My pandemic year

The last few weeks have been a time of increasing optimism, as COVID-19 hospitalization and death rates go down, and as vaccination rates go up. Spring is beginning to emerge, and the days are getting longer.

At the same time, it is a time of great sadness, as we must grapple with more than 500,000 deaths from the virus in the United States, and more than 2.6 million globally. It’s difficult to comprehend and painful to think about.

Many of my friends are posting today about what they were doing a year ago, as we all had the dawning realization that we were entering a period of uncertainty, though we could not have imagined how long it would last. In spite of generally feeling optimistic of late, as I reflect upon where we were a year ago, I find myself revisiting feelings of fear and frustration.

A whole year. The time hasn’t been wasted, but it has been different in innumerable ways. So many plans canceled, delayed, or diverted. So many interactions put on hold. Relationships interrupted by social distance. 

As much as we have been incredibly resilient, and found new ways to communicate and connect through technology, we know we are still missing so much from in-person human connection and physical closeness. We are missing spontaneity. We are missing the engagement of all our senses in our experiences. We are missing each other.

I know how very privileged I am to live in a comfortable home with a family that is happy and healthy. To be able to continue my job from home, and even to consistently send my children to in-person school for most of the last seven months, which has saved my sanity. (My heart goes out to parents, children, and teachers who have not had a break from virtual school.) But life is still unmistakably different from before, and that is very sad.

Today I am sad for those who have died from COVID-19, and the family members who lost them, often without being able to say goodbye. I am also deeply sad for all of those who are truly suffering from isolation from family and friends, loss of income, and loss of hope and opportunity. These have been such difficult times, and the after-effects will go on for some time.

But things will get better.

The glimmer of hope provided by the three FDA approved vaccines is growing brighter every day. I am grateful that many of my family members and friends have already been vaccinated, and that they stayed healthy and safe all these months of waiting. We are all still waiting for things to truly get better, but they are moving in the right direction.

A year ago, if I had known how long this would last, I would have found it unbearable. But here we are. I am reminding myself to continue breathing deeply and taking one small step at a time as we continue to navigate uncertainty. We have come so far, and I am hopeful that the difficulties of this time can soon be relegated to memory as we move forward into healthier and better times together. 

“When it’s darkest we see the stars”

A conversation with Reverend Ronald English

Events in recent months have caused me to reflect a great deal about race and inequality in the United States, and I wanted to articulate some of those thoughts in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Growing up, I attended diverse public schools, but my kids go to a Jewish day school that is predominantly white. They don’t regularly interact with diverse peers at school, and that has made me realize that this is an area in which their education is lacking something that was part and parcel of mine.

Over the summer, my husband and I let our daughter, who is now 11, watch some of the news coverage about the Black Lives Matters protests, and we talked about the unfairness of fearing police brutality if your skin happens to be dark. We also talked about the right to peaceful protest, and of course the fact that it is wrong to resort to violence to make a political point.

Amid the worsening COVID-19 pandemic, these issues have continued to play in the background of the news, with the issues of protest versus riot and disparate use of police force brought into stark relief with the horrific invasion of the U.S. Capitol on January 6.

Even before that dark day, however, I decided that I needed to speak to my kids more about race in the U.S., and the history of how we got here. As I have been processing events, a couple of resources have been particularly helpful in guiding my thought process.

This PBS interview by Kelly Corrigan features Bryan Stevenson, who has dedicated his life to representing death row inmates, including those wrongly accused, and advocating for racial justice. He talks about his own background and family history with slavery and segregation, and the interview includes a visit to The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, Alabama, which beautifully and hauntingly memorializes victims of lynching (the memorial was modeled, in part, on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum).

In addition, I was encouraged and inspired by a recent podcast by 18forty.org. The host, Rabbi David Bashevkin, interviewed Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz, an educator and school administrator, about what role Orthodox Jews should play in advocating for racial justice. She incisively articulates the similarities and differences in the experiences of Jews and Blacks in the U.S., and talks about her own advocacy efforts as well as issues the Jewish community needs to confront in its consideration of race in the U.S.

A few days after listening to the podcast, it occurred to me to reach out to Ghee Gossard, my third grade teacher, with whom I have stayed in touch over Facebook. I remember learning about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from her, and feeling inspired by the goals of the Civil Rights Movement. I thought she might have participated in the 1963 March on Washington in which Dr. King delivered the famous “I Have a Dream” speech. While it turns out she has participated in other protests, she was not involved in the famous march.

That got me thinking about how fascinating it would be to speak to someone else, who had actually been there on that historic day. I informally polled some friends and family members to see if they had participated, or knew someone who had. I wasn’t having any success. (My father was a teenager living in D.C. at the time of the March, but had only recently moved there, and had not attended.) Then, I decided to reach out to a former classmate, Leisha Gray, whose father I recalled was the pastor of a church in my hometown of Charleston, WV, and was active in Civil Rights issues. I messaged Leisha on Facebook, and she responded right away to say that her father had been at the March, and she could put us in touch.

This turned out to be an incredibly fortunate connection because her father, Reverend Ronald English, was not only a participant in the March, but also had close ties to Dr. King.

Rev. English grew up in Atlanta, his family was close to Dr. King’s family, and they were actively involved in the Ebenezer Baptist Church, of which Dr. King was the pastor, following in the footsteps of his father, Dr. Martin Luther King Sr.

Rev. English was himself a mentee and ministerial assistant to Dr. King Jr. At the time of the August 28, 1963 March on Washington, Rev. English was just 19 years old, and he and a friend drove all night from Atlanta to D.C. to participate in the March. I had the great privilege of speaking to him by phone on the evening of January 14, 2021.

I asked him to describe the experience of participating in the March. He told me about the overnight drive, filled with excitement and apprehension.

“Getting there was quite an interesting experience,” said Rev. English. “When we passed through Lynchburg, Virginia, there was a noose in the middle of the town.”

This was meant to deter participants from continuing to the March. Many of the marchers came to D.C. from the South, and the majority arrived on the day of the event.

Most of the demonstrators came by bus, and Rev. English describes the event as being well organized.

“There were so many buses there, they had been assigned schedules.”

