When I lived in Chinle, Arizona, heart of Navajo country in the 1970s, I struggled with my role as a young, idealistic, White woman. I arrived with so much good intention and so much ignorance, in equal amounts. I have always felt that those seven years were the most significant in my life. Navajos taught me to be patient, to listen and learn, and to drop all assumptions and expectations about what was needed and what I had to offer.
And the learning is not over. The recent revelations of the horrific treatment of Native children in boarding schools in both Canada and the US hit me hard. While in Chinle, I was a teacher’s aide for a Headstart class. Those little ones were 3-5 years old, many living in hogans with no utilities, most speaking no English. Unsure what it meant to be going to “school,” they were wide-eyed and cautious in the classroom. Outdoors on the playground, they came to life, rambunctious and free. After graduating from Headstart (in caps and gowns) they went on to the local public elementary school, or to the local boarding school, depending on the preference of their parents and the distance from the bus route.
We all have vaccine stories. Here is how it came to pass that I drove two and a half hours to Colorado for mine and the surprise that awaited me on my return.
Roberto had received his first vaccine from the VA in February, and I was waiting for mine. It turned out not to be a very happy wait. I fell into the desperation, near panic, that seemed to be gripping the country. I saw on the nightly news coverage of people lining up, on their feet or in their cars, at 4:00 in the morning and waiting hours and hours to get a vaccine and maybe going home empty handed, or shot-in-the-arm-less, I should say.
Here in New Mexico there were no mass vaccination sites where if you could get up early enough you could get vaccinated. The rollout was funneled through the state department of health and once you registered on the site with your birthday, occupation and underlying conditions you waited to get lucky. Every week winners were selected randomly and offered a time and place to get the shot. Well, I thought, I am in the 1b group, currently eligible, so my turn will come soon. That Buddhist moment didn’t last. My email, voice mail, and texts were full of the latest rumors and tips about how to get it without waiting. My friends were succeeding. Some drove to Amarillo, Texas, only four and a half hours away (!) and came back proudly sporting the band aid. Others found a pharmacy giving vaccines every Saturday, but when I tried to sign up they were full, then they were closed. I followed every lead straight to a dead end. I was almost the only person I knew in my age group without at least a first shot.
I saw the film Minari the other night and was moved for many reasons. It’s a beautifully told story, but one aspect of it hit me particularly hard.
The set up of the film is this: an immigrant Korean family of four begins a new life raising Korean vegetables on their own piece of rich, brown farmland in Arkansas. What’s your first thought? Mine was: “Wow, this is not going to go well. Those rural Arkansas folks are going to make their lives miserable. The poor struggling immigrants may survive or they may not but this will be a movie about racism and the deep divides in America today. How could it be anything else?”
What a surprise I got. This is a movie about a couple, Jacob and Monica, who fight a lot, and loudly, inside their small mobile home, upsetting their children, David 5 and Anne 10. The farm is Jacob’s dream, not shared by his wife who wants to be closer to friends, church, and a hospital, in case David’s heart defect becomes a crisis, which it could at any moment. They are on the verge of splitting up, when a very unconventional grandma arrives from Korea, providing both help and a new source of stress. This could be any family anywhere, right?
I hear zoom complaints every day. “I cannot stand one more zoom call.” “I am zoomed out.” “I will be so happy to get back to work in person.” Yes, you’ve probably heard them, too. In fact you may be one of them. Well, here’s where we part company, because (drum roll) I love zoom!
What’s not to love? You barely have to get dressed. All that counts is from the chest up. A nice top, shirt, maybe a scarf, earrings and I’m set. I have a beautiful cashmere sweater, blue-green, that the moths loved as much as I did. But, lucky me, the holes are in the back, so it is now my zoom uniform…zoomiform.
As I have written in an earlier post, I wear hearing aids, which of course help, but fall short when it comes to mumbling, the soft talker who always sits in the back, people talking over each other, or that wonderful punch line that everyone is hooting about except you. On zoom, I am like my old hearing self. All the voices come in strong and clear, and in a pinch I can read lips because the faces are all close-ups facing me.
Today, Saturday, February 27, 202, was the online memorial for Lew Geer, the partner of my close friend Nancy Dahl. He and Nancy had been together 22 years, and for both of them it was – and they often said it out loud to anyone within earshot – “the love of my life.” Lew died of Covid the day before Valentine’s Day in the hospital in Santa Fe, alone as so many have. But blessedly Nancy was able to visit him a few days earlier. I saw a photo of her, fully suited up, sitting on the bed, and it is clear that neither her hazmat gear nor his tangle of oxygen tubes and IVs could stop the love and adoration that flowed between them.
