I just know him as Mike.
He’s been servicing my lawnmower for more than a decade, and every time I’ve stopped by his shop, I always step into some sort of conversation about most anything.
Last week was no different.
I dropped by to pick up my favorite yard machine, and I walked into a discussion between two men I didn’t know.
They were both older, maybe in their 70s. They were seated 12 feet apart, and Mike sat in the middle of the two, perched at his desk. One of the men wore a mask, and they both talked about what has scared the bejesus out of them.
Both men brought up a friend who had died from COVID, or C-19. At that time, their friend must’ve been the ninth or tenth to die of C-19 in our corner of the South in Greensboro, N.C., the city I call GSO.
Their friend, unfortunately, is one of so many who has died from a disease caused by the coronavirus.
C-19 had killed 191,000 people worldwide, infected 2.7 million people across the globe and has affected every aspect of our lives.
On our side of the world, on both sides of the Mississippi, C-19 has killed more than 50,000 people and infected 890,000 people.
And in Guilford County, the geographical home of GSO, C-19 has claimed the lives of 14 people.
That’s all by Thursday. And that’s all in the past three months. With a vaccine at least a year ago, here’s the real sobering news: C-19 shows no signs of slowing down.
Yes, C-19 has made life a scary movie for many of us. I had a front-row seat for that fear last week in Mike’s shop. I’ve found that when that fear envelopes you, that emotion makes you see life through a different lens.
Take this pic below.
On Tuesday in Raleigh, at least 1,000 people marched through the streets to convince our governor to ditch his stay-at-home order. They walked within inches of one another, carrying signs and chanting. But that very activity to protest what is essentially protecting them could cause them to get sick — or worse — and become a statistic in a global pandemic no one can control.
We’re now into Week Five of our Quarantine Days, and right now, we don’t know when it’s going to end.
We’re all hermits, living in curtained rooms, trying to protect ourselves against this contagious killer we can’t see. If we go beyond our front door and mingle with the masses – that is, standing six feet away from everybody we meet — we’ve been recommended to mask up to protect others around us.
Why? Well, we could have C-19 and have nary a symptom.
So, every time I go out, I’m all masked up. And when I do, I feel a little like Bane from “The Dark Knight Rises.”
Yet, wherever I go – and these days, it ain’t too many places — I run into people walking around unmasked, and I think, “What the hell? You want me to get sick, too?”
Those thoughts, I believe, will probably continue.
On Thursday, our governor announced that we as a state will remain sheltering in place until at least May 8. Meanwhile, a state seven hours south of us will allow everything from bowling alleys to hair salons to open their doors today.
Really, how smart is that?
And how smart is our armchair scientist of a president?
He gives us loads of happy talk in front of a bank of TV cameras every night and calls any journalist asking him tough questions — and doing their job — “fake news.”
Then he just goes all catawampus.
On Thursday afternoon, here he is — the man with the world’s biggest megaphone — telling all of us it would be worth studying whether injecting disinfectant into patients could kill the virus that causes C-19.
Think about that for a minute — shooting Lysol in our veins.
From our country’s newest armchair scientist.
You can’t make this up. This is what he told the world Thursday afternoon:
“And then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning? Because, you see, it gets on the lungs, and it does a tremendous number on the lungs. So it’d be interesting to check that. So that you’re going to have to use medical doctors, but it sounds — it sounds interesting to me.”
Now, back to those two men in Mike’s shop.
On that weekday morning last week, they sat in chairs perpendicular to one another, and like some conversation at an old country store, they jawed back and forth about life, death and fate.
They told stories, sure. But they also talked about their friend, about who he was, what he did and what had happened.
“He was fine last week,” said one. “Then, BOOM. Gone. And he had no health problems.”
“He was overweight,” said the other.
“Na,” Mike responded. “He was obese.”
“Yeah, but that’s it,” said the first. “So, he was fat. Fat! But what else? All this just scares the hell out of me.”
I asked a question — or two. But mainly, I listened. I must’ve been in Mike’s shop no more than 10 minutes before I left. But since then, that chance conversation has stuck with me.
It’s made me think of bridges. Here’s what I’m talking about.
Last week, in a podcast about how to deal emotionally with our global pandemic, I listened to writer Ryan Holiday talk about something that has helped people deal with hardships for hundreds of years.
Holiday has written at least four books on Stoicism, an ancient philosophy that originated in Greece and revolves around transforming fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation and desire into undertaking.