Thinking about footage I had seen of Southern police officers in physical confrontations with Civil Rights activists in the 1960s, and about recent events in D.C., I asked him what he recalled about the police presence that day. I was surprised by his answer.

“I don’t remember seeing an officer,” he said. “The capitol police were not a conspicuous presence.”

They would have been there to direct traffic, but, in his memory, they were not an intimidating force.

“They didn’t anticipate trouble,” said Rev. English. “They took the meaning of the March, grounded in the philosophy of non-violence.”

Approximately 250,000 people participated in the March, and an estimated 75 to 80 percent of them were Black. An Associated Press account published that day noted that Capitol police and National Guard members had been assembled for the event, but there had only been three arrests, and none involved the demonstrators.

In spite of the enormity of the crowd, because of his connection to Dr. King’s church, Rev. English was able to get close to where Dr. King and others, including the late Congressman John Lewis, were speaking.

“I was excited,” said Rev. English. “I was nervous in the sense of an anticipation of what this experience was going to be like. It was amazing to see the number of people. There was a contagious energy.”

When Dr. King took the stage, the energy increased even more.

“The momentum went to a different level,” he said.

I asked what it was like to hear the now famous words “I Have a Dream” for the first time. It turns out Rev. English and other members of Dr. King’s congregation had heard that phrasing several times before in church sermons and at the June 23, 1963 Walk to Freedom in Detroit, Michigan. Following the advice of colleagues, Dr. King had not planned to deliver that speech for the March, and had prepared other remarks. However, shortly before taking the stage, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson approached him.

“She said, ‘Tell them about the dream, Martin.’ He put the papers aside,” said Rev. English. “The rest is history.”

Even though the words were not new to Rev. English, the feeling at the March was completely different.

“It was one thing to hear it in church. It was another thing to hear it at that place and time,” he said. “It had such vigor, such rhythm. There was a different intensity.”

“You could hear reverberations in the crowd,” he continued. “Not only had we heard something, we felt something. It inspired us to move on with the movement.”

While the March was an inspirational day, there were many difficult days ahead for the Civil Rights movement. Just a few weeks later, four Black girls were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

“Dr. King said ‘My dream has become a nightmare,’” said Rev. English.

However, Dr. King and other leaders persevered toward new goals. In many ways, Rev. English said Dr. King’s message in the last year of his life – against racism, militarism, and economic injustice – was more disruptive than desegregation.

“It didn’t cost anything to integrate,” said Rev. English. “It brought a certain type of prosperity – everybody’s income increases. Racism and economic injustice went hand in hand. He challenged the country to deal with the issue of poverty. That was too much. Everybody on staff knew his days were numbered.”

Before he died, Dr. King was planning the Poor People’s Campaign, a series of protests, culminating in a huge march on Washington, to draw attention to poverty in the U.S. He was assassinated a few weeks before the campaign was to begin.

Rev. English related the dark times following Dr. King’s assassination to current events, with political discord, an economic downturn, and the COVID-19 pandemic all converging.

“He talked in that last sermon, he said there are some difficult days ahead,” said Rev. English. “I don’t think he imagined it would be this difficult. It’s been a dramatic phase of difficult days.”

However, Rev. English still finds reason for optimism.

He noted that the Biden/Harris campaign has looked at current events and said “this is not who we are.” Rev. English sees it differently.

“I always felt this is who we are. We have been shocked into the reality of who we are,” he said.

The task now is to confront that reality.

“That’s where I find the most hope and optimism.”

He referred to the biblical creation story.

“Out of chaos, we have a cosmos,” he said. “Every time we have seen a dramatic rupture, we have seen a dramatic reconstruction. When it’s darkest we see the stars.”

Moving forward, “significant rather than cosmetic” change is needed, he said.

Rev. English was very generous with his time. We were on the phone for close to 40 minutes. I felt a bit selfish to take so much of his time because my blog has a relatively small readership. On the other hand, I thought of our conversation as being a record of an oral history that is important to document and share, even on a small scale.

After ending the call, I had to usher my kids off to bed for the night, and they immediately began peppering me with questions about who I had spoken to, and what this was all about. We spent a few minutes talking about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. I hope to continue our conversation and show them the “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s a small step in their education, but I’m deeply grateful to be able to share a first-person account of history with my children. More than that, as so many of us have struggled against pessimism, fear and despair, it’s deeply comforting to hear a voice of optimism from someone who has lived through equally dark times in our nation’s history.

Chronicles of a Grant Writer in the Time of Social Distancing — Week 26

August 31

I took the last two weeks off from blogging because I was extremely busy with work projects during one week, and on vacation the following week. I must admit to feeling more than a little burned out a couple of weeks ago, but it is amazing the difference a week away from work can make, as well as a few days with a change of scenery. I wouldn’t have minded the luxury of having more time off, but I feel much more rested and less stressed after this short break.

Today was significant for two reasons. First, my kids went back to in-person school. And, second, I finally completed and submitted a big and complex grant proposal today. 

I am very happy and grateful that my kids were able to return to school today. They were excited to go back, and I feel that they are as safe as they can be with all the precautions the school has taken with respect to cleanliness, social distancing, and mask wearing. I am particularly thankful that they were not at home today, a very stressful and tense workday that would not have been compatible with constant interruptions from the kids.

I have to admit, though, to feeling a tinge of sadness at seeing photos the school sent out during the day, which showed students sitting far apart and wearing masks. This is absolutely what we need to do now to keep everyone safe, and I am deeply appreciative that the school is taking things so seriously, but I’m still a bit sad that the kids have to suspend a lot of the social aspects of school that come from being in close proximity to each other. I know they will adjust and that this is not forever, but it still makes me a bit sad.

I alluded a few weeks ago to the grant proposal that was due today. It is one our organization has applied to every two years for the last several years. It’s an extremely technical grant with a lot of complex guidelines and requirements for multiple, detailed attachments. While preparing it is far less stressful now than it was a few years ago, the final steps of putting everything together remain very stressful and mentally draining. I had a few moments of panic today related to technology issues and getting some details right on the proposal. Working remotely made it more challenging to collaborate with my coworkers, but we figured out some workarounds and everything got done with time to spare. It feels a bit too good to be true, but we have the official confirmation that everything was received, so now it’s just a matter of waiting to hear what happens.

