These orchids bloom once a year. They watched us leave home in 2019 to cross the Atlantic on that fateful cruise and they bloomed again last year as I marked my one-year anniversary of surviving a near-death illness in Amsterdam. As Christians commemorate Jesus’ death on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday, I bow my head to the powers that made it possible for me to be here.
My husband brought these bunny-enhanced orchids home as a present on Palm Sunday, the 43rd anniversary of the day we went to a Spanish-speaking Mass in Jackson Heights — even then one of the world’s most diverse neighborhood — followed by an elegant lunch at White Castle. Ah, Queens!
The blooms on this white orchid, with tints of yellow and pink, look like fine linen haute couture Easter frock.
One of my favorite podcasts is NPR’s Fresh Air, in which host Terry Gross interviews all kinds of interesting people — writers, scientists, singers, film stars. Much like the PBS NewsHour and CBS Sunday Morning, Fresh Air almost always expands my mind, enriches my brain, or opens my heart. Sometimes, it’s all three. If you are not yet a subscriber/viewer, back up and click on those links before you read any more.
Seriously, do that.
Thanks for coming back. So, one of Terry Gross’ most recent guests was Sir Kazuo Ishiguro, the Nagasaki -born, London-raised novelist whose works include Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, and who won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature.
…who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.
I’d not heard Ishiguro interviewed before, so was surprised by his English accent and stories of his British youth. He was a sort of celebrity child singer of church music and thought he’d be a singer-songwriter in his youth, and “voice” continues to inspire writing.
I take enormous inspiration from listening to singing voices. I love to listen to Stacey Kent, whom I write lyrics for. There’s something almost impossible to capture in words about the quality of the singing performance.
Terry concluded the interview with Stacey Kent’s I Wish I Could Go Traveling Again, lyrics by Kazuo Ishiguro. The song is sweet and the message is one so many of us feel very deeply, thirteen months into this pandemic. I wish I could go traveling again …..
The coincidence of the pandemic’s one-year mark, President Biden’s gargantuan COVID relief bill, and the annual World Happiness Report makes me hope that America may be ready to acknowledge that society’s health and wellbeing comes before individual wants.
Americans need government help
In his recent column, The Biden Revolution Rolls On, New York Times columnist David Brooks writes that President Biden’s epic spending plans — the $1.9 trillion COVID relief package followed by a $3 trillion package of jobs, clean energy and infrastructure proposals — raise a fundamental question.
Should the government redistribute money to the disadvantaged for the sake of common decency and to restore social cohesion?
David Brooks, The New York Times
FDR’s post-depression social welfare programs gave us Social Security, and LBJ’s war on poverty and civil rights work gave us Medicaid and Medicare. Still, America spends far less of welfare-state programs for the young, the old, the sick, and the disadvantaged than do other developed nations.
Americans distrust government
As compelling as our current crisis makes me say YES to government support, the notion goes against our grain, Brooks writes. Our origin story, our revolutionary break with a central power, make us distrust The State. The government as provider of social benefits conflicts with The American Dream gospel that individual hard work leads to success.
Northern European countries outrank us
The World Happiness Report is out, reported David Keyton of the Associated Press. The respondents ranked much social support they feel they have if something goes wrong, their freedom to make their own life choices, their sense of how corrupt their society is and how generous they are. The top 10 countries are Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Luxembourg, New Zealand and Austria.
We find year after year that life satisfaction is reported to be happiest in the social democracies of Northern Europe. People feel secure in those countries, so trust is high. The government is seen to be credible and honest, and trust in each other is high.
Jeffrey Sachs, Columbia University
When I first wrote about the World Happiness Report in 2018, I was not surprised to see America far from the top ten countries: we are number 18. With American’s distrust of each other, community is challenging to build and government seems ever more alien. The report notes that American culture prizes signs of wealth such as big houses and multiple cars more so than other countries.