Stoicism helped people I first learned about nearly five decades ago at Orange Grove Elementary.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
In his talk about Stoicism, Holiday did mention Washington and Jefferson. But he mentioned something else that caught my ear. It was this Hebrew saying from the 1800s.
“The world is a narrow bridge, and I will not be afraid.”
“The point is when you’re walking on a narrow balance beam or a narrow bridge, the one thing you can’t do is be scared because it’ll mess you up, and you’ll fall,” he told podcaster Tim Ferris.“That is the predicament we’re in. It’s not fair, nobody chose it, it’s not our fault. But you have to cross that bridge now. Courage is going to be important, right?
“You have to keep going. That is the reality.”
When I heard that, I thought immediately of North Carolina’s Mile-High Swinging Bridge. It’s a 228-foot suspension bridge a little more than two hours west of GSO. The bridge opened in 1952, spans an 80-foot ravine and connects Convention Table Rock and Linville Peak.
That’s the pic at the top of the page. That’s the pic here, too.
Built by Mr. North Carolina himself, Hugh Morton, the bridge draws nearly 250,000 tourists every year.
Like Johnny Cash.
And Tom Hanks.
And my friends, Robin Dorko and Linda Fields.
“I was scared to death,” Linda wrote on FB. “But so glad I did it!”
Still, this idea of a narrow bridge being a metaphor for life made me curious. So, I went looking. On the Daily Stoic website, I found this:
The point is this life we’re living—this world we inhabit—is a scary place. If you peer over the side of a narrow bridge, you can lose your heart to continue. You freeze up. You sit down. So too with life. If we think too much about the journey we have to make, the one that begins with the trauma of birth and ends with the tragedy of death, the one that is so perilous and unpredictable, we’ll never make it.
The important thing is that we are not afraid. That we don’t overthink things. That we don’t give way to fear, as the Stoics tell us over and over again. Just repeat it to yourself—The world is a narrow bridge and I will not be afraid—and keep going. Like the thousands of generations who have come before you.
Like so many.
Like my grandmother. At a time when women-led businesses were as rare a Duke fan in Chapel Hill, she started a girdle business in Durham during the Great Depression to support five children and her disabled husband.
Or my parents. My mom lived through the Great Depression and learned how to walk again after bad car accident at 16. She married a soldier at age 19, raised three children and saw the world. My dad left a tobacco farm in a rural stretch of South Carolina and became a soldier, fought with Patton in World War II and wore an Army uniform proudly for 26 years. That was all after meeting a beautiful dark-haired girl in a black dress at a dance in Durham.
Or my father-in-law. He served as an Army dentist during the Vietnam War in ’67. He lived in a flak jacket and made a beeline to a nearby bunker every time he heard someone holler, “Incoming!” He came back to the small town of Salisbury in 1969 to start his own practice and raise three kids with his wife, a pretty girl from Albemarle he met throwing the football at UNC-Chapel Hill.
They all walked across their own narrow bridge, and they didn’t look down.
Can we as a nation?
Can any of us?
Fear grips many of us. Just look around and listen.
In Ohio, they’ve beat on the doors of the statehouse to protest stay-at-home orders.
In Colorado, they’ve protested stay-at-home orders in front of a Denver hospital and one protester climbed from her truck and hollered at a masked health-care worker, “Go back to China!”
And in an apartment somewhere in NYC, Matt and Alaa talked about their own war.
They’re husband and wife. Alaa is a physician’s assistant in an ICU unit in Brooklyn, and she has recovered from her own bout with C-19. In a Post Reports podcast I heard last week, Alaa and Matt talked about their own worries and fears as their young daughter babbled in the background.
Here was their taped conversation.
Matt: “There’s a struggle between trying to take care of your own — which would be yourself and your family and your daughter — or, you know, abiding by what you do to your Hippocratic oath in going to the hospital and serving on the front lines in the emergency room again at the time where they’re pitching tents in Central Park, and they’re saying that 100,000 people nationally will die.
“New York is the epicenter of that.
“You can assume 30,000 of those may be in New York. That’s what you’re about to enter. You never signed up for the military. You sign up for a hospital, and you find yourself now at war. So, you’re asking yourself, did you sign up for this?”
Alaa: “I signed up to help people. I signed up to help sick people on the front line. That’s the emergency room is, right?”
Matt: “You signed up for war. This is war. The President himself said it, called it the invisible enemy.
“It’s war, and you contracted the disease to start with because you didn’t have the proper equipment, and you still don’t have the proper equipment. You had to go set up a GoFundMe just so you can secure proper equipment for yourself and for the other E.R. practitioners.”
