The pandemic, Easter, and the seeds of hope.

From 2020, Peter as Koreshan Unity founder Cyrus Teed and Terry Mirande as the Unity co-leader, Victoria Gratia.

As I sit in our metaphorical Easter garden of hope and spring renewal, I am surveying the state of our symbolic little plot of ground. What is sprouting this year?  It’s an understatement to note it has been a transformational year.  Peter and I marked the one year anniversary of the pandemic a few weeks back on March 13, 2021. We picked this date because it was March 13, 2020 when we learned that our beloved Koreshan State Park was being shut down. I remember the day so clearly because the president of our volunteer organization called to tell me that the balance of the Women’s History Month events were cancelled.  The previous three years, we had been telling the story of the women who lived in this religious utopian community where women had significant leadership roles and opportunities before the 19th amendment had insured the right to vote.  Our 2020 guest lecturer, author Adam Morris, was due to fly in from San Francisco in to talk about his remarkable new book, American Messiahs.  Now that was all going silent.

Joan Wescott as Koreshan member Lillian “Vesta” Newcomb on the stage of the Art Hall.

My fellow volunteers were doing re-enactments of a few women in the Settlement.  Their costumes had been lovingly assembled, they researched their subject so thoughtfully and now the balance of the month’s programming was cancelled. This past year, I have become more aware of a new-found gratitude for their devotion to telling the story of some of these women who carved their own paths against great pressure to conform to the traditional roles defined for them by the dominant culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Did it take the pandemic to present the space for my reflection of gratitude not only for these volunteers, but also for the need to tell the story of these pioneering women on whose shoulders we stand?

It is tempting to slip down the rabbit hole here and feel only the losses of this pandemic, losses which have been enormous.  As I write this, 550,000 lives have been lost in the U.S. That number was unimaginable one year ago.  Part of our personal pandemic routine included tuning into PBS NewsHour every Friday evening when Judy Woodruff would profile five people who had died in the past week from COVID-19.  Peeking into the lives of these mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandparents, and friends often brought me to tears as family members shared personal details from the lives of these people whom they loved and who were now gone.  Peter and I experienced both the diversity of their lives and the universality of the grief and loss which in our humanity, we shared with those families. Did it take the pandemic to awaken this connection to our shared humanity?

Johns Hopkins doing essential work for the Center for American Indian Health.

In the face of this pain and loss, Peter and I found ourselves often desperate to help in some way.  We made donations to non-profits that we had not even heard of pre-pandemic, organizations which initiated responses to the devastation caused, for example, by the extreme poverty on the Navajo reservation where running water and great expanses of desert isolation brought crushing death tolls.  Food insecurity in both New Mexico and later here in Florida led Peter to volunteer at the local community kitchen preparing food for families with little other alternatives. As inadequate as it seemed, it was something we could do and now the question is how do we respond to the enduring call to address the underlying structural changes of poverty and isolation that the pandemic has revealed?

Something awakened In the darkness of this past year and we both discovered the importance of making course-corrections. We appreciated the gift of the hermitic quality of our Airstream, our movable quarantine unit.  We were able to safely travel over 5,000 miles (from Florida to New Mexico in May and back again in November) without having to ever enter a restaurant, an airport, or a hotel.  Masks and gloves and cautious and mindful public interactions are now wired into our daily lives.  In the darkness, we had been invited to live with presence and with gratitude for all we have been given.

There continued to be aching losses. Yes, it’s true we missed celebrating my son’s 2020 wedding in New York City (which was cancelled in the pandemic) but the young couple rushed to the courthouse in Tampa on St. Patrick’s Day of 2020, license in hand, just hours before it closed down. They just celebrated their first anniversary and I remain joyful over their inspirational love story and grateful for the two new step-grandsons we now have in our family.  Happy today-birthday, Sam!

Peter getting his first vaccine shot on March 9 , 2021 in Florida.

One year ago, we went from no idea how to protect ourselves from the infectious virus to a world with face masks and social distancing and vaccines and isolation from families and friends. We both have received the first shot of the vaccine and will celebrate Peter’s 75th birthday on April 6 with dose number two. We are limiting gatherings to close family and friends who have been vaccinated. We are looking forward to a mini-reunion with one of my sisters and one of my brothers and their spouses in early May after almost two years apart. I am still trying to see how I can navigate visiting my 97 year-old mother in New Hampshire who is still not vaccinated but remains healthy and hopeful she can receive her Johnson & Johnson single dose on April 9.  Has this year revealed both the fragility and the beauty of a world filled with loving interaction and face-to-face visits which ought never be taken for granted?

I marked the day in late 2020 when I received my Portuguese citizenship.  Here I am holding the banner from the Junta where my paternal grandparents were born in San Miguel, Azores.

Even though my family did not go on a 2021 family European trip marking birthday milestones for those hitting 75, 70, 65 and 60, there were other gifts in 2020.  I was able to secure my Portuguese citizenship and get a Portuguese birth certificate. Whenever travel opens up again, I have the option of exploring a Portuguese passport and EU travel benefits. I filed all the citizenship paperwork on September 25, 2020 which would have been my father’s 100th birthday. As first generation Portuguese-Americans, both of my parents were born to parents who had immigrated to this country early in the twentieth century from the island of San Miguel, Azores.  Intentionally filing my citizenship papers on this day felt like a way to honor my ancestors and their lives and sacrifices.  I am so grateful to my mother who secured her Portuguese citizenship in 2016, making it possible for any of her children to do the same.  Have I come to appreciate the deep roots to my ancestral homeland more intensely as a result of collecting and then filing all this documentation during the pandemic?

My last degree was awarded in 1971 from University of Connecticut so it’s been a few years between undergrad and graduate diplomas.

Back in 2017, I had given myself a birthday present which up until now only my family and a few close friends knew about. I decided to pursue a graduate degree in Theology, a life-long desire which seemed like a dream whose time had come. Neil Young wrote about dreams that fade away as a memory “without any place to stay.” I did not want my graduate study to be that kind of a dream. Studying mostly online through a well-established graduate program offered by Saint Leo University in Florida, I completed the course of study on December 14, 2020 and officially earned my Master of Arts in Theology.

The pilgrims come every year to the Sanctuario de Chimayo in New Mexico.

We now visit with close friends and family who are scattered like shells on a beach, via Zoom.  We talk about our health, haircuts, love and loss, movies and books, and our kids and grandkids. This past year has been a pilgrimage through isolation and slowly back toward new kinds of connection.  There are still huge problems, beyond the virus, to be addressed but we have had some time to reflect on the work that remains undone. So I wonder, can we, in this Easter season, see that hope is indeed coming back to life?  The seeds have been planted in our hearts, so how do we nurture the tender garden and get to work?  The late Archbishop Oscar Romero, martyr and saint, wrote that this work starts with us and while, “it may be incomplete… it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.  We may never see the end results…but we are the workers…we are prophets of a future that is not our own”.

This Easter, may your seeds of hope abound and may your garden grow to be prolific as you lovingly tend to it.

Peter and Liz continue their pilgrimage to here, living in their Airstream and tending their symbolic garden, grateful for all the grace they are given each day.

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