He was 74 and was living with a treatable kind of leukemia. A recent lab workup showed that he was doing well, and could continue to live a fairly normal life. And his “normal,” as I heard at the memorial today, was packed full of generosity, curiosity and fun. Of course I knew from my own friendship with him what a wonderful, loving person he was. He had lived in Japan and we sometimes carried on mock conversations in Japanese, he way better than me! In so-called retirement, he was on boards and contributed to projects that were very worthy but unlikely to attract the support needed. He took up petanque (google it!), played chess, made cherry pies, doted on children and grandchildren, and kept his many friendships well nurtured. His zest for life never waned.
I have been deep into the subject of the Covid 19 vaccine for several months. As one of several facilitators under contract to Johns Hopkins I am zooming with community members around the country listening to their thoughts about the vaccine. Johns Hopkins is interested in learning how people make decisions about whether or not to take the vaccine. The project has many parts, including a national survey and regional focus groups, but my role involves what they call “vulnerable communities” (Latinx, Native American, African American).
We are working with seven communities in the East, South and West. About 30 community members from each of the sites are compensated to take part in a series of three meetings over four months. The groups are recruited for diversity in age, gender, and point of view, resulting in conversations that are rich as participants share and listen to each other. We are particularly interested in hearing their experiences with Covid, their sources of information, who they trust and who they don’t, and the values that influence how they make that decision about rolling up their sleeves. The first round of meetings was in December, just before the vaccine rolled out. The second round is happening now at the end of January and early February, when the vaccine is available, sort of, for some people in certain groups, in certain places. The last round of meetings will be sometime after April, when hopefully most of those we are talking with will have had the chance to be vaccinated if they want to.
It has been an honor to spend time with these groups of community members, by zoom of course. I’ve been moved by their willingness to share painful stories of loss and suffering in their own families, and impressed with their honesty about their fears and the motives behind certain choices about whether or not to take the vaccine. There have been tears, mine among them.
Among the Native and African American communities the history of exploitation and abuse of their people by both government and the medical profession is very much front and center in the decision-making about the vaccine. For the most part, they are not anti-vaxxers. Most get an annual flu shot and take their children for regular vaccinations. But their very real historical trauma triggers a deep distrust of this vaccine. Its development seems rushed, and the eagerness to get it into the arms of those most vulnerable (whether or not that is happening in reality) triggers memories of the US cavalry bringing small pox-laced blankets to the Dakotas in the late 19th century, and the Tuskegee syphilis research done on African American men as late as the 1970s. We heard “never again,” and “over my dead body” when we asked about likelihood to take the Covid vaccine, even if that dead body might be theirs. Some said they might take it after millions of others had taken it first. Some said they never would.
Although initially reluctant, many in the Latinx and Native communities confessed they might take the vaccine in order to protect elders in their family and the community at large. For Native Americans especially this was compelling. “We lose an elder, we lose more than someone we love. We lose a piece of our culture. The thread is broken and our way of life, our language is at risk.” Two young men on two different reservations said they would absolutely not risk taking the vaccine because even if they got sick it wouldn’t be that bad. After spending time on the screen, listening to other community members and thinking about their elders, they each said the same thing, “I guess I’d take one for the team. Someone has to be first, might as well be me.”
When asked about sources of information that they would trust, the majority identified relatives, friends, community leaders, or their own doctors. “I have an aunt who’s a nurse. I trust her.” “Our tribal leader will know what we should do.” “My son is smart. I’ll do what he says.” An African American woman probably spoke for many: “If Oprah Winfrey or Tyler Perry tells me to get the vaccine, I’m not listening to them! I’ll believe someone close to home, not some big star.” Some were amused that public service announcements and news reports always show “a black nurse sticking the needle in a black arm,” as if that would convince them to line up.
One of the groups includes immigrants from Mexico and Central America living on the East Coast. These meetings are in Spanish and differ in another way from the others. Almost 100% of participants want the vaccine, and they want it now. They are desperate to get back to work. Little else matters.
And for some it’s complicated. A young woman feels it is her duty to get the vaccine and wants it, but she is pregnant and her doctor advised against it. “I’m embarrassed. I feel guilty. I want to do my part, but I can’t” and we saw her hold her belly on screen. Another woman finally let her son return to basketball practice after months of isolation. The very next day the coach came down with Covid. She was waiting for a test for her son. “I had to let him go back. He was so miserable. But now maybe he’ll get sick.” She slumped in her chair, shaking her head, and added “maybe he should get the vaccine so he can have his life back.” Some were in conflict with family members, feeling pressured to make a decision that didn’t feel right.