I feel so relieved right now. In a few minutes I will walk to school to meet the kids, and I am sure I will be swept away in their thoughts about today, and their needs this evening, but for a few minutes, I am breathing deeply, grateful that I was able to focus and accomplish today what needed to be done, and that my kids were safely supervised back in school, where they belong.

September 2

The difference between working at home with the kids in the house, and working from home while they are at school is like the difference between reading a book in a crowded waiting room versus reading in a quiet corner of a library. It’s feasible to read in the waiting room, and you might even be surprised by how much ground you cover (especially if you are really good at blocking out background noise), but there are frequent interruptions, and the quality of the reading isn’t as good, or as enjoyable. Most important, it’s hard to retain information without the ability to focus intently for significant blocks of time. So, no matter how much ground you feel you are covering, you are unlikely to retain as much information as you would in a less distracting environment.

What I have appreciated these past few days is the opportunity to have quiet time to collect my thoughts and let my mind wander. I find myself actually able to remember what I was planning to do from one moment to the next, or at least remember where I wrote my to-do list instead of all of my responsibilities for my kids/house/finances/work being lumped together in an overwhelming, unrecognizable mess. In short, I feel like I got my life back. At this point, I am happy to continue working from home because it’s much more relaxing now.

I know that my kids’ school is the exception to the rule. Across the U.S., many schools are open in unsafe circumstances, and millions of kids are still trying to learn virtually. It is deeply painful to know that the least privileged children in our society are the ones who will suffer most right now and that the deficits in their education will place them at increasing disadvantages as time goes on. I am thinking of them while simultaneously being grateful that my kids are able to safely attend school.

Chronicles of a Grant Writer in the Time of Social Distancing — Week 22

August 11

For all these months of working from home, I’ve been using my own laptop, as in one that my husband and I purchased a few months before the pandemic with the thought that it was just for home use, and perhaps the occasional free-lance project. Today, finally, I have a new laptop that belongs to work. Before social distancing began, JFCS generally discouraged working from home, in part, I think, because most of the agency’s work has to do with directly serving clients. Previously, it didn’t seem possible to do our work remotely, so few staff people had laptops.

Well, clearly, a lot has changed in recent months. Remarkably, the front line staff have been able to continue providing nearly all services in virtual mode. The system is not ideal, but it is working, and members of our community are receiving the help they need, which is what is most important. 

Whereas at first we thought we would be working from home for just a couple of weeks or months, five months in we know we are in this for the long haul, though no one knows exactly what that means (late 2020? spring 2021?). While that reality is depressing in many ways, it’s good to come to grips with things as they actually are, not what we want them to be. So, today I got used to working on my new computer, feeling good that my organization wants me to have the equipment I need to do my job effectively.

August 12

In the 1987 film “Broadcast News” the journalist played by Holly Hunter periodically bursts into tears, when she is alone, then composes herself to go back to work. She’s not sad or scared, she’s just stressed out and needs to release the tension, so she lets herself have a good cry, then she pulls herself together and gets on with her day. This article revisits what is so great about Holly Hunter’s character, including her outbursts of emotion. This quote sums it up: “Hunter plays these episodes not as if Jane is a hot mess, but like she’s releasing a valve that she knows must be released, then getting on with things.”

I love this character because she is so relatable and realistic, even for those of us not working in careers with the extreme pressure of broadcast news.

We all have that personal stress valve, and, especially in times like these, we need a release. Sometimes laughter does the trick, but sometimes crying is the only thing that helps. In “normal times” on a stressful work day, when I am having trouble focusing, I might watch some sort of sappy YouTube clip which will make me tear up for a couple of minutes. Afterward, I feel more relaxed and able to focus on my work.

This morning, while reading a news story that wasn’t at all sappy, I found myself beginning to tear up, and realized that I am probably long overdue for a good release of emotion. With so much going on, I rarely have the time for my YouTube clips, but apparently, I still need the occasional “good cry” to release some feelings. So, cue the sappy videos, I’ll be back to work shortly.

August 13

Six years ago, when I was relatively new to my job, I had to submit a grant proposal for a new program that I didn’t know that much about. The proposal process was complicated and stressful, and we had two partner organizations for the grant. The instructions we got from the funder were unclear and confusing, and the website for submitting the grant was difficult to use and had a lot of glitches. I felt totally overwhelmed, and even though my coworkers helped prepare the proposal, we were all sort of grasping in the dark, and it fell to me to pull all the pieces together. On top of everything, we were doubtful that we would be funded, so the whole process felt like an exercise in futility.

I remember wishing I had someone to turn to who could guide me through this frustrating process. In a nail-biting finish to the process, when we thought the proposal had been submitted, we found out after the fact that it had not gone through because of a computer glitch. By what seemed to me to be Divine Providence, the funder unexpectedly extended the deadline, we figured out the glitch — which involved four of our staff members on a speaker phone call with tech support from the funder — and we got the proposal in. Did I mention that we were all crowded into my tiny office, devouring a huge bag of peanut M&Ms while we hashed out the final steps of the proposal and nervously listened to tech support?

It was a relief when we were finally done, and then the waiting began. For about three months, the application became a background stressor as we wondered if we would receive funding. Finally, we were notified that we got the grant, and received the full funding we had requested. We couldn’t believe it. Of course, now the real work began for the department implementing the grant, but my part was largely over, until time came to apply again.

Looking back, the learning curve of that process is one of my proudest professional moments. While I would not want to experience that stress level again, it was amazing to see what I could accomplish under pressure.

Six years later, we are applying again for the same opportunity (which we have since applied for and received two other times). The instructions from the funder are just as confusing as in the past, though fortunately the online portal is now easier to use. And, it helps tremendously to have our past work to build upon rather than starting from scratch. However, a significant factor in helping this process go better is all that we learned in what felt like a trial by fire six years ago.

Unfortunately, there is no better teacher than experience. But it’s a good teacher for a reason — while you may not remember all the details of the experience, you remember a lot, and you also remember that you can do it. Sometimes that’s all you need to help you pull through.

