Lifelong learning

By Shlomit Auciello | Aug 21, 2020

All of us experience traumatic moments that change the shape of our lives. Such moments offer educational opportunities, mixed in with the pain and confusion. Occasionally a whole generation of humans gets the same sucker punch at once. I think you know where I'm going with this.

The first lesson I learned from the current pandemic is observation. Things happened quickly at winter's end, but it took a little while for my attention to truly focus on events outside of myself. I traveled to Colorado in late February and back again the first week of March. The news was just breaking, and as I boarded the giant sardine can and strapped myself in, a very small voice was telling me maybe I shouldn't be doing this.

Boulder and Manitou Springs provided wonderful distraction, blowing away all the voices in my head and on my stepmom's TV but, back in Denver International Airport for the return flight, I noticed a few passengers wearing face masks and the warning voices started again. Pay attention, my mind said. Don't bring home any little microbial gifts.

That led me to lesson two, my proximity to others. By now, we were getting daily updates and head counts and lots of warnings and suggestions. Some made sense, some didn't, some were out of my control. Let's be truthful here; most were out of my control. In fact, the only COVID-19 protocols I felt I could manage were hand washing, distance, alcohol swabs and a few layers of cloth over my breathing apparatus.

In late spring, when my card buddies decided it might be safe to meet in one of our gardens, a friend brought a 10-foot pole to help us remember our distance. When I was walking downtown, I counted the masked faces on one hand while dozens of people passed uncaring. My chest clenched with sadness and anger. For some, a mask was an imposition. With a choice between anger and avoidance, I went for the latter.

When the Rolling Stones came out with “Living in a Ghost Town” I turned it up and zoom-danced with friends, but online boogie only increased my loneliness. I wanted more than anything to hug my daughters.

Last week, I finally visited the one in Vermont, a state that takes this stuff pretty seriously and only allows out-of-state visitors from counties with fewer than 400 cases per million. We had a good visit, but we shared no meals and didn't hug. The loneliness of quarantine and distancing is a lesson that runs like a cable through every day of this disaster. We are sad, my Massachusetts daughter tells me, because everything is broken.

Fortunately, my tiny garden needs me. I have befriended soil, sand and compost, and reconnected with shovels, rakes and implements of creation. In May, I planted seeds and seedlings, smelled warming earth and I knew that some things take time, that they don't always go as expected and that life continues.

Lesson four amplified those that came before and inform everything since. Even after convincing myself I finally understand the Buddha, this lesson returns. We've all heard that joke about plans, that making plans is the surest way to make God laugh. It turns out we keep making them, anyway.

Lesson five came out of my anger. Early on, I wanted to yell at strangers, and did. I ached with loneliness and wanted to throw the ache in the faces of all those who thought my caution was a joke. I wanted to say something that would change the anger and impatience I saw around me. I put my burden down in magic marker on lawn signs, a succession of five signs that read almost the same, depending on whether you were going north or south.

In one direction, I thanked people for their patience in a time of the unknown. Folks headed the other way got my gratitude for their empathy under the same difficult conditions. When George Floyd's death brought things to the streets, I realized that empathy sometimes requires the understanding that there is some experience I just don't have, that there are situations in which my heart must go out to people in spite of that lack. My signs became a curriculum for me to study.

In more than 35 years together, my former husband and I built an enduring friendship. We were divorced about a year ago and have been learning each other's boundaries as we gently separate our lives. It hasn't always been easy, but COVID-19 actually helped.

Circumstance made my ex-husband my pandemic buddy. In thinking about what human contact was essential, I found the ability to keep my own company, the honesty to know when I needed to be with another human being and the flexibility any good relationship requires.

The U.S. was founded by restless individuals. Those who come here by choice did so to put something behind them, generally in hope of a better life, of happiness and freedom.

Now, facing circumstances beyond our control, we find ourselves trapped within our borders, victims of our own unique refusal to comply with protocols that are proven to reduce the spread of a disease that, on average, is killing as many U.S. citizens every two days as were killed at the World Trade Center Sept. 11, 2001. Sometimes it feels like it will never end. Happiness has always been fleeting and the cost of freedom is defined in a social contract that many of us ignore.

Lately, I'm learning to read the expressions conveyed by the eyes of others. As the school year begins, in ways unlike any other I can remember, I think about the unrecognized lessons facing this generation of children. Fear and compassion are choices we make every day. In this, we are all teachers.

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