Finding a Purpose: Americans, Dogs, and a Seagull

I was moved by the Democratic National Convention, beginning with the Zoom-esque choir of American children singing the Star-Spangled Banner.

I was moved by the variety of spokespeople for the states’ Convention delegation, by our geography, our languages, our passions.

And I was moved by Joe Biden. If ever there was a time for a naturally garrulous talker to nail a speech, it was Thursday night, and he did it. Americans together. Collaboration. Unity. Purpose. The man spoke about finding a purpose amidst personal tragedy, and his purpose is national service. It is us. We’re going to bat for Biden.

I was moved again today by two episodes in my going-to-church program, CBS Sunday Morning. The theme, again, was purpose.

The first — a story told by Conor Knighton — was about a retired surgeon and pilot who, after losing his wife, found his way back to life again by flying animals to adoption centers through his non-profit, Dog Is My CoPilot. Peter Rork has rescued 15,000 dogs from overflowing shelters (often, high-kill, too) to underpopulated shelters with lots of foster and adoptive volunteers. In doing so, he knows that those animals have rescued him.

We feel the same way about our Kumba. He feels the same about his soft security companions. With a job to do — carrying — Kumba is able to relax around other dogs when we’re on our daily walks. We’ve still got the muzzle, but it stays home most of the time.

Kumba feels that way about his stuffed companions!

And the second, good-news story — told by the lovely Steve Hartman, On the Road — was about a lobster fisherman who was befriended by a seagull. She showed up on his boat out in the middle of the Gulf of Maine in 2005 and basically never left. When she suffered a leg injury a few months ago, Captain John Makowsky got the bird help at the Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick. When the bird recovered, he released her back to the wild, but she continues to show up whenever he is at sea.

It’s about the purpose revealed whenever two living creatures truly need each other.

Steve Hartman, On the Road, CBS

Letting the World In

As the tears fell down my cheeks this morning, I realized how much I’ve gotten used to being hard to the world.

Tracking Florida’s COVID-19 numbers helps me know how the Coronavirus pandemic is going on in the world just outside our door. I was trained for this new project of mine during my nearly 30 years in the New York State Division of the Budget in Albany. There, we knew about how to tell a story by using numbers, and the real story that the right numbers deliver.

We see pictures of people gathered in bars, unmasked. We hear that our daughter’s friends are going out as usual, and are grateful that she has her eyes open to the danger and is staying home. Governor DeSantis stands by his position that it is testing that is creating these numbers, not an increase in the virus. He tells Floridians to be brave, sounding like a World War I officer commanding his soldiers out of the trenches and into the bullets and bayonets of the enemy.

The news alarms me, even when it’s presented by smart people with broad, educated perspectives. I read the paper, scan The New York Times’ alerts throughout the day, and take in the nightly PBS News Hour, but otherwise it’s light reality — there is really no such thing as too much Say Yes to the Dress — or fiction diversions — the new Perry Mason on HBO, Vera on PBS, and we may make it through the crime/horror/Arctic drama Fortitude, if only to remind ourselves why we migrated south.

So, all in all, my relationship with television has been pretty passive as of late.

Yet, here I was this morning, freely weeping while we watched today’s CBS Sunday Morning. Two segments touched me, and the first was a story from back in our old haunts, Albany, where amateur painter Steve Derrick has taken the time to honor the front line in Albany Medical Center by painting the portraits of what they look like after a long shift, showing them in a local gallery, and giving the paintings to the doctors, nurses, aides, and others have inspired him so. A nurse was in tears as she thanked him for seeing who she is. This is soul food.

As you may know, the OLVG Nurses and Chapel in Amsterdam gave me the support to begin my recovery last year. The time my husband and I spent in that sweet chapel gave us time alone in the presence of something more than ourselves. The music we heard there lifted us up.

I grew up singing at home. Dad played the guitar and sang baritone, my sister was the soprano, I was the alto, and Mom was the audience. School choirs broadened our repertoire. I sang in church choirs in Albany churches. That was my form of worship. When Mom died, Susie and I sang The Lord Bless You and Keep You, following harmonies we learned at Herbert Hoover Junior High School in Potomac, Maryland.

Several years ago, Grammy composer Eric Whitacre figured out how to create a virtual choir. He videoed himself conducting a piece, and the singers filmed themselves singing to his conducting and the accompanist’s music. Then, he pieced together all the videos and audios. The first year, he had several hundred. This year, it’s more than 17,000. Here it is. Happy tears!

Eric Whitacre’s Sing Gently

Leading a More Nutritious Life

CBS Sunday Morning, May 17, 2020

On a recent CBS Sunday Morning segment, journalist Lee Cowan posited that the social isolation of the Coronavirus pandemic gives us an opportunity to build a better way of living.

As nice as all of this [solitude in nature] looks, most of us would trade peace for other people right now.

Lee Cowan, CBS Sunday Morning

Sitting in my covered patio as I write this, I am appreciating the sound of a neighbor’s voice. Four houses over, he is doing business on his telephone. Now that his yappy Chihuahua has given up barking at every moving leaf and gone inside, I like hearing my neighbor’s voice. It used to bother me very much. Now, it’s just evidence of all of us living at home.

Across the lake that we overlook, a mom is pushing her toddler’s wagon home along the cement pathway that winds its way between the lake and the forever wild preserve. They are part of the parade that we witness every day. The guy who strides along power walking. A man pushing his wife on her Rollator. When virtual school is over for the day, there will be siblings riding their bikes, families of lumbering adults and scooting offspring. There are people I don’t ever recall seeing.

