Monday, July 27, 2020

Rescued From the COVID Blues...We'll Always Have Paris

“He wondered if normalcy was something, like vision or silence, you didn't realize was precious until you lost it.”                   --Cassandra Clare, author

It was a risk. I know. Maybe even kind of a little dangerous. Taking this one chance, after 136 days of being locked up and locked in and prevented from enjoying one cherished past time in my life, that’s been with me since I first saw the flicker of shadow and light projected onto a screen, as a little boy at the Wollaston Theater, my childhood palace of dreams.

This past Saturday, I went to the movies again.

It was an impulse decision.  Reading the paper, I noticed a story about one of my favorite movie theaters here in eastern Massachusetts, the West Newton Cinema, reopening, after being shuttered since last March.  I’ve seen upwards of 75 movies there, probably more, in my adult life, so many Saturday nights with pasta at Comella’s next door and then a film.  It’s not a cookie cutter venue, a cinema one to infinity kind of place, a suburban movie factory located next to the mall, that shows mostly super hero flicks and other blockbusters.

No. West Newton Cinema is as local as local gets. As theater as theater gets.

Opened in 1937, the movie palace has been welcoming viewers into its quaint and cozy building for eighty three years, showed its first film in the midst of the Great Depression, and has been entertaining movie buffs like me ever since.  Stroll through the heavy wooden front doors as you pass under a marquee filled with titles of current attractions and then get your ticket from a live person in a booth and enter a spacious lobby, the smell of real homemade popcorn and melted butter making your mouth water.  Once a true movie palace, the Cinema boasted of being able to seat more than 1,000 patrons for a single screening, but now it has six screens, showing both art house and popular fare.  It’s been owned and operated by the same pair of brothers—David and Jimmy Bramante—(and now their families) for the past 42 years.

I had to go to the movies. I had to somehow get an experience of normalcy and comfort in the middle of the craziness we now call 2020 in this world. 

I had to go.

And so, my friend Kacey and I did go, as we have so many times before, making our way up the lobby stairs to theater five, where we found our seats in the third row and also found ourselves the only patrons in the room.  The theater has strict COVID guidelines, requires a mask and social distancing and limits capacity to only 25 folks per viewing, but in the end, we had nothing to worry or fret about.

Then the lights dimmed and the projector kicked on and there up on the screen of dreams was “Casablanca”, the classic 1942 film about life in wartime Morocco and lost love and broken hearts and fighting Nazi’s and a world all caught up in tumult and fear.  It felt like watching a story from a million years ago and a story from right now.  At least that’s how I romantically imagined it, as I watched tuxedo clad Humphrey Bogart and the elegant Ingrid Bergman exchange snappy dialogue and stolen kisses and drink champagne at Rick’s CafĂ© Americain.

“Here’s looking at you kid.”

It’s hard to put into words how deeply grateful and blessed I felt to be doing something so “normal” as going to the movies and munching on my popcorn, and arranging my long legs over the seats and staring up at the screen, where at 24 frames per second, I was reminded of how much I love films.  And art.  And a shared creative experience, not just a solo viewing of another movie on Netflix, as I push back in my Lazy-Boy, day 137 of COVID-19.

I know with more than 149,000 already dead in the U.S. from the virus, and millions more infected and the disease now reigniting across the country, my joy at returning to the movies may seem kind of trivial or even insensitive, considering how many folks are struggling right now.  And yet, ask anyone who is sick and tired, just exhausted from the COVID marathon that is not near over yet, and I know they’d tell you that they, all of us, we just need a little taste of normalcy right now.  Something to soothe our souls and lift our spirits. Something as simple as going to the movies.

As Rick says to Ilsa in the dramatic final scene of  “Casablanca”, “I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that.” 

Someday we may look back on these intense times of COVID and understand, maybe even see how we grew and stretched as humans and children of God, and were each called to be our best selves in these days, courageous, even noble. But for now?

I’m going to the movies.


Saturday, July 18, 2020

The "Right" to Go Maskless and Infect Your Neighbor: WHY??!!

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is this: what are you doing for others?”
--The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.

It’s just a mask and it’s just six feet.

That’s what I’m having trouble understanding, as I watch the country I love fall further and further into the black hole of a virus, spreading like wildfire, while a large percentage of my fellow citizens still refuse to either don that mask or stay six feet distant.

It’s just a mask and it’s just six feet.

And so, on the day I post this essay, about four months after our nation first woke up to the threat of this once in a century pandemic, I’m sad. Sad at the fact the United States recorded an unprecedented 70,831 new cases of the coronavirus just yesterday, July 17th.  That’s the highest number of infected folks we’ve ever faced into in a single day.  Multiply that out by a month and that’s a possible worst case scenario of  1.7 million new sick folks.  Divide that by a conservative infection fatality rate of .5 percent (50 deaths for every 1,000 infected) and that means by mid-August we could be seeing upwards of 11,000 new deaths, on top of the 135,000 who have already died. To put that into perspective: that’s as if the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts or Springfield, MA were wiped out overnight. Every last man, woman and child.

It’s just a mask and it’s just six feet.

And yet it took our President until last past weekend to actually be photographed wearing a mask in public.  Why his reluctance? Doesn’t fit into his self-inflated oversized ego? Or his insistence at various times that COVID is overblown, or a plot by the Democrats to defeat him, or a weaponized virus created in some secret Chinese labs to destroy America? And now we are hearing of a coordinated effort on the part of this administration, to contradict and even discredit the nation’s highest and best scientific civil servant, Doctor Anthony Fauci.

Words and actions from a leader have consequences. These can either inspire a people to step up and unite and do their part for a greater good like public health (thank you Governor Baker); or these can tear a country apart, sabotage any sense that as Americans we are all in this together. No thank you Mr. President.