Chronicles of a Grant Writer in the Time of Social Distancing — Week 21

August 3

At some point in 2019, recognizing that I was feeling stressed out, I said to myself that I needed to take more time to relax and listen to music. Unfortunately, I didn’t do a great job of following through on that intention, and life has only become more stressful since then.

Through my dance classes, I have recently been introduced to the ballet piano music of Nathan Fifield.

Fifield has piano versions of popular songs from Disney soundtracks and Top 40 music, as well as adaptations of many other movie soundtracks. In dance class, it is amusing to be doing traditional barre exercises to popular songs that have been softened or dramatized with piano flourishes, and mentally be fitting the lyrics the songs. On the other hand, Fifield’s music has reminded me that years ago, going back to high school and college, I would often relax by listening to the soundtracks of some of my favorite films. Sabrina was a particular favorite that I had nearly forgotten until my ballet teacher played it for a barre exercise. I had also forgotten the loveliness of the theme from the quirky 2001 French film “Amelie,” which I hope to rewatch sometime soon.

So, in recent weeks, I have begun taking moments here and there to listen to some of these calming piano pieces, to reduce my stress and reawaken hopeful thoughts.

Today, while struggling to focus on work, I opened a browser tab to YouTube, and found the soundtrack to the BBC miniseries, North and South, based on a book by Elizabeth Gaskell, one of my favorite 19th century writers. In general, I try to avoid listening to music while I write, because I find it distracting, but with my head full of swirling thoughts today, the placid background music was just what I needed. 

In this time of struggle and difficulty, these lyrical tunes are carrying me away from my crowded thoughts and reminding me of pleasant dreams.

August 4

For only the second time since I began working from home, today I stopped by my office for a few minutes. I needed to print a long and important document and didn’t want to use my own paper and ink at home. (I live in walking distance of work, so it was worthwhile to stop in.) There were very few people there, and I thought it would feel eerie to be there, but instead it felt peaceful and quiet, in contrast to the three ring circus that is my home. After being in a constant state of multi-tasking for months, as I sat at my desk for a few minutes, I felt calm and relaxed. Of course, on a normal work day, the office would be bustling with activity, some of which makes it harder for me to focus on work, but today there were no hallway conversations or meetings in the office next door to create distractions.

I looked around my office — that place dedicated to doing my job — and it was nice to see all of the tools I need right there where I left them, sort of a time capsule of “the way we used to work.” There was even a bottle of hand sanitizer on my desk. I used some while I was there and left the rest for when I eventually return. I’m sure I’ll need it then.

Later in the day, working at home, a brief storm caused the electricity to go out for a few hours. It was frustrating to not be able to work, but nice to be at home where I could do a bit of tidying up, and relax on the couch afterwards. There are, it turns out, still some perks to working from home.

August 5

I am not a fan of the shorthand of calling people “woke” if they seem to be enlightened by all the recent issues to which we are expected to be sensitive. First of all, it is grammatically sloppy. Shouldn’t it be “awake” if we are talking about people suddenly coming to a progressive awareness? Second, and I am not the first person to point this out, it creates yet another way of classifying people, giving them a sense of superiority, allowing themselves to be blinded to their own imperfect attitudes, and creating more strife with others.

Someone wisely pointed out that it’s not really feasible to suddenly be “woke.” Do you really wake up one day to have an appreciation for everyone else’s pains? From that day forth you have no unconscious bias of your own? Now you have the authority to berate everyone who is not quite as “woke” as you? I don’t think so.

It makes more sense for all of us to be in a state of “awakening,” in which we are open to understanding the lived experience, as the expression goes, of those around us, and seeing where we might harbor unkind thoughts about others that we now want to challenge.

I know I have found that many of my attitudes have shifted over time as a result of my experiences and the people I have met, and worked with, from other cultures, nations, races, and religions. While there are good and bad people in every culture, lifestyle, and religion, most of us are good people, just trying to live our lives. You don’t have to call yourself “woke” to recognize other people’s humanity.

Chronicles of a Grant Writer in the Time of Social Distancing — Week 20

July 27

This morning, in the midst of preparing breakfast, I misplaced a half stick of butter. I was sure I had taken it out of the fridge, but couldn’t find it anywhere. After a few minutes of looking, I gave up and pulled another one out of the fridge.

The mystery was solved today when I picked my son up from camp. As he was getting in the car, his counselor called out, “Did you tell your mom what you found in your lunch today?” Yep, the missing stick of butter was in his lunch box. Apparently, it was the talk of lunch, and resulted in some good natured teasing in which my son was called “butter boy.” The whole scenario made him laugh hysterically, and also gave me a good laugh. Unfortunately the stick, now mostly melted, was still in his lunch box when I opened it at home.

Clearly, I am distracted. And I’m not alone. This evening, my husband took my son an hour early to his little league game because we had the time mixed up. An hour early is definitely better than an hour late, but on a hot day, it’s really not a great scenario. Fortunately, they had chilled drinks to keep them cool, and my son, who is easy going, wasn’t upset about the mix-up. However, my husband and I are both finding it increasingly frustrating to manage everything.

On the other hand, these sorts of forgetfulness are just part of living a busy life, with or without a pandemic. It’s good that we are still able to laugh at ourselves. As the saying goes, this should be the worst of our problems. 

July 29

We are drawing toward the close of the hottest month of summer, and it is the eve of Judaism’s saddest day, a fast day known as Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av commemorates many tragedies in Jewish history, including the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem. Over the centuries, many prayers for this day have been composed to commemorate historical atrocities, including the Holocaust, and the tragedy of all these times is condensed into this one day of sadness.

I began this week tired and stressed out by work and other responsibilities, and also shaded with a sense of dread about Tisha B’Av, which is truly a miserable fast day — 25 hours of no food or drink during the hottest part of the year. In contrast with Yom Kippur, which is uplifting, Tisha B’Av is depressing.

In spite of all this negative feeling, I come into this time with a bit of relief and happiness. Yesterday my daughter’s leg brace came off, and for the first time in two months, she was able to walk up and down stairs today. So, while I dread the fast and the obligation to dwell on sadness, I am buoyed by good news within my family.