I leased this Rollator to help me walk in August. With me is Pancho, Victoria’s dog

They’re not new. I’ve got new eyes.

This crisis does caused people to reflect on how they’ve been doing things, how they’ve been living, and it’s already inspired much new thinking.

Margaret Atwood
Kumba and I

I’ve been isolated from the world for five of the past twelve months: three months in 2019 in an Amsterdam hospital and the past two months in our Florida home.

I last entered a place of business — a car dealership — on Friday, March 13. Earlier that day, I took my last walk with a friend; Janet took this picture.

I’ve walked a lot since then, even working my way up to an Old Lady Jog, while appreciating the company of our rescue Lab, Kumba. But he doesn’t chat, and my husband likes to walk without conversation. I missing catching up with a friend.

We also haven’t visited in person with our daughter since mid-January, when she and Pancho joined us to meet Kumba at his foster home. We are happy that she’s been able to work remotely with patients — the leap forward in insurance’s coverage of telemedicine is one good thing that’s come of the pandemic.

We’re also happy that she’s had the company of her boyfriend while she sheltered in place for the past two months. He is steady and positive and tremendously supportive of our daughter. As her internship moves into its final weeks, they are laying out the groundwork for their life together when she begins her post-doctoral year.

At the University of Florida’s Butterfly Garden in November

I do think you’re seeing a prioritizing of relationships in a way that maybe we haven’t seen in the past. People are recognizing where their values lie in new ways.

Vaile Wright, American Psychological Association

I’ve been more present in my life. Instead of burying myself in writing this month, I’ve enjoyed joining Ray in re-creating our living spaces. Leftover paint turned this thrift-shop table into bright additions to our family room. The beautiful pot that my friends in Albany gave me upon my retirement has a new place of honor, and is now housing dried palm leaves enhanced by a bit of spraypaint. We’re taking advantage of our tall walls and high ceilings to display my husband’s other palm leaf art and look forward to a day in which we can invite people into our home to see how it all fits together.

For now, it’s fun to try things out without worrying too much about what anyone else thinks. Another pandemic silver lining.

Donald Laukkanen’s still life.

In moving paintings around, I noticed for the first time that the still life hanging in our house — which was in my parents’ home on Cape Cod — had, on the back, the name and Minneapolis address of the painter, Don Laukkanen, from whom my parents bought the piece while on Home Leave one August. Although the artist passed away in 2019, I was able to reach a daughter through Facebook to let her know that the beauty her father created continues to bring joy.

The American flag soaring above our kitchen cabinets was inspired by a huge raw palm base and a moment of pushing back at the disappointing leadership in Washington.

Kind of makes you want to vote, right?

Meantime, I think I’ll pull out my mother’s sewing basket and work up a couple of new masks. We continue to order groceries online and live away from others, using what we have (or can find while out walking!), but being prepared is a very good idea.

National Doctors’ Day

This Letter to the Editor appeared in The Palm Beach Post on March 29, 2020:

When a healthcare crisis upends our lives, the care of a trusted physician is valuable beyond measure. Now, with COVID-19, physicians are putting themselves at risk without hesitation to save lives, provide testing and reassure patients.

On Monday, National Doctors’ Day, there’s no better time for us all to say thank you.

Tim Stapleton, Florida Medical Association

The doctors and nurses at OLVG Hospital in Amsterdam who saved my life and got me back on my feet over three months last year are now arming for the coronavirus onslaught. Here is what one of them wrote me recently:

It’s a strange and especially unreal situation. Amsterdam is deserted and you know how crowded it can be! I work a lot now, and the pressure is high. All hospital staff are to be available at all times. There is a great sense of togetherness among the nurses and doctors in the OLVG. We will fight this successfully!!!!

AB, Nurse, OLVG7A

The doctors and nurses at the University of Florida Shands Hospital who cleared me to return to our house are girding up for the same battle. Our daughter, a health psychology intern at Shands, is providing support to both patients and staff via telemedicine.

Thank you, Medicare, Medicaid, and private health insurance, for leaping forward this past week to pay for Zoom-facilitated medical appointments. Thank you, Zoom, for being the glue that is helping families and neighborhoods and whole populations to stay connected. Click here to sign up to this free app. Thank you, the world’s medical community, for being in the front lines every day.

Here’s what today’s CBS Sunday Morning Lee Cowan had to say today about doctors, our front line defenders.

We give a nod of gratitude to those bound by an ancient document, with a very modern purpose:  the Hippocratic Oath. It’s a contract more than 2,000 years old, and while it’s evolved over the millennia, it’s perhaps more sacred than ever, especially now that we’re mired in a health crisis that Hippocrates himself could only have feared. One modern version of the oath reads in part: “I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.”

Today there is no “chemist’s drug” to fight the coronavirus (not yet, anyway), and on top of that, masks, gowns and gloves – those paper-thin barriers between sickness and health – are in impossibly high demand, which makes the oath’s “warmth, care and understanding” promise dangerous to keep.

Our exhausted doctors and nurses are often forced to re-use masks; some are simply going without. That may soon leave many of our healthcare workers unprotected, charging up this viral hill every day, knowing they may die on it.

It’s becoming increasingly possible that the physician you have today could be another physician’s patient tomorrow. There is no greater calling than tending to the sick and suffering. But it doesn’t require an oath; what it requires is courage, selflessness and compassion, all traits seemingly in ample supply in our medical community, thank goodness.

Because these are the souls who are our best hope.

Lee Cowan, CBS Sunday Morning, March 29, 2020
Andy Marlette, Pensacola News Journal