Supporting first responders. Lending neighbors a hand. Volunteering at food pantries. Haven’t we learned that community is all that matters? After all, just being here after this crushing year is pretty darn good.
My Latino husband can yodel. He taught himself in the backyard of his Brooklyn house in the 1950s, while playing cowboys by himself, pretending he was sitting around a campfire with Gene Autry and his pals. I had no idea he could yodel until we were married and visiting my Midwestern family, when R chimed in with family yodeler Aunt Clarice’s refrain during an impromptu songfest while washing dishes. Wow, did this Brooklyn boy connect with my folks, you betcha!
Thanks to Aunt Snooky (aka Mavis Mildred Irene Amerson Voigt) for pulling together the Amerson family story that includes yodeling and lots more. Here are excerpts that show why we cannot wait to be back in the same kitchen, singing and laughing and maybe even doing some dishes.
We sisters sang harmony together, sometimes joined by Clarice, who could yodel, or by Ruby, who taught us hymns in hopes that we might go to church some day.
Irene loved singing, especially church songs, and told how she and Ruby or Clarice would often sit in the hayloft and sing. She and other family members also sang while washing dishes and listening to country music on the radio.
Jeanie Olsen (my cousin)
I was 3 when our family moved to a big house to a small one. Family lore is that when I saw the house at age 3, I said “I’m not going to live in this damn house.” I must have learned that from my mother, who cleaned, scrubbed and painted to make it more livable. It had no closets, but as my sister Jean said, “Luckily, we had no clothes.”
When I was a teenager in the 1950s, my mother often said to me, “Don’t go hitchhiking. It’s dangerous. You could get kidnapped!” Fast forward to the year 2008 to the Amerson/Casjens family reunion in South Dakota, when I met up with a friend of my mother’s. When I was introduced as Margie’s son, she said “Oh, Margie. We used to go hitchhiking together!”
Jack Karsmeyer (my cousin)
I was the Middle Sister of three. Elaine was pretty, Jeanie was smart, and I was good-natured and funny. That was my role in life.
We are so lucky that Aunt Snooky she was born the middle daughter, because her good cheer and people-connecting have carried our family forward during this very tough year.
Dr. Lisa Sanders’ Diagnosis column in The New York Times Magazine tantalizes me like a true crime story, only with a happy ending. Sanders’ January 17, 2021 column was about a man who’d been diagnosed with a fatal neurodegenerative disease revealed to be a treatable brain disorder. She closed her essay with this:
It was only later that he recognized how strange it was to get a death sentence and lived to tell the tale. ‘“It was,” he told me, “like I was hearing my own eulogy without dying.”
Lisa Sanders, The New York Times Magazine
As a survivor of a near-death illness, I recognize that feeling. Two years ago, I suffered a ruptured arterial aneurysm and weeks of system failures in an Amsterdam ICU, and when I emerged from the fog of illness, my body had lost the ability to move. That intubated and inert body in a hospital bed was me. Yet here I sit, on the eve of my second anniversary, stronger than ever and completely myself in body, mind, and spirit. How in the world did I do this?
Three things have carried me forward for these past two years: keeping focused, celebrating small goals, and repetition.
Focus seemed to take care of itself, at least initially. When I was really sick, the world shrank to nothing..Taking the next breath was the only thing. As I got better, the perimeter slowly expanded to include my body, my bed, my room, the physiotherapy gym, the park across the street.
After three months, I flew home, knowing how far I’d come. A wise doctor in Amsterdam counseled me to not let myself be discouraged at this phase by others’ impressions of me, but to keep my focus on the next step in getting better. One foot in front of the other, literally. Head down. One step at a time.
Celebrating small goals
At first, my only goals were small ones, and they felt huge. It took me several days to relearn to chew and swallow food before I could be released from the ICU. I could barely make a fist, so holding my iPhone was a victory. It took me an hour, but I finally peeled a tangerine.