Alaa: “OK, it wasn’t to secure. It’s to have additional…”
Matt: “Yeah, no.”
Alaa: “…because everyone’s on a national shortage. It’s everyone.”
Matt: “Right. That’s not acceptable. How do you go to battle without without basic attire — boots, military vests, rifles, guns, whatever it is. You’re going in there bare. You go in there with very little equipment. So, basically, you’re entering Syria and the institution itself hasn’t provided you the safety you need. That’s another reason why it’s kind of like ‘Why do it?’ You can’t trust the institution that you’re going there to serve, to safeguard you.
Alaa: “I trust that they’re gonna safeguard me.”
Matt: “They didn’t safeguard you the first time.”
I’ve read this week about how doctors and nurses are now making out their wills because of the C-19 patients they see and the protective equipment they don’t have as they work to save lives along the healthcare hallways worldwide.
It’s bad. All I have to do is look at this photo below.
I discovered it Sunday. The pic was taken in Spain by Brazilian-born photojournalist Felipe Dana, and it’s of a C-19 victim, wrapped, sealed and strapped to a gurney, awaiting cremation in a hallway next to a bicycle.
That image says everything about what scares us.
So, what do we do?
Well, for one thing, we don’t go to Georgia. Nope.
What I do is approach two people I know well. I wanted some perspective, some idea of how they cope and walk their own narrow bridge.
One is on the front lines of healthcare. The other is on the front lines of faith.
First, to my longtime friend.
We grew up together in our hometown of Charleston, S.C. We first met in the sixth grade. He played sax and had a blonde helmet for hair. I played trumpet and had a bowl haircut I hated. Somehow, we bonded. We’ve been linked ever since.
We’ve sung together, partied together, mourned together and got arrested together — just once. From what I remember, we were 18, of legal drinking age in our home state of palmetto bugs and humidity, and we were toting around open beers in downtown Charleston like we were stupid teenagers.
We were stupid teenagers — or maybe just oblivious. Or probably both. Still, not a good idea.
Years later, we stood beside one another wearing a black tux when we both said, “I do” to the women we love. We sang to them, too. Together.
Today, I see my friend every year.
We, along with another tombstone friend we call “Mo,” get together to check out music at some festival somewhere in the South. Matter of fact, at the first National Folk Festival in GSO, he hopped onstage with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and sang, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
He was asked. So, he did it. That is so him.
He works at the Center of Disease Control in Atlanta as a senior executive. For the past 30 years, he’s been in many a CDC hot spot. Of course, he’s in another one now.
So, I asked him for some context.
That’s Ted Pestorius. I often tell him, in some moment of reverie, that if I go first he’s carrying my urn.
But I usually don’t call him Ted. I call him “Sweet Daddy Pop.” That’s his nickname.
In an email, he wrote:
“I’ve never been one to throw gas on a fire, and this is the same. I can’t control what happened, but I can control how I react.
“As you know I responded to Liberia in 2014-15, and DRC this past year for Ebola. I was in Puerto Rico for Zika, and Ghana for polio. I was also one of our first folks to help set up our AIDS program in Ethiopia in ‘02, and before that did HIV/STD counseling and testing as well as partner notification throughout the 90’s. All that to say, this is just another rodeo.
“I adhere to universal precautions and minimize my risk profile — just like I would have for any of these other responses. This one is obviously different because I’m working from my basement, and my focus is still international despite the domestic impact.
“I know I can walk the narrow bridge, and I don’t worry about losing my balance.”
So, how do you cope?
“I don’t get too high, or too low. I know what’s going on, and I am comfortable in my lane.
“When you think about it, I’ve been doing this for 30 years. When I was giving people their HIV diagnosis back in the early 90’s there was no cure. I remember interviewing people who were literally on their death beds for the purposes of contact tracing, and then working with their friends and partners on follow-up testing.
“I was trained in phlebotomy (the surgical opening or puncture of a vein). So, when I found you, I tested you. That was stressful, but I think this provided my foundation, and while this is a horrible time for many, it’s not something that causes me extra strife at this point.
“Yes, having to work from my basement and do all of my interactions on-line is different, but it hasn’t stressed me in a manner that causes disruption.”
Don’t get too high or too low. Nice, Sweet Daddy Pop.
Now, to my faith friend.
I met her when she came to work a few years ago at High Point University, my professional home. She’s a minister. She received her Master of Divinity from Wake Forest, and she’s now manager of chapel programs with HPU’s Chapel and Religious Life office.