Isn’t this the essence of life itself, pandemic or not? While we all go through times that are purely happy or unhappy, most of our days are some combination of the good and the bad. Life can be pretty great in general, and in spite of that you can have an awful day. On the other hand, you can be wrenched with feelings about others’ suffering, and still celebrate events or moments that are personally good. We are all tied up with others, and feel each other’s pain. By necessity, we compartmentalize the negativity so that we can enjoy life. We don’t turn our back on others, but learn that we are not obligated to be constantly sad, fearful, or depressed.

On the other hand, the day of Tisha B’Av is a reminder that it’s important sometimes to stop and reflect on the sadness and all that is not right with the world. In these particularly trying times, when there is so much negativity and strife, I will focus my prayers and lamentations on the senseless divisions I see in our society, with hopes of helping things become better. To transcend these times of difficulty, sometimes we have to marinate a bit — just one day — in the negative feelings.

So, I enter this depressing day with the fortification of more positive developments for my family, and with hopes of general healing for my community, my religious homeland, the nation of my birth, and our troubled world.

Chronicles of a Grant Writer in the Time of Social Distancing — Week 19

July 22

It seems like lately my husband and I look at each other on Monday evening and say, “Is it really still just Monday?” Each day seems long and packed from start to finish. My kids have been in day camp since last week. It’s great for them to get out of the house and be with friends (mostly outdoors, wearing masks), but rather than basking in a few hours of reduced interruptions (and it’s really just a few hours, not a whole day), we both feel like their time out of the house disappears in a flash, and meanwhile, the effort of preparing them for camp (packing lunch, snacks and bathing suits, as well as applying sunscreen and reminding them to wear hats and masks) is completely exhausting. My daughter’s limited mobility makes getting them into the car and navigating the drop off and pick up lines even more challenging.

On the bright side, being in camp has really been beneficial to their physical and emotional health. They come home happy, and are tired enough to sleep better at night. That makes it all worthwhile for me.

But I think that’s why, even though I went to bed somewhat earlier the last two nights, I am as tired on Wednesday as I would expect to be on Friday.

I continue to be proud of my consistent streak of blogging about our experience during COVID-19, but I let myself take a break the last two days. I realized that I was staying up later at night to put my thoughts together, whereas in the beginning of this adventure, I managed to find time to blog during downtime at work. July happens to be an especially busy month for my job, with lots of grant reports due, so I suppose it’s understandable that I have less energy to put into blogging.

Still, I hope my schedule will even out, and I’ll find the peace of mind and time (just about 20 minutes a day!) to continue recording my thoughts. Some weeks I’ve been really proud of my insights and creativity (if I say so myself). Others, like this one, it’s still therapeutic and beneficial just to have a release for my feelings, and a record to look back on all we’ve been through.

July 23

In a lot of businesses, things slow down over the summer. However, in my job, July is one of the busiest months of the year. That’s because the fiscal year closes on June 30, and there are multiple grant reports due in the weeks that follow. 

I was feeling a little bit full of my own importance this week as I juggled multiple reports, from several departments on vastly different programs. So much responsibility invested in me. And, then, I got a gentle reminder that the work I do merely supports the infinitely more difficult work of career counselors, social workers, case managers, service coordinators, paralegals, and attorneys.

In a meeting about one of our programs, I learned about a heart-wrenching situation involving one of the agency’s clients. It was the kind of news that stopped me in my tracks and made me realize that I am incredibly fortunate to support the work of the brave souls who serve the poor, the young, the elderly, the disabled, the unemployed, the immigrants and refugees, and other extremely vulnerable members of our community. I remind myself all the time that I could not handle the responsibilities of our frontline workers, and that is not hyperbole or false modesty. 

Every day they see people living in impossible circumstances — often the real-life representations of statistics most of us just hear on the news — and in many cases, there is very little they can do to “remove the barriers” as we say in the business. And yet, they find small ways of making things a little bit better. When someone is facing eviction because they can’t afford their rent, sometimes there is financial assistance available, and often there are other things that can help — assistance with child care so they can hold a regular job, enrollment in utility programs so they have enough cash for the rent. Every little bit of assistance is a step in a bigger plan. Over time, people’s lives are changed for the better. Sometimes, their lives are literally saved.

Before I started my job, I didn’t have a full appreciation for the daily grind of living in poverty. Being poor is not just a matter of making difficult financial decisions or learning to live without some of life’s comforts. It is actually a daily exercise in survival, where there are often no good options, and every choice you make can have devastating consequences.

My boss, Dana Gold, has developed a game that simulates the daily decision-making process of people in poverty. I know some of my friends are all too familiar with the scenarios depicted in the game, but for others, it may be eye-opening to see how missing a day of work because of illness or dealing with an expensive car repair can plunge a person into the vicious cycle of poverty that is hard to escape. 

In our culture, sometimes people joke about being poor because they are overextended in one way or another. But real poverty is not a laughing matter. If you’ve been fortunate enough to not understand this through experience, you might benefit from checking out https://brokethegame.com/.

Chronicles of a Grant Writer in the Time of Social Distancing — Week 18

July 13

Today we had a couple of workmen at our house and just as they were getting started on the job, we heard one of them talking loudly outside, obviously very shocked and upset about something. “What happened?” he kept repeating. My husband and I looked outside to make sure that neither man was injured. They were fine. It turned out the man who was upset was talking on the phone. We gave him space, but worried that something horrific had happened to his family.

We found out later that his adult son had injured his hand badly, but would be OK. We speculated afterward that his son had probably called just moments after the injury and was hysterical, thus sending his father into a panic.

It’s really distressing to hear or witness someone when they are shocked or very upset. We were greatly relieved to learn that the man’s son went to the hospital, and was treated for relatively minor injuries. However, I found that for hours afterward, I was still reeling from the feeling of dread and concern at witnessing someone else’s moment of agony.

I kept asking myself why it was so hard for me to move past those moments, and I realized that for all these months, we have been internalizing a lot of fear, panic, and sadness, and another person’s outward expression of those feelings brought all that to surface for me.

All around us, there is frustration, confusion, and questioning of what the future holds. Just when we were lulled into a sense of things improving, we see that the public health crisis is in fact worsening. This reality is fomenting a lot of negative emotion.