For the last several weeks I have been immersed in vaccine decision-making as I have listened to community members from a wide range of demographics and geographies grapple with the decision to vax or not to vax. I have heard so many passionate voices on all sides, pondering the questions, answers evolving. I have been the neutral facilitator, outside observer. But now I find myself faced with the decision myself, and here is my confession.
When it first was available in Santa Fe I did not rush to get it. I’m in group 1b, eligible after the front-line workers, but I was not sure. Maybe having heard all the fears and reluctance was getting to me. I told myself “well, it wouldn’t hurt to wait a while. I don’t need to be first. I’ll take my time and see how it goes.”
Then I got a call from my ex-husband, his voice triumphant, filled with excitement: “I got the vaccine, I was one of the first…” and he went on to tell me how he stumbled into a line at Sam’s Club and got his first dose, second to follow in a month.
Suddenly, I had to have that vaccine! I registered on the New Mexico Department of Health website, got my code and eagerly awaited notice of my appointment. Nothing. I was impatient, ready to jump in the car…
…until I heard from a friend in Japan. She is a pharmacist and there is no way that she or her family is getting the vaccine. The long term effects of the new RNA-based vaccines are unknown, she warned. They will take their chances….
….And so am I! I don’t care if the Department of Health never calls me. I’m not getting anywhere near that shot!
Then, on a walk I ran into a neighbor. She’s over 80 and had just come back from her first shot. She was thrilled and told me a long story about how hard it was to find! Calls to the hospital, doctors, department of health. No one could help her. Then a friend told her that Albertson’s supermarket pharmacy had it. She called, was on hold for an hour, slammed down the phone and jumped in the car and drove there. They gave it to her on the spot….
…Okay! I was on it. I aborted my walk, hustled home and called Albertson’s. Only had to wait 40 minutes and was told that things had changed and now they were making appointments from the state list, no more dropping in. I said thanks and hung up. If no one wanted to give me a shot, I just wouldn’t get one. I didn’t want one anyway….
…Until, my husband got a call from the VA to come in next Saturday for the vaccine. How come he gets it and I don’t? How come I’m not a veteran? What about facilitators? Don’t we count?
There is such a thing, I have learned, as scarcity mentality. Once you think there is not enough of something, you want it desperately. My decision-making may be just that simple-minded. I can take it or leave it — until I think you’re getting it all and there won’t be any left for me.
And just think, my profession is helping people make clear-headed, fact-based decisions. I hope you see the irony. I do.
A few years ago my friend Pat made a visit to the University of New Mexico Medical Center. She wanted to donate herself to any clinical trials for treating and studying dementia, which she suspected was on her horizon. She was inspired to do this because her father, a doctor in Clovis, NM, had volunteered to be part of a clinical trial for leukemia which had not saved him unfortunately, but had been an important step in the development of what has become an almost miracle cure for certain childhood leukemia. Pat was very proud of – and inspired by – her father and wanted to carry on the tradition. The first step was to confirm a diagnosis and after a very comprehensive battery of tests, including MRIs and scans of all kinds, it was confirmed. She had early signs of age-related dementia. There were no trials but they would stay in touch. Pat took the diagnosis with surprising calm and with hopes that she might some day contribute to medical understanding.
Pat and I have been friends for decades, and for the past few years we have been in a writing group with two other companions. We are close-knit and have had many laughs and tears over the years as we share our creative juices.
This year has been challenging. We have each had our own struggles as we navigate the constraints and anxieties ever-present in our lives. And for our little foursome, there is no more getting together for snacks and chuckles and hugs at Pat’s house. COVID has driven us to zoom for our gatherings. Recently we received an email from Pat. It was part of a thread about finding a date to zoom.
In 1998, the 400th anniversary of the founding of Albuquerque by Spanish conquistadors, the city commissioned a monument to be placed in front of the Albuquerque Museum. The process was highly contentious. Although over the centuries Spanish and Native blood has mixed, consensually and otherwise, a challenge like how to memorialize colonization can send people into corners where the other – even the other part of you – becomes the enemy.
The solution in the end was to have two separate, adjacent monuments. La Jornada is a procession of thirty-three bronze figures in a kind of diorama depicting the arrival of the Spanish. Don Juan de Oñate, the controversial founder of Albuquerque, in helmet and armor, led the procession — until he was removed in June 2020 following a night of violence over his fate. (Oñate was the target of protests on behalf of Native Americans for his role as a cruel conqueror who cut off the left foot of dozens of young Acoma Pueblo men in retribution for the killing of a soldier.) The rest of La Jornada remains in place, a priest, a scout, men, women and children settlers, herders, an ox cart, and livestock.
