Tonight I find myself amused as I go through my mental paces, casting around in my head for the perfect title to pull together all the ideas I’ve been pondering for the past week or so. Back in the days when I wanted to write, but could never find the time, I’d think of great titles for articles and books every few days. My funny husband frequently suggested that I simply market my titles and skip the substance. I’ve been giving that idea some serious thought. I’m going to work my way backwards, starting with the last title first.
Lately, the world has reminded me of Talking Heads songs, often in the context of their brilliant concert film, “Stop Making Sense,” which was released in 1984. I’ve been thinking that since the beginning of the pandemic, the usual annoying glitches of daily life have grown exponentially worse. I’m talking about the kinds of things that should be routine and easy, but are now suddenly problematic and seriously irritating. I can give concrete examples. I made an appointment for a Covid booster with a two week cushion at a CVS pharmacy. I got multiple text messages and emails reminding me of the date. About 40 minutes before the injection time, I was running an errand, fairly close by the pharmacy. I suddenly got a voicemail asking me to contact the store. I called back and got into one of those agonizing loops where you’re shifted around with no people with whom to speak. As time was getting short, I jumped into my car to arrive on time, all the while continuing my telephone quest for a human representative. As I pulled into the parking lot, I finally got a person on the line. She told me the call was to cancel my appointment as the store had run out of my vaccine a short time ago. “What?” I asked how that was possible when I’d made my reservation weeks earlier. She told me they’d used up their supply on walk-in customers and that the delivery truck with replenishing stock hadn’t shown up. Indeed. Stop making sense? I’d say so.
I get the whole supply chain/Covid problem. I’ve seen my share of empty shelves, many of which have yet to be re-stocked. But this isn’t just about stuff not being readily available. Recently I pulled all my prescriptions from a Walgreen’s pharmacy after doing business with that store for decades. Supply wasn’t the only issue. They had too few employees to handle customers. First they closed the pharmacy on weekends. Then they closed it all day except for the retail part of the store. My daughter scheduled a Covid booster and flu shot there. I was dubious and unfortunately, rightly so. When she showed up, the pharmacist was gone. That’s a personnel issue, not a supplies one. No phone call or message for cancellation. That’s just wrong. Lately it seems like so many places are short-staffed. Lines are long. Employees seem overwhelmed, under-trained and are often rude. They’re grumpy. I understand there might be good reasons for those feelings. Yet I feel this underlying sense of disaffection, perhaps related to management, but I’m thinking more like a general sense of being disgruntled, unhappy and something I’d call an emotional response to the overall weirdness of these past few Covid years.
The other day, when I took my glasses out of their case, a lens popped out of my frame. Basically blind without them, I drove to the store where I got them. There was one customer seated at a desk, another trying on frames and me. No employee was visible. Eventually one emerged from the adjacent optometrist office and lab. She told me she’d be with me momentarily. Thirty frustrating minutes later, she asked me what I needed. When I said the word “repair” she looked grim. She told me that if I left my glasses with her, she might be able to fix them by the end of the day. I must’ve looked disbelieving because she then said she might have them repaired in 48 hours. I asked for a real answer, reminding her that I couldn’t see without them. She then said that repairs were a low priority in the store. First in importance were the people getting eye exams who would then buy new glasses. Next came customers who walked in to make a purchase with a prescription from somewhere else. And lastly there was someone like me, a returning customer who wouldn’t generate a new sale. The phrase “the customer is always right” flicked through my mind for a second before I turned around and walked out. Furious. This conversation reminded me of one I’d just recently had with my internet provider. Suddenly, last month, my bill went up by almost 50%. I called the company and made an impassioned plea about being a years-long customer on a fixed income, arguing that only giving great deals to new clients was a morally bankrupt policy. After being transferred a few times to someone who could offer relief, the bill was rolled back to its original amount. However the next bill showed up with the higher number again so I started over. Why is everything such a hassle? My sister paid in advance for a cross-country train trip in a roomette, only to discover when she arrived for her departure, that the train was deliberately overbooked, that she was bumped out of her little space and that she would be traveling by coach instead. Sitting up for three days is hard when you’re in your late 60’s. What’s the problem with everything? I read an article yesterday about a study of over 5600 people, who at some time during the pandemic, experienced what’s being called “temporal disintegration,” a loss of connection to time and space. To me, that’s simply another example of the overall mental health pressures being experienced by so many due to the stress of climate change, crazy politics and worries about survival, especially considering the wild weather events and nuclear weapon usage conversation being tossed around lately. All these little and big issues make me feel uneasy. A year after Stop Making Sense was released, the Talking Heads issued the album, “Little Creatures.” The song that stuck with me was “Road to Nowhere.” I worry that’s what we’re all on right now, whether or not there are some people who aren’t paying attention.