Like many people, I wish the national discourse about the virus were more civil, and more focused on science-based policy rather than politics. I found myself wishing tonight that we had a leader in the vein of President Franklin Roosevelt (for all his shortcomings), who comforted the nation during difficult times with his fireside chats. If we had this type of leader, here’s what I imagine he or she would say in a time like this:

“My fellow Americans, the last few months have called upon us to make sacrifices that many of us never would have imagined. We stand today, four months into this crisis, without a clear path forward and without knowledge of when this danger will finally pass. I would like to thank you for the unprecedented discipline you have demonstrated in limiting your social contacts and putting the welfare of your neighbors above your own enjoyment and economic benefit. 

“My family, and my administration, stand with you and are working every day to find a way forward that will protect the health of every American while not ignoring the very real economic, social, educational, and societal needs that have taken a back seat during this pandemic. I know many of you question the effectiveness or necessity of some of the public health measures that we have asked you to adopt, and I would like to acknowledge that our guidance has sometimes been contradictory as we learn more about this virus. We have made mistakes at all levels, but are working every day to understand how we can contain and neutralize the threat of this terrible illness. 

“Our nation has been through many difficult trials in our history, and we have come through them best when we have come together, when we have invested in the great minds and advances of our times to find creative solutions. With scientists around the world working together to understand this virus, I am confident that sometime in the not too distant future we will begin a path forward toward normalcy. While we work toward those solutions, I ask you to look kindly upon your neighbors, to give them the benefit of the doubt, and to recognize that they are just as scared and frustrated as you. Offer them a friendly wave, a kind word, or a smile. This virus will not endure forever, and when it is gone, we will need to have strong social, communal, and national bonds to help us move forward. Let’s not squander the opportunity to begin building unity and civility now.”

July 14

Today I was disappointed to learn that a free-lance project in which I had invested considerable time will not progress as expected. It’s not something for which I would have been paid, but it’s disappointing nonetheless to have a project canceled.

Some projects are more enjoyable than others, and some seem to flow better than others. This project was meaningful, but emotionally taxing, and the writing process was more fraught than is typical for me. In retrospect, it feels like perhaps I should have realized weeks ago that things would not come to fruition. On the other hand, there is something to be learned from every experience, and this project provided an opportunity to connect with several other people, and to exercise my journalism skills. I am glad I stuck to it as long as I did.

The article that was scrapped had nothing to do with COVID-19, but the disappointment seems emblematic of this endlessly frustrating time, when we all seem to be running in circles and getting nowhere.

I am consoling myself with the knowledge that my efforts were not wasted because I learned and benefited from the creative process.

July 15

Today I participated in what I consider to be a hopeful and productive Facebook dialogue. (Yes, it’s surprising, but such things really are possible.) One of my high school classmates, who is black, tagged me in a discussion in which she was seeking friends’ reactions to podcaster Nick Cannon’s anti-Semitic statements, which led to him being fired. She wanted my input, as a Jew, on the situation.  

I had to do a bit of Googling before I responded, as I was not aware of what he said, and I am still a bit vague on all the details. The gist I got was that in the course of interviewing another black entertainer, the discussion between Cannon and his guest veered into talking about Jews, saying they were not the true Hebrews, and also reviving some other, old conspiracy theories about Jews. This led to Cannon being fired by CBS, the network which hosted his podcast.

Before I commented, I was pleasantly surprised that many of the other people contributing to the thread of conversation, regardless of their race, were piping in to say that hate speech should not be tolerated in any form. There were others who felt that Cannon should have the right to express his beliefs, even if he were wrong.

I thought for a while before posting anything, and then commented that I don’t think firing Cannon was necessarily the right move, as it would have been more productive to give him the opportunity to learn more about the origins of the ideas he was repeating, and to understand why Jews get rightfully nervous about our safety when these ideas are disseminated.

There’s a lot of talk about “cancel culture” lately, and I see it as another aspect of the divisive times we live in, and the antithesis of the idea of free speech. There’s a difference between having a discussion that includes beliefs that are rooted in misconceptions on one hand, and intentionally sowing hatred on the other hand. I think it is absolutely necessary to point out when anti-Semitic tropes are disseminated, but we should be pointing out why the information is wrong, offering explanations, and warning the person before we take away their job.

Obviously, there are gradations of hate speech. Someone who actively promotes violence, or who refuses to acknowledge they are wrong should be treated differently than someone who is simply misinformed and may be regretful when given the chance to learn more. Simply shutting people down takes away the opportunity for positive dialogue and education.

Cancel culture also takes away the permission all of us need to sometimes be wrong and to learn from our mistakes. Who among us has not said something that was either factually incorrect, or was perceived as intolerant? With so many more forums for recording and broadcasting ideas, and with an emphasis on candid conversations, there are many more opportunities to put one’s foot in one’s mouth. We all need to calm down a little bit, and give other people the opportunity to reflect upon the things they say, and how they are heard by others.

I was really touched that my friend, who I haven’t seen in person in a couple of decades, wanted to hear what I had to say on this topic. That simple act of reaching out, and listening, gave me a lot of hope.

I’m sure there are those who will say that I am naive, and that, in fact, Cannon’s slip was a window into a more extensive anti-Semitic ideology. They may be right, but even in that case, shutting people down without further discussion also has the negative effect of further entrenching opposing positions and cutting off the opportunity for better understanding. There are unrepentant anti-Semites and racists in the world, but there are many more people who are simply lacking in education and experience who might think differently if given the chance to learn without public shaming and ostracizing.

July 16

A few years ago, when my family first moved onto the block where we live, I began noticing a neighbor, an older man, who took his dog on daily walks. The man walked with difficulty, using a cane, and the dog seemed older and slow-moving as well. At first glance, I felt a bit cynical and sad watching them plod down the street.

I have since gotten to know the man a bit better — he always offers a friendly greeting when we see him, and he expressed concern a couple of weeks ago when he saw my daughter wearing a brace and using a walker. He continues his daily walks with the dog, and rather than thinking of them with sadness, I now think of them as resilient. No matter the weather, no matter the stiffness either of them may feel, they go on their daily walks, slow and steady.