That means she’s in touch with dozens of college students. She helps them on their own faith walk. She’s helped me on my own.
Two years ago, I took her with me on a freelance assignment because she wanted to sit in on my interview with a graduating high school senior. She wanted to see if she could use the story for a future sermon. She ended up wowing me and the family I was interviewing with something I had never seen in 30 years of journalism.
I wrote about that experience here.
I’ve seen her keep an entire sanctuary spellbound as she put her soul and talent into singing her own rendition of “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday’s classic about lynching black men and women in the South.
That … was truly beautiful.
Like with Ted, I know her by a nickname. It’s “MDiv,” short for her degree from Wake. And like with Ted, I asked her in an email for some context about how she copes with what she sees, hears and feels around her during our Virus Days.
Here’s what the Rev. Andria Williamson wrote:
“First things first, I’m leaning on the personal and professional community of support I’ve been building for the past six years.
“These days that looks like faith communities, family, friends, mentors, counselors, pastors, colleagues, professors, and friends who are pastors, ministers, counselors, psychologists, artists, etc.
It’s also looked like journaling, meditating, exercising, listening to sermons, watching lectures and interviews, and reading books related to my current understanding of my purpose, the ways God is calling me, and how we can heal what is going on in our world.
These folks and practices have contributed to a strong foundation of support and guidance for me during this time.
OK, how else are you working to cope?
“Overall, I’ve been trying to protect my being from what is being exposed to and may subconsciously pick up through my eyes, ears, heart, mind, etc. I’m choosing to focus, on a conscious and present level, more on what I’m filling myself up with.
“I’m extremely grateful for my communities of support because they have kept me healing and reaching towards wholeness. They’ve also helped me serve in my current ministry context, High Point University Chapel and Religious Life, in a more focused, present, and compassionate way. I continue to be filled by conversations with students and colleagues, connecting with the larger HPU Chapel Community, and reflecting with them through worship, presence and study.
But what about what you see beyond that larger HPU Chapel Community?
“When I am updating myself on what’s going on in our country and our world through the media, articles, and conversations, I have to say that it gets more difficult as the days go by to even want to watch and listen.
“These days I can only seem to listen for a few seconds before being disgusted and heartbroken. Deeper than that, I’m reminded each time of the wounds that fear and scarcity and survival can bring, especially when they’re exercised in ways that are harmful, criminalizing, and weaponizing.
“Unfortunately, we’re seeing these very things in more overt, behind the scenes, and insidious ways. Weaknesses and injustices are exposed time and again, continuing to wound those who have always been the most vulnerable in our country.
“But, even in the difficulty of seeing this, I know I can’t look away because we are all in need. I also can’t look too long because I’ll be enticed every time to be enraged, mismanage my emotions, forget how much I love humanity, and lose focus on the mission of healing and wholeness.
“I’ve always wondered about my purpose and my vocation and the ways how God has called me and is calling me.
These days, reflecting on my past, the things I’ve said and done, the times I’ve come to know my passions and greatest heartaches, I’ve come to realize that the next steps forward — for me and for others — are forming and ordering themselves even as the ground is shifting right before our eyes–even as our word is changing.
“This realization gives me hope and fuel to move forward, to continue serving.”
Hope. Where do you find hope?
“I was watching a Netflix special recently where Dave Chappelle was receiving the Mark Twain award for American Humor.
“Over the years, I’ve admired Dave’s work mostly because of the intellect he brings to comedy and the ways he reveals social issues of our time. Towards the end of Dave’s speech, he reminded us all of a very timely quote from the beloved Toni Morrison.
He said, “This is precisely the time that artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
“I believe that’s true for us now, regardless of our profession.
“I hope we can tailor that sentiment to what each of us can offer, beyond the confines of our comfort zones. We are being called to remember our purpose, to listen to and respond to the ways we are being called, and to reshape and heal ourselves and our communities to their truest, highest being.
“This, we can do when we remember the divine. This is the reality of heaven on earth, that which is already here — and not yet. This is what eternity can look like. We must wake up and tune in.
“So as we continue to face the gut-wrenching reality of the ‘Strange Fruit’ that has been sewn and reaped from the very soil of our country, and as we listen to the still small voice that says ‘Everything Must Change’, may we be broken open, cleansed and healed in ways that heal and love others, and make our land whole from the inside out.
“And in so doing, may that transformation ripple out to our world.”
Wake up and tune in. Thanks, MDiv.