I really feel like being with my tribe is what would be helpful right now. However, I’m not sure of exactly who or what defines my tribe, especially at this moment in time. I’m a member of the human tribe. I probably identify first as a member in the tribe of women. But the pandemic has dampened the ability to congregate, at least for those of us trying to follow the science. For me, just 2 and 1/2 years into being a widow after being a partner for 45 years, I think I would say that the isolation required by Covid, further separated me from anything in the way of “tribe.” I have my children and grandchildren, who fortunately have lived near me during these times. But children are only part of what constitutes a tribe. I’m not a member of a religious institution. I am in my 70’s and retired, so I don’t interact at work. I have old friends who are geographically dispersed from me. I also have some dear old friends who still live in the same community as me. But among them, I’m the only widow. They have built-in companionship. I have a social media presence which gives me an outlet for the expression of my ideological tribal tendencies, and through which I receive confirmation that I’m not on my own out here. I’ve also been able to carefully participate in local demonstrations which reflect my views. The sense I had as a younger woman, when I was clearly part of a movement, a tribe, has diminished over time, with exterior limitations being the primary source of my inability to be a more active participant in these movements. Life isn’t the way it was back in the day. Most recently, I attended my community’s local gay pride parade. Michael and I were allies of the LGBTQ community all our lives. As part of his teaching life, he was the sponsor for the Gay/Straight Alliance, a student group at his school. His insignia for that is attached to the mourning quilt he had made for me which I received after his death.
I think being part of that celebratory event was the closest I’ve felt to being part of a tribe since the Women’s March in January, 2017. Of course Michael was still alive then and in attendance. I guess he was the primary anchor in my tribe. I wish that people would stop telling me, “oh but you have your children.” Children don’t have the same function in life as a partner. I didn’t marry Michael to get them. We chose each other because that’s what we wanted. For me, nothing has changed. The tribe I wish for now does not include his replacement.
Deep in my bones, though, I will always be a member of the tribe into which I was born. I am Jewish. Although I haven’t lived in the practice of religion since I was a young girl, I was raised in a traditional household with traditional customs. Most of them fell away, as my parents didn’t do much but imbue us with a sense of our troubled history, some of the customs which surrounded the holiest of days, and lots of food. We gathered every year for the high holy days with the religious practice diminishing year by year, especially after the deaths of my grandparents and my father. But when my mother was alive, we celebrated and the house was always filled with the comforting aroma of traditional foods. When Michael and I raised our kids we taught them their history and ensured that they understood the continuing issues of anti-semitism and racism that continue to the present time. After my mom died and Michael so soon after her, I lost some of my focus about the traditions. But I always keenly felt the urge to create that tribal atmosphere for my kids and theirs as long as I was able. This year was no exception. On Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, the day that sins are confessed, that the people fast and that the determination of whose name will be written into the Book of Life, I found myself in my kitchen, where my mother always was on this day, preparing the meal that would break the fast at sundown. But because I am me, I was also listening to a Smithsonian class on Zoom, one which was focused on the Russian Revolution and its civil war in which began in 1917, before the end of World War I. The lecturer was an erudite Englishman whose presentation was packed with a fascinating balance of broad brushstrokes and interesting anecdotal details. In a scant hour and fifteen minutes, he managed to pull together the past and the present.
Are history lessons still happening in our educational system? If so, are they taught in narrow handpicked slivers or are young people learning about the whole world which is more interconnected every day? I know that Michael taught a Holocaust unit in his American history classes. Is that still required as well as instruction in the U.S. Constitution? My grandchildren aren’t old enough for me to know the content of these types of classes. I am the product of a broad based liberal arts education which included plenty of world history. Which, I might add, is still inadequate. As the grandchild of immigrants who lived in the fluid borders of Russia in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, I was reminded during this class of the harrowing existence of their lives, being hidden from rampaging Cossacks storming to the west, to somehow escaping the pogroms of Odessa, now a principal port in Ukraine in the latest European land war. Has history taught us nothing? This lecturer spoke of Putin’s grand vision, not to simply reconstitute the dissolved Soviet Union, but to also restore the autocracy of czarism, tackled to the ground over one hundred years ago. Listening to the repetitive history of barbarism and anti-semitism threaded through the years was a stunning accompaniment to my meal preparation for my family, apparently still in the crosshairs of hatred despite the common ground we in the human tribe share, all evidence to the contrary.
I think I’ve woven together these seemingly disparate topics into a hopefully cohesive tale. My brain has been busy. I include a link to the article I read about temporal disintegration. I also include a happy photo from a beautiful afternoon in October, as a straggling monarch came through my garden today. My little bit of helping part of our threatened world, supplying food for the travelers.