Bending a knee, rolling over, and finally standing. My physiotherapist Gemma held me like a junior-high date and I shifted my weight from foot to foot..I walked out of the hospital, onto the airplane, and into my house, and every day since then I’ve continued to seek and nail those small goals.
Every day my feet hit the floor is an opportunity to get better, and the morning begins with exercise. At first, it was 10 minutes of shuffling.. It’s now an hour of striding and weight lifting. Every day.
Four times a day, I repeat the pelvic floor exercises I learned from my gynecology nurse practitioner. I use the breathing prompt on my Apple Watch to consciously breathe for those two-minute sets. Every day.
It’s gotten me a long way. And I still have a long way I want to go.
One day, you look up and realize how far you’ve come.
Director of Outpatient Rehabilitation, Our Dear Lady Guesthouse, OLVG Hospital, Amsterdam
German prosecutors charged a 100-year-old man with 3,518 counts of being an accessory to murder on allegations he served during World War II as a Nazi SS guard at a concentration camp on the outskirts of Berlin, authorities said Tuesday. This case is a vital reminder to the dangers of anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia, said Efraim Zuroff, the chief Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
“After decades of denial, a reunified Germany slowly but firmly turned to look at the horror of the Nazi regime. The effort is meant to ‘guarantee memory.’ Twenty-five years have gone into the restoration of Sachsenhausen’s original buildings, design and artifacts.
“The Berlin Holocaust Memorial is an unavoidable block-wide grid of unmarked slabs of grey stone laid out like coffins, soaring over death-shadowed canyons in the center and emerging into the ongoing life of daylight.
“We too have a shameful past: slavery. Emancipation did not lead to freedom, and we’ve allowed slavery to morph into accepted behavior in this country. Jim Crow. Lynching. Segregation. Discrimination. Incarceration. Death at the hands of the police. Indeed, Nazis and Klansmen march in support of racism under the cover of the First Amendment, and statues of the Confederate military are defended as ‘heritage’ to be protected. It’s a heritage built by slaves and defeated in the Civil War. True freedom and liberty are yet out of reach to persons of color.
“What if, instead of ignoring objections or tearing Confederate statues down, we found a way to lay out the full story, to force ourselves to look at our own dark past? Let’s talk about why we had a Civil War, and what has happened since. Until we can force our country to stare down its horrific past, we will never be free of it.”
Are white people willing to confront and have a conversation about the extent to which white racial prejudice and white racism, and the desire to maintain white power in the United States, is part of our political process?
The most relaxing 20 minutes of television watching I can recall in recent years happened on March 11, when President Joe Biden addressed the nation. After years of clenching my gut every time the former White House resident opened his mouth, sitting and listening to our president was downright blissful.That the topic was not a happy one — the pandemic — made my feeling all the more remarkable. Here was a grownup, speaking truth, showing empathy, and inspiring us.
Here is some of what I carried forward out of that evening, and the reflections of journalists I respect on the importance of this moment.
Telling the Truth
President Biden’s first national address began with the tragedy of the year-long siege of the Coronavirus pandemic: the losses; the pain; the economic and emotional hardship so many Americans are suffering. Biden showed us an index card he carries in a suit pocket with the number of COVID deaths. After a year of false promises, science denial, and the encouraging of careless behavior, our new president told us the truth.
We know what to do… tell the truth.
President Joe Biden
We have an empathetic president, one who overflows with it. We have a president that says “we” instead of “I,” giving words to the sorrow and frustration so many of us are feeling.
We need to remember the government isn’t some foreign force in a distant capital. No. It’s us. All of us, turning our hands to common purpose.
President Joe Biden, March 11, 2021
I need you.
President Joe Biden, March 11, 2021
Finding light in the darkness is a very American thing to do. In fact, it may be the most American thing we do.
President Joe Biden, March 11, 2021
If we do our part, if we do this together, your families and friends will be able to get together in your backyard or your neighborhood and have a cookout and a barbecue and celebrate Independence Day.
