Saturday, October 18, 2014

...degrees of separation

The Back Porch
I awoke early this morning. As much I have enjoyed my peaceful pre-dawn hour of candlelight and meditation, I am equally certain that a nap will overtake me at some inconvenient moment later today. For now, however, the quiet is deep, not even the gulls have awakened. If anything is happening outside, I don’t know and the little statue of St. Francis on the porch isn’t talking.

Peace is truly beyond understanding...a peripatetic state of being, absent in mundane moments, then then present in heaping helpings during a crisis. I like that word, peripatetic. Once applied it to an art history professor at UGA who strode back and forth across the auditorium’s lecture stage with an energy that brought his subject to life. His contagious enthusiasm, however, quickly morphed into cynical, mean-spirited tirades, fueled, we were to discover, by his liberal pre-class infusion of crack cocaine. 

But I digress. After an hour of quiet, I began to read the morning news. Ebola. More Ebola. And a third helping of - you guessed it - Ebola. My son has two inter-woven theories about the decline of modern civilization. According to Patrick, air conditioning and the twenty-four hour news cycle are the culprits. Before AC, people sat on porches in the evening. Families talked. In town, neighbors called out to each other and children played hide and seek across the span of several yards. In the country where my grandparents lived, the Milky Way sparkled against the dark velvet night sky. I learned about Orion and the Dippers while curled up next to Papa in the porch swing. Echo, the steel balloon passive communications satellite, periodically passed overhead and the mystery of the cosmos draped over us. Now, cut to the news. Enter Ted Turner, stage right. The problem, Patrick says, with twenty-four hour news is that the network has to fill twenty-four hours. Slow news days are unbearably repetitive. Fast news days are insidious. Vetted, in-depth reports? Who has time for these, except maybe Bill Moyers and PBS? Wait. Moyers has announced his retirement and the Kochs are investing heavily into PBS.

Back to Ebola. This virus endemic to the forests of equatorial Africa has the potential to strike, go into hiding and, when stirred by humans, return. There are more of these beasts out there than we like to consider. If you are a glutton for punishment and want to stay up nights, consider this from a National Geographic article*: “Our safety against the menace of killer viruses can never be an absolute safety. There are too many of them, lurking within reservoir hosts amid distant forests or closer to home...viruses such as Nipah in Bangladesh, Marburg in Uganda, Lassa in West Africa, Sin Nombre virus in the American West, all the new influenzas coming out of southeastern Asia, plus many others that haven’t yet been identified and named.”

Even more disturbing than the news reports are reader comments. My personal choice for the Crying Fire in a Crowded Theater Award belongs to the hordes of conspiracy theorists whose accusations and posts replicate faster than multi-resistant staph.  Next up are the more innocent but no less troublesome Chinese Menu Posts. These are the outgrowth of Googling...pick one from column A and one from column B. These random factoids pulled from the ether, posted out of context, are misleading at best and dangerous at worst.

For a bit of perspective, however, consider this:

In 1918 between forty and fifty million people died during the Spanish Flu pandemic. My grandparents survived horrendous bouts as their infant son crawled around a small barricaded space where they could see him. The black couple who lived on the next farm cooked cornbread and chicken soup and left it on the front porch. My grandfather crawled to retrieve it after they were a safe distance away. Later the neighbors caught the flu from a visiting relative. My grandmother, now recovered, baked the cornbread and made the soup and my grandfather delivered it. Of these four, all survived but other friends weren’t so lucky.

In 1957 over a million people died of Asian flu and the number of deaths from the1968 Hong Kong flu ranges from one to three million...impossible to attribute the exact number because of reporting difficulties from remote areas. More recently in 2009, The H1N1 Flue pandemic killed thousands in the U.S., up to 200,000+ world wide.

Disease kills. Before Obama and after Obama. An immutable fact. Yet, this latest virus has become a hateful tool in the war against an administration. Put aside the crazy conspiracy nuts. Seemingly normal, over-degreed people I’ve known since childhood are convinced that this President is engaging in germ warfare against his own citizens in order to establish martial law and call off the 2016 election. Want to wander in What-If Land? How about threats of a far-right-fueled military coup? It's all out there.

So you know what really disturbs me? The things we can do something about...for starters, problems such as Ebola that start elsewhere and kill strangers. We humans have a common proclivity for avoidance. Until a sneezy, wheezy, vomiting person sits next to me on the plane, it’s not my problem. Until my child is shot by an open-carry nut. Until the Twin Towers fall down. Until. Until.  If we’re not careful, we are all going to be “untilled” to death. The U.S. military is better equipped than any force on earth to deploy quickly and do good. Check out their record in Haiti, for instance, and countless other places. Instead of a rush to send hordes of our youngest and best to wars that will serve to create more wars, we could use these resources for the greater good in countless scenarios. Proactively. Offshore even. Send money. Do good for the sake of doing the next right thing. (Oh, there I go, being liberal.)

And how about those hunger statistics that are numbing? You know the ones, those numbers (21,000 deaths daily, one death every four seconds) that experts quibble over, parsing the difference between starvation and the long-term effects of severe malnutrition while people are dying in droves? Well, consider this, deaths from world hunger were dropping regularly UNTIL 2001. The UN reports that, from 2001 until 2010, deaths related to malnutrition and starvation rose. Let’s see now. What happened during this period? 

Back to hunger. The numbers stagger. A recent U.N. report states that 805 million people continue to struggle with hunger every day. 1.2 billion people still live in extreme poverty on less than $1.25 per day. (Stop now and look at a picture of a child - yours or someone else’s - then read on.) Each year, 2.6 million children die as a result of hunger-related causes.

Leave out the “shiftless/lazy/no-good/pick a judgmental adjective” adults. Stare at  this statistic: 2.6 million children. That’s what keeps me up. That’s what makes me passionate about the potential we have to do good.

2.6 million children. THAT’s sin. So is denying citizens the right to vote. Scrapping law that undergirds the greater good so that a few can live in luxurious denial. The list is long. Add your own to the mix.

If I’ve learned nothing else in my lifetime, I know that reason trumps sensationalism and allows truth to surface....and truth, even when ugly, sets me free. In my finite days on this earth, I hope that I will always be disturbed by those 2.6 million children. If that number drops by half, I hope that 1.3 million will disturb me. A little perturbation is a good thing when it leads to less selfish choices.

This poem of John Donne's that I memorized in high school keeps returning. In September 2002, the front of my home collapsed in a storm. As I stared at the gaping hole in my yard, Donne's words washed over me.

No man is an island entire of itself. [Each of us] is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. As well as if a promontory were. As well as if a manor of thy friend's or of THINE OWN were: any man's death diminishes me for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

Forgive me if I seem cavalier about Ebola. I'm not. Not my family, please. Not Bill, please. Not my friends, please. But since "thine own" took root, I know I don't have the luxury of six degrees of separation. Here or there, every death diminishes me. And until the "least of these" is counted, statistics lie.


John Robins said...

As usual, Celeste, an incisive commentary upon the life we live today compared with yesteryear.
Very thought provoking. Many thanks.

John Robins said...

As usual, Celeste, an incisive commentary upon the life we live today compared with yesteryear.
Very thought provoking. Many thanks.

John Robins said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Charles Van Gorkom said...

Jesus Christ,
Son of God,
Have mercy on me.
How tall and true
the candle prayer rises
from California morning porches
and Canadian attic windows.
The new day beckons,
rush to meet the moment
it offers
with blessing and prayer.