With the many challenges of COVID-19, sometimes simply walking around the block is an act of pushing back against the fear, the isolation, the madness of the times in which we are living. When the anxiety builds up — which it does just as effectively in hot and humid weather as it does on cold and dreary days — a simple five-minute stroll can be a powerful way to clear one’s thoughts and fortify one’s psyche.

Two different relatives this week told me they were planning to go for walks, but had trouble finding the time. They were planning longer walks, 30 minutes or so. Try a five-minute walk, I told them. Just walk around the block. I have tried to consistently do this over the last few months, and have mostly succeeded. However, I have found that on the days I am not able to walk, I am much more edgy and unfocused. It’s ridiculously simple, but it really works. Obviously, the longer the walk, the greater the benefits. When I am able to go for longer walks, I feel a kind of freedom and release that seems reminiscent of a simpler time. I wish I could do that every day, but I can’t. So when all else fails, I just walk around the block.

Chronicles of a Grant Writer in the Time of Social Distancing — Week 17

July 7

After I wrote last week about being hopeful that schools will reopen in the fall, I heard from some friends who are unsure that it will be safe to do so. That, and some of the memes circulating on Facebook made me think a bit more about the gap between what we want to happen and what is really safe and realistic. It’s not fair to teachers to put them in a position that is unsafe, or that feels unsafe. And, even though wearing masks have been shown to significantly reduce the spread of COVID-19, we know that not everyone wears them correctly and consistently, to say nothing of those who refuse to wear them.

On the other hand, there are so many resources and supports that children receive through schools, in addition to their education, that they are missing right now. At some point, the detriment to children’s public health of keeping schools closed will outweigh the risks of opening them. I don’t know when/where the tipping point is in that balance, and I hope we don’t reach it with devastating results on either side. 

So, just as last week, I want the schools to open, but upon further thought, I don’t know what the right decision will be. These are extremely difficult decisions to make, and there are many, many variables. I will say that, having been in various medical offices in recent weeks, it is fascinating to see environments that have embraced mask wearing and regular hand washing/sanitizing, and cleaning of commonly used surfaces. 

At my daughter’s physical therapy appointment today, all the staff, from the front door to the therapy table, were masked and regularly cleaning shared surfaces and implements. All the clients were also correctly wearing masks. The facility is a newer, airy building with good air ventilation, which also reduces risks of infection. 

I am sure that the physical therapy staff have always been accustomed to regularly wiping down tables and equipment, but other staff, such as the woman at the registration desk who sanitized my daughter’s insurance card, are probably newer to being this vigilant. Being around people who have adapted to these protocols made me feel comfortable, and gives me some hope about how we can resume activities in other areas of life.

July 8

The mild days of May and June are deceptive in that they give a person the illusion that the whole summer will be warm and sunny without being humid and oppressively hot. And, then, in the blink of an eye, the calendar turns to July, and we find ourselves sweaty and irritable, wondering when the heat will finally break.

After several days in a row with temperatures reaching into the 90s, I feel a bit wilted and shaken out of my annual delusion. As part of me is wistful to see the days already growing a bit shorter, another part of me is glad to have passed the apex of the summer sun, and to know that cooler days are ahead. And, a wiser part of me knows that every moment of life is a moment of transition between the one beforehand and the one that follows. In other words, this too shall pass. For better or for worse.

This year, in particular, when there are so many missed opportunities, it’s hard to see the seasons pass and know that we are still caught in the midst of a difficult period for which there is no defined end point. Whenever we seem to approach a milestone, the post gets transferred farther down the road, or pulled out completely. It’s a fool’s errand to try to predict what will come next, and yet, because it is in our natures to plan, we continue to project and calculate, schedule and strategize.

Most of all we continue to hope, and to trust that the goodness in life of sharing time and space with friends and family is not a trifling thing that we can forego forever. I think sometimes of the movie “Jurassic Park,” which was outlandish in many ways but gave us a gem of an insight: “life finds a way.”

Over the last few months, it has been comforting to see people finding ever more creative ways to maintain closeness while we are forced to be far apart. This gives me hope that our lives, and our connections, are going on with all their vitality and brilliance, and will eventually resume the warmth of in-person interactions.

In July, when the sweltering heat traps us inside as much as the chill of winter, it’s easy to feed on our anxieties. Sometimes I feel as nerve-wracked as I did back in March, as I read frightening headlines and despair of finding a way out of this (and in many locations the news is much worse now than it was in March). But in moments of calm and reason, I remind myself how much life I have lived, how much work I have accomplished, and how much growth I have seen in my children in these last months. We continue to go on, one day at a time. Our time is precious, and while we are not spending it as we intended, it is not wasted.

July 9

I was fascinated to read this opinion piece in today’s New York Times by Farhad Manjoo about how Manhattan could be cleaner, quieter, and more pedestrian friendly if it banned private automobiles.

I suspect that it will take a very long time for this plan to come to fruition, if it ever does, but it illustrates how living through the pandemic has given us an opportunity to think differently about things and to imagine changes that we never thought possible. We have shifted drastically in our comprehension of work that can be done remotely. We now know that many fewer jobs have to be done on-site, or at least can sometimes be done off-site. This has taken away some of the value of the private car and its functionality.

Like many people, I simultaneously enjoy the benefits of owning a car and also feel burdened by dealing with traffic, parking, and car maintenance. Outside of dense, urban areas like Manhattan, cars are something of a necessity, but that doesn’t mean that we all couldn’t use them a bit less. When I worked in Downtown Pittsburgh, I liked that I could take the bus and didn’t have the frustration of sitting behind the wheel in traffic or finding an expensive parking space. But I also didn’t like waiting for the bus when it was late, or being crowded together with other passengers when it was overly packed.

Manjoo touches on a lot of the downsides of bus transit (including disease transmission), and points out that all of the drawbacks could be alleviated with less car traffic, and more investment in having buses that are less crowded and which can move faster on less congested streets. 

For the moment, this is all just speculative, and there is a lot of reckoning to be done about the changing roles of cities and business districts as work shifts from being concentrated in urban centers to taking place wherever we have Internet access. However, while this is still just an idea, I am more interested in the somewhat counterintuitive concept of making cities cleaner, safer, and more accessible by reducing car traffic. 

This time has resulted in significant re-evaluation of priorities and rethinking about the way we live and work. I am fascinated to see where this takes us.