President Joe Biden, March 11, 2021
The July 4 vision gives us something to look forward to after a long year of doing the same limited things over and over.
In December, the president-elect promised that 100 million Americans would be vaccinated in his first 100 days in office. By March 11, we were nearly there, my husband and I among the those vaccinated, and we have now surpassed that number. According to NPR, Americans have received more than 124 million doses of the vaccine, and we are just 62 days into the Biden administration.
Put trust and faith in our government to fulfill its most important function, which is protecting the American people.
President Joe Biden, March 11, 2021
The president pledged that there would be enough vaccinations on hand by May 1 for all Americans. We believe him.
Imagine that. This is the America my father represented during his Foreign Service career.
Today, I am sharing a timely and thought-provoking poem by fellow blogger poet Kate Hutchinson (bio below) as she looks back at the year of pandemic. It’s an abecedarian poem, a new term for me but a logical one: she takes a look at COVID, from A to Z. I found it inspiring my thinking back with gratitude, sorrow, and perspective.
It All Matters
Antiseptics. Air for our lungs and air hugs for our hearts.
Boxes of beans plus blue skies and bikes and bare feet.
Clorox on the shelf along with cat food, chocolates and coffee.
Doctors, yes, and drive-thru windows and drive-by birthdays.
Exercise, elastic waistbands, evergreen trees in the yard.
Facts over falsehoods . . . and Facebook. Food kitchens.
Gloves and newly-gray hair and grandparents on screens.
Hospitals full of heroes plus houseplants and hummingbirds.
IV drips, igloos outside restaurants. Vivid imaginations.
Jeans, jammies, jigsaws, Jeopardy! and Jupiter kissing Saturn.
Keeping our distance but keeping the faith. Kindness.
Libraries, leaves greening then falling on lawns. Love.
Masks and music and movies and mothers and miracles.
Nurses, oh yes. Newspapers and neighbors on the front porch.
Oximeters, ovens full of bread. Open minds, open hearts.
Personal protective equipment. Pets on laps and leashes. Poetry.
Q-tip swabs and questions on quarantining.
Remdesivir plus reading, reading, reading.
Steroids, sourdough starter, and solos on balconies.
Too much toilet paper and time on treadmills. Tireless teachers.
Ultraviolet light and unsung heroes all around us.
Ventilators. Vaccines! Vegetables from our own gardens.
Windows kept open and long walks and wine.
X-rays of lungs, experts who temper our expectations.
Kate Hutchinson recently retired from teaching high school English, and she has on occasion taught poetry writing at a local university. Her first chapbook of poetry, The Gray Limbo of Perhaps, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2012 and is available at their website (linked to the right). A full-length collection of her poems and prose-poems, Map Making: Poems of Land and Identity, was released by THEAQ Press (Rosemount, MN) in 2015. It is available through Amazon or directly from the author upon request.
Kate has had poems and short essays published in many literary magazines and anthologies since she began writing professionally in the early 2000’s, and several of her pieces have earned recognition in local or national contests. Her poem “Fowler Ridge Wind Farm,” winner of the 2010 Mobius literary magazine poetry contest, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A second Pushcart nomination came in 2018 for a golden shovel poem written on the day of Elie Wiesel’s death, which uses the Emily Dickinson line, “Hope inspires the good to reveal itself.”
Blogging is Kate’s way of forcing herself to write and think about the deeper elements of life amidst the daily demands of job, family, and home.
My mother was half-Scottish, a member of the Robb clan that claims the MacFarlane tartan. The family roots go back to Kilmarnock and Paisley, Scotland, where James Robb and Margaret Morton were born about 1830. My sister has the paisley shawl Margaret wore during her travel alone from Scotland to her intended’s side. Our great-aunt Marion recounted it as “eight weeks in a sailing vessel” followed by arduous travel by land to the Mississippi to meet James in Fountain City, a place she would certainly have imagined differently from the small, dark town on a bluff from which James’ swinging lantern told her she’d made it.