Like the mask-wearing man in Mike’s shop, I do wrestle with my own fear.
As HPU’s senior writer, I don’t need a campus to work. I can work from home, and I’ve turned my dining room table into a desk layered with a hieroglyphic maze of papers, notepads, notebooks, legal pads and Post-it notes that I knew I can decipher.
But there are times when questions I can’t answer skitter in my brain like a ball spinning incessantly around a roulette wheel.
What if a chunk of students decide to not return in the fall?
What if all our classes go virtual in the fall to avoid anyone from contracting C-19?
What if we get pay cuts?
What if we lose jobs?
What if I lose my job?
As a father and a husband with a son at UNC-Chapel Hill and a daughter going there in the fall, I hate those ‘What if?’ questions. Then, I think about the 26 million Americans who’ve filed for unemployment. I’ve got a job. Since C-19 arrived on our shores, they don’t.
They’ve lost their jobs because our Virus Days have shut down just about everything that makes up America’s service-oriented economy.
I’ve had friends lose their jobs because of C-19. They’re scrambling and trying to find ways to make ends meet. I know they’re angry and frustrated. I’m angry and frustrated, too.
So, when I see angry faces in Ohio or read about the hollering car caravan in Colorado or hear about the crowd in Raleigh wanting to deep-six our governor’s stay-at-home order, I understand.
But I also know what it represents.
Fear. I have that at times. But I trust science, not politics, and definitely not our Lysol-shilling armchair scientist. So, I try to focus.
I meditate. I run. I do yoga, walk my dogs, and I laugh watching reruns of “Absolutely Fabulous” on Amazon Prime with my wife, Kath. I sit in my sunroom, in front of my stereo system, and pull out albums and CDs I haven’t checked out in years.
When I do, I rediscover the why behind the me in The Waterboys, Bob Marley, World Party and John Prine.
I had forgotten how much I love “Fisherman’s Blues.” Love me some “Fisherman Blues.”
I also team up with my friends Jerry Wolford and Laurelyn Dossett and produce a video about the resilience and righteous spirit we see — and have seen — in our adopted hometown of GSO.
You see Jerry’s pic of Laurelyn below.
You’ll find our video here.
We started two weeks ago and finished it last week. It was definitely revelatory. And fun. That’s what counts.
Other than that, I work.
And on most days, an hour or so before daybreak, I read.
One of the things I’m diving into these days is “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times” by American Buddhist monk Pema Chodron.
In it, she writes:
I have a friend dying of AIDS. Before I was leaving for a trip, we were talking. He said, “I didn’t want this, and I hated this, and I was terrified of this. But it turns out that this illness has been my greatest gift.” He said, “Now, every moment is so precious to me. All the people in my life are so precious to me. My whole life means so much to me.” Something had really changed, and he felt ready for his death. Something that was horrifying and scary had turned into a gift.
Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together, and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.
Every Wednesday afternoon around 5:30, I also make it a point to stop what I’m doing and plug into HPU’s online chapel service put together by students and MDiv’s faith partner, the Rev. Preston Davis.
Have to. Or better yet, need to. Those students, they’re kids to me. When I tell them that, they laugh. But since the start of our Virus Days, I’ve found those students who are the age of my own son do give me hope. So does Preston.
Now, to Preston.
He’s a married father of three, a Davidson grad, and he’s HPU’s minister of the university. Like Andria, he helps dozens of HPU students on their faith walk.
In his message I caught last week, he talked about the need to pay attention to what he calls “the hum.” The hum. I like that. Preston said that hum’s in all of us.
A friend of his has it some kind of bad. Preston met her at divinity school, and she’s now a hospice chaplain helping patients recovering from COVID.
“I called a good friend mine today. I hadn’t talked to her a few years. We went to seminary together.
She’s a hospice chaplain right now, and I wanted to hear from her like, ‘What’s that like during this crisis?’ And it was wild. She was jazzed. And not because of the suffering but because of this great hum going on inside her. And right now, she’s the only hospice chaplain in her area serving patients with COVID.
“And I was like, ‘Oh man, I’m sorry. You have to do that?’ And she told me, ‘Have to? I get to.’”
Pay attention to the hum.
Find room for grief and relief, misery and joy.
And walk your own narrow bridge, putting one foot in front of the other.
So, I walk.
I feel we’re all walking in some way, and we’re all walking a lot during our Quarantine Days, our Virus Days. And me? I’m not looking down.
Can’t. Won’t. I’ve got too far to go.