It’s just a mask and it’s just six feet.

Makes me wonder what might happen if tomorrow, the United States faced an actual war, a real threat from an outside enemy, that called for the mustering of all of us, to do our parts, to unite, to be as one nation, ready to make sacrifices for a common good.  Could we meet that test, now, in 2020, given our fractured and piecemeal response as a country to COVID-19? Do we still have within our civic DNA the willingness to sacrifice, or would too many of us balk?  “Not my fight!” “You are not taking away my right to do nothing!” Have we as a people just spent so much time on the couch, watching Netflix, that we could not even be bothered to get up and do something, do anything, to help our nation!?

It’s just a mask and it’s just six feet.

I want to believe, I need to believe, that somehow we will pull it together as a country.  Make what is really a tiny sacrifice of discomfort, to just wear a mask and to just stay 72 inches away from others, and all to ensure that the least among us won’t get sick, won’t die.  Why is this so hard for so many? Why do some folk actually think this is a partisan request, somehow tied up in our political fights? 

Does anyone think COVID cares if we are a Democrat or a Republican? I just don’t get it. Why is this request twisted by some into the absurd idea that by actually following these public health mandates, we are somehow giving up our civil liberties?  Are you serious? Is it really all that hard?
It’s just a mask and it’s just six feet, people!!

Makes me thank God that I live in Massachusetts, that though our track record on wearing a mask and physically distancing is far from perfect, still, we’ve done a good job of flattening the curve and preparing for the worst and caring for each other as citizens and neighbors and friends.

And all that has taken is this: wise and prudent governmental leadership.  A shared sense that yes, we are all in this together, and what I do or do not do: this can help or hurt another.  And a mutual commitment to walk with each other, through the best and the worst, of these strange and amazing days.

Wear a mask. Stay six feet apart.  Repeat, until a vaccine is discovered and distributed.

Now that isn’t so hard, is it?       

Friday, July 10, 2020

Even In The Toughest of Times: Look For a Silver Lining

Was I deceived? or did a sable cloud
Turn forth her silver lining on the night?
I did not err, there does a sable cloud,
Turn out her silver lining on the night
And casts a gleam over this tufted grove.
--John Milton, 1634

We can all recite the litany of woes and ills visited upon us in this remarkable year of 2020.  We recite it so often now, usually in disbelief, as in, “How can so much bad happen in such a short period of time?” 

COVID-19 and a global pandemic. Shut down and lock down. Economic collapse. The death of George Floyd and the ensuing days and nights of rage and anger and heartbreak.  A November election shaping up to be ugly and divisive and tribal and unprecedented.

And the year is only 190 days old or so! 2020 is barely half over.  Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?  Here’s a first class ticket on the Titanic! Or as the perpetually down hearted and pessimistic donkey Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh might conclude, “We’re doomed.”

Or…maybe not. 

Maybe we might be able to actually glean some silver linings from that which has been a train wreck of a year so far. Maybe we might actually find some good among all the bad, some hope among all the pessimism, and some courage among all the fear.

I want to do that. I need to do this: to find hope.

To see hopeful places and movements and ideas and people amidst all the wreckage. I have to do this, to be an explorer for the positive in the midst of all the negative. My faith compels me: my belief in the basic goodness of human beings and my belief in a God who is constantly pushing Creation towards redemption and renewal and rebirth.  I’m not denying what’s broken.  Not imagining it never happened. No. But always, I need to look for the light where it is tempting to only see the shadows.

I can do that. We can do that.

And so, I am grateful that the pandemic has reminded me of one great truth: how much we humans really need one another: for care and mutual support and love and laughter. Since mid-March when I first shut the front door and stayed in, I’ve actually connected more deeply and more consistently with those I love. 
There was the surprise 85th Zoom birthday party for my Mom last May. Thirty five folks from across the country showed up to wish her the happiest of birthdays. Who could have imagined that party last January? Or my weekly Zoom connections: with my choir friends on Wednesday evenings every single week, as we laugh and joke and check in. “How are you?” Or my weekly Zoom meeting with grad school friends, friends I’ve loved for more than thirty years. We never gathered so frequently pre-COVID.

COVID has actually connected me more to others, not less. I hear the same from other folks about socially distanced beer and wine gatherings in a neighborhood driveway. Precious time with children now that youth sports are on hold. “We actually eat dinner together every night now,” they tell me. In the church I serve we actually have seen an increase in folks coming to worship and classes and fellowship—who knew the virtual might sometimes trump the face to face?

Silver lining: staying connected, one to another.

And I am hopeful, that the rising up of millions of my fellow citizens in anger and frustration at the sin of racism, filling the streets, pushing for real change, seizing this singular moment to imagine and hope; that maybe this time America will have the courage to face itself in honesty. To begin to redress that most original of civic sins: dismissing the other because they are “different” than you. 

Who could have imagined “Black Lives Matter” signs appearing on suburban lawns and church yards, or folks of all ages and religions and classes and races, so many people, taking a stand, taking a knee? Statues representing an oppressive and violent history toppling over? Corporations committing to more diversity of voices and employees. Mississippi finally taking the Confederate flag off its state flag?

I know this movement is still in its infancy, that it will be mighty hard to actually move beyond symbolic acts and protests to actually achieve real and lasting societal change—a just society—but hope for this I must. We must.  It will take long and hard work to begin to undo 400 years of injustice but what if we have finally begun this journey as a country? 

Silver lining: waking up to the truth of who America is while also dreaming of who she might become someday, one great day.

Give me hope. Show me a silver lining in the midst of the storm clouds. Enough with the bad.  Look for the good. It’s out there. We just need to look for it with eyes of faith.