand

This is not a time for giving advice on how to manage the moment. For all of us educators included – we can do no more than be present for one another, support one another, and listen to one another. There is no right way to handle things right now, other than to follow the directives from our health authorities and hang tight.
In the past month, I’ve worked at helping run a school from behind a laptop and smartphone. I’ve spent time with my wife and daughters doing the things that help keep us sane, from family dinners to game nights to movies. I’ve rigged together a workout routine, gone for many runs, walked the dogs each day, tried a few crossword puzzles, and cleaned the house.
And I’ve also read. I want to focus on the reading in this blog post, because for me, reading has been a way of making sense of this current crisis. Reading has always been a way for me to broaden my worldview and gain perspective. During the past month, I’ve tried to be selective with reading material that can help me deepen my own understanding of life right now, and in that sense nourish my soul.
I've definitely read news sources, choosing to stay away from most television and focus on a variety of reputable daily newspapers, from The New York Times to The Washington Post to The Wall Street Journal. I find it essential to know what’s happening without absorbing too much repetitive information, so I give myself a time limit when reading the papers. I’ve also read news sources that give me something else to think about. In particular, the fabulous sports site The Athletic has offered many intriguing stories, most notable Joe Posnanski’s countdown of the top 100 baseball players of all time, featuring a thousand-word essay for each. The countdown ended today with No. 1, Willie Mays.
In terms of books, I started with a book that a friend had given me, titled The Peanuts Papers: Charlie Brown, Snoopy & the Gang, and the Meaning of Life. Edited by Andrew Blauner and featuring essays by many renowned writers, this book analyzes the impact of Charlie Brown, Linus and Snoopy on our culture. It’s a relevant book for our current moment because the dominant theme to the book’s essays is this: Charles Schulz’s comic strip embraced the idea of feeling disappointment while also hoping that the next time will be better. The Groundhog Day­-like moment we now find ourselves in is not unlike Lucy pulling that football away from Charlie Brown every time. And yet, without fail, he keeps coming back.
I moved on to a history book that's been on my shelf for a few years, about one of the most trying moments in American history: the Dust Bowl. It's titled The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, written by Timothy Egan. This one felt like a book I needed to read right now. It is, after all, about a time when part of this country was enduring a nightmare whose end was in no way clear. A time when people walked around with masks on, and could not shake hands (the dusters produced so much static electricity that physical touch could bring about shock). The Dust Bowl is in many ways a story of human-produced climate change, which gives its tale relevance for us already. It’s also about individuals who suffered years worth of weather-related disaster in the High Plains while living in the midst of an economic depression. The stressors compounded, yet these folks had an ability to persevere through hardships I cannot fully understand. Their determination to keep going astounded me.
            My next choice was a novel that another friend had given me. The book Open City by Teju Cole features a narrator who walks the streets of Manhattan and mingles with others in search of meaning – an idea that is refreshing in and of itself right now. Cole’s narrator, Julius, has elements of Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye and Meursault from The Stranger in him, and his detailed descriptions of the life and art around him serve as windows into his own soul and into human nature. Julius also spends a lot of time with other people, and there are moments when the words in his conversations stayed with me. In one scene, for instance, Julius is talking with others about how prepared we are for unexpected crises. He says, “We are the first humans who are completely unprepared for disaster. It is dangerous to live in a secure world ... we are just as susceptible as any of those past civilizations were, but we are especially unready for it.” Although written several years ago, these words sound like statements we’ve heard many times in the past month.
            My most recent choice was a book by one of my favorite nonfiction writers, Tracy Kidder. Titled Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness, this book tells the extraordinary story of a young man who (just barely) escapes violence in both Burundi and Rwanda, and finds himself in New York. As a former medical student in Burundi, he arrives in Manhattan with
no home, and sleeps in Central Park while delivering groceries for $15 a day. To tell you how he goes from refugee to homeless man to Columbia University student to builder of a health clinic in his native country is to give away the rich details that make this such an inspiring tale. It is a story of true grit, extreme trauma, and unyielding aspiration toward a better world. It offered me inspiration in ways that I most definitely needed.
We are all living through our own traumas right now, and stories can serve as powerful beacons of hope. They don’t need to be uplifting to do this. They simply need to bring us closer to a truth that we find real and relevant to the narrative we’re trying to piece together in our own minds. When the words on a page help us do this, we find ourselves living part of the miracle that is human existence. We find words, written by a stranger, that are present for us, that support us, and that listen with us. They empathize, and help us take another step forward through the unknown.