Nora Naranjo Morse, poet and artist from Santa Clara Pueblo, was given an area fifty yards or so to the west for her own creation, Numbe Whageh, or Pueblo Center Place. She chose to leave the land natural and to carve a simple spiral foot path leading to a low point in the landscape, below ground level of the museum and La Jornada. At the bottom she added a small water feature, barely more than a trickle running over a smooth flat rock. Water-loving plants grew up creating a small oasis, treasured on a hot Albuquerque day. Morse’s poetic plaque introducing the natural installations speaks of the clouds and mountains, the thunder and lightning, the winds from four directions, the plants, animals, and life-giving water.
I am in a play. I have a role, a small one. It had seemed like a good idea, but now opening night is tomorrow and I realize that I haven’t learned my lines. I have no idea what my cues are, when – or why — to enter and exit. The part was so small I hadn’t worried about it, but with less than 24 hours it’s time to get busy. I open the script and begin leafing through looking for my part. The script seems to grow, the pages multiply and soon it is as if I am wading through “War and Peace.” I can’t find my part, maybe because I don’t remember the name of my character. I’ll go to the beginning where the characters are listed and surely I’ll be able to tell which one I am….maybe a maid? a messenger? a beggar? By now the pages are in the hundreds and I can’t find my way to the beginning. I am panicking. I wake up.
It’s an old favorite of mine, a nightmare that is always there when I need one, a standby called upon in times of stress. It’s a wonder I don’t have it every night, for these days I have no idea what my role is, what part I should be playing. This particular play we are all in is being written day by day, new pages, plot twists, characters.
I do have parts I am playing every day in an effort to stay healthy and sane. In March when the self-isolation order went into effect in New Mexico, I made a daily chart to keep myself focused, to keep from sliding into slothdom.
These are the boxes across the top of my chart. The dates go down the left hand margin:
Other, like professional work
I found that the key was filling in the “doing good” box and the “outdoor exercise” box. No matter what else I did or didn’t do, no matter what the nightly news told me, I could end the day with a feeling of satisfaction and relative peace. Roberto and I made dozens of masks for Navajo country, cooked for the homeless shelter, shopped for shut-in friends, and sent checks to organizations and causes in need. We wrote letters to the editor about issues of justice and equity and supported candidates in a variety of ways. I walk almost daily through the arroyos, up the hills, across fields in our neighborhood, marveling at the mountain silhouettes on the horizon, the fantastic clouds, the silence, a glimpse of a cottontail, the scat of a coyote. Yesterday I saw a family of four deer, parents and two teenagers, so poised and graceful, moving through the piñon and juniper brush.
As the months go by the harmony of the chart is ever more challenged. Now, on October 30, I am still filling in boxes, knowing that it is better than not filling in boxes. But the recent events, the escalation of distress, violence and hatred call for more. My nightmare is a message to myself from my depths: “Lucy, you are in this drama, so find your role, small as it is, learn those lines and get busy. The play has an indefinite run and it starts now!”
The loss of Ruth Bader Ginsburg hit me hard. I thought she might go on forever, getting tinier and tinier until she just evaporated. We would never have to say good bye and she would always be with us in some molecular way. Another such loss came to mind — Fred Rogers who supported and comforted so many through childhood, and in my case, beyond. “I like you just the way you are,” one of his standard good-byes on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, runs through my mind often when I am feeling flawed, inadequate or just blue.
Both have had a lot of coverage in recent months with movies, both documentary and fictionalized, of their lives. Perhaps that’s why they are so vivid for me, and why I link them in my mind. Their message to all of us, whether from the bench or from the neighborhood, was to treat each other and ourselves with compassion and humanity, to fight injustice, and to strive to make the world — family, community, country, planet, however much you want to tackle — a better place. They modeled in their lives conviction, perseverance, humility, strength, curiosity and humor. I cannot think of a better recipe for being human.
I don’t know if RBG was ever on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood TV show but I can imagine they would be great friends. I am not a religious person, but I sometimes fantasize about heaven. Perhaps the two of them are smiling and chatting, she in her workout sweats, he in his cardigan sweater, reminiscing about the tough times they witnessed and sending us – all of us — compassion and encouragement for the crisis we face.
I leave you with their own words:
From Ruth Bader Ginsburg:
“Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
“Don’t be distracted by emotions like anger, envy, resentment. These just sap energy and waste time.”
From Fred Rogers:
“Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.”
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
And finally, this is a remarkable piece of theater. Fred Rogers argues for public television funding in front of congress, and wins!