Chronicles of a Grant Writer in the Time of Social Distancing — Week 16

June 29

It’s the 16th week of working from home. At this point, it feels like going back to the office someday will feel like starting a new job. We will have to relearn all of our daily rhythms and habits. We will have to adjust to new policies in an old environment. I will have to start setting an alarm again to get my kids (and me) up in the morning.

It’s been so long since I’ve worked in the office, that it feels like I’ll always be working from home, even though I know that’s not likely to be the case. On the other hand, I suspect a lot of us will be working at least part of the time from home in the future, and that’s a good thing. For years, there has been speculation about how increased automation will change our economy by making more jobs obsolete, and that remains a real threat. Most of us never imagined that the biggest threat to our health and future employment in 2020 would be working in close proximity to other people.

I wonder if we will ever go back to shaking hands with each other? 

There are some things I hope will change permanently. First of all, I have never worked in a fully open office — no offices or cubicles, just desks in a big, airy space. I treasure the privacy of an office, or even just a cubicle, and know that I work more efficiently and effectively when I have the security of my own personal space. I feel like infectious disease is forcing us to confront a threat to not only our respiratory health but also our sanity. Bring back those walls, I say, and we will work better, and be healthier and more productive. I am fortunate to have a private (though small) office at work, and it’s an amenity I appreciate and hope others will have in the future.

Also, I loathe crowded meetings. For the last few months, my workplace has been having regular staff meetings by Zoom instead of the densely packed in-person meetings we used to have. I hope in the future when we need to gather as a large group, we can do so in a larger space, as we do for our annual Chanukah party. Aside from that, I hope regular staff meetings continue via video conference.

June 30

When my patience is wearing thin, I try to warn my kids not to push me any further. This often happens around bedtime, but depending on the difficulty of a day, can happen a lot earlier.

Unfortunately, there’s no way of putting the breaks on the pandemic or my daughter’s injured leg. No matter how much I scream at the universe that I am all out of patience, and it’s time to back off, the challenges of reality are still there, pressing on me.

Today we took my daughter to her follow up appointment with the surgeon. It went well, and showed she is healing as expected. That’s really great news. The only issue is that she needs to begin using her leg more because the muscles are starting to atrophy. No problem, because she’s cleared for physical therapy.

However, when I called to schedule her first PT appointment, I learned that it will be a full week until there is an opening. I was disappointed, and realized I would have to dig even deeper into my already depleted reserve of patience to cope with this. We are so close to really beginning my daughter’s return to full mobility, and yet, for another week, still so far away.

It’s incredibly frustrating, just as it’s frustrating that every time we let our guard down about the pandemic, thinking things are improving, there’s another surge in cases, making us realize that it will be a very long time before life goes back to “normal.”

On the other hand, rather than wallowing in frustration, it’s helpful to see the small improvements. In terms of my daughter’s leg, I see her getting stronger and incrementally more mobile each day, even without the PT. She’s allowed to bear some weight now, so we are working with her at home to use her muscles as much as possible. 

In terms of the pandemic, while cases continue to rise, the death rate is not as high, perhaps reflecting the benefits of treatments developed in recent months. It’s still a disease that should not be taken lightly, because its effects are debilitating and some are long-lasting, but the lowered death rate is a bit of good news about a disease that is likely to be with us for quite some time.

Just when we think we are all out of patience, sometimes a glimmer of good news helps us tap a little more into our reserves so that we can keep going.

July 1

I don’t care. I found myself thinking that today when I picked up my son from an outdoor playdate and he was walking around in just one sock and no shoes. Apparently, he had accidentally stepped on a dead bee in the missing sock. He had checked his foot, and it was fine, and he never bothered to put the sock back on because it had a bee stinger stuck to it. Sound reasoning, if you ask me.

Typically, I dislike when my kids walk outdoors with just socks on, which invariably gets the socks dirty and eliminates the protective benefits of wearing shoes. Many times in the past, I would have lectured my kids about the need to keep the shoes on to avoid stepping on potentially sharp objects. (I will probably later give my son at least a gentle reminder about that though I suspect his experience today was a more effective teacher.)

I realized today that lecturing him didn’t even cross my mind. I was glad that he had not been injured, had been resourceful enough to deal with the problem on his own, and had been playing outdoors for two hours in an environment where I didn’t have to watch him constantly. Dirty socks? No problem.

That, for me, sums up how I have learned to prioritize my reactions to the little things in these crazy times. This is not to say that I have become an impressively chill person. That’s definitely not the case because I still freak out plenty about stupid little things. But maybe this is a sign that I have learned at least a little bit to stop sweating the small stuff. Or that I am just too tired to care about much of anything. I’ll let you decide this time. Why? Because I don’t care.

July 2

My husband keeps remarking on how tired he is, even though he’s getting plenty of sleep. It’s no wonder with the extra challenge of focusing on work while parenting and navigating the endless distractions of working from home. I am glad for him that he is able to get enough sleep because I am not. These days, the kids are up late at night, and I stay up later to finish housework and unwind. It’s a really unhealthy pattern, and I am trying to get my kids oriented toward bedtime earlier in the evening so that I can go to sleep earlier too. The last few nights have been better in that regard than the previous week or two, and I am hopeful things will continue improving.

The New York Times had this helpful opinion piece today which reminds me how fortunate I am to have an adequately sized home with outdoor play space, and children who are old enough to not need constant supervision. Parents across the United States and all over the world are engaged in an impossible juggling act because our lives were not set up to simultaneously manage our office jobs and supervise/educate our children at home, and that is what we are doing right now. Something’s gotta give.

Because I like to focus on the positive, I will note that I feel encouraged that the American Academy of Pediatrics has come out in favor of reopening schools this fall. I think that’s the correct move because the risks to children of not being in school are greater than the risk of them becoming seriously ill with COVID-19 or transmitting the virus to others. I know that figuring out how to safely open schools is a monumental task, and I am deeply appreciative of the educators and administrators who have to figure out how to make that work. As a parent, I will do my best to be patient and flexible, as I look forward to the day when my children will be in a positive learning environment and I can direct my undivided attention to my work.

Susan Jablow, Free-lance Writer susanjablow@gmail.com

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