The Robb side of our family is smaller and quieter than the Amerson side. My mother and her brother, Jim, and his wife, Beth, are gone, leaving my sister and me and our four Robb cousins — Ricka, Becky, and Molly in Minnesota, and Eve in Kansas — to the job of connecting. Facebook helps.
So I was happy to receive an email a couple of weeks ago from Becky saying, in part, this:
Could you tell me if Grandpa Robb was related to Gordon Robb from Winona? I ran into a vendor today who’s name is Sean Robb and he is the grandson of Gordon.
The name didn’t ring a bell and I thought the answers might lie in the eight binders of correspondence and related family papers I sent to the Winona County Historical Society this past year. However, there was one file still on the bookshelf, and it contained a hint.
Our grandfather’s grandparents, James Robb and Margaret Morton, had 12 children, including William John Robb (1860-1946) who had a son, William Gordon Robb (1923 -). The trail runs out there. I’ve attached two pages from Mom’s binders.
And, guess what, the hint did the job. Here’s part of the email Becky got from Sean.
William Gordon Robb is my grandfather on my dad’s side. Getting super emotional now. God bless you for following up on this. It seems you and I share the same blood!
As I told Becky, this connection would have made my mother very glad indeed. In fact, I thought I heard her dancing up there. Knowing where she was from, and transmitting that knowledge to me and my sister as we grew up abroad, mattered a great deal to our mother. This was why. Now, if someone wants to clarify how the “once removed” etc. definitions work, Sean, Becky, and I will formalize our newly discovered relationship!
I just don’t believe we need vaccinations. I don’t think it is the way God intended for us to be. The majority of my friends and the people that I associated with, the people that we go to church with, we don’t wear masks, we don’t get the shots. I don’t know why people are so terrified of this. It is nothing worse than a flu.
How “God intended for us to be.” Hmm. Makes me think of an old joke. The river has flooded and water surrounds a house. It climbs past the first floor, then the second floor, and then approaches the roof, to where the home’s sole inhabitant has fled. A rescue crew comes by in a rowboat and offers to take the man to safety. No, he says, God will save me. An hour later, the water is lapping at the man’s feet when a second rescue boat comes by. Once again, the man refuses to leave his perch. God will save me, he repeats, as the water closes in on him. He drowns and goes to heaven, where he asks God why He didn’t save him.
Who do you think sent the boats?
Vaccines are a miracle
The fact that we have three vaccines — and more being developed — just a year into this catastrophic pandemic is nothing short of miraculous. Maybe it’s science, maybe it’s divine intervention, and maybe it’s both.
Immunization is freeing
My husband and I are now among the more than 110 million Americans immunized against the coronavirus and able to resume interacting with the populated world after living apart from others for twelve months. And that was on top of being hospitalized for three months overseas and frail for much of the previous year. I’ve never been so happy to make doctors’ appointments.
And it was a very big deal to go for a drive to one of our favorite towns, Delray Beach, on Sunday, a beautiful day with no agenda. What fun to wander down shop-lined streets together for the first time since our 2018 trip Amsterdam, although we were shocked by the number of maskless pedestrians, and not just college students on Spring Break. The beach was packed. We wore our masks the whole time. Although 56 percent of Palm Beach County voters went for Biden last November, it clearly isn’t only Republicans who are ambivalent about the coronavirus.
Mask and vaccines save us
…if we get stuck at 60 or 65% vaccinated, we are going to continue to see significant outbreaks and real challenges in our country, and it’s going to be much, much harder to get back to what we think is normal unless we can get that number higher.
Although we are beginning to see the light at the end of this very long tunnel, it will have been just a mirage unless we all work harder at doing the right thing. President Biden pleaded with us to wear a mask and get a vaccine. Listen to the man. And that light at the end of the tunnel might just turn out to be July 4 fireworks.